Trampled in Translation

By Nitika Khaitan

Gham resonates like an underground echo, a heavy sound that carries you down, but there is a tinge of hope in the delicacy with which only Urdu speakers can pronounce the “gh.” It means sadness, but not quite. It is the sort of sadness that poets and artists and writers feel, the kind that drives you to drink and ruin, but gham makes the whole thing sound romantic, like your ruin is not the result of failure or cowardice, but of the fact that you are human and there are a thousand natural shocks that you are thus heir to. Gham is how you would describe love, and the pain that only lovers can inflict, pain that hurts the most, but in a way that makes you feel more alive than ever because what could be as intense and beautiful and true to the experience that drove Petrarch to write about Laura and Dante to write about Beatrice and hurt as badly and as well? Never have you ever felt as much you feel now.

How do you translate gham? Sadness is too bland and insipid, too much on the mere surface of things as they are. Lugubriousness has more depth, but also the grace of a lumbering dinosaur.  Melancholy, perhaps, can do better. Melancolía, even more so, the Spanish “ía” adding a lyricism the English “y” can never attain. But melancholy, and melancolía, are both far too long, and there is something to be said for capturing the feeling that gham does in one short syllable, barely the span of a heartbeat. Gham sounds like glum too. But glum is how you describe cold and rainy London skies, and gham is how you describe watching your lover walk away in the rain.

Gham inspires lyric. It inspires ghazal, the metered song used to capture love and loss since poets first sang it in Mughal durbars, and it inspires the words of UK Top 40 singles—ever thought of calling when you’ve had a few? ‘Cause I always do. Gham inspires ordinary men to become belletrists, penning down poems on the plastic surfaces of grey tray tables as they take 13 hour flights away from their lovers. Gham inspires attempts at translation, because you know the thing is experienced by everyone and not just those who speak your tongue. Elsewhere, does “gham” take on different forms, does it not exist at all? Does the very word have the power to make you feel what it means?

Nitika Khaitan ’16 is a Humanities major in Silliman College. She can be reached at

The Kiss (Lovers) painted by Gustav Klimt
The Kiss (Lovers) painted by Gustav Klimt