These are some basic historical facts that may enrich your experience with the poems, as well as an explanation of some of the liberties I've taken as far as the form of the ghazals.
Ghazal, translated, means something along the lines of "love poem". These poems, as Ahmad writes in his "Introduction", are "of love--not about love, but of love." The distinction is important. These ghazals cover a wide range of human emotions and feeling, from loneliness to the blindness of love, from despair and mourning to utter joy. Ghalib loves with an immense and complex heart, with the elegance and intensity of a great flame.
Ghazals are short poems; the closest English equivalent is the sonnet, although structurally ghazals are quite different. Ghazals are usually between four and twelve shers, or couplets, in length. The most common length is seven shers per ghazal. Due to the material provided by Ahmad's work, the ghazals included here have been limited to five shers in length, though the original poems were sometimes longer and have been trimmed. The reason Ahmad gives for his original cuts is the quality of certain shers. I find a set length of five sher per poem gives the collection a pleasing unity of form.
Each sher is considered a poem in its own right, and a ghazal need not make a continuous narrative from one sher to the next, though some occassional do. The rigidity of form in the traditional ghazal was eased by this freedom of thematic and narrative unity.
Historically, a ghazal is a collection of shers, bound together by a radif, or ending phrase consisting of no more than two or three words. The radif appears at the end of the first sher and ends every successive sher. This repetition creates continuity throughout the ghazal and lends it a musical rhythm during the poem's recitation. These poems were (and still are) often sung or interpreted in song.
Each line in a ghazal must also be of the same metric length, though the meter was more or less open from poem to poem. Both of the limitation of the radif and of the meter have been ignored in my translations, as they were in Ahmad's work.
The radif, in my mind, played very much to the vocal style of ghazal reading, while these translations are meant to be taken independently as written works. There is also the dilemma of phrasing lines awkwardly to end on a radif. I have featured a radif in only one of my translations, Ghazal 14. Though not a line-ending phrase, I hope it helps convey some of the musicality of the original form.
Another common poetic tradition of the ghazal is for an author to refer to themselves by their pen name in the last sher of a ghazal, mainly to signify the end of the ghazal. For the most part, this convention was removed from the ghazals, except where I felt it was crucial to the poem.
I should divulge a little more about Ghalib here. Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan, known early by the pen name of Azad and later by Ghalib, lived from 1797-1869. He was a poet from the very beginning, writing quality verses at a very young age and some of his highest-quality poems by the age of 17. His father and uncle died when he was very young, and spent most of his boyhood with his mother's family. Ghalib lived during a period of great transition, during the English occupation of India. His exact attitude toward the British is not fully known. He did travel a good amount, and was a well-known and popular poet of his time, writing mostly in Urdu during his youth then Persian during his later years. He had chronic money problems, fueled by a long and slow situation in which a sizeable inheritance was taken from him. He was an insatiable letter-writer, and wrote many letters to his students and fellow writers, always encouraging them to write back as soon as possible. He is often considered the greatest Urdu poet, in the same unarguable way Shakespeare is England's greatest playwright.
Ghalib was known for his complex, sometimes stupifying, metaphors. In just a single sher Ghalib was able to create images that require paragraphs to adequately explain. In a time when every poet was trying to be the most lovestricken or the most heartbroken, none could outdo Ghalib for both his wit, heart, and honesty. At times, Ghalib's work shows the signs of a healthy literary competition in action, but there is a true and deep sadness and love in these poems. The collision of poetic wit and Ghalib's tragic nature create some of the most haunting verses and memorable lines I've read in any language.
A number of historical or poetical traditions appear in these poems which may not be familiar to the average reader. Certain concepts (such as "the beloved" as a term for both God and a lover) I found particularly refreshing. All proper names and untranslated words (i.e. Majnoon, Jamshed) I've removed from the poems and replaced as elegantly as possible.
"the beloved" - Referring to either God (God in the feminine), a lover, or even a close friend. Sometimes Ghalib is obviously referring to God, sometimes obviously to a lover, but there are times when the poem is not clear in its reference. In these cases I've left the reference beautifully unspecified.
"the rose and the nightingale" - This is the traditional story of the lover (the nightingale) and the beloved (the rose). Simply, the nightingale goes to the garden or orchard to look for his rose. The nightingale's song is the poet's poem. Urdu poets often use this image to describe their love and longing. In some cases, the nightingale is captured in the garden, symbolizing a barrier in the relationship. Ghalib often goes deeper into this basic image to say something a little more specific about a relationship.
"madness" - Love is very often considered a madness, a mad passion. A "mad lover" is an impassioned one.
"madman in the desert" - The desert is a traditional image for the intense loneliness of being without a lover. A lover driven mad will run through the desert until his feet bleed.
"tears of blood" - In the depths of sadness, tears will turn to blood.
"Preachers/Priests" - Preachers, priests, and the church are the enemy of the poet, whose freeness of love cannot be contained by the laws of religion. Preachers are a symbol of ignorance regarding love, life, and religion.
"Wine" - Wine is the other great love of the poet, besides the beloved. For Ghalib, wine is more important than normal.
"Fire" - Fire is perhaps the central image of Ghalib's poetry. Fire is the love that burns or is extinguished, but cannot be controlled. A burning heart is a heart that suffers, undoubtedly from love.