La Vie en Prose

Written on June 6, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Last year at some point, while driving along the St Lawrence River, I chanced to hear a radio program on the celebrated 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi, Rumi to his friends. Last year was the 800th anniversary of Rumi’s death and two scholars who happened to be in Canada were being interviewed. While I had heard of Rumi, I had never read even one of his poems and my interest level was very low indeed. However, just before I changed programs one of the guests read the following lines:

                    Your body’s height,
six feet or so, but your soul rises

through nine levels of sky. A barrel
corked with earth and a raw wooden

spile keeps the oldest vineyard’s wine
inside. When I see you, it is not so

much your physical form, but the company
of two riders, your pure-fire devotion

and your love for the one who teaches you;
then the sun and moon on foot behind those.

It helped, certainly, that the reader was possessed of a deep, mellifluous, Southern-US baritone. Nonetheless, I was struck by the magnificent language: this juxtaposition of the prosaic "your body’s height, six feet or so" (a judicious qualification) with the sacred "your soul rises through nine levels of sky" is a deeply resonant line. I was impressed for a moment, then switched the radio to something else.

Over the course of the last year, those lines in particular have stayed in my head. It was odd, then, that while driving again along the same stretch by the St Lawrence last week I should chance to hear a rebroadcast of the same program. So this time around, I listened to the whole thing.  Rumi is (apparently) the best-selling poet in North America. True, this august title can be claimed after the sale of about fifteen volumes; still, not a bad accomplishment for an 800-year old Persian mystic, especially  a devout Muslim Sufi like Rumi and it raises the interesting question: how do modern audiences read figures like Rumi?

In prefatory and expository analyses, it is commonplace to observe that
Rumi is a "universal" or "world" poet, the "poet-laureate" of planet
earth and other such selections from the well-worn grab-bag of
transcendental adjectives. Rumi, in other words, lives beyond his time
and place. According to this view, his spirituality is Islamic insofar
as that was the spiritual language in which he was immersed. But the
"sacred" or "religious" in Rumi is not doctrinaire nor dogmatic, but
transparently available to people of all faiths and creeds. Moreover,
Rumi, or the Rumi that Western audiences read at least, is as much a
poet of love as he is a poet of the mystical and sacred.

I am bewildered by the magnificence of your beauty
And wish to see you with a hundred eyes.
My heart has burned with passion,
And has searched forever,
For this wondrous beauty
That I now behold.
I am shamed to call this love human,
And afraid of God to call it divine.

Over the last thirty years, there have been numerous editions of Rumi’s poetry, none more celebrated than the "translations"
by Coleman Barks – the striking Southern Baritone I heard on the radio.
I have put translation in "quotes" because Barks speaks not one jot of
Persian. That’s curious, no? How do you became a celebrated translator
without actually knowing the language of translation?

The answer itself suggests why Rumi the twelfth century devout Muslim
Sufi mystic is an English-language phenom with the new-spirituality set
and raises a larger point about how works can attain further life
across cultures through the interpretative act of translation, or,
perhaps, more accurately, transculturation. Barks based his versions of
Rumi’s poems on the works of earlier translators, themselves implicitly
bound by their intimate knowledge of the Persian language. The most
important of these is certainly the translations by A.J. Arberry
(1905-1969), whose volume of Rumi’s verses (Rubaiyat) were published in
1961. Indeed, Professor Arberry is to Rumi as Fitzgerald is to Omar Khayyam.

The Rubaiyat
is a highly structured verse form and Arberry’s translations strive to
convey the metric  and rhyming conventions in English. Thus: 

He who alone did fashion thee in form so fair,
Alone will ne’er abandon thee with thy care.
But, in the house of images that is thy heart,
Two hundred comrades He will raise to ease thy smart.

Sometimes, even the indefatigable Arberry must concede that the rhymes
of twentieth century English cannot do service to the Persian of the
twelfth. Thus:

For years, copying other people, I tried to know
From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.
Unable to see, I heard my name being called.
Then I walked outside. 

The Persian transliterated original of the above, incidentally, is:               

Yek chand be Taqlîd ghôzîdam
khûd râ
Dar khûd bûdam, zân nasazîdam khûd râ.
Nâdîdeh hamî nâm shanîdam khûd râ,
Az khûd cho borôn shudam, bédîdam khûd râ.

You don’t have to speak Farsi to see the repetition (I have underlined
them) of the syllabic combination "-îdam khûd râ" ("khûd râ" means
"myself"). It is safe to surmise that Rumi’s original has an effect
missing in the translation. Nonetheless, Arberry’s versions are for the
most part a faithful effort to convey the formalised structures of
twelfth century Persian poetry.

Coleman Barks, on the other hand, does not feel so constrained. To call
his Rumi editions translation is a misnomer: they are free-style
interpretations of Rumi’s verse, cleansed not only of the rigour of
meter and rhyme, but also of the dogmatic language of God and the
orthodoxy of Rumi’s Islamic faith. In its place, Barks has substituted
free or blank verse and a God who is more get-down-and-groove-out than
Quranic author of mankind. The results are pretty good:

Some Kiss We Want

There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of

spirit on the body. Seawater
begs the pearl to break its shell.

And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling! At

night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its

face against mine….

But the point is this: the liberties such an approach allows mean that
this is not really twelfth century Persian verse anymore. Put simply,
prosody matters immensely to verse. A modern-day street poet could
change the famous "To be or not to be" speech by Hamlet to (with
apologies in advance):

Jus’ wonderin’ should I give it up dog? That BE the question.

That retains the spirit of the idea but loses the encumbrance of
language. And since language dates and contextualises, especially in
poetry, the freedom to step outside of a particular tradition’s prosody
offers – and isn’t this ironic? – a life, a reach that is unavailable
in its original form. I think Rumi’s poetry is popular in the twentieth
century in large measure because his "translators" have retained his
ideas but stripped them from their formalised setting of the twelfth.
Language and form thus do not constrain the underlying meaning of
Rumi’s verse which has itself attained a new significance in a new
context thanks to this kind of editorial intervention. This kind of
prose-verse services the images and metaphors of Rumi while dispensing
with the inevitable archaisms and infelicities that a faithful
reflection would invite.

I would note, by way of a coda, that the poetry of language often becomes, in translation, a poetry of
image; the famous works of a language, which are well-known, immortal
and immutable, thus become living things in other languages. Consider
this famous example from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: 

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

If memory serves (it probably doesn’t), Friedrich Schiller, in a fit of literal-mindedness, translated this as: 

Morgen, Morgen, wieder Morgen, kriecht an
(something, something, something, look it’s been a long time since I read it!)
… Tag zur Tag
bis zum letzte Buchstab der abgemess’ne Zeit…

Or something like that. The point is that "last syllable of recorded
time" is rendered quite literally. By contrast, Dorothea Tiecks
translation takes rather more liberties with the original: 

Morgen, und morgen, und dann wieder morgen,
Kriecht so mit kleinem Schritt von Tag zu Tag,
Zur letzten Silb auf unserm Lebensblatt;
Und alle uns’re Gestern führten Narren
Den Pfad zum staubigen Tod.

That is a minor difference, perhaps, but it is sufficient to show the degree of latitude that exists when translating the poetry of one language into another. The language is much more prosaic than Shakespeare’s original, but the image of time slowly wending its way retains its compelling narrative even when "petty pace" becomes "small step" and "last syllable of recorded time" becomes "last line of our life’s page." 

Perhaps it is this aspect of interpretation, freeing poetry from language, that explains why Spanish-language editions of Rumi consist not of translations from the Farsi, but .. from the English!


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