Reading a New Translation of Rumi

I’ll be frustrated, dull and barren as a stone,
if I don’t step out of my petty self,
take off its tight shoes,
and wade into rubies. 

Jalāl ud-Dīn Rūmī — one of the most sublime poets in world literature — lived in Konya, in what is now central Turkey, in the 13th century CE. Many Americans who recognize his name became familiar with him in the 1990s, when new English versions marketed as translations appeared and revealed a poet of ecstatic and transformative love. Madonna and Deepak Chopra were fans. One of the most beautiful literatures on earth had arrived in the United States and was embraced. Versions of Rumi, and other classical poets like Hafez and ‘Attar, were produced and read and sung and performed. Persian poetic forms, primarily the strict ghazal, were integrated into the repertoire of American poets.

Translating a 13th-century Persian poet whose work is deeply rooted in Islamic theology and Qur’anic language, infused with mystical vision, and laced with heretical imagery, is not a project for the faint of heart. Many of Rumi’s recent English translators or “para-translators,” have no knowledge of Persian, the work’s cultural context, or Islam. Many speakers of modern Persian lack the literary gifts to craft English poems of equivalent power. Despite all this, the core luminosity of Rumi’s work has shone through. It gives me great pleasure, and relief, to say that I think Haleh Liza Gafori’s translations are the closest an English translator has come to bringing it all together.

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So, what’s here? A five-and-a-half page introduction, comprehensive and succinct, will be useful to readers familiar with Rumi as well as those encountering his work for the first time. While it does not cover the theological foundations of the poet’s work, nor the historical and literary context of the time, it offers a deft portrait of him that begins at the moment he met the vagabond mystic Shams of Tabriz in November 1244. The encounter was mutually transformative. Rumi left his career as professional theologian and the rest, as they say, is history. Or, in this case, 65,000 verses of poetry — poetry that continues to touch the hearts of people across time and geography. As Rumi scholar and translator Franklin D. Lewis puts it, “it does seem safe to say that Rumi is currently the world’s best-selling thirteenth-century poet.”

 With the exception of one jewel-like couplet from the epic Masnavi, Gafori has pulled her 54 selections from the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, a collection of sonnet-like ghazals and four-line rubaiyat. She introduces these Persian forms and explains her choices. Some poems in Gold are complete ghazals, while others consist of couplets lifted from a longer poem. An index at the back allows a reader to identify, by its number, the specific original in Rumi’s Divan. She has omitted or embedded material to minimize the need for annotations to the poems. In literal translation, a couplet from ghazal number 1254 reads:

"Wisdom/intelligence is a crown,” thus goes a saying of ‘Ali.
Bestow on the crown a new jewel from your essence.

Gafori’s clean and elegant solution for English translation reads:

Intelligence is your crown.
Only gems drawn from the depths of you
can adorn this crown.
Gather them. 

Her introduction also explains and illustrates some of the differences between Persian and English, and the dilemmas facing translators. For example, classical Persian poetry is written in strict metrical forms, and is rhyme-rich, allowing internal and end-rhyme everywhere. Attempts to replicate those formal and sonic patterns in English, no matter how erudite and well-intentioned, strain and sometimes betray one or both languages. Gafori has wisely chosen to translate Rumi’s densely formed poems into free verse, creating sound patterns in English and, where possible, capturing important repetitions in the original. A short and particularly wonderful example is her version of ruba’i number 510:

Where the water of life flows,
no illness remains

In the garden of union,
no thorn remains.

They say there’s a door
between one heart and another.

How can there be a door
where no wall remains? 

In our current moment, English translations from Persian, classical or contemporary, inhabit a contested space. Swirling around Rumi are many of the inevitable tensions of translation, as in, does “faithful” — in terms of content or form — bend toward “literal” or “free”? Who is, or is not, entitled to try their hand? Our time demands a careful look at the implications of the act of translation itself. Several critics have pushed back against the “de-Islamification” of poets like Rumi and Hafiz. Lifting the “universal poet of transcendent love” away from the historical and theological roots of his work — the approach taken by most popular Western translations since the 18th century — can be seen as colonial hubris, wishful thinking, religious prejudice, or scholarly ignorance.

Gafori is Iranian, knows her classical Persian, grew up with Rumi’s poetry and songs in her household, and has spent years studying his work on a mission to bring it into English. Unlike many who have had these capabilities and ambitions, she also has a gift for creating free verse lines in English that capture much of the beauty and paradox in Rumi’s original. And they have their sonic pleasures. Gold is a perfect introduction to the illuminations in Rumi’s work, or an important addition to your Rumi bookshelf.

Gold by Rumi, translated from the Farsi by Haleh Liza Gafori, is published by New York Review Books and is available online and from independent booksellers.


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