Inner Journeys

Translations of Rumi -- Introduction by Dr. Carl Ernst

There is something about the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi that creates an instant recognition. According to some, this Persian mystic of the thirteenth century has become the most published poet in America today. As a literary phenomenon from the Middle East that breaks across the customary cultural barriers, it is without obvious parallels. Just over a century ago, the Pre-Raphaelites led by Dante Gabriel Rosetti discovered Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the quatrains of Omar Khayyam. The Ruba’iyat became an instant best-seller in dozens of languages, and it inspired the creation of numerous Omar Khayyam societies around the world. The enthusiasm for Omar was something of a fluke, however. Khayyam was a scientist and philosopher hardly known in Persian literature; the oldest collections give him a few dozen quatrains, no more. Fitzgerald was a better poet, and he strung the unconnected quatrains attributed to Khayyam into a rambling ode to rebellion in the Victorian age.

Rumi is a different matter altogether. His collected poetry (30,000 lines of lyrics in the Divan-i Shams, and 25,000 lines in the epic Masnavi) forms one of the largest bodies of work in Persian—and this is a literary tradition unbroken since the 9th Century, with a far larger number of poets than any premodern European language. For hundreds of years, Rumi’s poetry has been passionately quoted by lovers of Persian poetry in what is now Iran, Turkey, Central Asia, Pakistan, and India. Scholars of Islamic studies (R.A. Nicholson, A.J. Arberry, Annemarie Schimmel, William Chittick) have produced important studies and translations of Rumi’s verse. This poetry emerges from his passionate mystical experience, and it is expressed with a direct intensity that seems to speak to today’s thirst for spirituality. Rumi’s current popularity in America is a sign of hope to Iranians, as the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the countries most hated in America; perhaps Rumi can provide a bridge beyond current politics.

The person more responsible than anyone else for bringing Rumi to such popularity is Coleman Barks, a poet who teaches literature at the University of Georgia. As Barks describes it, poet Robert Bly once handed him a volume of Rumi’s poems in Arberry’s scholarly translation. “Liberate these poems from their cages,” Bly told him. Coleman Barks’ personal engagement with the Sufi tradition led him, from the 1970’s, to devote himself to rendering Rumi’s verse into English poetry that could communicate to the modern reader with the profound urgency and simplicity of the original. The result has been over a dozen slim volumes of translations from Maypop Books, and most recently, The Essential Rumi from HarperSanFrancisco. Barks has become widely known through an appearance on Bill Moyers’ series of interviews with American poets, where he was shown reciting his versions of Rumi with entrancing musical backup from members of the Paul Winter Consort.

Barks’ extraordinary success has encouraged other writers to leap into the fray. Kabir and Camille Helminski of The Threshold Foundation have produced several volumes of translations, which have tied in with the recent performance tours of the Whirling Dervishes that they have organized (the Whirling Dervishes, known in Turkey as the Mevlevi Sufi order, were founded by Rumi’s son, and Rumi’s poetry has always formed a kind of sacred scripture for them). Architect Nader Khalili, known for his development of fired-clay housing, has also brought out his long-time engagement with Rumi in translations published by Burning Gate Press. [Editor’s note: These seem to be out of print; we could not secure any copies by press time.] A number of others have produced their own versions of Rumi, so that now one can easily count over twenty-five volumes by or about Rumi in print.

One of the questions raised by the Rumi phenomenon is the age-old problem of translating poetry. Some of the translators are native speakers of Persian, who are attempting to recreate the effect of Rumi’s verses in English poetry; while they may be presumed to understand the language of the original, their abilities as poets in English need to be judged independently. Others, like Barks, are poets who do not know Persian; he works in collaboration with John Moyne, a professor of linguistics who reads Persian. Robert Bly has been working on verse translations of Rumi with the help of Leonard Lewisohn, a specialist in Persian Sufi poetry. There are quite a few other writers who have put out “versions” of Rumi that are essentially re-workings of existing English translations by Nicholson or Arberry. This kind of “translation” is not without precedent; among the over 100 English versions of the Taoist classic, the Tao te ching, there are several composed by authors without any knowledge of Chinese. Even those translators who are fluent in modern Persian must face the task of rendering Rumi’s complex allusions to an audience largely unfamiliar with medieval Sufi literature or the Qur’an, which are frequently cited in his verses.

Readers with a strong desire to know the “real” Rumi will face some frustration in any of these translations. Poetry, after all, is what is lost in translation. Controversies then arise. The enthusiastic poet who knows no Persian casts scorn on the scholarly versions of Rumi with their difficult footnotes and long strings of Persian and Arabic terms. The scholar sniffs with disapproval at “versions” of Rumi that appear to come entirely from the imagination of American writers, some of whom may not even write decent poetry. The same problem of authorial authenticity has arisen with other non-European poets, such as Kabir in his various renderings by Tagore, Ezra Pound, and Robert Bly. Translators inevitably create their own version of Rumi by their selection of verses and by the style and tone that they choose to present them in. As Rumi himself said in the opening lines of the Masnavi, “Everyone became my friend from his own opinion.”

Still, there is something that comes across in most of the Rumi translations that seems to have a powerful and direct effect, regardless of the abilities and intentions of the translator. It is as if Rumi overpowers conventional limitations and somehow manages to express himself through these new voices. Those who wish to know Rumi now have the opportunity to steep themselves in his poetry, but to do so they should take advantage of the many different kinds of translation, and the scholarly studies as well. The fragrance of these Persian roses may be scented in varying intensities through these English versions.

Carl W. Ernst is Professor and Chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is Ruzbihan Baqli: Mysticism and the Rhetoric of Sainthood in Persian Sufism (Curzon Press, 1996).

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