and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion
January 9, 2017 10:59 PM   Subscribe

The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi Rozina Ali revisits the cultural legacy of Rumi in the West: 'The erasure of Islam from Rumi’s poetry started long before Coldplay got involved. Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University, says that it was in the Victorian period that readers in the West began to uncouple mystical poetry from its Islamic roots. Translators and theologians of the time could not reconcile their ideas about a “desert religion,” with its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez. The explanation they settled on, Safi told me, was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.” This was a time when Muslims were singled out for legal discrimination—a law from 1790 curtailed the number of Muslims who could come into the United States, and a century later the U.S. Supreme Court described the “intense hostility of the people of Moslem faith to all other sects, and particularly to Christians.” In 1898, in the introduction to his translation of the “Masnavi,” Sir James Redhouse wrote, “The Masnavi addresses those who leave the world, try to know and be with God, efface their selves and devote themselves to spiritual contemplation.” For those in the West, Rumi and Islam were separated.' [Rumi previously]
posted by cendawanita (94 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Personally, this part really got to me: In our conversation, Barks described Rumi’s poetry as “the mystery of opening the heart,” a thing that, he told me, “you can’t say in language.” In order to get at that inexpressible thing, he has taken some liberties with Rumi’s work. For one thing, he has minimized references to Islam. Consider the famous poem “Like This.” Arberry translates one of its lines, rather faithfully, as “Whoever asks you about the Houris, show (your) face (and say) ‘Like this.’ ” Houris are virgins promised in Paradise in Islam. Barks avoids even the literal translation of that word; in his version, the line becomes, “If anyone asks you how the perfect satisfaction of all our sexual wanting will look, lift your face and say, Like this.” The religious context is gone. And yet, elsewhere in the same poem, Barks keeps references to Jesus and Joseph. When I asked him about this, he told me that he couldn’t recall if he had made a deliberate choice to remove Islamic references. “I was brought up Presbyterian,” he said. “I used to memorize Bible verses, and I know the New Testament more than I know the Koran.” He added, “The Koran is hard to read.”
posted by cendawanita at 11:07 PM on January 9, 2017 [15 favorites]


I came here to quote "The Koran is hard to read" too. I cannot help imagining Rozina Ali falling backwards out of frame at this point, leaving two sweat drops in the air behind her.
posted by No-sword at 11:12 PM on January 9, 2017 [18 favorites]


But it’s Barks who vastly expanded Rumi’s readership. He is not a translator so much as an interpreter: he does not read or write Persian. Instead, he transforms nineteenth-century translations into American verse.

Ugh. I can't really articulate why, but ugh.
posted by PMdixon at 1:23 AM on January 10, 2017 [17 favorites]


He is not a translator so much as an interpreter: he does not read or write Persian. Instead, he transforms nineteenth-century translations into American verse.

There is no such thing as "interpreting" a source you can't read. He may be interpreting the work of some nineteenth-century translators, who themselves were interpreting Rumi, but that isn't the same thing at all. You don't make contact with a person by chatting with someone who knew them ten years ago, you don't make contact with an author by reading someone else's reading of them. What a slipshod approach.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:29 AM on January 10, 2017 [15 favorites]


What a slipshod approach.

It does seem like a particularly American approach though, as does the faux-ecumenism quoted further down.
posted by PMdixon at 1:31 AM on January 10, 2017 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure it's peculiarly American? Peculiarly modern, I think, but I've met plenty of faux-ecumenical vagueness about religious sources in India and the UK - especially Islamic sources, which some people can only value by separating them from Islam. (Several people I know in India say they love Sufism, and Qawwali music, and Rumi, and that none of these things have anything at all to do with Islam.)
posted by Aravis76 at 2:01 AM on January 10, 2017 [9 favorites]


Ho-hum, i think you'll find many Moslems don't consider Rumi Islamic, where does Dervish turning appear in the Qu'ran ?. Similarly remembrances of Saints at Tombs is haram (forbidden). Maybe metafilter would prefer the unreadable Sufi Legalist Al-Ghazali (the prover of Islam).
Or how about reading the tone deaf translation of Rumi's "The Masnavi" by Jawid Mojaddedi?, no thanks.
Sorry folks I'll stick to the Victorian translations of the Upanishad, Tibetan Book of the Dead, I-ching and Rumi over the politically correct versions.
I recommend anything published by Shambala publications.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 2:11 AM on January 10, 2017 [7 favorites]


I don't know if it's specifically an American approach, but it's certainly Capitalist. Every new "interpretation" is a new copyright, and that's all huckster hacks (and their publishers) care about. It's easy money, just taking a creaky old translation of whatever random old stuff happens to be trendy and "updating" it without consulting or even considering the original text. Nothing is sacred; they're constantly doing it with the Bible.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:13 AM on January 10, 2017 [7 favorites]


Many Sunni Muslims consider Sufism to be heretical. That doesn't mean that Sufis' own self-understanding as Islamic - and their deep roots in the Quran and in Muslim theology - is irrelevant to approaching their work. A certain type of Protestant might say that Catholicism is so heretical that it is not Christian, but I would raise my eyebrows at a translation of a Catholic poet like Gerald Manley Hopkins that left out all his references to Christ.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:24 AM on January 10, 2017 [52 favorites]


This is fascinating, cendawanita, thanks. I had no idea the most popular translations of Rumi into English were such a colossal fraud. Reminds me of the similar revelations in Husain Haddawy's introduction to his translation of the earliest Arabian Nights stories.
posted by mediareport at 2:57 AM on January 10, 2017 [5 favorites]


There is no such thing as "interpreting" a source you can't read. He may be interpreting the work of some nineteenth-century translators, who themselves were interpreting Rumi, but that isn't the same thing at all. You don't make contact with a person by chatting with someone who knew them ten years ago, you don't make contact with an author by reading someone else's reading of them. What a slipshod approach.

And yet that is the basis of so many of our religions. Stories told at a remove by people who learned about them through other sources.

The article strikes me as quite fair about suggesting both the benefits and drawbacks that accompany interpretation of this sort, and I don't think there is any really clear answer as to which method is the most valuable, since that would first require laying out one's assumptions over the measurement in ways that would necessarily demand the method. Adherence to the "original source" or that which might make the greatest impression on readers are notions which have been long debated without satisfactory resolution. Adding in religion and bigotry certainly can allow one to put more emphasis on one side or the other, but the exchange may not be what one expects.

If, for example, stricter historical adherence to trying to clarify what Rumi said means less readers, that too may not be any great benefit to Muslims as the poetry can be ignored, while bringing in more readers might make for more tolerance. Or not, it could be the other way or not matter to those whose religion it is, but those issues too do not go without further potential problematic elements of their own. So one has to decide the desired end before one can measure, but the desired end may not be what one is actually looking for.

Current culture is chock-a-block with interpretation. It's the most common method of quasi-artistic expression and makes up a huge portion of our shared interactions online and off. Pointing to or looking for authority in these things won't work, but letting people just take it where they will without any account is not satisfying either. I don't think we need to find "an" answer, so much as be aware of what is happening and look at things via that lens.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:58 AM on January 10, 2017 [12 favorites]


“Rumi was born into a religious family and followed the proscribed rules of daily prayer and fasting throughout his entire life,” Gooch writes.
(my emphasis)

Don't know how this slipped through the New Yorker editing process.
posted by atrazine at 4:30 AM on January 10, 2017 [6 favorites]


Maybe metafilter would prefer the unreadable Sufi Legalist Al-Ghazali (the prover of Islam).

Hey now, if you have a less incoherent explanation for why cotton burns, I'd like to hear it.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:14 AM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]


It's an interesting perspective. But the obvious counterargument, which the author doesn't seem to take very seriously when Barks hints at it, is that the mystical traditions of all religions are precisely attempts to get outside of – or "erase", if you like – the accretions of culture, particular organizational forms, etc.

And mysticism is exactly an effort to say "what can't be said in language" – so it's at least possible that some pseudo-translation that fails to adhere to interpretational standards could do a better job of indicating this inexpressible truth to English readers than a more professional one.

If there's any field to which the modern discourse of cultural appropriation would seem ill-suited, it's surely mystical spirituality, with its radical and relentless insistence that the specifics of identity, and what divides us into cultures and into selves, is not the ultimate truth.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:44 AM on January 10, 2017 [11 favorites]


But it’s Barks who vastly expanded Rumi’s readership. He is not a translator so much as an interpreter: he does not read or write Persian. Instead, he transforms nineteenth-century translations into American verse.

Ugh. I can't really articulate why, but ugh.


Reminds me of Forster's "The Machine Stops".
posted by tommasz at 5:50 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


“Rumi was born into a religious family and followed the proscribed rules of daily prayer and fasting throughout his entire life,” Gooch writes.
(my emphasis)

Don't know how this slipped through the New Yorker editing process.


It should say proöscribed
posted by iotic at 5:56 AM on January 10, 2017 [27 favorites]


Also, you want some serious translation shenanigans when it comes to English-language versions of Islamic mystic poetry, try Hafiz via Daniel Ladinsky who gets a brief mention in the piece. (I actually love Ladinsky's poetry, but it stretches the concept of translation way past breaking point.)

The
Real love
I always keep a secret.

All my words
Are sung outside Her window,
For when She lets me in
I take a thousand oaths of silence.

But,
Then She says,
O, then God says,
“What the hell, Hafiz,
Why not give the whole world
My
Address.”
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:05 AM on January 10, 2017 [5 favorites]


Is it true that popular translations also heterosexualise Rumi? I've heard that references to love which in the original are unambiguously to love for a man are routinely transformed into stuff about a girlfriend by messing with pronouns.
posted by Segundus at 6:07 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


If there's any field to which the modern discourse of cultural appropriation would seem ill-suited, it's surely mystical spirituality, with its radical and relentless insistence that the specifics of identity, and what divides us into cultures and into selves, is not the ultimate truth.

That's one approach to mysticism, but it's not the only one. Even assuming that, taking the Islam out of Rumi is a problem in a culture where we're unlikely to, say, take Jesus and Mary out of the The Revelations of Divine Love. It sends exactly the opposite message: that our cultural context is relevant and important, but other people's cultures should be changed to fit into that framework
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:10 AM on January 10, 2017 [8 favorites]


so it's at least possible that some pseudo-translation that fails to adhere to interpretational standards could do a better job of indicating this inexpressible truth to English readers than a more professional one.

Professional translation suffers from a lack of knowledge about what it is. Good translators are accurate interpreters. A fitting interpretation written in flowing language (target, not source) is what makes a good translation into an excellent one. Professional translators achieve accurate interpretations (you'll note I'm using the word "accurate" and not "literal" or "perfect") ideally by living in a country where their source language is spoken, and having a university degree in it. Now, not all excellent translators have a language degree; some genuinely have a talent for it. But most do. Most have at least a Masters degree.

What this means is, a professional translator stands out from whoever due precisely to having been in situations where their interpretational skills are developed and honed. Living life, studying literature. Knowing the connections a casual reader wouldn't.

The Arabic-speaking and Islamic world is emphatically alive. There is absolutely no reason to be ignorant of it going into a translation of Rumi.

To get an idea of just how bad amateur interpretations can be, it only takes reading a few of the free I Ching translations online and then comparing them to Wilhelm & Baynes. I'll take hexagram 1 as an example. Notice how good translators give readers the tools to do their own interpretations; how they provide context they know a casual reader wouldn't necessarily even know to research:
1. Sunrise

Sunrise.
A foundation for progress.
It is beneficial to persist.

There is creative power, inspiration, or an idea, looking to become manifest. There may as yet be no direct road for realization, though. Persistence is necessary to realize it.

Wilhelm & Baynes [note: I've removed the "Image" commentary. Other brackets are W&B's]
1. Ch'ien / The Creative

The first hexagram is made up of six unbroken lines. These unbroken lines stand for the primal power, which is light-giving, active, strong, and of the spirit. The hexagram is consistently strong in character, and since it is without weakness, its essence is power or energy. Its image is heaven. Its energy is represented as unrestricted by any fixed conditions in space and is therefore conceived of as motion. Time is regarded as the basis of this motion. Thus the hexagram includes also the power of time and the power of persisting in time, that is, duration.

The power represented by the hexagram is to be interpreted in a dual sense in terms of its action on the universe and of its action on the world of men. In relation to the universe, the hexagram expresses the strong, creative action of the Deity. In relation to the human world, it denotes the creative action of the holy man or sage, of the ruler or leader of men, who through his power awakens and develops their higher nature.

THE JUDGMENT

THE CREATIVE works sublime success,
Furthering through perseverance.

According to the original meaning, the attributes [sublimity, potentiality of success, power to further, perseverance] are paired. When an individual draws this oracle, it means that success will come to him from the primal depths of the universe and that everything depends upon his seeking his happiness and that of others in one way only, that is, by perseverance in what is right.

The specific meanings of the four attributes became the subject of speculation at an early date. The Chinese word here rendered by "sublime" means literally "head," "origin," "great." This is why Confucius says in explaining it: "Great indeed is the generating power of the Creative; all beings owe their beginning to it. This power permeates all heaven." For this attribute inheres in the other three as well.

The beginning of all things lies still in the beyond in the form of ideas that have yet to become real. But the Creative furthermore has power to lend form to these archetypes of ideas. This is indicated in the word success, and the process is represented by an image from nature: "The clouds pass and the rain does its work, and all individual beings flow into their forms." Applied to the human world, these attributes show the great man the way to notable success: "Because he sees with great clarity and cause and effects, he completes the six steps at the right time and mounts toward heaven on them at the right time, as though on six dragons." The six steps are the six different positions given in the hexagram, which are represented later by the dragon symbol. Here it is shown that the way to success lies in apprehending and giving actuality to the way of the universe [Tao], which, as a law running through end and beginning, brings about all phenomena in time. Thus each step attained forthwith becomes a preparation for the next. Time is no longer a hindrance but the means of making actual what is potential.

The act of creation having found expression in the two attributes sublimity and success, the work of conservation is shown to be a continuous actualization and differentiation of form. This is expressed in the two terms "furthering" (literally, "creating that which accords with the nature of a given being") and "persevering" (literally, "correct and firm"). "The course of the Creative alters and shapes beings until each attains its true, specific nature, then it keeps them in conformity with the Great Harmony. Thus does it show itself to further through perseverance."

In relation to the human sphere, this shows how the great man brings peace and security to the world through his activity in creating order: "He towers high above the multitude of beings, and all lands are united in peace." Another line of speculation goes still further in separating the words "sublime," "success," "furthering," "perseverance," and parallels them with the four cardinal virtues in humanity. To sublimity, which, as the fundamental principle, embraces all the other attributes, it links love. To the attribute success are linked the morals, which regulate and organize expressions of love and thereby make them successful. The attribute furthering is correlated with justice, which creates the conditions in which each receives that which accords with his being, that which is due him and which constitutes his happiness. The attribute perseverance is correlated with wisdom, which discerns the immutable laws of all that happens and can therefore bring about enduring conditions. These speculations, already broached in the commentary called Wên Yen , later formed the bridge connecting the philosophy of the "five stages (elements) of change," as laid down in the Book of History (Shu Ching) with the philosophy of the Book of Changes, which is based solely on the polarity of positive and negative principles. In the course of time this combination of the two systems of thought opened the way for an increasingly intricate number symbolism.
There are French translations of Rumi that go into just that level of depth. It sheds an entirely different light on his works.
posted by fraula at 6:18 AM on January 10, 2017 [13 favorites]


The Arabic-speaking and Islamic world is emphatically alive.

Also Persian-speaking. (Oops.) Rumi wrote a lot of his works in it.
posted by fraula at 6:24 AM on January 10, 2017 [7 favorites]


Robert Bly did the same thing with Indian religious poets Kabir and Meera, modernizing previously translated work.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:31 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


Thanks for this really interesting comment.

Good translators are accurate interpreters

Yes – I suppose this shows that "translation" is a bad word to describe what I'm trying to get at. My point is that when it comes to mystical texts specifically, a completely untrained person with a degree of spiritual experience or insight could, with only a superficial acquaintance with the works of Rumi, do a better job of doing in English what I understand Rumi to have been attempting to do than the very best of translators. (Of course, they also might fail to do so.) But the resulting poetry probably shouldn't be described as Rumi in translation.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:33 AM on January 10, 2017


There was an episode of In Our Time about Rumi reasonably recently. I remember being fascinated by his poetry, and influence on the literature of Iran, Turkey and Central Asia of today. I remember Islam being mentioned, especially his Sufism. However, it was a while ago, so the details of this escape me. Worth a listen if this is the first you've heard of him.
posted by sarcas at 6:50 AM on January 10, 2017


Ho-hum, i think you'll find many Moslems don't consider Rumi Islamic, where does Dervish turning appear in the Qu'ran ?. Similarly remembrances of Saints at Tombs is haram (forbidden). Maybe metafilter would prefer the unreadable Sufi Legalist Al-Ghazali (the prover of Islam).
Or how about reading the tone deaf translation of Rumi's "The Masnavi" by Jawid Mojaddedi?, no thanks.
Sorry folks I'll stick to the Victorian translations of the Upanishad, Tibetan Book of the Dead, I-ching and Rumi over the politically correct versions.
I recommend anything published by Shambala publications.


lol yeah those are the only choices here
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:52 AM on January 10, 2017 [19 favorites]


Of course it's fair to make arguments about how free a translation can or should be. But I think it's hard to claim that a translator who simply can't read the original language is in any position to make an informed decision either way. I'm not saying translations should be strictly literal, only that translators - if we are going to call them translators - should be literate in the language they are dealing with. That doesn't seem like a controversial claim to me. And writers are free to react to, or respond to, another person's work if they have only heard of it once or skimmed a translation of it or whatever and that may be good and interesting and valuable art. But it's dishonest, then, to put the other person's name on the resulting book and call it a translation. You just haven't done the work of translation and you really shouldn't attribute your stuff to them when you have no basis for making any such attribution.

I also don't think many religions are really founded on this type of careless translation, as has been suggested. There is only one religion I know of that says a text - not a story, or an event, or a philosophical claim but a particular text itself - is the foundation of the tradition and that religious understanding can only be obtained through grasping that very text. That is Islam, and it is no coincidence that learning to read the Quran in Arabic - or having the Quran read to one in Arabic - is something of a non-negotiable in that religious tradition. You can have a Christian who never bothered to learn Aramaic or New Testament Greek principally because Christianity claims religious knowledge is found in a set of events, evidenced by texts, and not by a text itself. Even the most passionate Biblical inerrancy Protestant will not say you must know every word of the Bible by heart to be a believing Christian. It's enough to know (about) Christ. So you can become a Christian and practice Christianity by relying on a translation of the Bible and never bothering with the original language. But I doubt there are many Christians who would be thrilled to learn that the Bible they are relying on was translated into their language by someone who is simply unable to read the original texts, so far as we have originals. That's not a point about religious orthodoxy; it's just a point about what translation is.
posted by Aravis76 at 6:59 AM on January 10, 2017 [15 favorites]


But I doubt there are many Christians who would be thrilled to learn that the Bible they are relying on was translated into their language by someone who is simply unable to read the original texts, so far as we have originals

Not to derail, but that is a major issue with fundamentalist Christians - they take some parts of "the text" literally, but their text has nothing to do with any of the extant original texts, or early interpretations and there is no context to their translation. If one actually reads the Bible, one might even say that their understanding is a heresy: uplifting the book to a divine status it was never intended to have.

There is only one religion I know of that says a text - not a story, or an event, or a philosophical claim but a particular text itself - is the foundation of the tradition and that religious understanding can only be obtained through grasping that very text. That is Islam, and it is no coincidence that learning to read the Quran in Arabic - or having the Quran read to one in Arabic - is something of a non-negotiable in that religious tradition

This is an important point about Islam - though I have no idea whether it is unique to Islam. And of course it leeds to an other understanding of Rumi, because poetry will have a different status in a culture where the text in itself is holy than in a culture where narrative structures religion.
posted by mumimor at 8:18 AM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]


Mainstream Christian fundamentalists, as I understand it, claim to believe in the literal inerrancy of the original manuscript texts of the Bible (see article X of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy here). They acknowledge that translation is a thing, and the authority of a translated text depends on its fidelity to the original.
posted by Aravis76 at 8:24 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


Yes, but if you examine their texts, they are "wrong" - in the sense that their translations are completely off compared to scholarly translations from the last 100 years or so.
posted by mumimor at 8:27 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]


Because they don't acknowledge scholarly methods.
posted by mumimor at 8:27 AM on January 10, 2017


You also in the US, at least, have to deal with King James Only people, which range from people who believe that King James version is the only appropriate translation because of its use of the Majority Text to people who genuinely believe that the translators of the KJV were separately divinely inspired.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:32 AM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]


Right, but they don't profess to be indifferent to the fidelity of a translation to its original. I was rejecting the argument that any religion that takes texts seriously is indifferent to the problem of fidelity in translation; the more significant the text, the more important (professed) claims of fidelity become. Maybe claims to fidelity are bad-faith, or mistaken in scholarly terms, but it's not true that most religions happily embrace an attitude of whatever-goes indifference to the relationship between original and translated sacred text. Christians are only careless about the difference - in their own minds - to the extent that they are relaxed about Biblical inerrancy and attribute authority to other sources.
posted by Aravis76 at 8:32 AM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]


I also don't think many religions are really founded on this type of careless translation, as has been suggested.

Part of the question the article is raising might be seen as being in the difference between translation and interpretation. While one might argue about the issue of translation in religious beliefs, it seems pretty difficult to argue that wide ranging interpretations of the same texts hasn't been a fundamental basis of a wide range of religious groups origins or shifts in nature over time.

So, if the concern is just over whether Barks should call himself a translator or not, that is a fairly minimal worry over nomenclature. Barks books are in translation from the original language, but he didn't provide that translation directly, he just changed the phrasing to fit his own take on the translations he used. We can call that what we will, but that doesn't seem as important a question as his interpretative acts. And the area of interpretation is domain far more fraught with difficulty. It's the combination of things here, translation of a religious text in a nation and language of peoples who have not treated the believers in that religion well, along with being an interpretation that takes liberties with the beliefs expressed that makes this such an interesting example of cultural adaptation/appropriation.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:40 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]


why-dont-we-have-both.gif

I see value in both a more accessible (to Westerners) translation/interpretation/abridgement à la Barks, and a more faithful to the source text, fully footnoted scholarly work à la Mojaddedi.

I mean, you can get Shakespeare in Manga form.

I see the problem, of course, with people assuming that the Barks version is authoritative in anyway. But that's why the name Coleman Barks is on the cover. Pieces like this New Yorker piece are helpful in making the Coleman's approach more clear, but I wouldn't say that Coleman's approach is wrong (perhaps lazy... reading the Koran is hard?)

It would, of course, be different if Barks was attempting to lock down all the Rumi related intellectual property, stopping other translators from producing their own versions of the 13th century work. Luckily, Western copyright and trademark laws haven't been perverted quite so far.... yet.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:48 AM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]


I get that the Barks translations are problematic but, I mean, the article does seem to suggest he's studied with an actual Sufi teacher, and it sounds like he's at least trying to have some level of intention in rendering certain Islamic concepts that are too unfamiliar to Western readers into something they can begin to grasp. That sounds far preferable to Chopra's "‘moods’ we have captured as certain phrases radiated from the original Farsi, giving life to a new creation but retaining the essence of its source" because wow, what a puffed up way to say "this is just some empty pablum I barfed up and put Rumi's name on it to sound all spiritualish and sell books."
posted by dnash at 8:48 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


The difference between translation and interpretation is quite important to the question of authority and attribution of authorship. If you claim to be translating, you are claiming in some sense to be personally effaced from the text you have produced - you are attributing it not to yourself but to the other person, whom you are translating. (I gather that the possibility and desirability of this effacement is a controversial question in translation studies, but that everyone acknowledges that the original text is not completely dispensable to a "translation".) I don't get to claim that my essay interpeting the Bible actually has the authority of the Bible, any more than I get to claim the authority of Jane Austen if I write a piece of fanfiction about the happy marriage of Mr Collins and Elizabeth Bennet. If I purport to translate Pride and Prejudice into Hindi, based on my viewing of one of the movies, and turn Mr Collins into the hero, I am not performing an audacious piece of interpretation (as my fanfiction might be). I'm just misleading my readers about the content of the novel.
posted by Aravis76 at 8:49 AM on January 10, 2017 [5 favorites]


what a puffed up way to say "this is just some empty pablum I barfed up and put Rumi's name on it to sound all spiritualish and sell books."

eat, pray, translate
posted by thelonius at 9:02 AM on January 10, 2017 [5 favorites]


I think sys rq gets this right. Although the conversation about authorship and high::low cultural expectations for translation are interesting-- I certainly don't think the publisher and Mr. Banks went any deeper than 'Selling Rumi to a Western Market at Scale Will Require the Redaction of Islam' and that's that.

I've read a bit of Banks. Parts are very lovely. At no point did I think I was reading Rumi scholarship, or an authoritative, academic position on Rumi's texts in the appropriate Islamic context.
posted by mrdaneri at 9:05 AM on January 10, 2017


The difference between translation and interpretation is quite important to the question of authority and attribution of authorship.

Sure, and as I suggested, if the argument is merely over whether Barks should claim to be a translator, then it's a pretty limited issue. He should, I'd think, be clear that he isn't directly translating the text, which he is in the article, (outside that I don't know what, if any, competing claims he may have made).

That's meaningful to anyone looking at his work who wants to understand where it came from certainly, but it isn't a very interesting question beyond that once his role has been clearly defined other than in the significance of interpretation which is more wide ranging even in translation circles. Translate to closest literal meaning or metaphor or "feel" for example and the importance of the translator in the "new" work.

Barks is not the first poetic "translation" done in this manner. Others have done similar things, translating/interpreting the translations of others. So I'm not sure simply trying to settle this by definition of the activity is the real crux of the issue, or the most interesting and difficult part of it anyway.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:16 AM on January 10, 2017


I think the question whether Barks' version is Rumi, for example to Chris Martin and other Western readers, is a pretty important one that ties this discussion to the broader problem of cultural appropriation. The idea that you can have access to Rumi without Islam, the Upanishads without Hinduism, and the Ramayana without taking an interest in any of its Indian authors is, I think, based on a racist tradition - it's part of a long history of European and American authors believing that they are discovering unexpected treasures among the barbarians, whose own understanding of what they are doing is not as interesting as what the Enlightened Western Mind has to say about it.

The underlying thesis is that you can have access to the product of any non-Western culture, at minimum inconvenience, and certainly without the work - and the humility required by the work - of learning the language or the context of the product. Meanwhile I doubt very much that any Indians believe that Maqbool or Omkara just are Shakespeare's work; the audience for those films is likely to already know of Shakespeare himself as an author, and to understand the difference between his words in translation and an Indian riff off his stories. Of course, the replication of a racist tradition is not the only interesting question raised by this type of project that blurs the distinction between interpretation and translation. But I do think it is interesting, and not merely semantic.
posted by Aravis76 at 9:31 AM on January 10, 2017 [16 favorites]


The American poet Robert Lowell used a technique quite like Banks'. He would take a poem in a language he didn't read and find the most boring translation of it he could. He would then use the boring version as the basis for elaborating his own poem. He produced some really great verse this way, but he didn't call it translation or 'interpretation'. He called it imitation, and a volume which collected these poems is titled Imitations.

A favorite of mine from these is Heine Dying in Paris, from a poem by Heinrich Heine:

My day was luckily happier than my night;
whenever I struck the lyre of inspiration
my people clapped; my lieder, all joy and fire,
pierced Germany's suffocating summer cloud.
Summer still glows, but my harvest is in the barn,
my sword scabbarded in my spinal marrow,
and soon I must give up the half-gods
that made my world so agonizingly half-joyful.
My hand clangs to its close on the lyre's dominant;
my insolently raised champagne glass breaks at my lips...
If I can forgive the great Aristophanes
and Author of Being his joke, he can forgive me--
God, how hatefully bitter it is to die,
how snugly one lives in this snug earthly nest!

So, it's a valid technique, I feel, if it can give us something like that! (The Heine original, which I can't put my hands on at the moment, is good too, but not as good.) The problem with Banks' Rumi is that it is false advertising: it isn't really Rumi's poetry that one is getting, and in a way that is much more aggravated than the usual loss-in-translation. That seems to me plain. But the associated question raised by the New Yorker article, whether Rumi's own thought, or message, can make any sense outside Islam, whether it really transcends the specifically Muslim engagement with the world, as some would have it, is more intriguing. I personally feel I'd have to learn Persian, and submit myself to a real and sustained exposure to that Muslim engagement, in order to find an answer.
posted by bertran at 9:37 AM on January 10, 2017 [9 favorites]


Ah, here's the Heine:

Mein Tag war heiter, glücklich meine Nacht.
Mir jauchzte stets mein Volk, wenn ich die Leier
Der Dichtkunst schlug. Mein Lied war Lust und Feuer,
Hat manche schöne Gluten angefacht.
Noch blüht mein Sommer, dennoch eingebracht
Hab ich die Ernte schon in meine Scheuer -
Und jetzt soll ich verlassen, was so teuer,
So lieb und teuer mir die Welt gemacht!

Der Hand entsinkt das Saitenspiel. In Scherben
Zerbricht das Glas, das ich so fröhlich eben
An meine übermütgen Lippen preßte.

O Gott! wie häßlich bitter ist das Sterben!
O Gott! wie süß und traulich läßt sich leben
In diesem traulich süßen Erdenneste!

You can see how the Lowell version is more Lowell than Heine, although the broad outline of Heine's poem is followed. Especially thrilling is all the Lowellian 'thick' vocabulary: "My hand clangs to its close on the lyre's dominant" goes way beyond the original's "Der Hand entsinkt das Saitenspiel." One wonders if Lowell could have done this so well if he had been working directly from the German. (Banks seems in effect to have moved in the opposite direction with his imitations, from thick and specific vocabulary to phrases than are less implicating.)
posted by bertran at 10:06 AM on January 10, 2017 [7 favorites]


It would, of course, be different if Barks was attempting to lock down all the Rumi related intellectual property, stopping other translators from producing their own versions of the 13th century work. Luckily, Western copyright and trademark laws haven't been perverted quite so far.... yet.

Actually, although it's not really the same thing, I knew a performer who was highly restricted in what he could do with his faithful translation of Jacques Prevert's Les feuilles morts, because the Johnny Mercer estate (Mercer wrote a lyric for the tune called Autumn Leaves, which has achieved some success) control what can be done with the song: Effectively Prevert's song is being suppressed in favour of Mercer's. Similarly, the Jacques Brel estate have been keen to shut down new English translations of Brel's work, despite the fact that the best-known translations (particularly Mort Schuman's lyrics for ...Alive and Well...) are dreadful.

Though, of course, these aren't 13th century texts. My point is that if they could, they would.

(On another hand, I'm a huge fan of Shiina Ringo, and I wish there were some samizdat translations of her lyrics, because the English lyrics she goes with are surreally bad - usually literal translations of the surface meaning of the words she uses, with none of the word games or poetry of the actual lyrics. I don't speak Japanese, but you can hear those games being played in the rhythms of the lyrics as they're being performed. And then for the English version she has something that doesn't rhyme, or even fit into the verse a lot of the time. I used to think she didn't know, then I decided she didn't care, now I think she's doing it deliberately to annoy people like me. )
posted by Grangousier at 10:27 AM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]


Translation, especially of poetry, has always seemed to me to be fraught with danger and unlikelihood. First, it requires a translator who knows both languages as intimately as the original writer knew hers, and sometimes it is the language of a bygone era. Second, it requires a translator with as much literary skill as the original author, and in the case of poetry, with as much poetic imagination and fluency. And, perhaps most unlikely, a similar sense of the magic of words and the world as the original author. What we read, when we read a translation, is a version of a version of a version of the original's experience. It is strongly filtered, and I would suggest that the art of the translator is measured in the evaluation of the translated work by the reader. Based on that benchmark, Coleman Barks would seem to be an excellent interpreter of Rumi. This is not to suggest that he accurately reflects all aspects of Rumi's work that a native speaker of Farsi would get, but that he captures something of that essence and delivers it to modern English speakers.

Full disclosure: I treasure my Coleman Barks' Rumi translations and still often sit and read them when I get a quiet moment. So I definitely have some inherent bias, but my thoughts on translations were formed long before I was acquainted with this extraordinary work.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:14 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


> when it comes to mystical texts specifically, a completely untrained person with a degree of spiritual experience or insight could, with only a superficial acquaintance with the works of Rumi, do a better job of doing in English what I understand Rumi to have been attempting to do than the very best of translators.

But (with respect) you have no basis for understanding what Rumi may have been attempting to do (other than write great poetry, of course). It is sheer delusion to think one can magically grasp the "essence" or whatever of some complex tradition one doesn't bother to do the work to actually understand. It is, of course, human nature to try, and great minds fall into this particular trap with regularity. A famous example is Ezra Pound, who dabbled in Chinese poetry without knowing Chinese to brilliant effect when he was concentrating on poetry (Cathay) and to frequently silly effect when he was trying to save the world through history and economics (the Cantos). I think each case has to be judged on its own merits; Lowell is very good when he's good, and gets extra points for calling them "imitations" rather than translations, but I personally find Coleman Barks supremely irritating. It's not good enough to say "Well, he doesn't own Rumi, there are other translations"—for the vast majority of English-speakers who have heard of Rumi, Coleman Barks is Rumi, and that angers me. A superficially similar situation with Omar Khayyám and Edward FitzGerald is different in that Omar is not as great a poet as Rumi and FitzGerald's versions, however different from the original, are frequently superb poetry in English, whereas Barks is just mush for the multitudes. (My apologies if you like that particular flavor of mush, but I calls 'em as I sees 'em.)
posted by languagehat at 11:22 AM on January 10, 2017 [16 favorites]


the art of the translator is measured in the evaluation of the translated work by the reader.

Perhaps, but I would suggest that the ideal reader to perform such an evaluation is one who is fluent in both languages. If you don't speak Farsi, you don't know what is left out and even the author on whom you are relying doesn't know, in this instance. If we grant that the English verson of Barks is deeply moving or beautiful, why not consider the possibility that English-informed-by-real-understanding-of-Farsi might be even more beautiful?

I think it's a mistake to assume the necessity of a trade-off between beauty and knowledge, or to assume that the nuances accessible to a Farsi speaker are - of course - inessentials whereas the broad strokes accessible to a Western reader are naturally the important parts. How can you know? Unless, of course, things that are culturally specific to Islam are for that very reason less important, less essential, than the things that can be expressed without any reference to Islam. The latter is hardly a morally neutral assumption.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:42 AM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]


"It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope; but you must not call it Homer." - Richard Bentley's criticism of Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad, widely considered to be one of the finest translations of the poem into English. Translation is never the original.

On the other hand, every text is a collaboration between reader and writer, so in a sense what we see in Bark's translations are a snapshot of what happens in Bark's mind when he reads Rumi, and for reasons the article doesn't examine, that intersection, Rumi-via-Barks, is very popular. Why? I don't know, but I sure am curious.

Also, the poems Pope and Barks translated are beautiful poems, whether or not they "are" their source material.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:02 PM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]


I just wish more people were aware of what translation involves. Someone who is monolingual, and has never studied another language, and has never had the experience of trying to translate a text from one language to the other, may genuinely not realize that languages don't map onto each other one-to-one. (I see this with students often.) They may therefore not be skeptical of translations in general. I see the failure to develop this skepticism (maybe a better word would be “critical attitude”) as a much bigger problem than about taste in poetry. For example, when we read the translated words of a foreign leader, done by a partisan journalist or government official, the failure to be skeptical of translation can have significant consequences. To call Banks’s version a “translation,” I think, is one way of actively covering over this issue.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:16 PM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]


There is a similar controversy in translations / versions of the two foundational Daoist classics, the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, that I think illustrates some of the complexities here. Three of the most popular English editions of those books were done by writers who do/did not speak classical Chinese; Thomas Merton's "The Way of Chuang Tzu", Ursula LeGuin's "Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way," and Stephen Mitchell's "Tao Te Ching."

To my eye, the first two are credible versions that add cultural value, while Mitchell's is complete crap. The irony is that Mitchell is an accomplished translator, at least in other languages (German, for example, but he doesn't speak Chinese, modern or classical). But here, he decided that his Zen training gave him "an umbilical connection" -- his words -- to Lao Tzu, a figure most scholars doubt even existed. Translator David Hinton, in his review, said
"...by my rough estimation....(out of approximately 985 lines) Mitchell has rewritten about 150 lines so radically that they bear virtually no relation to the original, has eliminated about 250 lines, and about 170 lines have been invented out of thin air...Sometimes the inventions replace lines Mitchell has deleted, sometimes they are simply added to what was already there. In either case they correspond to nothing whatsoever in the text"
In chapter 50, Mitchell simply inserted commentary by his personal Zen master San Seung into the text, without attribution; they later co-wrote a book together. He took about 6 weeks to produce his book. An earlier book he wrote about Daoism went nowhere.

In contrast, both Le Guin and Merton collaborated with respected translators and worked on their books for many years, decades in her case. She worked from Carus' 1898 edition which lists the Chinese and English texts side by side, calls her book a "rendition" rather than a translation, and includes detailed notes on the choices she made. Merton added value by not simply copying the Inner Chapters (considered the oldest and most authentic) of the Zhuangzi, but also making judicious selections from the rambling rest of the book.

Furthermore, both are not only acclaimed writers (an undervalued skill in rendering a work in the target language) but also bring spiritual credentials. LeGuin is a practicing Daoist who has lived her life by the principles of that book. Merton, while Christian, was a Trappist monk and perhaps the leading voice of Christian mysticism in the 20th century.
posted by msalt at 12:30 PM on January 10, 2017 [12 favorites]


Pope could read classical Greek, though, and did not actually eliminate the Greek gods from his Iliad or his Odyssey. But it's fun to imagine an English 'translation' of the Iliad by a monolingual author with no background in the classics, who made the text more accessible by taking out all the gods and substituting analogous eighteenth-century English concepts for them. Perhaps, instead of Thetis dipping Achilles in the Styx by the heel, Pope could have told his readers that she sent him to an excellent schoolmaster who imparted to him all the virtues except one. That might have been a fascinating poem too, and perhaps a beautiful one, but I would question its credibility as a translation.
posted by Aravis76 at 12:36 PM on January 10, 2017 [10 favorites]


Oh yeah, Stephen Mitchell. That reminds me -- he did the "translation" (adaptation) of The Epic of Gilgamesh -- the one you've most likely read if you've read it at all. Needless to say, he isn't among the few people who can read Akkadian cuneiform, so he was just putting stuff from prior translations into his own words (as he admits in the introduction). I'd suspect the quality is like the Lao Tzu.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:51 PM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]


Pope could read classical Greek, though, and did not actually eliminate the Greek gods from his Iliad or his Odyssey. But it's fun to imagine an English 'translation' of the Iliad by a monolingual author with no background in the classics, who made the text more accessible by taking out all the gods and substituting analogous eighteenth-century English concepts for them.

That is, more or less, what happens often with "updating" a text or cross cultural interpretations like Maqbool or Throne of Blood. Those iterations of "Shakespeare" can be wonderful and in their most popular incarnations may indeed be the only thing many people have seen as "Shakespeare". Obviously most would be aware that the movie isn't Shakespeare's work itself, being a movie and all, but they may not have much idea what else is or isn't Macbeth, and there isn't really even a clear spot where a Macbeth interpretation is no longer Macbeth but something else entirely.

With Rumi and Barks, the biggest objection I seem to see people making is that Barks, in a sense, is Rumi to many or most of his readers since that's all they know. But if that's the case, would Barks still be objectionable were other Rumi translations more popular? If not, then is the issue Barks or the audience? Relying on audience knowledge to determine worth seems a tough line to follow, given most audiences know very little outside their individual lives. At the same time, that Barks is so popular when there are other translations out there could well suggest that the audience might really prefer Barksrumi to actual Rumi, so having better translations may matter little if the audience doesn't actually want a more faithful translation.

So at that point, what would be demanded? Audiences improve their taste? That'd be nice, but not gonna happen. Pressure the public to only accept translations they may not want to read in order to somehow protect Rumi's integrity or beliefs? Who does that benefit if Rumi doesn't get read? Is bastardized Rumi better than none or worse? How does adding the history of bigotry and cultural appropriation effect that equation? If the work isn't popular, then all these questions become less likely to even be asked outside very specialized fields or in small select audiences. These are some of the things that, for me, make the issue complex, even as I don't really side with the favoring of the popular for the sake of it, or think these sorts of issues should be decided purely around utilitarian or historical values either.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:13 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


Professional translators achieve accurate interpretations (you'll note I'm using the word "accurate" and not "literal" or "perfect") ideally by living in a country where their source language is spoken, and having a university degree in it.... having been in situations where their interpretational skills are developed and honed. Living life, studying literature. Knowing the connections a casual reader wouldn't.

Absolutely, for contemporary translations, but with the extra element of time this gets complicated. I don't know how much Persian language and culture has changed in the last 800 years, but I'm sure it's a lot. The Daodejing was first written or compiled in the Kingdom of Chu before China had even formed, and classical Chinese is a very different animal.

There's a risk that living in the culture today introduces glosses from shifting meanings. Arguably, the cultural distance between Warring States China and modern China is far greater than that between modern China and the modern West.
posted by msalt at 1:19 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]


My point is only that Barks' works, on his own account of his process, should probably be shelved in bookshops as "Barks". The spot for "Rumi" should be occupied by texts that translate Rumi in good faith: that is, by people who have done their best to represent the original text, based on some first-hand knowledge of that original. The number of people who go looking for Rumi will, of course, depend on various factors but I don't think this issue about the size of a market has anything much to do with the question whether the thing sold to them as Rumi in fact even tries to represent the author they are looking for.

Let's take the analogy of Maqbool. If you go to a bookshop in India looking for Macbeth, and walk up to a shelf labelled "Shakespeare", you will not find the screenplay of Maqbool sitting there. You will probably find some English editions and perhaps, depending on the shop, a translation into Hindi or other regional languages. The shop will not leave it to you to decide whether a Hindi translation, by a Shakespeare scholar, is as much "Shakespeare" as the screenplay of Maqbool. That screenplay will just not be there. There is an absolutely sharp line between "Shakespeare" and Vishal Bhardwaj, from the perspective of the public in India. If there is no such sharp line between Rumi and Barks in America, it's not because of the mysterious boundary between translation and interpretation. It's because 300 years of colonisation have produced a degree of respect for English Literature in India that the rest of the world's traditions have struggled to obtain in Europe and the Anglophone world.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:34 PM on January 10, 2017 [7 favorites]


Sure, but if you go to a videostore that has offering listed by various criteria, you will often find Maqbool under Shakespeare since Willie didn't make any movies, he just, um, wrote the screenplays, so to speak.

I mean I totally understand your objections Aravis76, and share a number of them myself on a personal level, I mean I even hate books that "update" Chaucer to "easy to read" English personally. But at some level things like access do figure in to the discussion as then does questions over whether a half a glass is better than none or not. So it's there that I find being more dogmatic about Barksrumi and another Rumi might be more complex. "Updated" Chaucer, or even Shakespeare in modern English does get put with the wacky old fashioned stuff, no matter how ridiculous the updating may be. Now that, of course, lacks the added history of neglect and bigotry surrounding authors like Rumi, but the issue isn't that different even with that noted in many ways.

And I now realize I've probably gone on long enough for such a small area of disagreement, so I'll let it drop there so as not to overwhelm the thread.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:45 PM on January 10, 2017


I don't want to just pile on Barks, because I suspect a lot of good has come from people reading his poetry, but one thing I've never understood is: if you really like Sufism, and Rumi is your thing, why not take the time to learn Persian? It's not so very difficult, and you'd have much closer access to this stuff that apparently already has a lot of worth for you. I just find it strange.
posted by bertran at 1:51 PM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]


Sure, gusottertrout, I do see your point. I think our disagreement is about the extent to which bigotry can affect "updates" of texts that make them more "accessible" -- particularly in the context of modern Islamaphobia, I think it's reasonable to be extra-skeptical of updates of Muslim sources that make them accessible by getting rid of all the Islam. But I'm happy to let this drop too.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:52 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


Wow, so many years lurking on so many FPPs, happy to have an excuse to sign up for an account. As a practitioner of Sufism in the US, I can agree that this topic is debated consistently within the community. Barks is useful to help bridge the experience with Western concepts and metaphors, but the real work is done in diligent study of the Masnavi, comparing with Rumi's other writing, and reviewing the stories he references in the Koran and in classical Persian culture. The story of Layla and Majnun is a good example. I think looking at Dar al-Masnavi site is a good starting point. The site owner is a member of the extended community of Mevlevis in the US, and gets into the nitty gritty of translation complexities.

The first time I heard Rumi, it was in the original Persian, and I had that classical mystical "direct connection" with the emotional tenor of the language. I've had it on my list to learn Farsi for years, but it's worth noting that even modern Farsi is about as useful as learning English to read Chaucer or Beowulf. Nicholson is the translation that everyone points to as the most accurate, and we read it without consulting original Farsi. The problem is that Nicholson writes in a stilted Victorian, nothing like the emotional tenor of the original Farsi.

Several in our community have been working with a Iranian expat in Vancouver who studied the Masnavi for several years as a child. I've not had the time to make many of these classes, but one thing I did take away is that Persian has some pretty powerful traits as a language to allow multiple layers of meaning to be attached to a given noun or verb. Similar to the word roots of Arabic, a slight change in the pronunciation of a word can change its meaning, and its clear in the Masnavi that Rumi baked this into the verse, creating a tapestry of metaphor for reflection. And it rhymes!

Nicholson does a pretty good job of mystically mixing metaphors, but English lacks the layers to really pull this off. However, I think there's still plenty of value to be gained from reading a poet like Neruda, even if you don't know Spanish. Some of poetic material is cultural, and some is universal. Rumi's pointing to the universal, more than any other poet I've read.

I should also say that the poetry works better in a group setting, read out loud. We meet weekly and discuss readings in the context of our daily life reflections. I find it almost boring to read on my own. Years of this, and I've still not finished it.

There are also some unpalatable passages that few would publish as the work of a mystical saint, antisemitic and misogynist passages, at least as we understand them. It's hard to reconcile them, except as a scholar who's trying to connect with the common man and his mores. All to say, if Bark's poetry peels your wig of experience, there's nothing wrong with it. Know that there's more, much more if you dig.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 2:38 PM on January 10, 2017 [13 favorites]


Absolutely, for contemporary translations, but with the extra element of time this gets complicated. I don't know how much Persian language and culture has changed in the last 800 years, but I'm sure it's a lot. The Daodejing was first written or compiled in the Kingdom of Chu before China had even formed, and classical Chinese is a very different animal.

Not tremendously, actually. Rumi is still taught to native Persian speakers, and the level of difficulty is about on par with, say, studying Shakespeare for native English speakers. Modern Persian has been modern Persian since around 800 CE. So there are some outdated/antiquated words and it's not exactly the colloquial Persian you hear every day, but it's not Chaucer either. Culture is the part that has changed, and that does require study and analysis.

Is it true that popular translations also heterosexualise Rumi? I've heard that references to love which in the original are unambiguously to love for a man are routinely transformed into stuff about a girlfriend by messing with pronouns.

Not sure how this goes with translations, but I know my Persian professor, somewhat exasperatedly, used to say that sometimes the comely winebearer is indeed just a comely winebearer, and not a symbol of oneness with God or whatever. There's a certain amount of conflation of mystic and love poetry, encouraged by the form, but sometimes the sexy parts aren't metaphors.
posted by yasaman at 2:57 PM on January 10, 2017 [6 favorites]


Not tremendously, actually. Rumi is still taught to native Persian speakers, and the level of difficulty is about on par with, say, studying Shakespeare for native English speakers. Modern Persian has been modern Persian since around 800 CE. So there are some outdated/antiquated words and it's not exactly the colloquial Persian you hear every day, but it's not Chaucer either.

This is different than what I heard, several Farsi speakers taking classes with the Iranian teacher I mentioned gave testimonials about how hard it was to understand. But perhaps it is in the cultural context and trying to peel the onion on the layers of metaphor Rumi is working with. the multiple definitions of words is quite intimidating. this is exciting if it's true!

Not sure how this goes with translations, but I know my Persian professor, somewhat exasperatedly, used to say that sometimes the comely winebearer is indeed just a comely winebearer, and not a symbol of oneness with God or whatever.

It's also important to remember that in the Islamic world that intimacy and sexuality are not the same thing. Keeping the sexes separate changes the dynamics of intimacy. In today's terms, you'll see tons of Turkish boys hugging one another and holding hands. A show of affection doesn't always mean sex.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 3:12 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]


Ho-hum, i think you'll find many Moslems don't consider Rumi Islamic, where does Dervish turning appear in the Qu'ran ?. Similarly remembrances of Saints at Tombs is haram (forbidden). Maybe metafilter would prefer the unreadable Sufi Legalist Al-Ghazali (the prover of Islam).
Or how about reading the tone deaf translation of Rumi's "The Masnavi" by Jawid Mojaddedi?, no thanks.
Sorry folks I'll stick to the Victorian translations of the Upanishad, Tibetan Book of the Dead, I-ching and Rumi over the politically correct versions.


Hey, I'm mad about this! Hi, I'm a Shia Muslim Persian speaker, and this is my cultural heritage you're weirdly shitting on. Probably the majority of Persian speakers are Shia, so I'm not really seeing the utility of you pointing out that a bunch of other sects think all this Shia shrine business is heretical and also Sufis aren't really Muslim. Uh, okay, what does that have to do with Rumi being one of the most revered and respected literary figures of the Persian-speaking world? What the hell do Victorian translations of the Upanishad etc have to do with Persian mystic poetry and the translation thereof? Why are you categorizing modern "interpretations" of Rumi's poetry as politically correct? I'd be willing to call them a lot of things, but politically correct is not one of them. Erasure of religion from religious poetry is not political correctness.

Also, maybe don't spell it Moslem. That's antiquated and really only makes most of us think of old imperialist and/or orientalist white dudes.
posted by yasaman at 3:12 PM on January 10, 2017 [27 favorites]


This is different than what I heard, several Farsi speakers taking classes with the Iranian teacher I mentioned gave testimonials about how hard it was to understand.

Oh yeah, as someone who was a Persian speaker in a class studying Persian poetry, I'm not saying it's easy. It's hard and requires close reading and a fair amount of looking stuff up in dictionaries. I just thought Chaucer wasn't the right comparison because Chaucer was writing in Middle English, not Modern English. In terms of quotability and how foundational they are to the Persian language/literature, Rumi and Hafez are more accurately compared to Shakespeare.
posted by yasaman at 3:15 PM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]


I would suggest that the art of the translator is measured in the evaluation of the translated work by the reader.

... Then why bother doing the work of translating at all? By that benchmark I should judge the best translator to be the one who renders everything as an English version of Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.
posted by PMdixon at 3:47 PM on January 10, 2017 [6 favorites]


I recommend anything published by Shambala publications.

The first time I read Gustav Meyrink's The Golem, it was a translation published by Shambhala. I have often looked for a copy since.
posted by y2karl at 4:18 PM on January 10, 2017


Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad, widely considered to be one of the finest translations of the poem into English.

finally and all at once, I understand why some people deprecate the passive voice, and it only took me thirty some years to figure it out. I dare you to name three people who consider it in that wise. and yes, they do have to be alive.

Alexander Pope, if you're reading this, I did just say that. write a couplet about how it makes you feel, why don't you. write twenty
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:45 PM on January 10, 2017 [8 favorites]


I remember reading a long review article in a journal like the Times Literary Supplement a few years back on translations of Homer where the Pope was praised as getting at the feel of the Iliad better than anything subsequent. Sorry I can't give a more exact citation, but I'm fairly certain it was by a reputable scholar. So, that would make one living person of the opinion. But, why so hostile to Pope on this count? ( I admit that I incline more to Dryden for the couplets that are heroic...)
posted by bertran at 8:42 PM on January 10, 2017


Plus, Samuel Johnson is still alive in our hearts. That makes two.
posted by No-sword at 9:20 PM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]


We had a Rumi reading at our wedding. Im ahh, not going to show her this thread...
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:46 PM on January 10, 2017


Modern Persian has been modern Persian since around 800 CE. So there are some outdated/antiquated words and it's not exactly the colloquial Persian you hear every day, but it's not Chaucer either. Culture is the part that has changed, and that does require study and analysis.

Very interesting, thanks. I wonder what factors influence the pace of change in a language? It seems to vary widely from culture to culture. Middle English had barely begun 800 years ago.
posted by msalt at 12:40 AM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


likely due to my non-Iranian and Sunni upbringing, I've never really read Rumi, even though he's really pervasive in pop culture, it felt like. I was never too sure about the popular translations also, it always seems... denatured somehow. However, over the years I have been trying to learn more about the history of Muslim and Islamic civilisation philosophers, which actually increased my skepticism about the English quotes often bandied about. But, I really appreciated the article, which for me, presented a balanced, contextual but ultimately decided assessment of appropriation that's taken place. In any case, it got me aware of Mojadeddi's translations, so I've just ordered what's available on book depository, so I can't wait.
posted by cendawanita at 2:05 AM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


Samuel Johnson is still alive in our hearts.

all I want out of Sam Johnson is for him to make me a terrible argument about why Pope's Iliad is even ok so that I can strike a Blow of mighty Force to his Head while saying "I refute it THUS." boy I bet he's glad he's a Ghost so nobody can do that to him anymore.

at least alexander pope was cute. you see how I call him alexander and not alex, out of respect.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:00 AM on January 11, 2017 [7 favorites]


> But, why so hostile to Pope on this count?

I can't speak for queenofbithynia, but I don't think it's a matter of hostility to Pope so much as disbelief (which I share) that scholars today would call his version "one of the finest translations of the poem into English." It's good, being Pope, but there have been a lot of translations of Homer since then, and a lot of them are good, and I just don't see Pope's being considered "one of the finest translations of the poem" rather than a nice chunk of Popean verse.
posted by languagehat at 8:41 AM on January 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


I wonder what factors influence the pace of change in a language?

In the case of Persian, a huge factor is the Shahnameh.
posted by yasaman at 9:29 AM on January 11, 2017 [5 favorites]


I think this is a pretty good thread. Good work, (almost) everybody.
posted by brennen at 11:44 AM on January 11, 2017


more pope and johnson whacking pls
posted by PMdixon at 1:01 PM on January 11, 2017


There's been a couple of epochs worth of johnson whacking around here already, thank you....
posted by y2karl at 4:58 PM on January 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


Bump, set, spike
posted by msalt at 6:45 PM on January 11, 2017


mumimor: Not to derail, but that is a major issue with fundamentalist Christians - they take some parts of "the text" literally, but their text has nothing to do with any of the extant original texts, or early interpretations and there is no context to their translation. If one actually reads the Bible, one might even say that their understanding is a heresy: uplifting the book to a divine status it was never intended to have.

You can almost pinpoint when that started: Luther said that he struggled most with the question of whether he should respect the weight of centuries of tradition and interpretation that had been built around the text by the Church, or whether he should go with a plain reading of the text, stripped of context.

He went with stripped context, and, since then, approaching texts that way has been seen as a virtue in parts of the Protestant world rather than a mistake. So stripping a text from its context:

Aravis76: The idea that you can have access to Rumi without Islam, the Upanishads without Hinduism, and the Ramayana without taking an interest in any of its Indian authors is, I think, based on a racist tradition - it's part of a long history of European and American authors believing that they are discovering unexpected treasures among the barbarians, whose own understanding of what they are doing is not as interesting as what the Enlightened Western Mind has to say about it.

...is what a major portion of the Christian religion has done to its own sacred text, and doing it to others seems perfectly natural and fine.

It leads to the self-delusion that you can read a text without context, that you're receiving it "pure", that you don't fill it in with your own context. And so Barks believes that he understands the true essence of Rumi.
posted by clawsoon at 7:17 AM on January 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


So is that a me quoque, then?
posted by tobascodagama at 9:22 AM on January 12, 2017


...is what a major portion of the Christian religion has done to its own sacred text, and doing it to others seems perfectly natural and fine.

What do you mean? The early Christians, who appropriated the Jewish scriptures as the Old Testament, began as essentially a Jewish sect. They came from the same culture within which the text originated, and they diverged radically from it for reasons that had very little to do with gross imbalance of power at that time. (Christianity is already super-weird in its interpretations of those texts before Constantine and therefore before radically skewed power relations came into play in the relationship between Jews and Christians). It's not really true, therefore, that they thought they could have those books without Judaism; they started out as a Jewish heresy.

Alternatively, if you are talking about Protestant interpretations of the Bible - apart from the centuries of Catholic tradition and institutional structures - that, again, is about a theological struggle inside a single cluster of tightly-related cultures ('Christendom'). I'm afraid I don't see the analogy you are drawing between this and colonialism and the idea that you can understand a text from another culture without even learning the language in which it is written. As I have said, the distinction between translation and interpretation is quite an important one. If Barks knew as much Farsi as Luther knew NT Greek, this would be a different conversation.
posted by Aravis76 at 10:38 AM on January 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


If Barks knew as much Farsi as Luther knew NT Greek, this would be a different conversation.

And even knowing that poses a problem.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:12 AM on January 12, 2017


It does, of course, but it poses a textual problem and not a political one. In choosing between the Farsi text of Rumi and texts produced by nineteeth-century Europeans, Barks isn't acting on the basis of a good-faith doubt as to which is the original and which is the translation. Nor is he in a situation where the original has vanished, may never have existed, and he has to take what he can get.

There really is no parallel between European handling of sources they consider to be theirs - texts from the Greek and Roman tradition and the Bible - and their handling of sources they consider to be foreign. I think it muddies the waters to compare the inevitable problems that Pope has understanding Homer, or Luther has understanding St Paul, with the cheerful lack of an attempt to understand we find in Barks and in the tradition of handling 'foreign' texts that he emerges from.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:22 AM on January 12, 2017 [8 favorites]


Aravis76: They came from the same culture within which the text originated, and they diverged radically from it for reasons that had very little to do with gross imbalance of power at that time.

I agree that the gross imbalance of power adds a whole 'nother dimension to the ways in which texts are and were misunderstood. It's definitely the most important part of what's going on here.

But I do think there's something to the idea that the Protestant impulse to pretend that context doesn't matter is part, though a small part, of the story. My impression is that Catholic groups like the Jesuits were more willing to engage with more of the culture and context surrounding non-Christian religious texts than were Protestant missionaries. That impression is based on a very thin layer of fact, though, so I'd be glad to be corrected.

Even more tangentially, this got me thinking about attempts to revive texts when the context in which they were written has decayed over time, even if there's a strong tradition that attempted to keep it alive, and no question of power imbalance. I think of Ezra reading the law and reviving lost practises in the Second Temple period; I think of U.S. Supreme Court judges arguing over the words of the U.S. Constitution and the intent of the Founding Fathers. In both cases, the readers care deeply about the context of the text, but there are things lost to time that they can never recover that would change its reading.

This is a sideshow to the main issue, but it's one that I find interesting. Understanding context is hard even with a strong tradition that tries to keep it alive; when there's a massive power imbalance and an indifference to context, it's impossible.

Which is to say, I agree with pretty much everything you've written in this thread. ...so far as I've understood it within the context I can't help but bringing to the discussion, anyway. :-)
posted by clawsoon at 11:54 AM on January 12, 2017 [3 favorites]


Understanding context is hard even with a strong tradition that tries to keep it alive; when there's a massive power imbalance and an indifference to context, it's impossible.

Yes, absolutely. I spend most of my days wrestling with texts in English, from only a couple of hundred years ago, and I still find it hard to get a full grip on context. I'm not sure I want to blame the Protestants for carelessness about context - I keep coming across guys who want to treat the Ramayana as a science manual, for example, so I feel like the impulse to be lazy or silly about context may be universal. But of course Protestantism does lend itself to a model of interpretation that is highly suspicious of context.
posted by Aravis76 at 12:01 PM on January 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


Having thought more about this, I believe it is true that Jesuits and Catholics in general were more receptive to other cultures - in terms of learning languages and picking up traditions - than Protestant missionaries. (Although not Protestant cultures more broadly - Germany and England produces their fair share of passionate nineteenth-century experts on other cultures, though of course distorted through racialism and colonialism.) I think, vaguely, that this may be less to do with attitudes to the Bible and more to do with broader attitudes to human nature and total depravity? My sense is that Catholic belief in the natural law etc made Catholics expect to find truth, albeit distorted, in other traditions whereas a certain stripe of Protestant expected only devils, in the absence of Revelation. But that's a vague impression and I suspect it may be my bias in favour of Catholics, as a Catholic.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:12 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


I think it's very, very hard to generalise about Protestants, since there are so many different traditions under that banner. But, as an atheist who was raised Baptist and had some exposure (via private school) with Episcopal/Anglican traditions, I'd say it doesn't stand out as being obviously wrong to me.

My experience is that Baptists are extremely hard-line about finding nothing of value in other religious traditions, not even other Christian religious traditions, and also treated both Biblical authorship and Biblical translation (i.e., KJV) as an unquestionable and divinely-inspired act, whereas my Episcopal school had a Bible class that took explicitly historical/scholarly views on authorship and translation questions, as well as giving us a Comparative Religion course that treated non-Christian religions quite fairly.

That being said, I suspect the Catholic church in practice is also a lot more diverse than the popular picture of it in America, where the Italian and Irish branches of Catholicism dominate. (Well, in the English-speaking parts of America, that is.)

In conclusion, religion is a land of contrasts.
posted by tobascodagama at 3:12 PM on January 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


It seems to me like the Protestant-erasure-of-context frame isn't entirely wrong, but there is something about it that sits a little uneasy with my sense of the culture. "Let's talk about the nuance and context of the original language in Scripture" is such a common rhetorical mode that I'm pretty sure I could turn on the radio and find some actively happening right now. Like tobascodagama says, it's very hard to generalize about Protestants - there's as much difference between the members of that family of traditions as there is between them and Catholicism.
posted by brennen at 5:25 PM on January 12, 2017


Datum -- at my Catholic high school (in the 1970s) religion classes covering the Bible took great care and pride in providing context, and branded that in contrast to inerrancy Protestants.

One example I remember is the "eye of the needle" passage. My priest/teacher explained that this was the colloquial name of a small gate into the city, which made a lot more sense than the extreme hyperbole of a person passing through an actual sewing needle.

More generally, the Catholic religion has been more accepting of context and adapting to local cultures, often through adopting local gods and goddesses as saints or appearances of the Virgin Mary, e.g. Tonantzin => Our Lady of Guadelupe.
posted by msalt at 6:18 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


(Your general point is very well taken, but I have to pedantically point out that the "Eye of the Needle" thing -- which I heard as well in my Baptist church -- is pretty much bunkum. That link isn't the most authoritative of debunkings, but then the subject isn't one that very many serious archaeologists or theologians have spent time on. Nonetheless, sometimes a hyperbole is just a hyperbole.)
posted by tobascodagama at 6:30 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


I did some googling myself, and I don't think it's quite accurate to call it bunkum, but it's based on a single 9th century source and has no other confirmation. Which is a millenium closer to the original than we are, but I'm guessing it wasn't peer reviewed.
posted by msalt at 8:39 PM on January 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


As usual, I am extremely sorry I brought up the Bible.

Everyone can go back to talking about Rumi now, m'kay?
posted by Sys Rq at 12:55 AM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]


My priest/teacher explained that this was the colloquial name of a small gate into the city, which made a lot more sense than the extreme hyperbole of a person passing through an actual sewing needle.

Here's what I've always heard about this quote:

Cyril of Alexandria claimed that "camel" is a Greek misprint; that kamêlos (camel) was a misprint of kamilos, meaning "rope" or "cable".[2][3]
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:50 PM on January 13, 2017


I'm still on Team "Sunday school teachers should stop being boneheads and just admit that the hyperbole was the bloody point all along". :P
posted by tobascodagama at 9:35 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


tobascodagama: I'm still on Team "Sunday school teachers should stop being boneheads and just admit that the hyperbole was the bloody point all along". :P

Re-reading the New Testament without Sunday School glasses on, I was struck how often Jesus was making jokes. Jokes with a sharp bite, but jokes. He wasn't making a pious allegory about the eye of a needle, he was using a barbed point to rub how little God liked rich people into their faces.

Or... so I think, not truly knowing the context he was living in. :-)
posted by clawsoon at 7:59 AM on January 16, 2017 [2 favorites]


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