Farid Al-Din Attar is one of the most important writers in the Persian canon. Not only is he a major poet in his own right, but his work offers crucial insight into Sufi thought and experience, while prefiguring other important poets like Rumi, Saadi and Hafez. As well, once translations of classical Persian literature began to appear in English in the 18th and 19th centuries, Attar’s work — along with, among others, that of the three poets I just mentioned — played an important role both in helping the English-speaking world of the time understand Persian and Islamic culture and in bringing into English literature an influence felt by the likes of Matthew Arnold and Lord Byron, and that contemporary writers like Robert Bly continue to find important. It is both ironic and a shame, therefore, that only one of Attar’s major works, Manteq al-Tayr, exists in a contemporary translation for a general English-language readership, The Conference of the Birds, published in 1984 by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. Readable, enjoyable and poetically powerful, The Conference of the Birds is the kind of translation we deserve of a literature that has influenced ours in such significant ways. Unfortunately, whatever its merits on scholarly grounds, the same cannot be said — at least not with the same enthusiasm — for John Andrew Boyle’s out-of-print translation of Ilahi-Nama, The Ilahi-Nama or Book of God, published by the University of Manchester Press in 1976.
In an essay called “Representations of Attar in the West and in the East,” Christopher Shackle criticizes Margaret Smith’s 1932 translation of Manteq al-Tayr for being written “in a prose whose archaisms, including biblical ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, cover Attar’s studiously clear style with a patina of reverence….” (187). Boyle’s Ilahi-Nama suffers from the same weakness. Here, for example, is his rendering of the passage in “The Tale of Marjuma” where the woman berates her brother-in-law for trying to have his way with her:
She said to him: “Art thou not ashamed before God? Dost thou thus show respect to thy brother?
Is this thy religion and thy probity? Dost thou thus keep trust for thy brother?
Go, repent, return to God, and eschew this wicked thought.”
That man said to the woman: “It is no use; thou must satisfy me at once,
Otherwise I will cease to concern myself about thee, I will expose thee to shame, I will slight thee.
Straightaway now I shall cast thee to destruction, I shall cast thee into a fearful plight.” (32)
As well, Boyle too often relies on a literalness that ends up being unintentionally comic and/or almost impossible to comprehend. The first line of the final section of the “Exordium,” in which Attar praises and meditates upon the greatness of God — “Come, musk of the soul, open thy musk-bladder, for thou art the deputy of the Vicar of God” (27) — is an example of the former. In “The Tale of Marjuma,” to give an example of the latter, when the female protagonist is on a ship at sea, about to be raped by the entire crew, she prays to God to save her. This is Boyle’s rendering of that scene:
When the woman learned of these wicked men’s feelings, she saw the whole sea as a liver from her heart’s blood.
She opened her mouth [and said]: “O Knower of Secrets, preserve me from the evil of these wicked men.” (38)
The phrase “the whole sea as a liver from her heart’s blood” clearly relates to the idea in Persian culture that the liver, not the heart, is the seat of emotion, but what the phrase means, except in the vaguest of senses, is far from clear. By way of comparison, here is my version of those lines:
When she learned
what the men intended, she turned
and saw in the sea surrounding her,
filled with her heart’s blood, a liver
wide enough to hold all she felt.
Her mouth fell open. She knelt,
prayed: “Protect me, Knower of Secrets!
Save me from this wickedness.”
I make no claim that this is great poetry, or that there is no better solution to the “heart’s-blood-liver” metaphor; and I am very aware that whether or not my translation will endure is a question that only time and readers will answer, but the value of bringing Ilahi-Nama into 21st century American English poetry is not only, and not even primarily, that it might be successful in these terms. Rather, the value lies in the sustained engagement translation is — both in the writing and the reading — with another culture.
On the one hand, the value of such engagement is, or ought to be, self-evident, requiring no further justification. On the other hand, however, given the current national and international political moment, it is, or ought to be, impossible to talk about translating Persian literature without also talking about both the state of relations between Iran and the United States and the political unrest that has focused world attention on Iran since the contested presidential elections there in June 2009. Each of those dynamics demands that the people of the United States learn as much about the Iranian people, their culture and their history, as we possibly can, especially since our collective ignorance about Iran has been profound since diplomatic relations between our two countries ended after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 – 80. Boyle’s translation of Ilahi-Nama is not a text to which people are likely to go for that kind of learning, most immediately because it is out of print, but also because its archaic diction and biblical style is more likely than not to alienate them.
I am neither naïve nor arrogant enough to assume that my translation of Ilahi-Nama will by itself effect any change, large or small, in US-Iran relations or that it will alter even one reader’s notions about Iran and/or Islam. I do know, however, that each translated book made available to a reading public increases the likelihood of such change taking place. At the very least because it offers a radically different view of Islam from the version practiced and promulgated by the current Iranian government and can therefore help to combat the anti-Muslim stereotypes currently in fashion, but even more significantly because it is a great work of literature written by one of the world’s greatest poets, whom we in the United States deserve to know better than we do, a new literary translation of Ilahi-Nama should be among the books making such change possible.
ʻAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn. The Ilāhī-Nāma Or Book of God of Farīd Al-Dīn ʻAṭṭār. Trans. John Andrew Boyle. Persian Heritage Series, Vol. 29 Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976.
Shackle, Christopher. “Representations of Attar in the West and in the East: Translations of the Mantiq Al-Tayr and the Tale of Shaykh Ṣanʻān.” Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition: The Art of Spiritual Flight. Eds. Leonard Lewisohn, and Christopher Shackle. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006. 165 – 93.