I am on sabbatical this semester to work on a translation of Ilahi Nama, The Book of God, by Farid al-Din Attar. I’ve been working on this book in bits and pieces for the past couple of years, producing first drafts of individual poems, gathering research material, occasionally blogging about both the poet and his book, but I am excited, finally, to be able to devote myself if not exclusively, then certainly substantially to this project. Among the classical Iranian poets I have translated — which is actually not saying much, since Attar is only the fourth — and even among those about whom I have learned in the course of my research, Attar is the one poet whose work is pretty much exclusively devoted to delineating, exploring, meditating on and teaching about the Sufi mystical path. I am not a mystical/spiritual seeker in any formal sense of that term, and there is much within Sufi Islam as I have come to understand it — and I have no doubt my understanding is a very shallow one — that I would not choose to embrace; but there is also, I think, a great deal to learn from the particular shape that the Sufis give to the metaphor, common among mystics in many spiritual traditions, of the road or path to enlightenment and union with the god they worship.
One of the things I did in preparation for my sabbatical was read The Conference of the Birds, a translation by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis of Attar’s Manteq al-tayir, the story of a group of birds who search for the legendary Simorgh, the king of the birds. The hoopoe, the birds’ guide, describes the Simorgh like this:
We have a king; beyond Kaf’s mountain peak
The Simorgh lives, the sovereign whom you seek,
And he is always near to us, though we
Live far from his transcendent majesty.
A hundred thousand veils of dark and light
Withdraw His presence from our mortal sight,
And in both worlds no being shares the throne
That marks the Simorgh’s power and His alone—
He reigns in undisturbed omnipotence,
Bathed in the light of His magnificence—
No mind, no intellect can penetrate
The mystery of His unending state…. (33−34)
At the end of the quest, when they find the Simorgh, only thirty birds remain. Indeed, the entire meaning of the poem rests on a pun in Persian that is not translatable into English. Simorgh means “thirty (si) birds (morgh),” the point being – and this is what the birds discover when they find the Simorgh – that the successful search for God leads you to the discovery that God is already in you, that you are already and always part of God, that, ultimately, there is no difference, no separation between yourself and God if only you are able to let go of this world and of yourself, surrendering to that final, ultimate and absolute oneness.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Conference of the Birds, for me anyway, is what Attar has to say about love, and I will write about that in subsequent posts. For now, I want to take a step back for a minute and consider something Dick Davis says in the introduction he wrote for the volume:
Persian metaphors are rarely the visual images that English readers expect to find in poetry. Instead they juxtapose words which have potent associations in a way that deepens and widens the meanings implied by the passage. If the reader attempts to visualize the juxtaposition the result is often ludicrous. Henry Vaughan’s poem “My soul, there is a country” has a line, “Sweet Peace sits crowned with smiles”, which seems to me untypical of English metaphor (it is absurd to try and see a personified Peace with a crown literally made of smiles — what could such a crown look like?), but it would not startle a Persian poet. The metaphor works, if it works, by juxtaposing the associations of “Peace,” “crowned” and “smiles” to convey a notion of benign authority. This is exactly how most Persian metaphors convey meaning. Thus, when Attar compares the Prophet’s face to the moon in one line and the sun in the next, he does not want his readers to visualize the result; rather he expects them to combine the notion of beauty associated with the moon and the notion of solitary splendour associated with the sun. (22)
While I am not persuaded that metaphors in English poetry are so exclusively visual, though I’m not right now going to hunt up examples to support that doubt, Davis’ assertion that the “metaphor mechanism” – if I can coin a really awkward term – is qualitatively different in Persian than it is in English fascinates me. I’ve written elsewhere about the book Metaphors We Live By,by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and the idea that human beings use metaphor to structure how we perceive and experience the world, but I am not so much interested here in trying to understand the difference between the Persian world view and ours as I am in the fact that Davis’ assertion reminded me of something I had forgotten: that a graduate student in translation at Islamic Azad University in Tehran, Javad Rezaei, used my translation of Saadi’s Gulistan in his MA thesis, “An Investigation on Translation Strategies of Metaphors and Similes in Gulistan into English.”
Quoting an Iranian scholar named R. Hadi, Rezaei distinguishes between two types of metaphors in Persian, “explicit” and “allusive.” In explicit metaphor, Rezaei writes, “the writer omits all parts of the [comparison] except the image,” and he adduces as an example this sentence from Francis Gladwin’s Gulistan translation:
You would have said that the earth was bedecked with glass spangles, and that the knot of the Pleiades was suspended from the branch of the vine.
In each of the two metaphors in this sentence — one comparing flowers to “glass spangles” and the other comparing a bunch of grapes to the “knot of the Pleiades” — the tenor of the metaphor, that to which characteristics are being attributed, is omitted (flowers and grapes). For the writer, Rezaei suggests, this kind of metaphor “emphasize[s] the immeasurable amount of similarity between the object [tenor] and the image [vehicle].” Allusive metaphor, on the other hand, for which Rezaei does not propose a writerly strategy, functions a little bit like what we would call synecdoche, a figure of speech which uses a part of something to signify the whole, or vice versa. The example Rezaei uses, “The doors of heaven were shut against the earth” is an allusive metaphor in Persian, according to him, because “door” is used to signify the idea that heaven is like a house, but the idea of house is never mentioned.
Since I work as a translator from English to English, making literary translations from trots that have been provided to me, the distinctions Rezaei makes do not figure at all into what I do. Whoever produced the trot I am using has already made whatever decisions need to be made in figuring out how to bring the metaphors in any given passage from Persian into English. My task is to figure out how to make them work as contemporary American poetry. Sometimes, because the translations I work from are too literal, too scholarly, and/or too old – or are made to sound old because the translator wants to conjure in English the feel of, say, the 12th century – this becomes a real challenge. Here, for example, is a passage from the very first tale in Ilahi Nama, translated by Professor John Andrew Boyle in The Ilahi-Nama or Book of God, published by the University of Manchester Press in 1976:
When the woman learned 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 scene is one in which the woman — and it’s not important for this discussion to know who she is or why she is in such danger — understands that a group of men intends to gang rape her. Her perception of the sea as a liver that has somehow come from her heart’s blood — or, perhaps, she perceives the sea as a liver because of her heart’s blood — is supposed to capture her despair, the liver being understood in Attar’s time as the seat of emotion, the way we understand the heart to be. Nonetheless, she saw the whole sea as a liver from her heart’s blood works neither as metaphor nor as poetry in English. Here is my solution:
When she learned
what the men intended, she turned
and saw the sea surrounding her
filled with her heart’s blood, like a liver
wide enough to hold all she felt.
Her mouth fell open. She knelt
and prayed, “Protect me, Knower of Secrets!
Save me from this wickedness.”
In the story, God answers the woman’s prayer, causing a firestorm to rise from the sea, burning her would-be rapists to ashes but leaving her, the boat they are on, and all the goods the boat is carrying intact.
I’m not completely satisfied with my version because I think the simile—like a liver—loses some of the immediacy of Boyle’s translation, but the jump from heart to liver is so jarring, at least to my American English ear, that the mediating like and the explanatory wide enough to hold all she felt are both necessary. I know there is a school of thought that would argue for keeping some version of the oddness in Boyle’s language because of the value in “Persianizing” English, stretching the boundaries of what is possible in the “target” language by bringing into it from the “source” words, ideas, metaphors, images that would not otherwise be possible, but I just don’t feel the payoff is worth it here.
One of the things that gets brought into English through translations of Sufi poetry is the focus in Sufism on love as that which defines the relationship between the true mystic and her or his god. If you are at all familiar with the poet Rumi, you probably have some idea of what I’m talking about. In the versions of Coleman Barks, Rumi is — or at least he was at one time (I have not checked recently) — the most popular poet in the United States, largely on the strength of the passionate and compassionate love expressed in his poems. Here’s an example, though the translation is not by Barks; it’s by Professor John Moyne and myself and appears in Professor Moyne’s book, A Bird in the Garden of Angels: On the Life and Times and An Anthology of Rumi:
What is Love
To be one with you is the Water of Life;
you know the path of our salvation.
Don’t leave my sight; you are the light I see by.
Don’t leave my heart; you are the source of its every beat.
Empty my eyes of your radiant presence
and my soul will cry out without shame,
“Who am I to be seeking union?!”
even as the spark of your grace compels me to seek it.
Don’t go to a flophouse, my heart,
even if yours is the most careless life in the world.
There are gamblers there,
and if you lose, I fear you’ll stay!
But if you choose to go, disguise yourself;
let a mask make you a stranger.
If Love’s arrow is what you crave,
don’t use armor to mask your heart
Someone asked me, “What does it mean to be a lover?”
I said, “Don’t worry about meaning.
Become like me, and you will know;
become like me, and when it calls you, you’ll respond”.
Be a man! Proclaim your love like a lion!
Why do you let your heart beat like a woman’s?
Longing for my rose-cheeked love turns my face the color of saffron;
filled with the sent of autumn, my breath longs for the fragrance of your spring:
You who saved the gardens from the suffering of the fall;
who gave the gift of speech to those with torn ears;
You who placed the secrets of infinity on the tongues of the prophets,
who bestowed eternal life in death upon the souls of the saints;
You who committed the care of the mind to the imperfect intellect,
who each night removes five lights from creation;
You who filled the eyes of women with sorcery, seduction and intoxication,
Who endowed a drop of blood with wisdom, intellect and realization;
You who empowered love with manliness, masculinity and the force of a champion–
This is how Sanai said it: “If you seek eternity, lose your life!”
Oh Shams of Tabriz, you are absolute light; you are the light of heaven.
Shams of Tabriz was a mystic who became Rumi’s master and for whom Rumi felt such an intense love that Rumi named a volume of his own poetry after him. There are at least two versions of the story of how Shams and Rumi met. In one, Shams passed by Rumi while the latter was reading a large stack of books. “What are you doing?” Shams asked. “Something you cannot understand,” Rumi replied condescendingly. In response, Shams threw the books into a nearby pool of water. Rumi rushed to rescue them but, to his surprise, found them all to be dry when he retrieved them from the water. When Rumi asked Shams, “What is this?” Shams said, “Something you do not understand.” In another version, the beginning is more or less the same, but when Rumi says, “Something you do not understand,” his books catch fire. Rumi asks Shams to explain, and Shams gives the same answer, “Something you do not understand.” The point is that true enlightenment is not to be found in books, but in direct experience, particularly of divine love and the path one must travel in order to feel that love. Much, if not all of Rumi’s poetry — though this is also an extreme simplification — is about trying, and failing, to find the words that will embody that experience.
You’ll notice several things about the poem Professor Moyne and I have called “What Is Love?” (Rumi did not title his poems.) First is that Rumi uses human sexual desire and love as a metaphor for love of and union with his god; second, in this poem at least, because it is addressed to Shams, this love is given homoerotic expression; third, spiritual love itself is gendered—you who empowered love with manliness, masculinity and the force of a champion–and fourth, that womanliness and femininity clearly indicate a more feeble, inferior level of spiritual development. This gendering of spiritual love and desire through the use of sexual love and desire as a metaphor is part of what I want to write about in the posts I have in mind on Attar — who, by the way, is said to have met Rumi and recognized in him the great poet he would one day become1—but what I want to point out here is just how fully the erotic/sexual metaphor is elaborated in the text.
Here, as another example, is one of Rumi’s quatrains, also co-translated by myself and Professor Moyne:
Drunk, my Love burst in and drank
a cup of ruby wine with me.
I gazed at her and touched her hair.
My face became eyes; my eyes, hands.
Leaving aside the capitalized L in love, which is a convention of English, not the Persian in which Rumi wrote, is his a carnal or a spiritual love poem? Or is it both at the same time? Indeed, there are some stories in which Sufi masters tell those who wish to become Sufis — and the characters in these tales are always men — that they should try loving a woman before they try to embark on a path of spiritual seeking. In these stories, sexual love and desire is understood to be not just a metaphor, but quite explicitly a kind of preparation, for the second; and yet, at the same time, in this way of thinking, sexual love is actually derived from – is a watered-down version of – the original love and union we all ostensibly had with the god who created us.
One last thing, about the fact that the first poem I cited was homoerotic, while the second was heteronormative: Persian does not have gendered pronouns. Indeed, my wife, even though she’s been in the United States for nearly 25 years and speaks English most of the time, still confuses he, she, him, or her, when she refers to people, calling our son “she” or, for example, one of her female colleagues “him.”2 This means that, unless there is some other form of evidence that identifies the gender of a Persian love poem’s addressee — as in the first poem, where Shams, who was a man, is explicitly named — it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to know whether the poem is addressed to a man or woman. This is true not only of Rumi’s work, but of other Sufi poets as well, and it can present a real problem for a translator, not just in understanding the poem itself, but in whether or not her or his own culture would accept a spiritual love poem using homoerotic sexual desire as a metaphor for love of God. Indeed, some English-language translators of Saadi’s Gulisan, prior to the 19th century, simply “heterosexualized” all passages that even reeked of homoeroticism.
I will write more about this in my posts on Attar as well.
- The story is that Rumi and his family stayed with Attar when Rumi was a child and Attar was already an old man. One day, Attar saw Rumi follow his father, Bahauddin, out the door and Attar said, “Look! There goes a sea chased by an ocean.” [↩]
- Igbo, spoken in Nigeria, is another language with this characteristic. [↩]