Ilija Jovanović: Poor Black Skin (From Gurbet Romani)

Poor Black1 Skin
By Ilija Jovanović
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Poor black skin
it sticks in the white of the eye
like a needle
like a nail
like a knife

A little black man
didn't want to be alone anymore.
His back loaded with books,
he went to live among white people.
He wanted to study with them,
to live with them.

They asked each other
with hardened looks:
what's that black doing here?

Poor black skin
it sticks in the white of the eye
like a knife
like a needle
like a nail.


1 - The word for black, kalo, is used as an endonym by some Roma groups such as those of Finland and Spain. 

The Original:

Čoři Kali Morči

Čoři kali morči
pusaves e parnen ande jak
sar jek čhuri
sar jek dopo
sar jek suv.

Jek cikno kalo
či kamla maj but
korkořo te trajil.

Lija pese lila
talaj khank
gelo maškar e parne manušo
lensar te trajil
lensar te sičol.

Von phučle pes
e zoraja
so čerel kadava kalo

Čoři kali morči
phusaves e parnen ande jak
sar jek suv
sar jek čhuri
sar jek dopo.

Jean-Yves Masson: The Gift of Languages (From French)

The Gift of Languages
By Jean-Yves Masson
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Walk toward the light, the light that will not betray you,
O my friend, in tingles and in tears,
across blind landscapes, amid sighing bodies,
in the dark of flesh, in the vagaries of pleasure.

By evening on a dreamer sea, the sails waken
and tremble by the thousand like words, like flames:
Ah, word sails where a promised sun takes shelter!

Walk forth toward the light, the light that will not betray you.

Among the songs, the dances, get drunk on tongues unknown,
ask the dead tongues, the extinguished syllables
for the key to their slumber.

The Original:

Le Don des Langues

Marche vers la lumière, celle qui ne te trahira pas,
ô mon ami, dans les frissons et dans les larmes,
à travers les paysages aveugles, au milieu des corps qui soupirent
dans les ténèbres de la chair, dans les méandres du plaisir.

Le soir, sur une mer songeuse, les voiles se réveillent
et tremblent par milliers comme des mots, des flammes:
ah! voiles de paroles où s'abrite un soleil promis!

Marche vers la lumière, celle qui ne te trahira pas.

Parmi les chants, les danses, enivre-toi des langues inconnues,
demande aux langues mortes, aux syllabes éteintes,
la clé de leur sommeil.

Rasim Sejdić: Their Boots Crushed the Gypsy Violin (From Romani)

Jasenovac, mentioned twice in this poem, was an extermination camp. Run by the Croatian Ustaše with the material support of the Third Reich, and later dubbed "the Auschwitz of the Balkans" it was one of the largest and most sadistically administrated of all death camps. Inmates consisted of ethnic Serbs, Roma, Jews, Bosnian and Croat Muslims and anti-fascist dissidents. Approximately 45–52,000 Serbs, 15-20,000 Roma, 12-25,000 Jews, and 5-12,000 Muslims were murdered in Jasenovac.
Roma taken to the camp did not undergo selection, but were kept in open air in subsection III-C, before being brought to the killing-grounds of Gradina and Ustice for liquidation interspersed with forced labor. There the Ustaše did not use anything so mercifully quick as bullets, or gas chambers. They enjoyed killing too much for that, and savored the sport, excitement and variety of using knives, mallets, pick-axes, saws and other implements to dismember, bludgeon, exsanguinate, and behead their victims. There were even regular contests to see who could kill the most prisoners in a given span of time or with a particular weapon. In 1942, for example, Lt. Petar Brzica won a gold watch for successfully killing 1360 prisoners in just a few hours using only a small curve-bladed knife.
It may seem I am dwelling overmuch on the minutia of the horror and perversion of humanity that was Jasenovac. But there is a reason. I want any and every reader who has never before heard the name "Jasenovac" to have it seared into their brain when they come away from this page.

There are two different Romani texts of this poem in print, and I give both for the sake of completeness. The first given here is in the poet's own dialect, with its heavy adstratum of Slavic loans, and uses the orthography one would expect. The other is in the metaphonological supradialectal orthography promoted by the International Romani Union (the so-called "Warsaw Alphabet" developed by Cotiarde in the 80s) and has much of the Slavic loan vocabulary and and morphology replaced by Indic-derived equivalents, along with other differences that give the impression of being puristically motivated, and which change the sense a bit, generally for the worse.  
I gave priority to the more dialectal and less sanitized version, which I not only thought was a better poem all round but also seemed to me much more in keeping with Sejdić's attitude toward orality in poetic language. 

Their Boots Crushed The Gypsy Violin
By Rasim Sejdić
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Their boots crushed the Gypsy violin
all that remains is Gypsies' ash
the fire the smoke 
rise heavenward.

They carted away the Roma
children they ripped from mothers
wives from husbands
they carted away the Roma.

Jasenovac — packed with Roma
tied to cement pillars they can't budge
their hands and feet in heavy shackles
down to their knees in mud and sludge.

There in Jasenovac remain
their bones as witness
to indict the works of inhumanity

Dawn breaks anew, the sun 
warming the Roma as it has always done. 

The Original:

Gazisarde Romengi Violina
Rasim Sejdić

Gazisarde romengi violina
ačile ognjište romane
e jag o dimo
ando oblako vazdinjalo.

Idžarde e Romen
čavoren restavisarde pe datar
e romnjen pe romendar
idžarde e Romen.

Jasenovco perdo Roma
pangle pala betonse stubujra
pale lantsujra pe prne pe va
ando balto dzi ke cang.

Ačile ando Jasenovco
lenge kokala
te pricin, o nemanušengim djelima
zora vedro osvanisarda
i Romen o kam pre tatarda.

The Other Original:

Uśtavde e Rromenqi Violina
Rasim Sejdić

Uśtavde e Rromenqi violina
aćhile e jaga rromane
i jag o thuv
and-o devel vazdinǒn.

Igǎrde e Rromen
ćhavorren ulavde pe daθar
e rromněn pe rromnenθar
igǎrde e Rromen.

Jasenovco pherdo Rroma
pandle pala betonosqe stùburǎ
verkliněnçar pe prne pe va'
and-e ćika ʒi k-e ćang

Aćhile and- Jasenovco
lenqe kokala
te mothon bimanuśikanimata
javin vèdro disàjli
ta e Rromen o kham tatǎrda

Du Fu: Lament For a Prince Errant (From Chinese)

This poem was written in 756 or shortly thereafter during the An Lushan rebellion. Du Fu was trapped in Chang'an after it had fallen to the rebels. An Lushan had ordered that all Tang royalty be executed. His killing-squads were sweeping the city, hunting down members of the House of Tang, and executing them on sight.

The "stanzaic" divisions in this poem correspond to a formal division in the original. The Chinese is rhymed AAbAcAdA...etc as one might expect. However, each section separated by an empty line in my translation begins with another AA internally rhymed couplet in the original. These seem to correspond to thematic or dramatized shifts in the original and I felt it important to mark them as such.

The term used for "prince" here 王孫 (recurring four times throughout the poem) calls to mind the theme, quite old in Chinese poetry, of the "wandering prince." The "wandering prince" is often a man roaming somewhere in the wilderness, being urged by the poem's speaker to return home where he belongs while his wife is yet young. There may also be an echo of a specific wandering prince, Han Xin, who though a grandson of the king of Han, was nonetheless a commoner early in life, and was - so the story goes - saved from starvation by an old woman who saw him fishing by the Huai River and fed him for months out of pity. In Du Fu's poem, both of these tropes are inverted. Here the prince is forced into vagabondage, and dare not return home if he wishes to survive, and is moreover denied the succor that the old woman is reported to have extended to Han Xin.  

Lament For a Prince Errant
By Du Fu
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Black in the air the whitehood crows1 from Chang'an's walls took flight
  And loud above the Yanqiu Gate called — cawed into the night
Then wheeled toward homes of men to peck on mansion roofs in hordes
  Warning high ministers below to flee the rebel2 swords
The gold whips snapped — horse upon horse galloped till it fell dead
  Not all the Emperor's flesh and blood could join him as he fled

Blue coral and a precious crest of jade about his waist
  Off by the road I spot a prince  pathetic, teary-faced 
I ask his name — he will not say  He dare not be so brave
  But begs me in his misery  to take him as a slave 
He has escaped the killing-squads hiding in bush and thorn
  For a hundred days leaving his flesh no shred of skin untorn 
But the bridged nose of Gaozu's line3 bespeaks the royal clan  
  The Dragon's seed is not the seed of ordinary man — 
"Wild dogs now stalk the city streets the Dragon roams the wild
  Preserve Your precious self Your Highness now that the court's exiled 

I dare not speak with You too long here in plain roadside view
  But for Your royal sake will pause and spare a word or two 
A spring wind from the east last night  blew blood's stench through the air   
  And camels from the east filed in to load loot everywhere
The Northland troops of Geshu Han good men well-honed in war
  So brave and sharp they were back then — such idiots they now are4
The Son of Heaven has abdicated or so the rumors run
  And in the north His Royal Virtue has tamed the southern Khan5
They've gashed their faces — vowed to blot all this dishonor out 
  But careful whom you tell this to with all these spies about6 

Alas indeed poor prince — take care  pray the auspicious power
  Of the Imperial Tombs7 remain your guardian every hour"


1- White-headed crows were an ominous sign. The direct inspiration here is that of Hou Jing, who usurped the power of the Liang emperors for a brief while. White-headed crows were said to have appeared over the southern gate of the Palace City at the time of takeover.

2- "Rebel" here translates 胡, a word often rendered as "barbarian" or "Tartar" but which in fact could serve during the Tang as a generic term for any ethnic group other than Han Chinese. An Lushan was of mixed Turkic and Sogdian descent. 

3- The high-bridged nose was characteristic of the Han imperial house, specifically that of its founder Gaozu. c.f. 

4- Geshu Han's troops from Shuofang and elsewhere in the northern frontier commands, though they had done well against Tibet, were badly defeated at the Tong pass against An Lushan due to Geshu Han being forced through intrigue into some tactically unsound maneuvers.

5- Emperor Xuanzong had abdicated in favor of Suzong who had made an alliance with the Uighur Khan.

6- The reference to "gashing faces" is a call-back to the gestural vow of vengeance made by the Xiongnu.

7- The five imperial Tombs of the Tang, whose continued potency would augur the restoration of Tang rule.

The Original:
(Medieval Chinese transcribed using a slight modification of David Branner's system)

哀王孫       ei1a ghwang3 swen1 

杜甫        duó1a puó3c  

長安城頭頭白烏,  drang3 an1 dzyeing3b dou1 dou1 beik2a uo1
夜飛延秋門上呼。  3 pi3a yan3b tshou3b men1 dzyàng3 huo1
又向人家啄大屋,  ghòu3b syàng3 nyen3b ka2 trok2 dè1 uk1b
屋底達官走避胡。  uk1b téi4 dat1 kwan1 tsóu1 bì3by ghuo1
金鞭斷折九馬死,  kem3x pan3by twàn1 tsyat3b kóu3b má2 sí3c
骨肉不得同馳驅。  kwet1 nyuk3b póu3b tek1 dung1b dri3b khuo3c
腰下寶玦青珊瑚,  au3y ghà2 páu1 kwat4 tsheing4 san1 ghuo1
可憐王孫泣路隅。  khé1 lan4 ghwang3 swen1 khep3x luò1 nguo3c
問之不肯道姓名,  mèn3a tsyi3d póu3b khéng1 dáu1 sèing3b meing3b
但道困苦乞為奴。  dàn1 dáu1 khwèn1 khuó1 khet3a ghwi3bx nuo1
已經百日竄荊棘,  3d keing4 peik2a nyet3b tshwàn1 keing3a kek3
身上無有完肌膚。  syen3b dzyàng3 muo3c ghóu3b ghwan1 ki3cx puo3c
高帝子孫盡隆準,  kau1 tèi4 tsí3d swen1 dzèn3b lung3b tsywén3b
龍種自與常人殊。  lung3c tsyúng3c dzì3c yuó3b dzyang3 nyen3b dzyuo3c
豺狼在邑龍在野,  dzrei2b lang1 dzèi1a ep3x lung3c dzèi1a yá3
王孫善保千金軀。  ghwang3 swen1 dzyán3b páu1 tshan4 kem3x khuo3c
不敢長語臨交衢,  póu3b kám1b drang3 nguó3b lem3 kau2 guo3c
且為王孫立斯須。  tshá3 ghwì3bx ghwang3 swen1 lep3 si3b suo3c
昨夜東風吹血腥,  dzak1 yà3 tung1b pung3b tshywi3b hwat4 seing4
東來橐駝滿舊都。  tung1b lei1a thak1 de1 mán1 gòu3b tuo1
朔方健兒好身手,  srok2 pang3 gàn3a nyi3b háu1 syen3b syòu3b
昔何勇銳今何愚。  seik3b ghe1 yúng3c dwèi1b kem3x ghe1 nguo3c
竊聞天子已傳位,  tshat4 men3a than4 tsí3d yí3d drwan3b ghwì3cx
聖德北服南單于。  syèing3b tek1 pek1 buk3b nam1a dzyan3b ghuo3c
花門剺面請雪恥,  hwa2 men1 li3d màn3by tshéing3b swat3b thrí3d
慎勿出口他人狙。  dzyèn3b met3a tshywet3b khóu1 the1 nyen3b tshuo3b
哀哉王孫慎勿疏,  ei1a tsei1a ghwang3 swen1 dzyèn3b met3a sruo3b
五陵佳氣無時無。  nguó1 leng3 kei2a khì3a muo3c dzyi3d muo3c

Ilija Jovanović: The Lost (From Gurbet Romani)

      Ilija Jovanović was born in 1950 in Rumska, Serbia, the only child of a penurious Romani family. He worked as a farmhand until 1971 when he moved to Vienna and worked first in a metal factory, then as a pharmacist's assistant. He served as cultural advisor and secretary general of the Romano Centro and in 1999 won Austria's prestigious Theodor-Körner prize for cultural contribution. He died in 2010 after a protracted illness. The Romani text reproduced here, in Gurbeti dialect, is taken from his collection Budžo (Landeck, 2000.)
      The crucial Romani word in this poem, them, is one that I find quite impossible to translate with a single English word. It occurs four times in the poem, and in many dialects seems to have a semantic range covering everything from "place, land" to "city, country, realm" to "nation" to "world" depending on context. (Interestingly, and possibly not coincidentally, this semantic range overlaps a great deal with that of Medieval Greek κόσμος.) Different readers it seems would have different understandings of the poem depending on the nuances of them in their dialect. The ROMLEX lexical database gives the following glosses for them in Gurbeti: 1) place 2) city 3) country 4) nation 5) world 6) stranger 7) one whom one meets.
      The word's repeated use in this poem seems to call forth different shades of meaning at different points. The opening lines use it in a way that seems to me to imply "people, community" with perhaps an overtone of "world." But with the final instance in pe sa o them, I take the more sensical reading to be "world, lands of the world." The poem's title, xasardo them is literally "lost world/people/country/nation/land." The polysemy seems to highlight the extraterritoriality of the Rom as a people, as strangers to the nations of the gadje who hate them, as having lost the world they once knew, and having no country really. The Romani text in a way is about the various shades of the word them, like a bit of eloquently executed wordplay.
      Naturally this could not be duplicated in an English poem exactly. At liberty from the literal, I've tried to do some other things with the translation that at least push in a similar direction.
      Thanks, once again, are in order for Qristina Zavačková Cummings who tolerated my awful Romani puns, and whose illuminating comments stimulated some new translation ideas, and made me realize how dialectally slippery the word them is.

The Lost
By Ilija Jovanović
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

The tongue that sang our words is lost —
We are a silenced people. 
The world we lived has been killed off —
We are dying people.

When we stay in one pleasant place,
They drive us out.
Our threads are cut to shreds. 
Borders block our every rout.
We do not know anymore where we can go.

To the gadje1 we aren't really people
Of the right kind
Because we are different. 
They hound us over all the world.
We go and we go.
How long? How far? We do not know.


1 - a term for non-Roma, people alien to Romani ways.  

The Original:

Xasardo Them

Xasardi si amarai đilanbadi čhib.
Amen sam bi svatoso them.
Amaro trajo si mudardo.
Amen sam bi trajoso them.

Te ačhilam pe jek kamlo than
traden amen lestar.
E dora si maškar amende čhinđarde,
e granice phanden jek avreste amaro drom.
Amen ni džanas kaj maj dur te džas.

E gadžénđe naj sam manuša sar von,
kaj aver čhande sam.
Traden amen pe sa o them.
Amen džas thaj džas
ni džanas kaj thaj dži kaj.

Du Fu: Facing the Snow (From Chinese)

This poem was written under siege. It is late in 756. The Tang government had failed in an attempt to recapture Chang'an from the An Lushan rebels. Du Fu, whom the rebels are holding prisoner there, is now faced with the possibility that he might never get out. 

Facing the Snow
By Du Fu
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Above the battlefield many a fresh ghost wails
 Sunk in his sorrow one lone old man chants
Toward the twilight clouds in upheaval founder
 In blowback winds driven snowblasts dance
The ladle lies useless green of rice-wine is drained
 The coal stove remains I imagine red fire there
No news gets through from anywhere this winter
 In sorrow I sit scrawling words in thin air

The Original:



Muhammad Iqbal: Shakespeare (From Urdu)

By Muhammad Iqbal
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

The river's sweep is mirror to the morning's breaking light
The evening silence: mirror to the song of eventide
The rose's petal: mirror to the beauteous cheek of spring
The handsome server: mirror to the gorgeousness of wine.
Beauty is mirror to the truth and the heart mirrors beauty.
Your turned words' beauty mirrors all the heart of humankind.
Existence finds perfection in your star-bestriding thought.
Is your creation's splendor why the universe was wrought?

The eye that wanted to behold you, when it looked to you,
Saw but the sun by its own brilliance hidden everywhere.
You kept yourself well hidden to the eyes of all the world
But with your own two eyes you saw the world laid clear and bare.
The watchful hand of Nature guards its secrets jealously.
Never again will it make one so versed in mystery.

The Original:

محمد اقبال 

شفق صبح کو دريا کا خرام آئينہ 
نغمہ شام کو خاموشي شام آئينہ 
برگ گل آئنہ عارض زيبائے بہار 
شاہد مے کے ليے حجلہ جام آئينہ 
حسن آئنہ حق اور دل آئنہ حسن 
دل انساں کو ترا حسن کلام آئينہ 
ہے ترے فکر فلک رس سے کمال ہستي 
کيا تري فطرت روشن تھي مآل ہستي 

تجھ کو جب ديدئہ ديدار طلب نے ڈھونڈا 
تاب خورشيد ميں خورشيد کو پنہاں ديکھا 
چشم عالم سے تو ہستي رہي مستور تري 
اور عالم کو تري آنکھ نے عرياں ديکھا 
حفظ اسرار کا فطرت کو ہے سودا ايسا 
رازداں پھر نہ کرے گي کوئي پيدا ايسا 

Alexander Germano: Bitter age (From Romani)

The Romani text is given here as dialectally adapted to Kalderash by Donald Kenrick. I sadly do not have access to the unadapted form.

Bitter Age
Alexander Germano
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Bitter old age
Black night.
Wind blows
Snows fall on the road.
In the wagon
A nomad Rom of the Russian steppe is bitten cold.
The Roma now live in warm homes.
The bitter Rom still roams,
Walks all the roads.

The Original:

Nárto phuranipe
Rjat kali.
E balval phúrdel
Peréla iv po drom.
Ándo vordon
Mořozil-pe jekh feldítko Řom.
Akana le Řom bešen ánde tate khera
O nárto Řom inkja trádel
Phirel sa le dróma.

Margita Reiznerová: Alight by a Fire (From East Slovak Romani)

The Romani text here given is as it occurs in the author's book Suno "Dream" (Prague, 2000.)

Alight by a Fire
By Margita Reiznerová
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
(Thanks to Qristina Zavačková Cummings for help understanding the nuances of the original)

In a little hut
Find a place to sleep,
Clasp your baby boy to your breast.
Hungry eyes
Are covered by the night.

The Original:

Thanoro Jaguno

Andro cikno kheroro
ko soviben o than keres,
čhavores ke tiro koľin ispides,
jakha bokhale
e rat zaučharel.

Zhang Yanghao: Meditating on the Past at Tong Pass (From Chinese)

Meditation on the Past at Tong Pass
By Zhang Yanghao
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Peaks and ridges mass together
River breakers blast in wrath  
In and out through river and hill  
Goes the road through old Tong Pass 
I gaze at the western capital 
 All my thought distraught  
This is the place that breaks the heart  
 Where Han and Qin marched past
Palaces and towers and halls 
 All turned dirt at last  
Dynasties rise 
 The people suffer
Dynasties fall 
 The people suffer

The Original, with transcribed Yuan Dynasty pronunciation:


峰巒如聚,     fuŋ lɔn ry dzy
波濤如怒,     pwɔ daw ry nu
山河表裏潼關路。  ʂan ɣɔ pɛw li duŋ kuan lu
望西都,      waŋ si tu 
意躊躇。      i dʐiw dʐy 
傷心秦漢經行處,  ʂaŋ sim dzin xan kjiŋ ɣjiŋ tʂʰy
宮闕萬間都做了土。 kyuŋ kyɛ' wan kjan tu tsaw' lɛw tʰu
興,        xjiŋ
百姓苦;      paj' siŋ kʰu
亡,        waŋ
百姓苦!      paj' siŋ kʰu

Vittorio Pasquale: Prisoner's Song (From Sinte Romani)

Prisoner's Song
By Vittorio Mayer Pasquale
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

A bird is at my window 
in song. 
The heart in me is weeping
I spot a flower downed
in dirt
With two tears keeping it
Dear flower, me and you  
are alike... 
Afar from the green field
I die.

The Original:

Ap mar fénstri
jek tíkno čírklo
Mur Herz an mánde
Hacjóm jek blúma
ab i čik...
Duj suá diénla
i džibén.
Me hom har du
o blúma...
Vri fon i víza
meráva !

Li Bai: Seeing a Friend Off (From Chinese)

Li Bai wrote this poem in 754 while saying goodbye to a good friend in Xuanzheng. The Shuiyang River still encircles what remains of the city's east wall.

Seeing a Friend Off
By Li Bai
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Beyond the north wall  dark green mountains stretch  
 Round the east city  the clear white river flows1
Once we two  have parted in this place
 Lone tumbleweed  has thousands of miles to blow
A drifting cloud: the mind of a traveler      
 Sinking sun: the mood of old friends going
We wave our hands taking leave from here 
 Our hesitant horses  in parting neigh and moan

1- Chinese cities were usually protected by two sets of walls: an inner one, made of stone, and an outer rampart made of rammed earth. Kept between these two was enough farmland to keep the town supplied with food in the event of a siege. It was customary for friends to say their goodbyes at the outer rampart.

The Original:

Han Characters 


Medieval Chinese 

sùng1b ghóu3b nyen3b
3d beik2a

tsheing4 sran2b ghweing2a pek1 kwak1     
beik2a sywí3c nyàu3 tung1b dzyeing3b
tshí3b drì3c et3by ghwi3bx bat3bx
kuo1 bung1b màn3a3d tsyeing3b
bou3b ghwen3a you3b tsí3d ì3d
lak1 nyet3b kùo1 nyen3b dzeing3b
hwi3a syóu3b dzì3c tsi3d khùo3b
sau4 sau4 pan2a2 meing3a
Modern Chinese 

Sòng yǒurén  

Qīngshān héng běi guō,  
Báishuǐ rào dōngchéng,  
Cǐdì yī wéi bié,  
Gū péng wàn lǐ zhēng;  
Fúyún yóuzǐ yì,  
Luòrì gùrén qíng,  
Huīshǒu zì zī qù,  
Xiāoxiāo bān mǎmíng.  

Li Bai: Gazing on the Ruins at Yue (From Chinese)

Gazing on the Ancient Ruins at Yue 
By Li Bai
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

The king of Yue who conquered Wu returned in a parade
His noble men at arms came home robed in rich brocade
Ladies in waiting numerous as flowers filled the Spring Palace
Where now there are only partridges that take to the air and fade

The Original:



Meng Haoran: Spring Dawn (From Chinese)

Spring Dawn
Meng Haoran
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Asleep in spring  unconscious of the dawn
Then all around  I hear the birds in song
Last night came loud with wind and rain
I wonder how many of the flowers are gone

The Original:



Review: "The Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz" by Dick Davis

Rückert's British Accent
Or: A review of The Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz by Dick Davis

Requested by Layla Baldwin
(thank you for your support)

Alright, it's been a while. But I'm finally getting back to my reviewing.

"The literary Orientalism of enthusiasm with its unrestrained readiness to assimilate and at times, without realizing it, to be assimilated, could not be sustained indefinitely, however. Besides, it could only exist in an intellectual atmosphere where culture, literature and philology were as yet quite inseparable concepts, close to being synonymous. Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) was perhaps the last of the enthusiasts of significance, but he showed little tendency toward literary theory, giving himself wholly to the rare experience of poetic recreation. Johann Fück, with his laconic dismissal of Rückert from detailed scholarly consideration, pays him the highest tribute, however: “His translation of Freytag’s edition of the ḥamāsa and above all his artful German version of the Maqāmāt of Ḥarīrī belong to German literature.” One wonders where bad translations belong— to scholarship?"
— Jaroslav Stetkevych

Even though Persian poetry on the whole has fared better than Arabic among English-speaking readership, the above quote by Jaroslav Stetkevych which is about Arabic poetry, could with a few changes and a few exceptions added, be made to apply to a lot of Persian poetry as well. Particularly in the past hundred years. Leaving aside the glorious and strange case of the Khayyam quatrains, as well as a lot of narrative romance, it is true that Medieval Persian lyric poets such as Hafiz and Rumi have fared unusually well in English. But also unusually badly in English. Well because there has been a fairly constant interest in them. Badly because (this is above all true of Hafiz) so little of that interest has involved the poets' actual art. Dick Davis has struck a worthy and badly needed blow in the opposite direction; a blow for Persian poetry and for lovers of it.

Though Davis confesses elsewhere to looking to Edward FitzGerald as an inspiration, it seems to me that as a translator of Persian poetry he is most fittingly to be compared to a German poet: Friedrich Rückert. Of him Annemarie Schimmel has written:
If one wants to understand how Ḥāfiẓ may sound to a native speaker of Persian, the elegant and singable Östliche Rosen with their perfect harmony of images, masterly ghazals and hidden puns are the best introduction...Rückert had been able to interpret Ḥāfiẓ most correctly, and...the poet of Shiraz was his companion in some lonely hours towards the end of his life. 
Rückert was the sort of scholar-poet one can't hardly find anymore, and it may be sheer dumb luck that English speakers have Dick Davis. I'll gladly take one Dick Davis, or one Rückert over two dozen Fücks, and maybe even over half a dozen Nöldeckes. But then I really just don't give much of a Fück anyway.

Davis is a poet in his own right, which is important. He also has much experience translating Persian poetry, principally though not exclusively Persian narrative verse. Apart from  Borrowed Ware which contains translations of brief epigrammatic verses, this is his first volume of translations of non-narrative or non-epic Persian verse (it is by no means to be his only one — as I write this his collection of poems by Fatemeh Shams is soon to be published.) He proves more than equal to the task in several respects. His experience in writing poetry with controlled meters and in rhyme, helps him enormously to translate such poetry. One could object to his use of certain things that have become clichés in literary English, but I don't really see the point. There's nothing wrong, to my mind, with failing to translate poems such that they read as if a modern English-speaker wrote them. What Davis has done, I think, is to try and push the traditional idiom of formal English verse in a different direction. The result repays the effort of the reader many times over. If I have any qualms on this score, it is that he hasn't pushed the envelope as far as a Rückert might have in terms of music, and of wordplay.

Every bit as interesting as his choice of which poets to translate is his choice of which poets not to translate. He leaves out Xwājō, who is generally reckoned to be more minor among Shirazi poets of the 13th-14th centuries. He also leaves out Sa'dī, which is more curious, and quite unfortunate in that this would supply some background by giving an idea of the poet whose influence the three poets represented in this volume were drawing on so heavily (as Davis' introduction notes they were.) The ghazals of Sa'dī are in even worse shape than Hafiz as far as translations go. Not having the mystical reputation of Hafiz, however addleheaded, Sa'dī's lyric verse in this century has largely been abandoned by literary translators into English, many of whom manifestly do not care much either for, or about, poets from Persia who can't be marketed as Sages From The East.

The volume itself is well designed, and its layout sensible. The English poems are each accompanied by the first line of the Persian, which allows the reader so able and so disposed to look up the original. For the convenience of such readers, a companion volume containing the original Persian texts is also available from Mage Publishers, though there are issues with the latter which I will touch on further below. (The technique of facing-page translations, where a poem is given in translation with the original text en face is expensive for paper volumes and therefore pointless if aimed at a readership that does not know the original language, unless the editor and readership match one another in pretentiousness.)

Most of this review is going to be devoted to Hafiz, for the simple reason that that's where I have the most to say.

2.a Hafez: A Prelude Where I Grind My Axe

Before I continue with this review, I'll spend some time talking about how Hafiz has typically been translated into English, as it is against that background that one can really appreciate the quantum leap forward represented by Davis' work.

First off, a few quotes to set the mood. The first shows the absolute worst of what the reader may sometimes have to deal with in the volumes which present Hafiz in English. The second gives a fairly concise demonstration of the shaky ground on which the first stands, and the latter two I don't think need much explanation.

The understanding of his hearers varies according to their knowledge, their sensibility, but each receives his or her due and no one goes away empty. With the reading of Hafiz, as with the Qur'an, the less one comprehends intellectually, the more one receives spiritually. By the association of shaded tonalities endlessly reverberating on the keyboard of the senses, transmuting correspondences into synchronic states amplified more and more, this poetry penetrates the heart, creating a juxtaposition of states of the soul, by which the receptive soul and the symbolic tenor of the poem harmonize in the coincidence of the moment, so that this synchronicity of symbol and soul becomes the mystical configuration of a precise state....
.....Hafiz is unquestionably the most original of all philosophical poets. He never turns his gaze from the primeval focus whence all inspiration comes to him; every glance for him is a glance only insofar as it opens like a magic lamp in the Niche of Prophetic Lights; every drunkenness is drunkenness only insofar as it drinks deep of the wine of the primordial tavern; every head of hair is a head of hair only insofar as the waving chain of its tresses binds up again and commemorates the alliance of the primordial Pact ('ahd-i alast);every morning breeze is a breeze only insofar as it brings us to a fragrant breath from the Quarter of the friend (kúy-i dúst). All his attention, his joy, his senses are tense for the space of that unique moment that is granted where every light is a divine theophany, every cup of wine a reflection of the Face of the Beloved, as well as the form of the azure bowl of the sky; every remembrance a reactualization of the primordial memory. His whole soul is present in this sacred space where being is mythogenesis and the event an archetypal act in the dawn of the eternal beginning. And it is a Seer casting his gaze over the "garden of the world" (bágh-i jahán) that he would gather "thanks to the hand of the pupil of his eye, a flower from the Face of the Beloved."
The eye of the poet illuminated by the beloved, sees in this garden the world unveiling itself as the dazzling face of the Beloved and also becoming clouded over like its dusky hair that darkens its resplendence...
— Daryush Shayegan "The Visionary Topography of Ḥáfiẓ"

What's sweeter than a garden and good talk when spring’s new flowers appear?
What’s keeping that young boy who serves our wine? Tell me why he’s not here.
Put down as profit every happy moment Fate contrives to send;
Who has a notion what awaits us when our lives here have to end?
And understand, life hangs here by a hair; that what you have to do
Is take care of yourself; since what are Time and all its griefs to you?
The Water of Life, the Garden of Eram – what could these blessings mean
But heart-delighting wine that’s poured and drunk beside some pretty stream?
Since abstinence and drunkenness share one descent, which has our voice?
Which should we give our skittish hearts to now? What could decide our choice?
Who knows what lies beyond the veil? And your long boastful rant before
Its chamberlain, what point has that, you fool? Shut up! Not one word more!
And if I’ve sinned and strayed, and there’s a reckoning when I die,
What is it the Creator’s clemency and mercy signify?
The ascetic longs to drink from Kosar’s stream in paradise’s shade,
And Hafez longs for wine; until, between the two, God’s choice is made.
— Hafiz, tr. Dick Davis

You've tried to change me ever since you've met me
Take me as I am or let me go.
If you cannot overlook my faults, forget me
Take me as I am or let me go.
You're trying to reshape me in a mould love
In the image of someone you used to know
But I won't be a stand-in for an old love
Take me as I am or let me go.
— Bob Dylan

I am whatever you say I am
If I wasn't then why would I say I am?
In the paper the news everyday I am
I don't know, it's just the way I am

Two words can sum up both the common treatment of Hafiz at the hands of anglophone translators, and my reaction to such treatment. Those those two words, meant in every possible sense, are: Holy Shit. The divagations of the next few paragraphs will elaborate on both.

The early orientalist view of Hafiz as a mere Anacreon has thankfully been tossed into the gutter and shot twice in the head. The opposite view, of Hafiz as a quintessential mystic and philosophical poet, though long maintained, is also not one which has much credibility among serious scholars of Hafiz today. It is not even unchallenged in Iran, where the work of such towering figures as Khorramshahi, Khanlari and countless others has seen to that.

Serious readers of Hafiz, though (including schoolteachers, religious pedagogues and also scholars in tangentially related disciplines such as Sufism) are another matter entirely, and are not infrequently prone to such wool-over-the-eyes Sufi interpretations (pun intended) even of Hafiz' most obviously profane verses. It can become (to me anyway) comical, to the point where even if Hafiz says, as at one point he does in fact say, that "that wine there is real and not a metaphor" such readers may well insist that that statement itself must not be taken literally. This stems in part from the fact that mysticism was long a fount of poetic expression in Persian poetry, where the mystical and lyrical registers became virtually indistinguishable from one another after the 13th century, and therefore not only did Hafiz write verses, and even whole poems, that express obviously mystical or at least deeply spiritual sentiment (though even these cannot always really be harmonized with orthodox Islam of any kind) but mystical turns of phrase pepper the whole of his work on several levels.

This habit which transforms the interpretation of Hafiz into a veritable Farce Province, also seems to result from an unwillingness to accept that a beloved poet could be associated with anything disreputable (as winedrinking and homosexual attraction often are for Muslims particularly in the modern Middle East.) For the work of Hafiz to remain a reputable thing to study and read, even when the prevailing ethos resembled that of a Mubāriz-al-Dīn (who shut down the wine-taverns) more than it did that of an Abū Ishāq (who was a free-wheeling alcoholic), the reading of Hafiz has had to be brought in line with religious orthodoxy, whatever that happened to be at the place and time in question (though the fact that he wasn't a Shi'ite was a circle that did prove a bit hard for Safavid readers to square.) This has been possible with Hafiz, perhaps even more so than with the Song of Songs, not only because of the polysemous nature of Persian lyric language, but also because Hafiz seems to have been especially interested in ambiguity and polyphony, in the ways in which language could be made to say several seemingly completely different things at once, and the ways the same point could be made in several seemingly completely different ways. In my view it is this interest, wedded to his didactic and ethical mode, that gave him what some refer to as "his genius." The Archpoet said of himself comparor fluvio labenti sub eodem aere nunquam permanenti, that he was like a river flowing, never in the same place twice, never quite the same thing under the same air. True as it was of the Archpoet, it would be even truer of Hafiz, who could literally shift between the gnostic and the agnostic without missing a beat1. Within the range of traditional themes, he shifted rapidly from topic to topic, exploited polysemy to the fullest, must have had fun with ambiguity, and would at least appear to have though his mind fit for more for the ahl-i hunar "initiates of the art/craft" than the nāahlān "unworthy." He could thus easily be made to be, or at least rationalized away as being, all things to all people. Later readers who had strong reason to dissociate him from anything at all unseemly, agnostic, homoerotic or bibulous could rationalize their views in terms of what the poems must "really" mean. This was also true in a different way of some early Orientalists who had difficulty imagining that the same person who took such bacchanalian joy in life, and wrote with such anticlerical venom, might really have a spiritual side to him, or find joy — or, at the absolute very least, stylistic opportunity — in the ambiguities offered by the spiritual resonance of the lyric vocabulary. (Though it must be said that Rückert and even Goethe, seem to have apprehended relatively quickly the kind of lyrical universes the poems were operating in.) Since the 18th century in particular, all have also to one degree or another presumed a happy at-one-ment between author and text that, though not completely useless, is not entirely warranted without massive qualification.

The fact is that in medieval Persian lyric poetry, the depiction and even glorification of behaviors and people deemed disreputable by society was not only acceptable but expected, much as using a chainsaw to commit gratuitous mass murder is not seen as acceptable behavior in American society, but is quite acceptable in TV, cinema and video games, even more so than sexual themes and images. Americans who wonder how Rumi could use wine as a spiritual metaphor so regularly, even as he chided those who drank the actual substance, would do well to ask themselves how it is that ratings boards are less worried by a child seeing somebody's exploded brains or disemboweled innards, than by that child seeing somebody's vagina, nipple or penis.

Medieval love poetry of a profane sort, moreover, (on any side of the mediterranean, and no matter what the religion) represents the condition of lovers in a society and social class where norms of association are at least in theory strictly regulated, enforced by the opinion of one's peers and justified by religion. Marriages were often a matter of convenience, of family status and economic considerations. Romantic love in such a society, for the literate classes in any case, almost by definition was a disruptive force to be censured and censored, particularly if it challenged the secular social order of which marriages were an important fundament. (Though other factors no doubt played a great role, this is I think part of the reason why heteroeroticism was so much more controlled in Persian lyric where homoeroticism was so readily available. Homosexual encounters, pederastic and not, were illicit and extramarital, but at least they weren't "ruining" anybody's daughters let alone wives. It took someone like Ubayd-i Zākānī to write about that kind of thing at all regularly.) The profane medieval love lyric, be it in Occitan, Middle High German, Persian or Arabic, was produced by societies that could only regard the kind of love it celebrated as illicit. That there should be some uncertainty as to what it "really means" would be natural and, for the poets themselves, prudent as well.

Hafiz seems to have found the antinomian tropes of Persian lyricism at least as congenial as paradox and polysemy. Not only because he seems to have actually enjoyed at least a few religiously illicit pleasures (wine-drinking at court was extremely common), or because he set out to unmask hypocrites with a regularity unprecedented in his time, but because his antinomianism is never merely pro forma. It pushes the envelope to the very edge of the frankly blasphemous, or treasonous. There are ironic statements that simply cannot be reconciled with Islamic orthodoxy, such as when he refers to a Sufi master saying that the creator of the world made not one mistake, and then praises that master for being so generous as to forgive and overlook so many mistakes. If there are ways in which he does use ciphers and codes, it is to keep from falling outside the bounds of what would be acceptable even for a Shirazi court poet in the 14th century. Some of these are particular to one poem  e.g. making it unclear whether he means the term for "monarchs, royalty" (šahriyārān) or for "city of friends" (šahr-i yārān) in a poem of political lament, while others are widespread and had great precedent, e.g. using the word for "convent" rather than "mosque" when speaking negatively of the den of the pietist mosque-rats who screech so loudly in the key of "Thou Shalt Not." Much of what he writes draws on conventional material, but his takes on those conventions, and the limits to which he pushes them — often with an ethical or didactic dimension — set him apart from many other superficially similar lyricists.

Most English translators (as opposed to their German and Russian speaking counterparts) have been serious readers of Hafiz, with an interest that was seldom scholarly or literary. With exceptions numbering possibly in the single digits, these have not been people with a bilingual feeling for poetry, let alone medieval poetry.

Moreover, many of the English translators of Hafiz have often either been in the sway of, or at least willing to pay lipservice to, the nationalist mythology that for the past century or so has styled Hafiz as "embodying the spirit of Iranians" and other such twaddle. That sort of thing frequently cripples a would-be translator, saddling them as it does with notions that the text can't "really" be translated, that what's worthwhile about it can't truly be duplicated, or even the basically evil and dangerous notion that cultures can never truly "know" each other.

A sacral attitude, when directed toward the text of a lyric poet who operated in a genre suffused with mysticism (and who exploited that coincidental fact to the fullest), also leads to literal use of Hafiz as scripture. Witness the practice, still common today, of using Hafiz' lyrics for divination, or that of searching for secret meanings in every word, and even in the arrangement of letters. Some have even adverted to using his lyrics as a sort of charm or spell, as if his very words had some kind of mystical or magical efficacy, despite the fact that Hafiz' own lyrics occasionally to refer to such esotericism with terms that could translate loosely as "mumbo jumbo." Leaving aside the modern pseudepigrapha produced by Ladinsky who claims to have gotten poetry from Hafiz in English in a dream, other attempts are scarcely less credible. Not infrequently the cult of the word, deracinated from a sense of verbal art, leads to the sort of crabbed and crummy language routine in medieval scriptural translation, as the idea of being "faithful" to the text, like the faith of believers, grows ever more paramount as its scope grows ever narrower. This logolatry sometimes combines the worst aspects of literalism, the worst mechanistic formalism imaginable, and the devout acolyte's tendency to flagrantly distort meaning lest they hear anything they don't want to. The result has been consistently and impressively atrocious verse. The monoglot mystic fount of versified gibberish that answers to the name of Paul Smith relied upon augury to aid him in translating the Divan of Hafiz from previous prose versions (including those of Meher Baba), though this proved no great aid, and his absurd attempt to completely duplicate the rhyme and meters of the originals fails miserably in producing readable English. Abbas Aryanpur Kashani who titled his collection the "Poetical Horoscope" in the hope of enabling anglophone readers to use the Divan for augury as Persians do, fails for many of the same reasons. Though it is arguably even more execrable for adding the weight of ethnic authenticity to the enterprise.

Despite repeated admonitions to the contrary by the likes of Eric Schroeder and later Julie Scott Meisami, many have looked to Hafiz less as a master of verbal art than as a manipulator of lexical ciphers, and have been unconcerned — or unwilling to try grappling — with the aesthetic experience of the poetry except perhaps as pertaining to the "spiritual wisdom" it contains, and on occasion sacrificing all sense (polysemy intended) for the sake of duplicating formal properties. Thus Hafiz has generally been translated into English with an attitude wholly out of touch not only with how scholarship on medieval Persian literature challenges many modern commonplaces, but also with how to turn a phrase. Even some of the better, or at least readable, English translations often give the impression of having hopelessly confounded the Poet of Shiraz with the Rumi of Coleman Barks. These translations have been compelling to many, no doubt, but they have been on the whole an injury to Persian literature, to genuine Sufism, to Hafiz and to poetry. Too often they have perpetuated an outright caricature of Hafiz as a writer of sentimental, mystical and inspirational verses of the kind which would not be altogether out of place in a fortune cookie (particularly if the fortune cookie were served in a restaurant reeking of cannabis and owned by a pair of aging hippies who still believed in crystal power.) For example, the above quote from Daryush Shayegan's long and loony exercise in literary unlearning has been taken from the introduction to The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Diwan of Hafiz by Elizabeth T. Gray, who seems to have found the thing something other than ludicrous.

Throughout history poets have been maligned, murdered, misunderstood, misconstrued, bowdlerized, brutalized, forbidden or simply forgotten. Most poets however, including those whose art was liturgical or otherwise religious or spiritual, have mercifully been spared the ultimate horror and insult of having their art literally taken for scripture. The diminution involved in completely conflating so respectable a calling as that of the poet with a racket so sordid and tawdry as that of a cult leader, has been reserved to a sad few, many of whom welcomed, encouraged and therefore may have deserved it. But perhaps the most undeserving victim of such mummery-mongering is Hafiz. The Persian poet's expert and learned deployment of traditional Sufi tropes, unceasing and artful pursuit of verbal ambiguity, and themes of dissatisfaction with the callous turns of fate and yearning for godly release from the vale of tears, have all been seized on by souls laboring to flatten his three full dimensions into less than one. Much ink has been tragically shed in the cause of eviscerating the irony, the reason-mocking ambiguities and polysemy with a dry and deadly serious code of ratiocination; to transubstantiate a dead man into the sort of person he would probably have hated to live as. Thus the English Wikipedia article on Hafiz as of this writing is tagged with categories that include Sufi poets, Mystic poets, and Angelic visionaries, the latter of which is presumably based on the assumption that when Hafiz writes "I saw angels" he means that he literally saw literal angels (yet when he writes "I drank wine" many insist that can't possibly have meant such a thing literally. I leave it to the reader to determine which is more likely to have actually happened.)

"Yet each man kills the thing he loves..." 

2.b Hafiz in Davis' translation, or: Where I Get To My Point

Well ok not each.

Which brings me back to the topic of this review. Dick Davis, who thankfully refused to take his own advice in On Not Translating Hafez, has done no such violence to Hafiz in his translations. For this alone I would be thankful. On the whole, Davis' English versions of Hafiz are probably the best yet to appear. It beats out a lot of competition considering just how many literary translations of Hafiz have been produced. Elizabeth T. Grey, John Heath Stubbs, Peter Avery, Jeffrey Einboden, Parvin Loloi, Sir William Jones, Basil Bunting and many other Hafiz translators are all blown clean out of the water by Davis' renderings. The only translators who even remotely approach Davis' level of success with turning Hafiz into English art are Gertrude Bell (whose translations actually seem to inform Davis' in a few respects) and James Newell who (unusually among adherents of the notion that Hafiz' poetry was "Sufi poetry" in the same sense as Rumis) has done a marvelous job in his translations of Hafiz into American country folk idiom. But as I've said, the real parallels to Davis are not to be found among English, but among early German translators of Persian poetry.

Davis has, moreover, chosen many of Hafiz' most anti-clerical and obviously bacchanalian poems for translation, and, while he has translated a few overtly religious and spiritual poems, old hands familiar with Hafiz' Divan will notice that he has left out a number of the most famous compositions, specifically those such as Biā Ki Qasr-i Amal and Dar Azal Partaw-i Husnat where mystical themes stand at the fore. Perhaps Davis looked at these poems and decided that rendering them into English was simply unfeasible. (If so, I can hardly blame him. My own attempts at translating both of these poems have been complete cockups, and shall for the nonce remain among my drafts.) Perhaps, as his œuvre suggests, mysticism and spiritualism per se are not something Davis is particularly partial to (for this too, I cannot blame him.) Yet since these poems are often the ones most likely to make their way into selections of English translations, another explanation suggests itself. Perhaps these poems' absence is part of Davis' reaction against the conception of Hafiz as a mystic who drinks a wine that is never temporal. If so, yet again, I can hardly blame him. Such a reaction is understandable, given the absurd portrayals Hafez has often received in the west at the hands of some of his recent translators, to say nothing of "translators."

Where Davis succeeds most brilliantly is in getting the tone of Hafiz right. Hafiz' wit and verve in Davis' English match the Persian routinely and appropriately. The register ranging from "crux" and "lexicon" to such things as "shut up" and "blockhead" captures a lot of the register polyphony that Hafiz deploys and which is often difficult to apprehend for modern readers because of historical changes in language and a cultural remove from the world of courtly oral performance. Davis has an ear for what sort of modes of English can be used to approximate Persian lyric, even if he sometimes can't avoid flattening out some mystical undertones in certain places.
In the first of the two examples below, for example, the word dīn is translated as "faith." Now, dīn is actually the normal word for "religion" and comes from a register of the language that is itself religion-suffused (the word is borrowed from Arabic, though the Arabic word — believe it or not — is itself a pre-Islamic borrowing from Persian!) In the original it is juxtaposed with dāniš "(secular) knowledge." Davis' translation of dīn as "faith" is nonetheless apposite in that the dual English meaning of "faith" (amorous and religious) mirrors perfectly the mental universe of Hafiz' lyrics. It even allows him to repeat the word "faith" in the following verse (translating a different Persian term) in a way that amplifies the effect.
In the second example, a number of puns in the original are slighted, but at least one is actually kept.

"Ba ɣayr az ānki bišud dīn o dāniš az dastam..."

Come tell me what it is that I have gained
From loving you,
Apart from losing all the faith I had
And knowledge too?

Though longing for you scatters on the wind
All my life’s work,
Still, by the dust on your dear feet, I have
Kept faith with you.

And even though I’m just a tiny mote
In love’s great kingdom,
I’m one now with the sun, before your face,
In loving you.

Bring wine! In all my life I’ve never known
A corner where
I could sit snugly, safely, and enjoy
Contentment too.

And, if you’re sensible, don’t ply me with
Advice; your words
Are wasted on me, and the reason is
I’m drunk; it’s true!

How can I not feel hopeless shame when I
Am near my love?
What service could I offer him? What could
I say or do?

Hafez is burned, but his bewitching love
Has yet to say,
“Hafez, I wounded you, and here’s the balm
I send for you.”

'Ayb-i rindān makun ay zāhid-i pākīzasirišt

That you're a pious prig by nature
Doesn’t mean you have to blame
Libertines for their faults; those sins
Won’t be imputed to your name.

Each one of us will reap the seeds
He sows, so what is it to you
Whether I’m good or bad? To work on who
You are should be your aim.

Everyone searches for the Friend,
Whether they’re drunk or stone-cold sober;
And love’s in every house – the mosque
And synagogue are just the same.

I bow my head in worship on the bricks
That form the wine-shop’s threshold;
And if that blockhead doesn’t get it, then
It’s him who is to blame!

Don’t sadden me with tales of providence
And God’s eternal promise –
What do you know of who, behind the veil,
Can boast of beauty’s name?

It’s not just me who’s wandered out
Of lonely Piety’s front door;
My father let his chance of heaven’s grace
Elude him; I’m the same.

If this is who you are, the nature
You were given, then bravo!
And good for you if your fine character’s
Exactly as you claim!

O Hafez, on the last day, if you bear
A wine-cup in your hand,
You’ll go straight into heaven from the street
Of drunkenness and shame.

Now on to two criticisms, one of which is at bottom matter of taste, and the other of which is extremely irritating.

More so than with Davis' translations of the other two poets in this volume, the music sometimes falters. This may sound bad considering how important the conveyance of music is in distinguishing this volume from many others. But it's more that though he has done well, my gut tells me he could often do better. Sometimes I have the sense that he is giving little thought to the music of the lines beyond filling out the metrical pattern he has set for himself. (And a few of his verses are even metrically faulty in ways that seem unlikely to have been intentional. For example, the translation of xwaštar zi 'ayš o suhbat o bāɣ o bahār čēst quoted above in full, is missing a foot the first half of the seventh verse.) On some few occasions, Davis' versification gets almost mechanical or strained, as the natural rhythm of the lines gets jarring. It's almost always competently musicked, but not often more than that.

This is quite unlike what one finds in Hafiz' Persian. Hafiz' music may be subdued and subtle in comparison with some other Persian poets, and often takes a back seat to rhetorical feats and intellectual density. But when he wants to, he is quite capable of sonorous complexity. Take the following two verses, which I have spaced as quatrains to highlight some of the sound patterns:

Biā tā gul barafšānēm
o may dar sāɣar andāzēm.
Falakrā saqf biškāfēm
o tarhē naw darandāzēm

Agar ɣam laškar angēzad
ki xūn-i 'āšiqān rēzad
Man o sāqī ba ham tāzēm
o bunyādaš barandāzēm

(Come so that we might strew flowers and spill wine in the drinking bowl. We'll sunder the firmament of the heavens and re-cast it per a new plan. If Sorrow should raise the army that spills the blood of lovers, I and the serving boy team up and strike at their base.)

Note the alliteration of bunyādaš barandāzēm, the repeated -ar- of barafšānēm and darandāzēm in the same metrical slot, the echo of ba ham (tāzēm) and baran(dāzēm), and the assonance of rhythmic groups ending in -āXēm. The second verse even has an additional two rhymes nested within the larger monorhyme of the poem: not only does angēzad rhyme with rēzad but also tāzēm rhymes with barandāzēm yet on a shorter sequence of sounds than the -arandāzēm which is the only formally required rhyme of the whole poem. Thus the formal requirement of not repeating the verse-final rhyme anywhere else remains unviolated, even as rhymes and rhyme-like sequences appear in every tetristich. These features are especially appreciable in modern musical performances of the poem.

Now Davis' translation:

Come, so that we can scatter flowers
       and fill the glass with wine,
And split the ceiling of the skies
       and try a new design!

If Sorrow sends her soldiers here
       and wants a bloody fight
My serving boy and I will put
       them one and all to flight.

This is good, skilled English verse, that is as faithful as could really be imagined to what the original says. It gets the tone exactly right, and has what I take to be a nice candidate for what Persian and Arabic rhetoric calls īhām (artful ambiguity) whereby "bloody" could be taken in two different senses depending on the register of language assumed.  But there is nothing like the dense and multi-layered sound textures found in the corresponding Persian lines. If a monoglot English-speaker were given these lines they might think Hafiz a good poet, but if they were then told that they represent some of the most famous, memorable and lilting lines by an aurally sophisticated poet, they would have to conclude that something major had been lost in translation.

And major it is indeed. Though we cannot prove that Hafiz composed some of his poems specifically to be sung, it would be exceedingly odd if this turned out not to be the case. Among other things, the speed with which Hafiz' poems spread through the Persophone world in his own lifetime, and the settings in which they are reported to have been performed at an early date, strongly suggest that song was at least one means, perhaps even the chief means, by which they were commonly transmitted.

One of the disappointments of this entire book is that, in translating a poet as sonically aware as Hafez, Davis does not truly avail himself of the full range of aural possibilities which English composition might offer.  It may be objected that this is unfair, that the English verse tradition just doesn't lend itself to that kind of musical beauty. And it's true, English poetry does not have as strong a tradition of such overt musicality. But it is equally true that Hafiz' divan, like a large amount of medieval poetry besides, is much more closely linked with oral performance both sung and declaimed, than English literary verse has been for at least a century if not much longer. In those English verse genres, like rap and popular music, which still depend primarily upon orality rather than literacy, one finds a much more sophisticated and more intense array of of sound-techniques. In this (and only this) the sonic art of Hafiz' most musical ghazals is reminiscent of the innovations of assonance patterning which Eminem introduced to modern American rap. There is no real reason why translations of medieval Persian poetry cannot be brought into contact with this kind of modern English oral lyricism. The analogy which Davis makes between Hafiz and Bob Dylan is I think an apt one. One wonders what might come about if this were pressed farther into an exploration of the potential for the actual rhythms Dylan uses.

Davis has done well to make many of his translations sound like approximations of such English verse forms as are commonly found in song, but it is difficult to imagine many of his Hafiz translations being actually singable. Though a few would work brilliantly. Whereas Hafiz seems to be a virtuoso who knows when to belt out the music and when to be subdued, Davis' voice is merely on key and doing a decent job, as if he had other things on his mind when translating. All of these translations of Hafiz are good poetry. Yet not all strike my ear as great. Some do. Some these poems really go beyond themselves in English in ways that I wouldn't have imagined possible. But they are the exception.

Some of the Hafiz translations which function most brilliantly as English poems are the ones which stray most freely from the original. Davis' renderings of such poems as Diraxt-i Dōstī Binšān and Yārī Andar Kas Namēbīnēm (translated as "Plant Friendship's Tree" and "I see No Love in Anyone") are examples of this. I get the sense, in these cases, that Davis connected especially strongly with the poems, and thus had a particularly inspired sense of how to translate them. In "Plant Friendship's Tree" Davis' own style as an original poet seems to be especially evident, and in "I See No Love In Anyone" certain translation choices (and the excision of parts) all have the effect of amplifying and highlighting the poem's resonance with what I think are Davis' feelings about the effect of the Iranian Revolution, a resonance Davis is obviously not alone in feeling with this poem. Indeed Davis not only quotes from his translation of this poem as an opening epigraph to his book At Home and Far From Home, but he in fact quotes his translation of the same verse that Shajarian used to sneak past the Islamic Republic's censors.

Now the second, and more irritating issue:

Davis says
For the poems of Hafez, I have used mainly the version edited by Parviz Natel Khanlari, Divan-e Hafez, in two volumes (Tehran: Kharazmi, 1362/1983), though I have also made comparisons with other editions, notably that edited by Seyyed Abol-Qasem Anjavi-Shirazi, Divan-e Hafez (Tehran: Javidan, 1345/1966).
That is one way to put it. Another way would be to say that no one edition corresponds to all the verse orderings and manuscript possibilities which underlie his translations.  In some cases, though I can't be sure, he may have just gone with the ordering that would create what he thought would work better as a poem in English. His decision of which lines to include or exclude seems to have been made similarly. This is actually not all that problematic in itself. It is one step shy of Ahmad Shamlu (who garnered much "learned hue and cry", in the words of Franklin Lewis, when he arranged the verses to suit his personal taste.) If he had been upfront about it, I'd simply be applauding his choices and willingness to be guided by poetic sensibility rather than philological finickiness.

What sticks in my craw though is that this isn't mentioned at all. And not only do the translations not always correspond to the most commonly accepted verse orderings of the Persian texts, but they don't even correspond to the verse-orderings of the texts supplied in the companion volume Matn-i Ši'rhā-i Fārsī Dar Kitāb Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (Persian Text of the Poems in Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz) which was thankfully available for Kindle for 10$. Either that book does not contain the actual Persian texts Davis was working from, or his creativity with verse orderings bears an extraordinary coincidental resemblance to attested verse orderings derivable from manuscript traditions. I can't be sure but I rather doubt Davis is responsible for the issue with the companion volume specifically. I suspect that somebody in the bowels of Mage Publishing's editorial staff just assumed that they could go to authoritative editions and just copy the poems wholesale without checking to see if these poems actually matched the texts underlying Davis' translations. Not an unreasonable assumption most of the time, but with Hafiz this has produced drastic and routine discrepancies.

In some cases the lack of correspondence is severe and frankly confusing, as in the poem Yārī andar kas namēbīnēm discussed above. If I number the verses of the Persian text (taken from the Persian companion volume) as 1 through 9 in sequence, Davis' translation of that poem suggests an underlying sequence 1, 2, 7, 5, 8, 4, 6, 9. Verse 3 is entirely absent. Half of Verse 8 is also untranslated2.

Sometimes the variant orderings make Hāfiz sound more ecumenical than he otherwise would. Take the following as an example:

“But if the Holy Ghost once more
Should lend his aid to us, we’d see
Others perform what Jesus did –
Since in his heart-sick anguish he
Was unaware that God was there
And called His name out ceaselessly.”

I take the corresponding Persian text from which Davis was translating to have read thus:

Fayz-i rūh al-qudus ar bāz madad farmāyad
Dīgarān ham bukunand ānči masīhā mēkard
Bēdilē dar hama ahwāl xudā bā ō būd
Ō namēdīdaš o az dard xudāyā mēkard

Most editions of Hafiz' divan do not have the verse ordering that seems to underlie the translation. Neither does the Persian text in the companion volume. In the more canonical versions of the poem, the verse corresponding to the last three lines of the English here (the last two of the above four lines of Persian) is found earlier in the poem, either in a place where the poem's speaker seems to be describing himself, or in reference to Al-Hallāj. Some editors, notably Khanlari, leave it out entirely. I don't have access to Abūlqāsim Anjawī-Šērāzī's edition of the divan, and so can't tell if the ordering implied here appears there. It does, though, appear in the Pižmān edition which I do have. That edition also includes az dard "in pain" for the more widely attested az dūr "from afar" which tallies with the "anguish" of Davis' translation. (Dūr and dard would in any case be quite easy to conflate in nasta'liq handwriting.)

Granted this is not the only way to read it even in English (and in Persian the ambiguity is considerably greater, after all rūh al-qudus can mean a considerably wider range of things than can "Holy Ghost" in English.) But the way Davis translates the passage gives me the impression of referring to Jesus crying out to God in a moment of despair and uncertainty, either in the garden of Gethsemane or while on the cross as per Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34. It would imply Hafiz' knowledge of some specific contents of Christian scripture and of a conception of Jesus specific to Christianity. This is not especially far-fetched, given the demographics of Shiraz at the time. Christians weren't especially hard to come by. Someone of an enquiring mind could have found, and many did find, people to relate such information. It would also imply Hafiz' willingness to draw upon that knowledge in a ghazal and state it in a matter of fact way. This is also not impossible. Stories about Christ from Christian traditions were wont to make their way into Muslim circles, particularly among Sufis, as evidenced abundantly by the stories concerning Jesus in Rumi's Masnavi. However, while some other medieval Persian poets such as Khaqani (whose mother was a convert from Christianity) display a considerable understanding of Christianity and Christian symbolism in their work, this poem is to my knowledge the only possible basis for attributing such awareness to Hafiz. (Note that Qamar Āryān argues that the passage in question more likely echoes John 14:12) Though he mentions Christ a number of times, and speaks overwhelmingly positively about Christians (as befits socially marginal figures), nowhere else to my knowledge does he hint at any especial knowledge about non-Islamic versions of Jesus. The Persian line in question moreover uses the term bēdil which is not an especially apt term for a figure whom Muslims revere as a prophet.

Still, I know this is may be an unwarranted equation of author with text, but I at least can well imagine Hafiz seeing this translation and, particularly once informed of how the modern world is constituted, cackling with approval at this take on him and his religious polyphony.

There are a lot more examples than these. But they're among the starkest.

Davis' translation ethic and aesthetic seem to be fractionally more complicated than he is letting on. His introduction to the book expresses not a whiff of his behind-the-scenes poetic strategy, and gives the impression of just a bit more transparency than there really is. I love much of what he's done. My beef, really, is that he wasn't up front about it. Particularly when it comes to verse order. Only through comparison with the originals, examination of the variety induced by the transmission process, and against the background of Davis' biography and his non-translated poetic output in English, does one reach the conclusion that there is a lot more of Davis in these translations than he is comfortable admitting (mind you the fact that there is a lot of Davis doesn't really mean there is any less Hāfiz.)

3. Davis' Jahan Khatun

Jahan Khatun has also been translated into English. The most recent attempt, very much in keeping with the general anglophone treatment which Persian poetry in the modern era has gotten when attributed to someone not named Omar, was in a volume bearing the dubious title Hafiz's Friend: Jahan Khatun — The Persian Princess Dervish Poet, inflicted on the world by the impressively meritless Paul Smith. The present volume is, once again, a welcome corrective to the goofy-Sufi doggerel peddled in the English-speaking world as the wares of "Eastern Sages."

Though Davis' renderings of Hafiz have gotten by far the most attention, it is in translating Jahān Khātūn's poetry that he is in my view the most successful. Jahan Khatun's poetry doesn't have the same rhetorical denseness of Hafiz, but she also seems to be less in anguish as to how to express what she wishes to express. Given that Jahan Khatun is not well-known to non-specialists, Davis would have done well to include a translation of the fascinating introduction she wrote for her Divan. I suspect that many Iranians, Tajiks and Afghans who happen to know English will find this book their introduction to a poet hitherto unknown to them.

Davis' handling of Jahan Khatun's music is on the whole of a somewhat higher quality than his handling of Hafiz. He seems to have felt more at ease here, freer to craft the sound.

Davis is correct in general that “Jahan Khatun is really a woman, but for as long as the poem lasts, she is doing what a man does and assuming a male persona” but it might be worth pointing out that this is not always so. Her subversions go even farther than those astutely pointed out in Davis' introduction on her. She sometimes refers to herself as being the one (implicitly a rose) attracting nightingales. In one poem that I and Davis have both translated, she clearly — to my mind — sees herself as the object of desire, and inverts the typical tropes of lover-beloved by casting the speaker in the role of the pursued beloved, before ending on a note of melancholy, worrying that now that she's not as young or as beautiful, things may go badly for her.

4. Davis' Obeyd-e Zakani

Ubayd-i Zākānī is for my money the most hilarious thing ever to happen to medieval Persia. He is interesting in how he adds to Persian lyric poetry a strange and exotic ingredient: heterosexuality. Davis is at his absolute best in translating him. He is uncensorious, and does not "clean up" a single thing. Which is as it should be. The quatrains in particular are gutbustingly funny. The wordplay involved suggests that Davis has a much raunchier sense of humor than I was aware of from his previous work. It is also nice to have the original Persian text of these easily available in uncensored form in the companion volume.

I can't really find a thing to quibble with in how Davis has translated Ubayd. I find much to praise. It's all excellent stuff. Of particular importance for the readers who buy this volume mostly for the Hafiz (which, I suspect, is most readers) is Ubayd's non-satirical lyric verse. It is polished and fun, and more importantly gives an idea of what lyric poetry by Shirazis who weren't Hafiz was like during Hafiz' own lifetime. It is my hope that this treatment might spur greater scholarly comparative work on Ubayd and Hafiz that will illuminate our understanding of both.

In the introduction, Davis refers to Ubayd's Tarjī'band on masturbation, but mentions that he has not included it. This is a shame. It would have been beautiful to see how Davis handles that poem.

5. Conclusion

What we have here, what Davis has given the Anglophone reader, is a work of what I could only call orientalism, but an orientalism that redeems the label. It shatters well nigh every stereotype English-readers could have about medieval Persian lyric poetry, Hafiz' as a "Sufi Master", and the history of everything from religiosity to freethought to homosexuality in the Islamic world.
Like the best work of Sir William Jones, Edward Fitzgerald and Gertrude Bell, and even more so like Friedrich Rückert, Dick Davis' excellent volume offers us a far more substantive corrective for western cultural narcissism than many a dive into the post-colonial rabbit hole. Davis neither exacerbates the Self/Other problem by playing to stereotypes, nor does he reinforce that binary through inversion. He dynamites the whole dichotomy, giving the reader a sense of how humans of two distant times and climes are paradoxically both far more alike, and far more different, than is often imagined. The Faces of Love is precisely the kind of collection of medieval Persian poetry the modern English-speaking world is in desperate need of.

Really, I mean desperate need. It is a sad commentary on the culture of the country of my birth that, three years after The Faces of Love hit bookstores, it remains outsold by the colossal dump which Ladinsky took on Persian poetry and then managed to sell simply by claiming that it had been pulled from "Hafiz the Sufi Master" instead of his own rancid ass.


1To the degree that a medieval poet's technique says anything about the person behind the verses, I strongly suspect this tension between earth and heaven, between the vale of tears and the pale of release, between the world of known pleasures and the intrinsically unknowable afterlife, is not entirely a stylistic fiction. Not in the case of Hafiz, in any case, for whom tradition and experience seem to have overlapped to a perhaps unusual degree. Rather, it seems to me to say something about the poet's reaction to the vicissitudes of a capriciously unstable reality. When a man of 14th century Shiraz, whose fortunes rose and fell with the moods and destinies of dynasties, writes about the fragility and ephemerality of a man's life or a man's kingdom, he is not just waxing poetic. 

2Mind you, Davis did originally translate verse 3. In a video recording of him reading some drafts from the then-upcoming book, he reads a translation where verse 3 is rendered, just after verse 8, as follows:

Now no-one says, to love’s to be
enamoured of life’s mystery.
What’s happened to our lovers who
know and delight in what is true?

This translation is more interesting for the light it sheds on Davis' reading of Hafiz than anything else. It suggests a reading of the Persian that I think is basically wrong, or at least extremely tenuous and unlikely to have been intended. The only way I can see to get from the text to his rendering is by reading حق دوستى as haqqdōstī rather than haqq-i dōstī. The latter is how it is recited, and also how it appears in Tajik Cyrillic editions. It is also the reading that makes more sense. It is perhaps well that Davis' translation of this verse was excised from the final product. The verse in Persian as I read it is so hard to translate in a remotely adequate way that I can't blame Davis for just leaving it out.
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