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)
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
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:
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.
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.
1- To 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.
2- Mind 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.