Translating Jami: The Impossible Task

By Raficq Abdulla

I came across the fifteenth century Persian mystic poet, Jami, almost by accident.  A composer friend wrote a piece for piano and soprano based on Jami’s book-length allegorical poem, Salaman and Absal.  He asked me to read the sections of the poem he had not set to song, so that the narrative could be carried along, enhanced and made more intense by this special combination of music, song, and spoken verse.  I agreed to take part in this wonderful enterprise.  However, when I read the version of the poem being used, which was translated by Edward Fitzgerald, I was dismayed.  Fitzgerald’s reputation rests on his marvelous interpretation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. His translation of Salaman and Absal is very much part of mid-Victorian England and reflects its imperialistic worldview.  Fitzgerald was a good scholar in the Orientalist mode, which has its particular insights and oversights.  In 1851, Fitzgerald wrote that Persian poetry was “. . . an amusement to me to take what liberties I like with these Persians, who, (as I think) are not Poets enough to frighten one from such excursions, and who really do want a little Art to shape them.” [1]

Fitzgerald’s attitude toward the source language was not unique for the time but reflected the general regard that the English had for those whom they considered as lesser races and cultures better to be ruled than understood.  Thus, the translator becomes the overlord toward the inferior source language, which is thereby colonized by the target language’s superior stance.  In turn, we in the twenty-first century, have a different approach to the languages of other cultures and to their status in what has become a more complex and intertwined world, where the winners and losers in the race for status are not so clearly delineated. 

The other issue I had with Fitzgerald’s translation is the fact that it is also of its time stylistically.  It had a relevance and resonance when it was written but it does not serve readers as well today.   Translations are neither perfect nor eternal; we have to revisit the works of other cultures and other times constantly in order to read them with contemporary eyes and understandings.  They are an essential bridge of metaphors, a thoroughfare whereby meaning crosses over, changes places becoming its own reflection in the target language.  The marriage of text—nesting in the twigs and bushes of its own intertextuality—and reader is never perfect or complete; it feeds on necessary misunderstandings, like all marriages.  Translations thrive on such misunderstandings. 

I think of my reworking of Jami’s marvelous poetry as an adaptation, a transfusion from one language—via the detour of Fitzgerald’s version—to another, aiming for readability and a register that fits our time. It is a cross-pollination of words trailing parallel meanings.  The process was both conscious and unconscious.  Every creative text is a mystery, and a text in a different language from a different time and culture, is a mystery within a mystery.  We are formed and dissipated by our various norms which we take to be reality.  Yet translatability presumes a common basis, a meta-syntax in human expression and thus language.  We are creatures who express ourselves necessarily through a spool of symbols.  My version of Jami claims a degree of authenticity to the extent that it reflects my cultural and spiritual attachment to Jami’s faith and sensibility. Muslim poetry is infused with Islamic mysticism, a phenomenon both complex and simple, based on the notion of inner knowledge or gnosis.  It forms a part of my identity.  It is an unspoken lifeblood, I “understand” without knowing why, in an almost autistic form of osmosis.  I hope by reflecting this sense of belonging to Jami’s distant world without condescension, I do not traduce it.  In a sense I am at home with Jami without translation, I can feel the “text-behind-the-text,” what Mallarme named as the “text of silence and spaces.”  I aim to bring Jami’s music and meanings into the twenty-first century—a world that is very different from that of Fitzgerald. 

In this short space I cannot do justice to the distinctions and differences between my version of Jami’s great narrative poem, rich with spiritual metaphors and that of Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald is a translator.  I am not.  To some people that makes his work authentic as it mines its existence from the proper “Other,” the original language, whilst my reworking which is an adaptation from his “true” work, becomes a simulacrum, a pawn of sorts, even parasitical (I like to think of myself as a bee rather than a flea).  Therefore, even as I criticize Fitzgerald’s translation, I take the substance of his work on trust as I revisit and re-form it into contemporary idiom.  So by virtue of the process of translation and interpretation, I read Jami’s work afresh from a distance in my own fashion.  I am happy to go with it, to enjoy it and to recognize its own validity as an attempt to release Jami’s great poem into the contemporary world.  For me, poetry or any expressive writing foregrounds words which insinuate ambiguities, ambivalences, echoes of unsaid significations; they are read or heard for themselves as much as for their meanings.  Like dreams, they become a conduit for displacement and condensation.  The reality of a poem lies through its language, which gratifies and disturbs the reader if the poem is to make an impact.  Both Fitzgerald and I try to attain a degree of surprise and unfamiliarity in our respective versions of Jami’s allegorical poem, which sounds out the mystical tradition of Islam. 

It is important to realize that traditionally poetry in the Muslim world is an organism for listening in concert rather than an artifact for reading in private.  This is true with Arabic and Persian poetry, and the poetry of the Indian subcontinent where crowds gather in mushairas or poetry concerts to listen to their favorite poets and poems.  One gathers with others to receive familiar metaphors of ecstatic utterance and recognition based upon a reservoir of tropical expectations.  Poetry becomes music, the content is contained and shaped by the form.  If one has to read this type of poetry in private, one reads as much with one’s ears as with one’s eyes.  Traditional poetry in the Muslim world is haunted by the charismatic and overarching presence of the Mother of all books—the Qur’an, the divine utterance which is the pith of poetry for Muslims.  One is enticed and bound by the power and wealth of a poem’s polyphony.  Thus the moment of longing, loss, ecstasy and understanding—common tropes in Muslim poetry and present in Jami’s poem—is reached by the ear rather than through the eye.  A poem is nothing if not heard properly; it is a molecule of intelligence and not an object of the intellect.  It is elusive as a butterfly on the wing with its subliminal shifts of meaning beneath its sound and words rather than a block of coagulated and blatant text.  That is why I proceed by way of assertion than by argument and reason – I am trying to hint at an intuition, an insight that comes to the reader like grace. It is with these presuppositions in mind that I tried to disentangle Fitzgerald’s text so that the pieces I actually read at the concert would make sense to the audience.  The stanzas that were used for the songs were not re-worked and the composer retained Fitzgerald’s translations.  However, my versions were fashioned so that they could be listened to as poetry rather than heard as songs.

At the start of the stanza I have chosen, Fitzgerald writes: 

OH Thou, whose Spirit through this universe,
In which Thou dost involve thyself diffused,
Shall so perchance irradiate human clay
That men, suddenly dazzled, lose themselves
In ecstasy before a mortal shrine
Whose Light is but a Shade of the Divine;
Not till thy Secret Beauty through the cheek
Of LAILA smite doth she inflame MAJNÚN;
And not till Thou have kindled SHÍRÍN’S Eyes
The hearts of those two Rivals swell with blood.
For Loved and Lover are not but by Thee,
Nor Beauty; – mortal Beauty but the veil
Thy Heavenly hides behind, and from itself
Feeds, and our hearts yearn after as a Bride
That glances past us veil’d–but ever so
That none the veil from what it hides may know.

Fitzgerald seems to be trying to lend both “authenticity” by ageing the verse in translation to represent a fifteenth-century Persian poet and accord Jami with tendentious “respectability” by using words, such as “thou,” “thee,” “perchance,” “doth,” “dost,” and so on, that have a Shakespearean tinge to them. He tries to represent the cultural “Other” in anachronistic fancy dress by way of squashed syntax and word disorder which deform intonation and convolute the meaning of the stanza. The text is crushed and crowded on the page.  It becomes unnecessarily obscure and difficult to read.  The style stifles the story.  I try to render a more open version by ironing out the archaisms and opening the rhythmic quality of the verse—we must remember that Jami came from an oral tradition where words were savored for their phonetic qualities. Thus I write:

If You, Oh God, whom we scarcely know to address,
Whose spirit is spread throughout the universe, shall
By chance see fit to dress our bodies and minds so we
May for an infinite moment be delivered into ecstatic
Oneness before a sacred place which reflects your rare light;

Not until Your beauty too is reflected on Laila’s face

Does Majnun grow mad with longing to merge and retrace
His soul with hers, nor do Shirin’s eyes work their celebration
On suitors for her represented love–the flow of desire between
Lover and the Beloved grows into shape only by Your energy
Enlaced in face and form, which Beauty makes and veils
Your shapeless shape and draws from it boundless strength;

Fitzgerald is partial to using capitals—MAJNUN, SHIRIN, MAN, THIS, THAT, ME and THEE—in order to emphasize the importance of the word in the text.  He even uses the ugly neologism DIVIDUALITY which I assume refers to the claims of the self that get in the way of sensing the Divine.  Fitzgerald’s attempts to achieve an element of mystery in fact mystify and the meaning of his translation of what is already a difficult subject— that of spiritual attainment—is lost.  Again, I try to achieve an element of openness whilst respecting the secret inwardness and delicacy of prayer and the reaching out to the all-powerful apostrophic Other, God, that I believe Jami tries to represent in his poetry in accordance with the traditions of Islamic mysticism.  Fitzgerald writes:

Look where I may, still nothing I discern
But Thee throughout this Universe, wherein
Thyself Thou dost reflect, and through those eyes
Of him whom MAN thou madest, scrutinize.
To thy Harim DIVIDUALITY
No entrance finds–no word of THIS and THAT;
Do Thou my separate and derived Self
Make one with thy Essential! Leave me room
On that Divan which leaves no room for Twain;
Lest, like the simple Arab in the tale,
I grow perplext, oh God! ‘twixt “ME” and “THEE;”
If I–this Spirit that inspires me whence?
If THOU–then what this sensual Impotence?

I have transposed Fitzgerald’s verse to read:
We yearn for this veiled face of Beauty’s bridal sense, hidden
Yet seen with the longing heart’s imagination which presents
You in all thought and all created clots of things that exist as
Signs of your energy surrounding and entering us, all in all,
The all-inclusive pace of your presence which travels through
Multifarious “this” and “that,” the many naked things which float
In Your creation, reflecting You and You and You nothing more to
Say or see than this, the bliss which accomplishes us to speak as such
And merge into the Beauty You define and state in us as ourselves
Repined from being as secondary fractions apart from you, flagrant
With You and I, departed from You who are all and everywhere;
 
Thus we remain perplexed, a spot on the face of your Beautiful forms
Unless You let us join Your company as mist joins the cushioned air.
Why read Jami?  Of what relevance is this fifteenth-century Persian poet/mystic’s work today?  I believe he is particularly relevant because if we read him with imagination and empathy, if we read him slowly by heart, we may discover or recover an obscure but profound aspect of ourselves attached to dreams—a world of melting images and mythical transformations—to the lava of the unconscious, to that radiating core, the daemon which feeds and recollects our visionary inner life.  Jami’s poetry can catalyze our experience into surreal convulsions, it can fire us to see through a raiment of words and sense correspondences, occult synchronicities and revelations in ourselves.  In short it introduces us to gnosis or inward eidetic knowing. 

On the face of it, the veiled story of Salaman and Absal is simple, as are most allegorical tales, but it is the hide of a powerful drama of trial and ordeal, of parting and desolation, of the derangement of the senses, of biting loneliness and bitter despair, of purgation and finally of certain direct knowledge.  It reaches beyond the dust of words and the bones of concepts: when we read Jami, we are invited to travel in from discursive knowledge, constructed from reason and quartered in our senses, to a noetic, ineffable score of awareness.  The poem is alchemy.  It is simultaneously signifier and signified, a signpost and a catalyst.  We are encouraged to cease the becoming of rationality and become the delirious being of perceptive experience and at least to imagine the ecstatic state of non-self which is at the heart of gnosis—that paradoxical cross-over state of mystical apprehending.  I recommend that we read Jami’s poem, but read it slowly with newly translated eyes that slip through the looking-glass of its words to a new mode of knowing ourselves.

[1] E Fitzgerald, letter to Cowell, March 20, 1857


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