Dick Davis’s On Not Translating Hafez is perhaps the best thing I’ve ever read on the differences between poetic traditions and the implications of such differences for translation. I’ve read a fair amount of Persian poetry (almost always in translation), and Davis helps me understand both the unaccustomed pleasures it affords and the vague embarrassment it can produce. He moves from specific examples (“Only in Persian will the pun in the medieval poet Mas’ud Sa’d’s line ‘Nalam bedel chu nai man andar hesar-e nai’ be evocative: the pun is on the word nai, which means a reed, and by extension a reed flute, and also alludes to the name of a fortress used as a prison”) to broader distinctions:
A subdivision of this mystical problem is the set of ideas metaphorically expressed in Persian poetry by wine, drunkenness, the opposition of the rend (approximately “libertine”) and the zahed (“ascetic”), and so forth. None of these notions have any force whatsoever in the Western literary tradition. It would never occur to a Western poet to express the forbidden intoxications of mysticism by alluding to the forbidden intoxications of wine, for the simple fact that the intoxications of wine have never (if we exclude the brief and local moment of prohibition in the United States) been forbidden in the West. The whole topos of winebibbing and the flouting of sober outward convention, so dear to Persian Sufi poetry, can seem in earlier translators’ work to be little more than a kind of rowdy undergraduate hijinks, and in more recent versions it can take on the ethos of Haight-Ashbury in the late sixties. But in both cases the deeper resonances of the topos are not obvious for a Western audience: they have to be explained—and to explain a resonance is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is over, no one laughs, except out of pained politeness, and no one is moved.
And he brings in comparisons to other art forms with brilliant effect:
The semantic separateness of each line within an overall mono-rhymed structure produces an artifact not unlike that of a musical theme and variations: each line is a discrete variation that is nevertheless tied closely to the overall theme, which is usually stated most succinctly in the opening or closing line. The mono-rhyme formally confirms that we always in a sense end where we begin, that psychological “development” from one stage to another is not, normally, what is being attempted or presented. This is not at all to derogate from the aesthetic authority of the poems, and I would not wish a reader to think that this is what I am implying. One has only to think of the overwhelming pathos and power of a piece like Bach’s C-minor passacaglia, or the poignancy of the return of the opening theme at the end of his Goldberg Variations, to recognize how artistically effective such a form, and such devices operating within the form, can be. Many of Hafez’s ghazals can certainly provide an equivalent and equally profound aesthetic experience.
If you have any interest in Persian poetry or the general issue of how cultural and literary traditions can hinder translation, I highly recommend this essay.
(Via wood s lot, which however links to a different version of the piece with at least one gap in the text that renders it locally incomprehensible.)
Addendum. This week’s New Yorker has a poem by Edward Hirsch, “Self-Portrait,” that nicely exemplifies the difference between the English-language and Persian poetic traditions. It starts off using a quintessentially Persian strategy of parallel couplets, with similar structures and no obvious development:
I lived between my heart and my head,
like a married couple who can’t get along.
I lived between my left arm, which is swift
and sinister, and my right, which is righteous.
I lived between a laugh and a scowl,
and voted against myself, a two-party system.
But look how it ends:
I suppose my left hand and my right hand
will be clasped over my chest in the coffin
and I’ll be reconciled at last,
I’ll be whole again.
That’s about as goal-oriented as you can get.