Better in Translation.

Anatoly Vorobey (Avva) has a post about his love for the veterinary memoirs of James Herriot (most famous in their filmed versions as All Creatures Great and Small) and his discomfiture on discovering that he preferred the Russian translation he’d read in his childhood to the original English. He goes on to say:

You might say that’s a silly thing to dwell on, of course a text in your native language is easier and closer to you. Maybe so. But I’ve been living outside of Russian-speaking countries for almost thirty years, and for at least the last twenty of them I’ve read in English more than in Russian. I read scientific books, nonfiction, belles-lettres, fanfic, and pretty much everything else in English. I very much love the English language and English literature, it causes me no difficulty to read complex literary texts — only pleasure! — and I always, always prefer to read a book in the original and not in translation if I can. I have absolutely no sense of being defective or lacking understanding when I read in English… and all those fine words dissolve, vanish into thin air, when I directly compare one and the same text by Herriot, very well written in both languages.

Казалось бы, нашел о чем думать, конечно же, текст на родном языке проще и ближе. Может, так и есть, не о чем думать. Но я живу за пределами русскоязычных стран уже скоро тридцать лет, и последние двадцать из них, как минимум, я читаю по-английски больше и чаще, чем по-русски. Я читаю по-английски научные книги, нонфикшн и худло и фанфики и что только не. Я очень люблю английский язык и английскую литературу, мне не составляет никакой сложности читать сложные литературные тексты – только удовольствие! – и я всегда, всегда предпочитаю прочитать книгу в оригинале, если могу, а не в переводе. У меня абсолютно нет ощущения какой-то своей ущербности и недопонимания, когда я читаю по-английски – и все эти прекрасные слова растворяются, улетучиваются в никуда, когда я напрямую сравниваю один и тот же текст Хэрриота, очень хорошо написанный на обоих языках.

I find this fascinating, and it reminds me of a Facebook post by Irina Mashinsky some years ago (I have no idea how to retrieve old FB posts) about how she still desperately loved the translation of Pnin she read as a young woman in Russia, even though she’s long since come to value Nabokov’s style in English. I’m trying to think of a similar instance in my own reading; the first thing that comes to mind is the famous poem by Archilochus whose translation I quote in this 2007 post (a discussion of Catullus and Virgil which I am glad to have the occasion to reread). I presume those of you who splash around in more than one language have experienced such things as well.


  1. “нонфикшн”?

    I can’t quite think of an example going from Hebrew to English or vice versa, where I clearly prefer the translation as text. However, in some translations of difficult texts the brilliance of the translator’s art outshines or at least equals that of the writer’s.

  2. Нон-фикшн – термин, обозначающий все произведения нехудожественной, прикладной литературы.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I can imagine that there may be Anglophone scholars of Persian who, deep down, prefer FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam to the real one.

  4. I loved several Burns translations more than the original, but I guess it isn’t too surprising if Russian rhymed poetry outshines English?

    Speaking of translations, I have a brand new Dostoyevsky dual-language edition which tersely refers to “Alexander Vassiliyev page on Amazon” but doesn’t seem to list any translator. What is that strange thing? I don’t suppose he translates it himself?

  5. One example springs to mind. There are two sonnets of Petrarch that I first encountered as translated into Russian and set to music. I found them both lovely and compelling, and set out to see if I couldn’t make some arrangement for one of the instruments I play. But it seemed silly to sing an Italian sonnet in Russian for the likely-mostly-American-English audience of my friends, so I went to look if I couldn’t rustle up a serviceable English translation.

    There are a few translations floating around, but ugh, nothing I’d be caught dead with. Medieval Italian doesn’t pull any of my strings, so it seems I’m just in love with the Russian translation of two sonnets.

  6. My grandparents had a framed Hebrew translation of Kipling’s “If” on the wall of the kids’ room in their apartment, which will to me always be the canonical “If”. The original, when I finally read it, disappointed me with its “sixty seconds’ worth of distance run” — weak sauce compared to the “sixty seconds’ worth of sweat and blood” of the (in places rather loose) Hebrew.

    (Incidentally, why Хэрриот beside e.g. Гитлер? Is there any regularity to this?)

  7. The sonnets are “Piovonmi amare lagrime del viso” and “Quando ’l pianeta che distingue l’ore”
    The musical setting is from the album Леопард в городе (Хелависа, 2009)

  8. belles-lettres — худло!

  9. TR: I believe г for /h/ is older, and grandfathered in for older names.

    Also, any idea which was that Hebrew translation? Do you remember the Hebrew lines? It doesn’t look like Jabotinsky’s or Reichman’s.

  10. It was the second one on this page, by Moshe Hanaami, who I now see was also to thank for the Hebrew Hobbit I was familiar with in childhood (not the notorious IDF pilots’ version). That doesn’t seem to have stuck in my mind as firmly, maybe because I read the book in the original not long afterwards.

    Interesting that Г was ever used for /h/, given that the phonetically closer Х was always available.

  11. It was from southern dialects and Ukrainian, where г was indeed /h/.

  12. How did they become the model for the standard orthography?

  13. For all the things educated, bookish and Western, Ukrainian pronunciation was a model because they were the learned folk in the XVII century, harnessing the education opportunities in Poland, establishing Kiev Mogyla Academy. By XVIII century, Lomonosov himself codified the rule that G*d has to be pronounced with the Ukrainian fricative G. But all other gods and goddesses were good enough with Russian plosive.

    Ukrainians themselves used a different letter of the alphabet for the Greek / Russian-style “harsh G”, and my Cossack ancestor’s Russian-derived surname was spelled with the special letter for the plosive G. But 3 centuries later, it’s become thoroughly Ukrainized and is now spelled and pronounced the regular Ukrainian way.

  14. David L. Gold says

    A Hebrew translation of Kipling’s “If” by Yair Lapid (the Israeli politician born in 1963? someone else?) is posted here:

  15. I think it’s the same Yair Lapid. He had a stint writing song lyrics.

    I’m sorry to say I don’t like the poem, neither in the original, nor in the translations I’ve read. The sentiments are shallow, the meter is painful. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll let my eyebrow descend and my nostril contract to their resting position, as I refill my meerschaum.

  16. John Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids” is considered to be better in Russian translation than in the original English.

    This is probably because the translator* was simply better writer than Wyndham.

    *Arkady Strugatsky

  17. The Lapid translation is as abominable as you would expect. Talk about painful meter. It can’t even decide what meter it’s in — it starts out by padding the pentameter into octameter, which is bad enough, but then he can’t even manage that and tacks on a foot or two now and then at will. It’s like Ogden Nash without the clever rhymes.

  18. And the bad grammar, too (לשקר ‘to lie’ is an intransitive verb, once you’re past fifth grade). I could only look at snippets of his version; I coould not get through the whole thing.

    Hat, speaking of Pnin, there’s also Pnin favoring the (fictional?) Russian Hamlet over the original.

  19. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Once when I heard Les Noces in English I found it horrible. For me the only true version was Ernest Ansermet’s recording in French. I used to play it every day. (I don’t think I’ve ever heard it in Russian.)

  20. John Emerson says

    I can’t remember which Stravinsky piece it was, very possibly Les Noces, but its narrator had the most extravagant, overripe, complacent BBC voice (maybe Oxonian) that I had ever heard, and I took the record off in less than a minute and never thought of putting it on again.

  21. John Emerson says

    Long ago I read that the very popular 19th c. Chinese translations of Dickens were actually retellings which absorbed Dickens into China’s own fictional tradition. I have a feeling (which I couldn’t justify) that Dickens was uniquely suited to such appropriation.

  22. John Emerson says

    Long ago I posted translation by Bellay, Quevedo, Spenser, Pound, a Polish translator, a Russian translation, and probably others of a Renaissance Latin poet Janus Vitalis, “Rome buried in its ruins”. The translations by Bellay and Quevedo were regarded by at least one anthologist as among their best poems. The piece has fallen off the internet, alas, and is buried somewhere on my computer, but it was discussed here.

  23. @John Emerson: Last summer I watched (on Britbox?) some episodes of a British TV series called Dickensian, which lifts Dickens’ characters bodily out of their stories and deposits them in new plots. It was clever and very well-done in terms of costuming and cinematography.

  24. Garrigus Carraig says

    @John Emerson I imagine you’re referring to this post and the related LH discussion here.

  25. Hat, speaking of Pnin, there’s also Pnin favoring the (fictional?) Russian Hamlet over the original.

    How could I have forgotten that? A perfect illustration.

    @John Emerson I imagine you’re referring to this post

    God bless the Wayback Machine!

  26. I consider the late 1970s/early 1980s Soviet television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes (“Приключения Шерлока Холмса и доктора Ватсона”) definitive, and far better than any of the many American or Briitish attempts to bring Conan Doyle to the screen. And I am not even Russian.

  27. It is one of a few (or maybe the only) Russian films that I occasionaly want to watch again.

    Not because I am of particularly low opinion of Russian cinema, it is just that I read books and rarely watch anything, and even when I like a film, I rarely want to see it again (or to reread, to that matter).

    I remember it each time when a foreigner (in Russian “foreigner” has good connotations) asks me to name some good Russian films. I think, what I would love to watch myself, and I am supposed to name something very Russian or very classic, or maybe Tarkovsky, but each time it is just Holmes and Watson:-/ Well, it is Russian in the sense: it influenced Russians.

    “Adventures of Sh.Holmes, but I am not sure you will like it, as for us it is how we imagine Holmes, and you likely have already seen a few other Holmses”.

  28. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Interesting that it is Приключения Шерлока Холмса и доктора Ватсона rather than, as I would expect, Приключения Шерлока Голмса и доктора Ватсона. What decides how they transliterate an h?

  29. Then maybe even Приключения Шерлока Голмса и доктора Уотсона:-)

    Ватсон vs. Уотсон is a famous issues here. Some transcribe this way, and some that way. But in Russian jokes it is always Vatson: “Oootson” just ssucks.

    But if you read Приключения Шерлока Голмса и доктора Ўотсона with Belorussian (Г /ɣ/ Ў /w/) or Ukrainin (~/ɦ/, cf. English uh-huh) accent, “Голмс” starts making sense… when still looking idiotic:)

  30. The Hebrew translation tradition has not been able to shake its continental origins, which cannot abide English spelling. This was far more egregious in the past, but to this day Lincoln is still /ˈlinkoln/ or /ˈlinkolen/.

  31. @Vanya: It seems to me that the director’s and the screenwriters’ approach was cosplaying the English. They didn’t strive for “realism” but rather let the actors play their characters as a Russian audience might imagine them. In the Russian mind, residents of Good Old England had thriven on oatmeal so Sir Henry was spoonfed oat porridge while recovering from his encounter with the fluorescent hound. “What is this, Barrymore? – Oatmeal, Sir!” became an all-Soviet meme before the word.

  32. If England was what England seems an(d) not the England of our dreams*….
    ….But she ain’t.

    * Cf.
    – За победу!
    – За нашу победу

  33. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Surely only English horses thrive on oatmeal.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    Quite so. There is unimpeachable lexicographic evidence for this proposition.

  35. PlasticPaddy says

    From Johnson’s Dictionary:
    Oats. n.s. [aten, Saxon.] A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

  36. I doubt does eat them.

  37. The line Pnin remembered in the Russian Hamlet, “Плыла и пѣла, пѣла и плыла”, is real.

  38. Could be
    “Oats. n.s. [aten, Saxon.] A grain, which in Scotland is generally given to people, but in England supports the horses.”

  39. The (upper and middle class) English mockery or oats as food for humans has always struck me as bizarre. For practical reasons, wheat flour is far superior in leavened baked goods. (Of the major Old-World grain staples, their suitability for baking goes roughly wheat > rye > oats* > barley > rice. If maize is included, it’s probably about equivalent to rye.) On the other hand, oats are, in my view, the tastiest grain of them all; rye is probably more flavorful, but the bitterness of rye detracts.

    It may actually be that the English were really looking down on oats solely as a metonymic proxy for porridge. Oatmeal, being made from the tastiest grain, is the tastiest kind of plain grain porridge, which probably explains its popularity among porridges. However, until relatively recently, with the advent of “quick” and “instant” oatmeals (invented in the 1920s and 1960s, respectively), cooking oatmeal properly required a lot of simmering. Unlike hominy grits, which are made by boiling ground corn, oatmeal has to be made out of at least partially intact oat kernels. (If you boil ground oats, you get something with a consistency more like gelatin than porridge.) If you start with whole kernels, the dish has to simmered for hours to make porridge. If you want to cut it to 20–60 minutes (depending on the batch size), you need to begin with processed oats. I think the traditional distinction is that rolled oats make Scottish porridge, and steel-cut oats make Irish porridge, but I strongly suspect that this division was never actually observed in practice.

    * It is peculiar that there is no mass noun oat—which is unlike almost all other grains.

  40. I don’t find rye bitter. Why didn’t it become a part of the Scottish diet as much as oats? It can be grown there, probably.

    Rolled oats can be prepared by long soaking, and so I also wonder why that wasn’t done in places like Scotland until the invention of muesli.

  41. John Emerson says

    Oats seems to be the grain least used for making spirits, though Google tells me that there are a few oat whiskeys.

  42. Oat complex sugars won’t convert to simple sugars on their own. Maybe that’s why?

  43. There’s a few good reasons for the comparative scarcity of oats in whiskey: a thick mash and low yields make oat challenging to work with, both operationally and commercially.

  44. Going back to the post: I think things can be “better in translation” in different ways, and it’s important to distinguish. One is when a genuinely mediocre text—that maybe didn’t get much editing in the original—benefits from the extra pair of eyes and all the tweaking that can be done even without drastic changes. Translation editors like to see smoothness, so translators tend to whip out their sandpaper, and while this can be disastrous for fine literature where every snag is intentional, it can make things that were not as well crafted from a stylistic standpoint much more pleasant to read. Another is when a brilliant translator does a brilliant job with a brilliant and difficult text, and that extra dose of brilliance is enjoyable in its own right, like Ginger Rogers doing everything backwards. Another is that we love our own language in a different way, so although the original may get extra points sometimes for unfamiliarity (a kind of attraction you wouldn’t feel for mom), there are some places it won’t go and some needs it can’t meet (mom is still mom). Plus, if the translation is good and the text is complex, then for everything that didn’t survive the crossing, there’s something else that we would have missed in an acquired language. Another—speaking of unfamiliarity—is that some texts are more nimble without their cultural baggage and do better in a place where their clichés are not clichés and/or their potentially offensive elements will offend no one.

    Another, and I think what’s going on here is this, with a side of “we love our own language,” is that we imprint on some versions we’ve read as children or teens and then can’t fully accept them any other way. This certainly happened in Italy with the retranslations of Catcher in the Rye and The Hobbit. I don’t know how well I would deal with different versions of, say, the Tove Jansson or Astrid Lindgren books. As a kid I had a beloved Penguin anthology of women poets from various eras and places; although the translations were generally excellent, I’ve come across other versions since then that would probably be more to my taste (in both approach and outcome) if I didn’t already have a deep attachment, but hell, I do.

  45. John Emerson says

    The Urquhart translation of Rabelais is recognized as an English classic, even though it is a very free / inaccurate / interpretive translation which is rather different in feeling than the original.

    Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam, a very very free translation of a minor work by a lesser Persian writer, is also a recognized classic in English. (I have been told that there isn’t even a one-to-one match between the translated stanzas and the original stanzas). Fitzgerald had the advantage that in his time Britishers who could read Persian were few.

  46. John Emerson says

    And I love Kenneth Rexroth’s translations from Chinese, Japanese, and Greek, but I have a feeling that I really don’t want to know how accurate they are.

  47. “… by a lesser Persian writer…”

    Khayyam is the only widely read poet in Russia, moreover, he is the only one that is sometimes quoted by people. In this respect he is ahead of Russian poets, maybe.

    Obviously, people in Iran also know him (and some even name him as their favorite), but I have no idea what they thought about him in 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th, 15th, 14th, 13th and 12th centuries respectively:(

  48. Quoting Omar Khayyam in Russian

  49. John Emerson says

    What I’ve read is that Khayyam is infinitely more important in English than in Persian, and that in Persia / Iran he’s not best known as a poet, but as a scholar. I didn’t know about Russia.

  50. Obviously, people in Iran also know him

    But that’s because of Fitzgerald. Obviously if the greatest colonial power in the world (which has taken over half your country) tells you Omar Khayyam is your greatest poet, you’re going to pay attention, even if you don’t believe it. Until the Brits started being fanboys, he was basically unknown as a poet in Persia.

  51. Rolled oats can be prepared by long soaking, and so I also wonder why that wasn’t done in places like Scotland until the invention of muesli.

    The Scots are a hard people inhabiting a harsh land. Any Scot who invented a soft, easy way of preparing oats would have been promptly dispatched to a more forgiving country.

  52. Then there’s Macpherson’s translation of Ossian, and indeed Tolkien’s translation of Baggins’ translations from the Elvish.

    Re oats: Allen Walker Read pointed out the 1888 OED entry on “buckwheat”, written by the Scot James Murray:

    The seed is in Europe used as food for horses, cattle and poultry; in N. America its meal is made into ‘buckwheat cakes’ as a dainty for the breakfast-table.

  53. David Eddyshaw says

    Ezra Pound’s various versions of Latin, Occitan and Chinese poetry, while not better than the originals, are nevertheless very good poetry in their own right. Certainly nothing like “mere” translations, anyhow. In all three cases, they are also something like transpositions into a different cultural key, to the extent that carping about actual accuracy is really beside the point: that was not what Pound was aiming at. They are rather like FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam in that respect, at least.

  54. Fitzgerald

    Their say “merci” (مرسي) and wear manteau. I quoted in another thread two Russian word of Persian origin, that were re-borrowed back. There is a speculation that renaming Iran to Persia was partly because “Aryans” were popular.

    Same with material culture.

    I know nothing about Khayyam’s fame within Iran before his international fame. But I suppose, others here do not know much about this too. Then how do we tell which route his international fame reached Iran?

  55. It is perfectly clear where his fame came from. From Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), Persian Literature, which happens to be at hand (p. 147):

    If there is one Persian poet whose name is almost universally known in the West, it is ‘Omar Khayyām. For many, indeed, he is the only Persian poet they have ever heard of. Yet the irony here is that, in the great world of Persian literature, Khayyām is a relatively minor figure; if he wrote poetry at all, it was only as the diversion of an amateur […] The main reason for this misconception is that the “Omar Khayyam” whose fame has spread throughout the Western world is not a Persian poet at all, but a mid-nineteenth-century English clergyman whose real name was Edward FitzGerald.

    It seems obvious that his fame reached Persia via the strong British presence in Persia; how else?

  56. @John Emerson, Russians usually do not think about him as a “mathematician”. All I can say: educated Iranians (like Russians) know him, (unlike us) they know that he was a scientist, and at least some of them like his poetry. What I mean: I think his fame is world-wide now, Iran included, Arab world included*. If Iranians have him in school, I’m not surpired. **

    I turn on Al-Jazeera and see a story about Pakistani human rights activist kidnapped by military and his daughter has distinctively Russian face, and then I notice that books on shelves behind her are in Russian and… it is Castaneda!

    *whatever Arabian nights meant to Arabs 100 years ago, now Arab children know them well, and Soviet Aladdin film borrowed Arabic intro from an Arab adaptation.

    ** I just learned that Khayyam is now taught in Russian school.

  57. promptly dispatched to a more forgiving country

    Or just promptly dispatched, intransitively.

  58. it is Castaneda!

    I was surprised to discover how popular Castaneda was among Russians in the 1990s, but all sorts of crackpot writers were popular as well.

  59. The girl.

  60. This is something different, but Turkish is completely alien to me, so I read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow in translation, and it struck me as rather like some of the 19th century Russian novels I’d read, also in translation, which opened up to me the recognition that Russian and Turkish thought would have been in direct conversation, two societies that grappled rather directly with each other, through war, culture, dominance of the people who the other had previously dominated, etc., rather than mediated through a Western European filter where they were all in conversation with Dickens and Balzac, or something.

    And I come to think that that’s true, despite the fact that I may have arrived at it entirely because of the limitations of the translators. (Or not – it’s beyond me to judge their success.)

  61. Dmitry Pruss says

    Apropos Omar Khayyam, there is a rumor that he disapproved of his Russian translations (too much cleaned up).
    At least there is a classic epigram,

    Из гроба встал Омар Хайям:
    – Кто переводчик?! – Осип Румер.
    Омар послал его к х*ям,
    Вернулся в гроб и снова умер

  62. My first exposure to Omar Khayyam was this (also a rare instance of Bullwinkle being smart enough to see a joke coming and to understand it).

  63. The February 12 TLS, p. 19, carries a review by Bryan Karetnyk of Bela Shayevich’s new translation of We. Of possible interest to this thread is this:

    “In a market of competing editions [. . .] Shayevich’s stands out, and for very good reason. Reading her version alongside that of her principal rival, Clarence Brown (1993), one is reminded of the degree to which tastes and expectations have changed in recent decades. Both are truly excellent renderings of the novel, but in pronouncedly different keys. Where Brown’s suave, perhaps too suave, version refines Zamyatin’s often fragmentary prose to a timeless elegance, Shayevich’s retains the novel’s bold, jagged, elemental energy, recapturing for today’s reader some of the immediacy and freshness of Gregory Zilboorg’s version in which WE made its world debut in 1924.”

    About “world debut,” Karetnyk reminds us that We wasn’t published in Russia until 1988.

  64. Shayevich’s sounds more my style.

    Gregory Zilboorg’s version in which WE made its world debut in 1924

    Yes, it first appeared officially in English, oddly enough. (Needless to say, it had been circulating in what was later called samizdat since 1920-21.) Mutilated excerpts were published in Volya Rossii [Prague] in 1927, triggering a campaign against Z in the Soviet press; it wasn’t published in full in Russian until 1952, in New York.

  65. This article starts witht he first quatrain by Khayyam that I remember.

  66. A satirical novel Moscow 2042 written in 80s by Voinovich and satirising that period, has a description of a monument to the [future] Generalissimus, instead of Pukhkin, on what today is Pushkin’s square. Pushkin is found too, just young and half as tall. G-mus is holding a book titled Selected Works, his other hand on Pushkin’s head.
    And then there other writers, each subsequent one smaller, and among them he finds himself.

    It is about lesser and minor writers of Persia:)

  67. That’s a variation on an old joke, where in a contest to design a statue of Pushkin, the winning entry shows Stalin standing proudly, reading the works of Pushkin.

  68. David Marjanović says

    Schlegel & Tieck turned Shakespeare into a German classic.

    Sein oder nicht sein, das ist hier die Frage – note the improved meter that we’ve talked about here before.

  69. Not so much. It’s normal in English dramatic verse for at least one foot (not normally the last) to be inverted (that is, a trochee rather than an iamb). So the stress pattern is “To bé | or nót | to bé || thát is | the qués(tion)”, with an inversion in the fourth foot and an extrametrical final syllable. In King Lear we have a line with no less than five inversions: “Néver, | néver, | néver, | néver, | néver”. And even more drastic variations can exist. Back to Hamlet: “Stáy! | Spéak! | Spéak! || I chárge | thee, spéak!” (Vertical bars are foot boundaries, double vertical bars are caesura boundaries).

    From a Quora response of mine:

    In Germany, Shakespeare is considered the very greatest of the second rank of 19C German Romantic poets (that is, after Goethe and Schiller). Some Germans go so far as to consider the Schlegel-Tieck translation superior to the original.

    On Kronos, of course, Shex’pir is the greatest of kick-ass warrior-dramatists. Unfortunately, we only have the originals of “paghmo’ tIn mIS” (known to the English as “Much Ado About Nothing”) and “Hamlet”. The others have not been found yet, and are available only in English translation.

  70. Kipling is a great Russian poet then.

    Especially in Konstantin Simonov’s translations.

    “Eyes of grey” in Russian is excellent even though it’s like 10% Kipling and 90% Simonov.

  71. PlasticPaddy says

    The line “stay, speak…” is not so odd if at least the first 2 instances of speak are disyllabic. There is a pronununciation like this in Midland, West and SW Ireland, e.g great = gree-at / gray-at. I see this is what you meant by the vertical bars, but then the only irregularity is a dropped syllable at the caesura.

  72. David Marjanović says

    Goethe is both Classic and Romantic, so there.

  73. It seems obvious that his fame reached Persia via the strong British presence in Persia; how else?

    There was strong Russian, strong German and strong French presence in Persia:/

  74. Yes, of course, but how likely is it that they would tell the Persians about the FitzGerald versions before the Brits did? Perhaps they learned about Pushkin via the French?

  75. David Eddyshaw says

    Persians (and Turks) of that era seem to have regarded French as the civilised European language,

  76. I’m sure they did, but how highly did the French regard FitzGerald?

  77. But are not we speaking about popularity of Khayyam in Iran?

  78. The one is tied in with the other; Khayyam became popular (in fact, known as a poet at all) because of FitzGerald’s translation. Of course, if you have information about a Russian, German, or French version of Khayyam that made him well known before FitzGerald, that would change the situation.

  79. In my big Russian Khayyam edition (Омар Хайям, Рубаи, Moscow, ЭКСМО, 2007) the editor M. Reysner confirms both that in Iran, Khayyam was, if not totally forgotten, at least not considered a major poet, until his popularity in Europe due to Fitzgerald’s work, and that in Russia he first became known through Fitzgerald, and that the first translations, into the first half of the 20th century, were mixtures of translation and free imitation, like Fitzgerald’s work. (As anecdata on the importance of Khayyam in Russian / ex-Soviet culture, I own two Russian editions of the Rubayyat, a big and a pocket one, that I got as gifts from different friends / family members on different occasions, both times handed over with words to the effect that they are an obligatory read for the wisdom and beauty they contain.)

  80. Thanks!

  81. “at least not considered a major poet”

    1. Grazhdanskaya Oborona was the most famous Russian rock group in 90s (and I think some time later too). In every dark enough corner you would find young men (schoolboys or a bit older) singing their songs, and I’m not even speaking of young men wearing bandanas with their symbols. But you would NEVER hear about them on TV. Never. All Russian famous rock mucicians would appear there once in a while, even often.

    Khayyam is not Saadi. Saadi is what they will teach in school:)

    2. The Russian article from 1890s that I am reading lists among manuscripts one owned by the author. It was bought in Bukhara and written in Kokand.

    And compare this, an article that I linked above. In the part about 20th century Iran it describes someones first encounter with “a cheap edition of his quatrains with a lot of spelling mistakes”.

    3. Numerous verses by Khayyam are thought to be written by numerous poets. Some are actually attributed to others in other manuscripts. But each one that was written by someone else multiplies his fame, at least his fame among people who attributed it to him.

    Then we have these facts:
    – Khayyam’s poetry.
    – Khayyam.
    – Either he wrote more than a thousand quatrains, or (in a certain place in certain time) he was so famous that others have ascribed that many to him. Having created a genre does not make you “less important”.

  82. I’m not sure what you’re arguing. The fact is, before FitzGerald he wasn’t particularly well known. That doesn’t mean nobody’d heard of him, but Persian has lots of major poets, and he wasn’t one. (Still isn’t, but at least he’s famous.)

  83. Specifically, he was known as a scientist / philosopher, who incidentally also had written some poems, but he wasn’t counted in the same league as e.g. Hafiz, Saadi, Firdousi…

  84. Right.

  85. In Russian terms it would be comparable if suddenly foreigners would start to enthuse about Lomonosov’s poetry and it would become fashionable abroad to know his odes by heart. 🙂

  86. Did Russian people keep ASCRIBING new poems to Lomonosov for 9 centuries in a row?

    And could I buy a fresh manuscript of Lomonosov or a “cheap edition” of Lomonosov 100 years ago?

    ʿAbd ‘l-Hosayn Zarrinkub (1923–1999) recalls:

    I can never forget my first acquaintance with Khayyam. I was eleven years old when I was first introduced to this grey old man. I do not know which of my father’s friends gave me a cheap edition of his quatrains with a lot of spelling mistakes, but I know very well that my father’s strict and thorough approach to rearing and educating me could neither exclude this book (which is from end to end unbelief, scepticism and apostasy) from our house, nor withhold me from having the book and reading it. In those days, there was nothing else in our house but the sound of daily prayer and recitations of the Qur’ān. In those days, I was a frail child who sought pretexts [to go my own way] and I was just recovering from a long illness. I do not know how many times I read the book, on that Friday at the end of February, but I do know that at the end of the day, many of the heart-ravishing, melodious poems had been engraved on the blank tablet of my mind. [. . .] I remember that one day I recited the quatrains for my grandmother. Tears filled her eyes, she cursed the poet, and then she went out of my room. Perhaps it was the same attitude [on her part] that had made my father an enemy of Khayyam.

  87. I do not know the exact status of Khayyam. I am interested in the world where these quatrains lived. I am not actually interested in his “size”.

    But I see attempts to downplay his status by Westerners and these go against what little evidence I have. I suspect hypercorrection on the part of Westerners. Orientalists glorifyed him, now anti-Orientalists are trying to fix it by downplaying his influence. If someone is interested in his status, then she can just say how many there are rubaiyat in manuscripts, how many authors (really many), and are there other people like Khaiyam, that have many rubaiyat ascribed to them over centuries. And are these different in style?
    This simple test.

    Then if it turns out that Khayyam is the main representative of a whole genre (quatrains about wine, etc.), and this genre kept thriving for 9 centuries, then it is an important phenomenon in Persian context – which is not what Laurence Paul Elwell-Sutton said.

    As for Hafez and Saadi, I think everyone knew beforehand that Khayyam’s poems were not memorized in madaris and performed in public by professional performers of Khayyam poems, like those of Hafez.
    I mean they do not teach to drink wine and challenge God there:/

    It is a totally different niche/genre. Now, in the modern world (and with Western influence too), of course the idea of “niches” ahs changed a lot, and they study Khayyam’s poetry very seriously.
    And WE, in turn, study our folk songs very seriously, it is also something new. But we do without claiming that folk songs were “diversions of amateurs” if they existed at all.

  88. I have heard Australians tell me that in that Australia, the Rubaiyat is almost inexorably tied to the country’s most famous unexplained death. The end of the Rubaiyat provided what might or might not have been a suicide note in the case.

  89. Well, no comparison is perfect, and while I wouldn’t exclude that there were cheap editions of Lomonosov a 100 years ago, simply due to the fact that he is revered as a founding father of Russian science, I certainly grant you that Lomomosov’s poetry is not a bestseller and for all I know wasn’t in 1920s Russia. But on the other hand, the memories of ʿAbd ‘l-Hosayn Zarrinkub quoted by you concern the early / mid 20th century, a time when the European Khayyam craze was already going on for over a generation and may well already have caused an upswing in popularity in Iran. What we really need is data from Iran from earlier than ca. the 1880s.
    Now, the fact that there were texts of Khayyam available to translate for Fitzgerald, and a late 19th century debate among Western orientalists referred to in the Reysner edition on how many, if any at all, of the Rubayyat in circulation were actually by Khayyam, confirm that he wasn’t totally forgotten, and that there were imitators (although my impression from the book is that the imitations were created mostly by contemporaries or in the couple of centuries following after Khayyam’s death). But that still doesn’t make him a popular poet. What I guess is that you suspect his popularity being bigger than generally assumed, due to his subversiveness? That he was the kind of poet many people read, but not many admit to, and that he was kept out of the official canon despite him actually being popular due to the content of his poems? But I am not sure that this is how pre-modern Iranian culture worked. In any case, I wouldn’t necessarily assume that the people telling that Khayyam wasn’t very popular and not considered one of the greats before the Western craze brought him to people’s attention in Iran have an axe to grind; they may simply be telling it as it is.

  90. @Hans, I will quote again what I am objecting to (there are many things that I am not objecting to:-)):

    Yet the irony here is that, in the great world of Persian literature, Khayyām is a relatively minor figure; if he wrote poetry at all, it was only as the diversion of an amateur […] The main reason for this misconception is that the “Omar Khayyam” whose fame has spread throughout the Western world is not a Persian poet at all, but a mid-nineteenth-century English clergyman whose real name was Edward FitzGerald.

    It is from Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), Persian Literature, p. 147 (from a comment above), and I think the chapter about Khayyam is written by Laurence Paul Elwell-Sutton.

  91. Khayyam is the main representative of a whole genre (quatrains about wine, etc.)

    i’m only very thinly familiar with persian poetry, but this raises my eyebrows. among other things, what it mean if it were true depends largely on the question (which i can’t answer) of whether ruba’i is a major form-genre in persian (whether on the model of the sonnet or the limerick).

    in any case, the wine/women*/death (to steal raymond scheindlin’s phrase) topos-genre that fitzgerald has left us associating with khayyam is at the heart of much of the arab-persian-turkish multilingual poetry tradition from al-andalus and the maghreb to turkestan and the former mughal lands (and its offshoots, like the european lyric tradition). and the genre’s main representatives are simply the major poets of the tradition as a whole: rumi, for example, who wrote plenty on those themes (and did write ruba’i).

    perhaps more importantly:

    by me, a long tradition of attributing later verses to a poet is a practically certain sign of the poet’s status as just-barely-known. you can’t get away with attributing things willy-nilly to a Major Poet. that’s practically by definition someone whose works are well known and whose style is widely familiar – exactly who pseudepigraphia doesn’t stick to. you’ve gotta go for a vaguely familiar name, a poet who people may hear of but whose work doesn’t really circulate. to give very u.s. examples: not walt whitman, but oliver wendell holmes senior; not bob dylan but richard fariña. (this works in reverse, too, as robertson davies pointed out in The Lyre of Orpheus: if you want to steal poetry, steal it from someone good but forgotten.)

    * usually actually boys, but god forbid a 19thC english translator should actually read poems in a language that doesn’t project gender into its grammar without imposing his [sic] own mores on it. scheindlin, i hasten to add, has no truck with that tradition (o! tempora!).

  92. I certainly grant you that Lomomosov’s poetry is not a bestseller

    They should be.

    His odes are particularly refreshing in their unashamed Russian militarism.

    Na vstoke, zapade i yuge,
    Vo vsem prostrannom sveta kruge,
    Uzhasny rosskie polki

  93. David Eddyshaw says

    a long tradition of attributing later verses to a poet is a practically certain sign of the poet’s status as just-barely-known. you can’t get away with attributing things willy-nilly to a Major Poet

    In the modern world, true: but not always in the past.
    Virgil (no less) acquired quite a number of pseudepigrapha:

  94. David Eddyshaw says

    Mind you, by that stage, Virgil was not so much a major poet as the Maximum Poet, so I suppose it’s not so remarkable that stray poetic planetoids would fall into his gravity well.

    The Welsh word fferyll “alchemist, chemist, artificer” is a borrowing of his name.

    The same thing happened to Homer:

  95. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Things also seem to have a tendency to attach themselves to Shakespeare

    I suppose once you’re famous *enough* you start to attract everything that’s floating around, even aside from the usefulness of your name to a person with an otherwise uninteresting work.

  96. Lomonosov was one of the major reformers of Russian versification in the 18th century, along with Trediakovsky and Sumarokov. Even if few people read his odes nowadays, he’s a key figure in Russian literary history. As Khodasevich wrote of Lomonosov’s Ode on the Seizure of Khotin (1739), “the first sound of the Khotin ode became our first cry of life.” Also, every literate Russian knows a few lines from his poems.

  97. Lomonosov is a polymath who tried everything – and known here as such. And particularly for going to Moscow on foot to study, across a good half of Russia:) Importantly, his known poems are not bad.

    My great-grandfather tried to repeat this, when he was 14. But he ended up in… Persia. (Which does not mean that I know more about Persia)

  98. I am an idiot.

    “in the great world of Persian literature, Khayyām is a relatively minor figure;”

    He is speaking about Khayyam the astronomer. Strictly this one. He is wholly concerned with authencity and not speaking about the role of Khayyam’s poetry (authentic or ascribed) and his image in Persia. Only about how PROLIFIC the author was:)

    Cf. his preface to In Search of Omar Khayyam:

    A Persian scholar, Professor Mojtaba Minovi, roundly declared that all four were the work of a still active ‘manuscript factory’ in Tehran, while Professor V. M. Minorsky wrote a detailed analysis of them14 which removed any lingering doubts and suggested that the principal source used by the forgers was Rosen’s edition of 1925.
    Such episodes, of course, tended to confirm the doubts of those who suspected that Khayyam was at best a very minor poet and perhaps not the author of any of the verses attributed to him.


    It is unrelated to our conversation! This is why the “size” of Khayyam for him depends on attribution.

  99. Similarly when he says: “Omar Khayyam” whose fame has spread throughout the Western world is not a Persian poet at all, but a mid-nineteenth-century English clergyman whose real name was Edward FitzGerald.”

    …it is about identy of the actual person and the image of the author that arises from FitzGerald poem!

    This is why accuracy of many Fitzgerald’s translations (e.g. the Wilderness quatrain) does not concern him much:

    Nevertheless the degree of FitzGerald’s faithfulness to his source was finally established by Edward Heron Allen in 1899.19 In a detailed analysis of FitzGerald’s poem he listed against each stanza the original Persian quatrains that he thought must have inspired the paraphraser, and came to the conclusion that, while virtually no stanza of FitzGerald’s was an exact translation ofa Khayyamic quatrain, nevertheless 97 out of the total of 101 could be traced back to one, or combinations of more than one, of Khayyam’s originals, and that only 4 owed their origin to two other Persian poets, Attar and Hafez.”
    P. 21

    Projecting FitzGerald on the West (where people read absolutely different translations) is wrong of course.

  100. I kind of don’t get it.

    I read Hayyam in Persian and it is obvious to me that it’s great poetry. No Fitzgerald needed.

    Perhaps for Persians he is not so great, but they can be picky – they have so much.

    Ānān ke kohan bovand-o ānān ke nov-and,
    Har yek pey-ye yekdigar yekāyek bešavand.
    V-in molk-e jahān be kas namānad jāvid,
    Raftand-o ravim-o bāz āyand-o ravand.

    My translation:

    Those who are old and those who are young,
    Each will be gone, one after one another.
    In this kingdom of the world, no one will live forever.
    They left and we’ll leave, others will come after us and they will leave too.

  101. Beside all these Omar Khayyam’s poetic genius, though perhaps not inferior in quality, is certainly vastly less in quantity
    (same source, p 11)

    SFReader, the author I quoted* does not question poetic talent of either real Khayyam, or an unknown person whose rubai was ascribed to him (among those in FitzGerald’s poem one is said to be by Hafez, as I understand).

    Those guys are concerned with authencity, and this particular author by “minor author” means exactly “did not write much”;) It took quite a while for me to realize this.

    *LH quoted somewhat later article by the very same person, I assume he means the same thing there.

  102. Perhaps for Persians he is not so great, but they can be picky – they have so much.

    Exactly. It’s why Russians have forgotten Alexander Veltman; when you have Tolstoy/Dostoevsky/Turgenev/etc., you can afford to forget writers who would be central in other traditions.

  103. Another sect, which is sometimes confounded with the Soofees, is one which bears the name of Moollah Zukkee, who was its great patron in Caubul. Its followers hold, that all the prophets were impostors, and all revelation an invention. They seem very doubtful of the truth of a future state, and even of the being of a God. Their tenets appear to be very ancient, and are precisely those of the old Persian poet Kheioom, whose works exhibit such specimens of impiety, as probably never were equalled in any other language. Kheioom dwells particularly on the existence of evil, and taxes the Supreme Being with the introduction of it, in terms which can scarcely be believed. The Soofees have unaccountably pressed this writer into their service ; they explain away some of his blasphemies by forced interpretations, and others they represent as innocent freedoms and reproaches, such as a lover may pour out against his beloved. The followers of Moollah Zukkee are said to take the full advantage of their release from the fear of hell, and the awe of a Supreme Being, and to be the most dissolute and unprincipled profligates in the kingdom. Their opinions, nevertheless, are cherished in secret, and are said to be very prevalent among the licentious nobles of the court of Shauh Mahmood.

    (An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and Its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India;
    comparing a View of the Afghaun Nation, and a History of the Dooraunee Monarchy.
    Of the Hon. Mountstuart Elphinstone,
    of the Honourable East India Company’s Service; Resident
    at the Court of Poona; and Late Envoy to the King of Caubul.

    1815 Google books

    New and revised edition 1842 Archive)

  104. David Eddyshaw says

    “Zukkee” is presumably the Arabic name زَكيّ “Pure”, which might be a touch ironic judging by Elphinstone’s horrified account. Disappointingly, I can find no information at all about this fascinating individual. He missed his time: it sounds as if he’d have flourished as a Youtube influencer.

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