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.


  1. Many of the same things are true of translating Chinese poetry, and one very influential scholar (Edward Schafer) believes that poetry translation from the Chinese is more or less impossible, and brags that his translations have no poetic value. My understanding is that his belief goes back to a dispute during the fifties between Kenneth Rexroth and Peter Boodberg, Schafer’s teacher. Schafer’s many books all specialize in very detailed exposition of the thick background of Chinese poetry and literature, e.g. “Pacing the Void” on the significance of astronomical imagery.
    Schafer’s most ambitious book, I think, is “Mirages on the Sea of Time”, which explicates the difficult poems of an obscure poet and shows that they are rooted in a very odd, more or less occult interpretation of reincarnation.
    Holzman’s “Poetry and Politics” is another book (on Juan Chi / Ruan Ji) which gives an idea of the difficulties of interpreting Chinese poetry — what seems to be fairly minor escapist poetry turns out to be the record of an anguished attempt to survive a perilous personal-political situation.
    To say nothing of the impossibility of approximating Chinese verse forms in English.
    I think that Schafer greatly overstates the case, but by now the translations by Pound, Waley, and Rexroth that got me into Chinese poetry seem almost as distant from the Chinese as I think Fitxgerald’s Omar Khayyam are. In both cases, something new unquestionably came into English poetry from Chinese and Persian, but Chinese and Persian poetry per se didn’t come across. This is supposedly always true of translation, but the difficulties between even classical Greek and English are much less than from Persian or Chinese.
    At present there are basically two different things going on — scholarly translation and study, and English poetry “from” or “after” the Chinese.
    Actually, some Chinese poems do come over. It’s not as bad as that. But even Li Po / Li Bai’s poetry has specific Taoist references that need explication.

  2. None of these notions have any force whatsoever in the Western literary tradition.
    This seems like an overstatement. Traditions can move closer to one another through mutual influence, and a later generation can find itself capable of translation after all. “Karma” for example is now a word in American English, so common it appears on bumper stickers. Nobody would think twice about its place in the Western tradition if it appeared in a poem, despite the freak-out that would have ensued in the 19th century.
    And mystical wine imagery is all through the Gospel of John, clearly from a common source that pre-dates the Islamic prohibition on alcohol. If that’s not the Western tradition, what is?

  3. The Pedantic Prick says

    I don’t see a big problem with the fact that we don’t prohibit alcohol in our society — the reader knows he’s reading a poem by a PERSIAN author, and wouldn’t be confused or dumbfounded to hear a PERSIAN describe alcohol as being a forbidden pleasure. Granted, you have to keep the proverbial “ignorant reader” in mind, but for God’s sake, how ignorant is he?!

  4. Well, pretty ignorant. Which is part of the point — readers at all open to foreign poetry have probably been exposed to a fair amount of Chinese poetry via the translators Zizka mentions, and regardless of the accuracy of the translations, many of the tropes have become reasonably familiar, whereas Persian poetry (except for the unrepresentative Omar Khayyam) is still pretty much terra incognita. I would imagine far more people have a nodding acquaintance with Li Po and Tu Fu than with Hafez and Sa’di. And, as Davis says, the conventions of Persian poetry are inherently more alien to us; it’s much easier to accustom oneself to meditations on the seasons or wistful evocations of old friendship than to effusive, repetitive panegyrics (full of allusions to a completely unknown set of cultural referents). On the other hand, Persian is a much easier language to learn than Chinese, so clearly the solution is to teach it in all high schools instead of French!

  5. There is always this sort of problem even with poems written in one’s own language. The poet must always assume that any given allusion will be lost to a certain percentage of his/her readers: one reader may understand a natural history reference, but miss a reference to the the Bible or a Greek myth. I think this is a particular dilemma for those of us writing post-canon, so to speak, in a multi-cultural society where familiarity with the poetry of Rumi (for example) may be more widespread than familiarity with the King James Bible or with Shakespeare. Older readers (or unhipsters like me) aren’t going to understand pop culture references. And even if a given poem is plain-spoken enough to communicate with a wide audience, there’s no guarantee that the reader will bring his/her full attention to bear. Yet another problem concerns the audience’s preconception of what is and what isn’t “poetic.” (There are still plenty of folks out here in flyover land who feel strongly that a poem should rhyme, for instance.) So the writer’s dilemma is always this: how far to go in the direction of the general reader without breaking faith with one’s material?
    I’m sure there’s a ton of abstruse critical theory devoted to this very question. But as a practical matter, from the writer’s point of view, every act of writing is an attempt to translate something from his/her private experience that is ultimately untranslatable. This is both the joy and the frustration of writing. I don’t feel a whole lot of angst about attempting to translate poems from other languages and cultures – as long is there is some core of an idea, some image or revelation that seems worth the trouble – because I see it as no more or less doomed than any other attempt to fit this teeming world into the confines of a poem.

  6. John Jainschigg says

    Lots of mystical wine imagery in Greek poetry, too. Not to mention opium- and hashish-sponsored English verse from Coleridge through the fin-de-seicle types. Re. Chinese poetry, it’s interesting to compare Waley’s earlier translations of the Cold Mountain poets with those of Burton Watson, also a Columbia scholar, from the 60s and 70s. You can definitely see, in Watson’s work, the mark of the age in which he wrote — with its firmer grasp of the Taoist gist, and its recent history of Beat and other experiments on ‘drunkenness vs. asceticism’ setting a background tone.
    Do you really think Persian is easier than Chinese?

  7. Do you really think Persian is easier than Chinese?
    Yes. Yes, I do. Persian is an Indo-European language (‘father’ is pedar, ‘mother’ is modar, ‘brother’ is baradar, &c) with a simple grammar, and there are no cases and only a couple of tenses, easily learned. Chinese, of course, is also grammatically simple in those ways (though you do have to learn a bunch of numerical classifiers), but the vocabulary is completely alien, so you have to learn every word from scratch, without the helpful historical connection. Furthermore, the Persian writing system, though unfamiliar (it’s Arabic with a few extra flourishes), is no more difficult than our alphabet; Chinese notoriously requires years of study just to acquire a decent reading ability. I’d say that Persian (which had most of its rough edges filed off in the course of centuries of being used as a lingua franca, much like Swahili) is one of the easiest foreign languages to learn, at least at a basic level, and I wish more people would give it a try.

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