Excerpt: From the Translator’s Note to Rumi; A New Collection Selected and Translated by Farrukh Dhondy

In the age of the Internet, Rumi quotes are everywhere. Like pop songs they sometimes provide instant gratification. At other times, their mysterious vocabulary lends itself to a range of interpretations. In the note appended to his new translation of the Persian mystic’s poetry, Farrukh Dhondy explains that contemporary readers err greatly when they overlook the fact that Rumi’s work is devoted to the philosophy, doctrine and poetic interpretation of Islam


My father’s family was fond of telling stories – about themselves, neighbours, acquaintances and even enemies. There was usually a comic twist to most of these tales. I don’t remember my paternal grandmother, though my sister and older cousins say they clearly do. My grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather was called Jamshed Saklatwala, the surname derived from the fact that his father imported jute from Bengal to Bombay and had a factory to turn it into ‘sack cloth’ for rough storage bags.

As far as I know, Jamshed was the only writer the family has ever produced. The others were professionals and men of the world, and the women were confined to being housewives and rulers of the roost. Jamshed was a scholar and linguist. He translated Persian texts, among them Rumi’s divine verses, though no evidence of these translations remains. What does remain in printed form is his translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. The family has a dog-eared copy of the book published in Bombay at the end of the nineteenth century. The family story maintains that Jamshed-ji, who lived in a joint family, would check the Parsi daily newspaper which contained notices and obituaries of Bombay Parsis and would attend their funerals, whether he knew the deceased or not. The tradition in Parsi funerals calls for the men to congregate outside the chamber where the dead body is laid and prayers are recited by a relay of priests. Women mourners sit in the chamber and only the men attend to the body when carrying it in procession to the Towers of Silence, the stone structures on top of which the body is laid for ‘sky burial’ – the Parsi Zoroastrian practice of feeding the dead to the vultures.

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Jamshed-ji, the story went, used these funerals as often as the passing of Bombay Parsis allowed, to get away from his demanding wife and probably find peace and quiet from the bustle of the joint family household. He would carry his notebook, pen, a book of Persian text and work away.

A good translation should endeavour to carry across the creation of one culture to the sensibilities of another. The further the cultures are away geographically or in time, the harder it is to make the transition. Translating poetry comes with an additional set of challenges. Traditional verse and its various forms have evolved over time. And although they serve different functions in different cultures, it is perhaps not surprising that many are parallels to each other. The function and sensibility of, say, romantic verse in the cultures of Bollywood film songs and Western pop music are very close. The melodies invoke sentiment and the lyrics most often portray the spells the beloved has cast on the lover’s heart and mind. The intentions of epic verse, whether of the Indian Mahabharata, of the Anglo-Saxon Beowolf or of the Greek Odyssey can be read with a transcultural lens. All of these tell a grand, episodic, story of one (or more) heroes.

Translations of Rumi into English famously began with the genius of William Jones who began publishing his versions of Persian verse in 1772. The first volume of this contained a lyric translation of a poem by Hafiz. Jones, a candidate for the bar at the time, was later sent by the East India Company to Calcutta as a high court judge and continued to translate other Persian poets including Rumi. His translations were read by his contemporary, Goethe, who confessed he was enchanted by them. Rumi continued to be rendered into English verse by several British translators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notably by JW Redhouse in 1881 and then by Nicholson and Arberry.

Firstly, Persian poetry uses poetic conventions, including traditional imagery characteristic to the culture and language, which as the clichéd phrase goes, often get ‘lost in translation’. Some examples of this are roses, gardens, nightingales, taverns, ‘Sakis’- the bartenders who offer wine -, animals, vines, grapes, goblets, tresses, moons, stars and pomegranates among others, all of which are stock fare, each rich with their multiple cultural connotations.

Secondly, and much more importantly, Rumi’s entire work is devoted to the philosophy, the doctrine and the poetic interpretation of Islam. Rumi’s Sufi verses may often appear to be mysterious and obscure in modern translations. The Sufism of the Masnavi and of the Diwan aims at the dissolution of self. Expressed in the most inadequate terms, it says that Allah, the ultimate and the everlasting does not preside in some alien sphere, but within one’s heart and that the dissolution of the self and the ego will lead to the amalgamation with the eternal spirit. So, how is one to engage with the work of Rumi in English?

Author and translator Farrukh Dhondy

Author and translator Farrukh Dhondy ( Courtesy HarperCollins )

The evolution of the English language can be studied through its poetry. Following the grammar and syntax of the verses over time – from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and contemporary rap culture, one can trace how poetic forms have also changed. Therefore, when it comes to translating thirteenth-century Persian poetry into this language, the translator must make the correct choices between innovation and cultural attention. That’s not to say inventive translations should not be attempted; but those who deviate from the formal constrains of traditional poetry, must try not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Unfortunately, much of the easily available translations of Rumi’s poetry into the English language has been undertaken rather carelessly.

Here, one instance among a thousand, is the obscure translated conclusion to a parable contained in Rumi’s Masnavi about a tattooist who operates with his needle upon a ‘patient’ who wants a lion tattooed on his shoulder but can’t stand the pain of the procedure.

Expect the poison of your impulses.
The sky will bow to your beauty if you do.
Learn to light the candle. Rise with sun.
Turn away from the cave of your sleeping.
That way a thorn expands to a rose.
A particular glows with the universal.

What is it to praise?
Make yourself particles.
What is it to know something of God!
Burn inside that presence. Burn up.

Copper melts in the healing elixir.
So melt yourself in the mixture
That sustains existence.

You tighten your two hands together,
Determined not to give up saying ‘I’ and ‘we’.
This tightening blocks you.
– Coleman Barks

These aphoristic phrases and injunctions don’t have any continuity of thought in the English language. One may ask oneself what it is to praise, but what has the question to do with ‘Making yourself particles’? And how does one ‘make oneself particles’? Again, as hands are not screws or knots, how does one ‘tighten’ them? One hand may clasp the other or clap against it, but has poetry in translation abandoned all appeal to sense and logic? The translators and their avid readers may argue that the entire point of Rumi’s verse is to advocate the surrender of logic, but Rumi’s verses never advocate this through embracing sentences that make no sense or through ridiculously mixed metaphors.

Statue of Rumi in Izmir, Turkey.

Statue of Rumi in Izmir, Turkey. ( Shutterstock )

On one hand, there are ‘translations’ which undoubtedly convert the source language word-for-word into the target language, but remain far removed from the allure of poetry. On the other hand, there are devotees who have given their lives to following the Mehlevi tradition of Sufi Islam and they have a mastery over Rumi’s teachings or meanings. Here is an example:

For lovers, there is a dying at every moment:
truly, the dying of lovers is not of one kind.
The lover has two hundred lives from the Soul of Guidance,
and he is sacrificing those two hundred at every instant.
For each life he receives ten as its price:
read from the Qur’an ‘ten like unto them.’
If my blood were shed by that friendly Face,
dancing triumphantly I would lavish my life upon Him.
I have tried it: my death consists in life:
when I escape from this life, it is to endure forever.

‘Kill me, kill me, O trusty friends!
For in my being killed is life upon life.’
O You who make the cheek radiant,
O Spirit of everlastingness, draw my spirit to Yourself
and generously bestow upon me the meeting with You.
– Kabir Helminski

This kind of translation reads like a recondite sermon that could be coming from any preacher of any mystic cult (though it does mention the Quran) and may appeal to the followers of such, but the translation does not do justice to the metre or rhyme of Rumi’s verses which in the Persian language are great examples of formal dexterity. However, the Helminski translations, being deliberately of the Sufi persuasion should perhaps not be subject to the demands of nonreligious verse and should be read as doctrinaire preaching.

Other well-intentioned translations are no more than literal prose broken into lines to look like a poem, but on a closer reading, it becomes clear that they lack any poetic charm.

The Lover comes, the Lover comes!
Open the way for Him!

He’s looking for a heart,
let’s show Him one.

I scream,
‘What you came to hunt is me!’

He says laughingly,
‘I’m here not to hunt you but to save you’
– Deepak Chopra

This Christmas-cracker stuff seems like it is aimed at the reader who doesn’t know that ‘the Lover’ in the Sufi pantheon is not the teenage neighbour in California or the person you exchanged glances with on the New York underground, but the spirit of existence within your own heart. The specific misappropriation and deliberate misrepresentation of the Sufi meaning of the ‘Beloved’ by translators has undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of the ‘love poems’ by inspiring contemporary readers with words and imagery which they easily relate to. However, it also is a gross injustice done to one of the key aspects of Rumi’s works: that the ‘Beloved’ is ‘God’ – not a bearded presence who reproduced man in his own image, but the ultimate ocean of energy and existence to which the Sufi aspires to return.

In my opinion, the translations which continue to command respect are those of the Cambridge professors R.A. Nicholson (1868-1945) and AJ Arberry (1905-1969). Their translations, done in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, which attempt rhyme and rhythm in some and render Rumi into free verse in others, are a solid body of work. Nicholson and Arberry’s translations reflect Victorian constructions and idiom, though they lack the memorable allure of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat.

Here’s Arberry’s rendition of one of Rumi’s Rubai:

Time bringeth swift to end
The rout men keep;
Death’s wolf is nigh to rend
These silly sheep.

Arberry has in other works rendered Rumi’s Persian into literal English which has then occasionally been transformed into English verse by several poets.

Nicholson’s Victorian renderings are still clear, musical and beautiful:

Up, O ye lovers and away! ‘Tis time to leave the
world for aye
Hark, loud and clear from heaven the drum of
parting calls –
Let none delay!

On a probably irrelevant, personal note, I insist on recording an incident that took place not long after I came to Britain from India on a Pembroke College scholarship. In the forecourt of the college in Cambridge, a fourteenth century construction, one of the staircases had the name of the resident painted at the entrance. It said ‘PROF A.J. ARBERRY’. In the subsequent weeks of the term, I observed the diminutive old figure with the assistance of a walking stick moving about on the college grounds. The college knew him as a renowned professor of Oriental Languages. Little did I realize then that decades later I would refer to his work to assist me in this effort!

While looking at the literary arc of the popular translations of Rumi, one must also pay attention to the socio-political and cultural conditions that they have been created in. For example, perhaps the proliferation of such popular translations that lack nuance is a fallout of the modern-day transformation of ‘spirituality’ from an inward-looking journey into meditating or chanting to alleviate worries or beg for material things. Our ever-advancing acquisitive society has, through its attendant disillusion, made space for a horde of ‘life gurus’ who offer you, for a price, of course, the most obvious, even fundamental nonsense as guidance for ‘living better’ or ‘finding yourself ’.

I believe the cult of bad Rumi translations, in a similar ironic way, persuades people they have deviated from the material world and acquired a degree of spiritual enlightenment.

Those who engage with Rumi’s works, as readers, scholars and translators, must keep in mind that Rumi wrote his verses as a preacher. His Masnavi comprised 24,000 couplets in rhyme and strict metre, spoken in several voices. Sometimes, he addresses the reader directly, as himself. Then he tells a story, either from the texts of the Quran or from the old and new Testaments, as well as from folklore and through his own invention. The characters in the stories begin to speak and then, as should be evident in my translations, insert an allegory before drawing the universal moral consistent with the Sufi faith.

Rhymes and puns from one language don’t squarely translate into another. A rhyme being a reflected sound, translators have to find the possible rhyming words and render the meaning with as little deviation as possible. The reason for attempting to render the English in rhyme is to try and convey some of the charm of the original. Though Rumi’s couplets offer rhyme schemes which the flexibility of Persian allows, rhyming the central syllables of the two lines on occasion and repeating the last syllables of each, this is not a form sustainable in English. The end-rhyme has been used by traditional English poetry from Beowulf to the present day. The elegance of Rumi’s verse deserves the effort to render his meanings as he does, in metre and with rhyme. These may be the most easily accessible attractions of verse, but to lose their disciplines renders Rumi in translation as chopped lines of, often nonsensical, prose. I have tried in this translation to attempt what Edward Fitzgerald so magnificently achieves in his rendition of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. If music be the food of love, to deprive Rumi’s verses of their musicality in his celebration and rendition of eternal love, is to leave the reader hungry.

Published on Hindustan Times