Rumi Ruminations - Translating Rumi


Apparently translating from old Persian into modern English is not easy. A tension exists between being literal and true to the words used, and fully conveying the intent or meaning to a modern audience. This means that knowledge of both languages is one requirement, which goes without saying, but understanding the message of Rumi is also required. To show the range of possibilities thought acceptable by modern translators, I do several side by side comparisons. The highlight of this page is a three-way comparison of my all-time favorite Rumi ode, near the very end of the page, of course! .

Capturing the Ecstatic Flights of a Whirling Dervish In English
Challenges of the Translators

This is a review and commentary on several books giving the life and teachings of Rumi, the Persian poet from Khorasan (modern Turkey). I began with the book: Element Classics of World Spirituality, "Rumi's Divan of Shems of Tabriz, Selected Odes," A New Interpretation by James Cowan, Element, Rockport, Massachusetts, 1997.

Why did I start with this book? Because I had just finished a book by this author, "A Troubadour's Testament" (click to go to my review of it) and in corresponding with him ( click to go to his reply to my review ) found that he was very interested in the very thing I was: the fiery bond that exists between the Lover and the Beloved, and how for some it has been an opening into discovering the nature of Ultimate Being. In my opinion, Cowan makes an important contribution to the overall discussion of the nature of the relationship between Rumi and his soulmate Shems (or Shams) by adding into that discussions insights from his own life and readings.

I explore this aspect of Rumi's life in another page in this set of six pages, in which I explore the relationship between Shems and Rumi (Click to go there).

This set of web pages may be seen as a bit more technical. It discusses the words of Rumi and the challenge they have presented to translators.

Why is this of any interest at all? Because it explains why the same Ode, for example, can grab you in one book and leave you cold if read in another. The words are the ingredients, the poem is the main course. It may be the same course, but the way the ingredients are prepared and combined can make a real difference.

To me, Cowan's rewritten Odes are definitely easier to read and comprehend than the Odes in the work by Nicholson from which he did his rewrites. Cowan is not the only one, nor the first, to have worked on making Nicholson's prose version more verse-like.

To judge for yourself the increased clarity in Cowan's versus Nicholson's versions, please read this example, ode 48, one after the other (side by side would be better, but I just found out I don't know how to do that in HTML).

I was quite pleased that the few Odes that really touched me in Cowan's book were often the same ones selected for larger anthologies that picked and chose selected items from Rumi's enormous volume of writings! Lines were inserted into the Nicholson version, which had no lines, so that it would be easier to compare the original and enhanced-readability (Cowan) versions:

Cowan's Ode 48, pages 147-148:

At last you've left and gone to the Invisible;
How marvellous the way you quit this world.

You ruffled your feathers and, breaking free of your cage,
You took to the air, bound for the soul's world.

A favoured falcon, you were caged by an old woman;
When the falcon-drum sounded, you flew into the Void.

A love-sick nightingale among owls, you caught
The scent of roses, and flew to the rose-garden.

From this bitter brew you suffered a hangover;
At last you set out for Eternity's tavern.

Like an arrow you sped for the mark;
From this bow bliss was your target.

Like a thorn the world nettled you with false clues;
Dismissing them, you plucked that which is clueless.

Since you're now the Sun, why wear a crown?
Why wear a belt when you're gone at the waist?

I hear you look at your soul with dim eyes:
Why gaze at it at all, you're already En-souled?

O heart, what a flighty bird you are. In the chase for divine reward
Your two wings flew to the point of a spear like a shield!

From autumn roses run - what a fearless rose you are!
Wandering about in the company of a cold wind.

Falling as rain does on the roof of this world
You flowed all ways, then escaped down a drain.

Be silent and free from the pain of speech; yet
Don't sleep now that you've found solace with a Friend.

Nicholson's Ode XLVIII, pages 193 & 195:

At last thou hast departed and gone to the Unseen;
'Tis marvellous by what way thou wentest from the world.

Thou didst strongly shake thy wings and feathers, and having broken thy cage
Didst take to the air and journey towards the world of soul.

Thou wert a favorite falcon, kept in captivity by an old woman:
When thou heard'st the falcon-drum thou didst fly away into the Void.

Thou wert a love-lorn nightingale among owls:
The scent of the rose-garden reached thee, and thou didst go to the rose-garden.

Thou didst suffer sore headache from this bitter ferment;
At last thou wentest to the tavern of Eternity.

Straight as an arrow thou didst make for the mark of bliss;
Thou didst speed like an arrow to that mark from this bow.

The world gave thee false clues, like a ghoul;
Thou took'st no heed of the clue, but wentest to that which is without a clue.

Since thou art now the sun, why dost thou wear a tiara,
Why seek a girdle, since thou art gone from the middle?

I have heard that thou art gazing with distorted eyes upon thy soul:
Why dost thou gaze on thy soul, since thou art gone to the soul of Soul?

Oh heart, what a wondrous bird art thou, that in chase of divine rewards
Thou didst fly with two wings to the spear-point, like a shield!

The rose flees from autumn - O what a fearless rose art thou
Who didst go loitering along in the presence of the autumn wind!

Falling like rain from heaven upon the roof of the terrestrial world
Thou didst run in every direction till thou didst escape by the conduit.

Be silent and free from the pain of speech: do not slumber,
Since thou hast taken refuge with so loving a Friend.

This comparison of the above-cited Cowan book with the Nicholson translation used "Selected Poems from the Divani Shamsi Tabriz," Edited and translated by R.A. Nicholson, Cambridge University Press, 1977 (first published 1898). Cowan perhaps cites the original1898 version, since he rewrites an Ode 49 that is not in the 1977 paperback edition, at least not the one in my hands.

One of the odes that really struck me was ode 31. In that ode Nicholson has a phrase "I am not of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity" that Cowan rewrites as: "I'm not of Heaven, nor the dust on this carpet." In my limited comparisons, I sense that this sort of difference between Cowan and Nicholson is rare. And since in Ode 31 a similar thought is repeated several times with several more imageries, the change is not meaningful. But it caught my attention and made me wonder if this was another difference between the 1898 and 1977 editions. It is a curiosity, and really does not matter.

I divided Nicholson's lines to match Cowan's, who observed that: "By breaking the odes down into their original beyts, or couplets, I hope that their line of thought becomes less diffuse." (P. 41) I agree, it does.

Cowan suggests Nicholson "seems to have opted for a literal translation at the expense of the text's inherent verbal dexterity and beauty. In contrast, I have tried to render Nicholson's prose version of Rumi's lines using modern verse structures, believing that readers today are more familiar with these than they are with Victorian diction." (P. 41) So, the great difference between the two versions is like the difference between a King James Bible and a modern translation. For some this is a big and welcome difference, with much greater clarity achieved by the latter. For others it is very upsetting that verses they were raised on and may have memorized are now different, and in some cases have a different meaning! But let us not go there.

Instead, let us be sensitive to Nicholson who struggled over and discussed this very issue himself. In his Appendix II, he states: " My aim has been, without departing from the sense, to reproduce, as far as possible, the passion and melody of the Persian ." (P. 342) He then gives several examples of retranslations of previously translated odes but with emphasis on the rhyme and metric more than the accuracy of the content, and they read like songs or chants! An amazing difference in feeling, but a very hard thing to achieve for all the odes if the ideal is at the same time to preserve the " sense ," to not rewrite the meanings of the words used by the original author.

As Nicholson says at the start of his work: " My translation seeks to reconcile the claims of accuracy and art: it is therefore in prose. Obviously English verse cannot convey the full verbal sense of oriental poetry without lapsing into grotesque doggerel; the translator must either confess a general adherence to his author's meaning (see Appendix II) or, rising above the letter, he must catch the elusive spirit of his original and reproduce it in a worthy form ." (Preface, p. ix)

So, let's see how Cowan's treatment of Ode 31, one of my favorites, compares with Nicholson's treatment:

Ode 31, pages 113-114:

What can be done, O believers, as I don't recognize myself?
I'm neither a Christian nor Jew, Magian nor Moslem.

I'm not of the East or West; neither land nor sea;
I'm not of Nature's mine; nor the stars in Heaven.

I'm not of earth, water, air or fire;
I'm not of Heaven, nor the dust on this carpet.

I'm not of India, China, Bulgaria nor Saqsin;
I'm not of the kingdom of Iraq, nor Khorasan.

I'm not of this world, nor the next, Paradise nor Hell;
I'm not of Adam, nor Eve, Eden nor Rizwan.

My place is in the Placeless, my trace in the Traceless;
I'm neither body nor soul, as I belong to the soul of the Beloved.

I have dispensed with duality, and seen the two worlds as One.
One I seek; One I know, One I see, One I call

He is the first, last, the outward and the inward,
I know none other than He, and He Who Is.

Love's cup intoxicated me as two worlds slip from my hands.
My only business now is carousing and revelry.

If once in my life I spent a moment without you,
From that moment on I repent my own life.

If once in this world I win a moment with you,
Both worlds I'd trample under a dance of triumph.

O Shems of Tabriz, in this world I'm so drunk - now
Only stories of drunkenness and revelry pass my lips.

Nicholson's Ode XXXI, pages 125 & 127:

What is to be done, O Moslems? For I do not recognize myself.
I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Gabr, nor Moslem.

I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea;
I am not of Nature's mint, nor of the circling heavens.

I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire;
I am not of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity.

I am not of India, nor of China, nor of Bulgaria, nor of Saqsin;
I am not of the kingdom of 'Iraqain, nor of the country of Khorasan.

I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of Paradise, nor of hell;
I am not of Adan, nor of Eve, nor of Eden and Rizwan.

My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless;
'Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.

I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.

He is the first, He is the last, He is the outward, He is the inward;
I know none other except 'Ya Hu" and 'Ya man Hu.'

I am intoxicated with Love's cup, the two worlds have passed out of my ken;
I have no business save carouse and revelry.

If once in my life I spent a moment without thee,
From that time and from that hour I repent my life.

If once in this world I win a moment with thee,
I will trample on both worlds, I will dance in triumph for ever.

O Shamsi Tabriz, I am so drunken in this world,
That except of drunkenness and revelry I have no tale to tell.

Another team that attempted to redo Rumi's poetry in a more moving form was that of Jonathan Star and Shahram Shiva, in their book "A Garden Beyond Paradise, The Mystical Poetry of Rumi" (Bantam Books, New York, 1992). Like Cowan, they attempted to rewrite several of the Odes (as well as much other material), and like Cowan, for several items they used Nicholson's translation as their starting point. Others they translated from the Persian themselves. One of the ones they did not translate, but rewrote with an eye on the original, is the same Ode 31 that we have already compared between Cowan and Nicholson.

Nicholson himself also redid a part of this ode 31 in more poetic verse form, to show how difficult it is to do so and still respect the word usage of the original author. Star and Shiva observe of their work that: "All attempts to duplicate the Persian rhyme scheme and meter in English have proven impossible without an intolerable distortion to the sense of the original - thus we have abandoned this approch. Here we have tried to give the sense of the Persian by using an English style which is terse, cadent, and whose structure gives some sense of the repetitive and breathless urgency so characteristic of Rumi's original." (P. xxv) It is very interesting to take the words used to convey Ode 31 by these two authors (one of whom, Shiva, is originally from Khorasan and is the descendent of a long line of Persian poets), and compare them with the verse-form version that Nicholson rendered in his Appendix II:

Star and Shiva's Ode 31 (partial) , pages 146-147 (they give it the title "Who Am I?"):

What is to be done, O brothers?
I do not know who I am.

I am not a Christian, a Jew, a Magian, or a Muslim.
I am not of the East, the West; the land, or the sea.
I am not formed by Nature; nor by the circling heavens;
Not by earth nor water, nor air nor fire.
I am not the king nor the beggar;
Not of substance nor of form.

I am not from India, China, nor a bordering country;
Not from Persia, nor the lands of Khorasan.
I am not of this world nor the next;
Not of heaven nor of hell.

I came not from Adam nor from Eve;
I do not dwell in Eden nor the gardens of paradise;
My place is placeless, my trace is traceless.
Nothing is mine, neither body nor soul -
All belongs to the heart of my Beloved.

Nicholson's Ode XXXI (partial), Appendix II, page 344 (lines inserted to match previous version):

Lo, for I to myself am unknown, now in God's name what must I do?

I adore not the Cross nor the Crescent, I am not a Giaour nor a Jew
East nor West, land nor sea is my home, I have kin nor with angel nor gnome,
I am wrought not of fire nor of foam,
I am shaped not of dust nor of dew.

I was born not in China afar, not in Saqsin and not in Bulghar;
Not in India, where five rivers are, nor 'Iraq nor Khorasan I grew.
Not in this world nor that world I dwell, not in Paradise, neither in Hell;

Not from Eden and Rizwan I fell, not from Adam my lineage I drew.
In a place beyond uttermost Place, in a tract without shadow or trace,
Soul and body transcending, I live in the soul of my Loved One anew!

I stopped this comparison where Nicholson stops his verse version. Nicholson says of this attempt that the . . . "arrangement of the rhymes" . . . "corresponds to that of the original: a closer imitation could not be attempted, owing to fundamental differences of metrical system." (P. 342) Since I have already shown you the Cowan and Nicholson-prose versions in parallel columns, you know the ending of this ode already.

What come next is a three-way comparison of Ode 12 by Cowan, by Nicholson, and by Star and Shiva. Among these three translations, I find the Star and Shiva version the most compelling. Does it capture and convey the spirit of Rumi? Or does it improve on Rumi? Either way is fine by me as long as the translators fess up.

Cowan's Ode 12, page 73, (lines inserted in each to match other columns):

Every form derives its nature from the void;
If a form dies, its eternal nature will survive.

Every beauty witnessed, every thought heard,
These will not be trampled upon or perish.

The spring's source is unfailing, its streams offer unlimited water;
Since neither can cease, why are you crying?

Regard the soul as a fountain, all creation as rivers:
While the fountain flows forth, rivers swell.

Dismiss grief from your mind and drink your fill;
This spring will not cease, its waters are eternal.

From the moment of your birth a ladder
Was placed before you to help you escape.

First you were mineral, a plant, then animal:
There's no secret about your evolution.

Later you became man, equipped with knowledge, reason
and faith;

Look at your body, nature's dust-pit, how perfect it has

Leaving manhood behind, there's no doubt you'll become
an angel;

The earth you'll leave then, and head for Heaven.

Transcending the angel, become an ocean
Whose each drop will be larger than countless Seas of 'Oman.

With all your soul put behind you 'Son', adore instead 'One';
It doesn't matter how your body ages, your soul's young.

Nicholson's Ode XII, page 47 & 49:

Every form you see has its archetype in the placeless world;
If the form perished, no matter, since its original is everlasting.

Every fair shape you have seen, every deep saying yu have heard,
Be not cast down that it perished; for that is not so.

Whereas the spring-head is undying, its branch gives water continually;
Since neither can cease, why are you lamenting?

Conceive the Soul as a fountain, and these created things as rivers:
While the fountain flows, the rivers run from it.

Put grief out of your head and keep quaffing this river water;
Do not think of the water failing; for this water is without end.

From the moment you came into the world of being,
A ladder was placed before you that you might escape.

First you were mineral, later you turned to plant,
Then you became animal: how should this be a secret to you?

Afterwards you were made man, with knowledge, reason, faith;

Behold the body, which is a portion of the dust-pit, how perfect it has grown!

When you have traveled on from man, you will doubtless become an angel;

After that you are done with this earth: your station is in heaven.

Pass again even from angelhood: enter that ocean,
That your drop may become a sea which is a hundred seas of 'Oman.

Leave this 'Son,' say ever 'One' with all your soul;
If your body has aged, what matter, when the soul is young?

Star and Shiva, pp. 148-149, here titled: A Garden Beyond Paradise:

Everything you see has its roots in the Unseen world.
The forms may change,
yet the essence remains the same.

Every wondrous sight will vanish,
Every sweet word will fade.
But do not be disheartened,

The Source they come from is eternal -
Growing, branching out, giving new life and new joy.
Why do you weep? -

That Source is within you,
And this whole world
is springing up from it.
The Source is full,
Its waters are ever-flowing;

Do not grieve, drink your fill!
Don't think it will ever run dry -
This is the endless Ocean!

From the moment you came into this world
A ladder was placed in front of you that you might escape.

From earth you became plant,
From plant you became animal.

Afterwards you became a human being,
Endowed with knowledge, intellect, and faith.

Behold the body, born of dust - how perfect it has become!

Why should you fear its end?
When were you ever made less by dying?

When you pass beyond this human form,
No doubt you will become an angel
And soar through the heavens!

But don't stop there.
Even heavenly bodies grow old.
Pass again from the heavenly realm
and plunge into the vast ocean of Consciousness.

Let the drop of water that is in you become a hundred mighty seas.
But do not think that the drop alone
Becomes the Ocean -
the Ocean, too, becomes the drop!

Star and Shiva (pp. xxiii and xxiv) fess up to some enhancements, in my opinion, when they say the following about their process of translating Rumi, the history of tranlations of Rumi, and their own translation:

The first attempts to translate Rumi's poetry into English were made at the beginning of the [last] century by British scholars, who produced diligent and precise works and, by their own admission, with "minimal concession to readability." Contemporary American scholars, acting with more sensitivity to the reader, have offered a group of impressive and readable translations. A number of poetic versions have also re-translated Rumi into a more modern and familiar language. Though these works have helped us, and inspired us, none of them truly voices our feelings for Rumi or captures our connection to the "spirit" of his poetry. Thus, this work is our offering, our attempt to bring out Rumi's spirit-as we see it-and to convey it as fully and convincingly as language permits. . . .

Being infected with the same spirit, in other words, as they translate from the Persian they respect the intent of the mystic, and write what they believe that intent to be. An inspired translation! I like it, a lot. Is it therefore not scholarly? I think the answer to that one is "yes."

Now that we have this discussion about translations under our belt, let's go Rumi-nate! Since my Rumi-nations came after I put this section together, it should come as no surprise that I will add in Rumi-quotes in English from additional sources, as well as from the ones discussed above. The point of this section has been amply made, I believe: bringing Rumi to English-speaking readers is being done with both scholarship and imagination. Imagination may be the same thing as inspiration to the imaginer. I like the combination!