Friday, July 17, 2020

Kabir Helminski on Translating Rumi

"Although Rúmí was one of the first of the major Persian poets to receive the attention of the West and numerous translations have been completed, it has been about seventy years since the publication of the English translations on which we depend. With all respect for James Redhouse, the great R.A. Nicholson, and his student, A.J. Arberry, what they gave us in English were accurate word for word versions in Victorian prose. Even Arberry, the most recent of the three has confessed: "These versions, being in the vast majority the first renderings into a Western language, and intended primarily for nonspecialists, have been made as literal as possible, with a minimum concession to readability."

We have also seen "versions" of Rumi's work, i.e. renderings that use a literal translation of the text as a starting point for a poet to recreate a poem based on the original. Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, among others, have worked in this way, not only with Rúmí, but with other spiritual writers as well. Some of these versions have been very successful as poetry and have been helpful in introducing Rúmí to the modern world. It deserves to be mentioned, however, that versions, whatever their value, grant more license to the personal voice and imagination of the writer creating the versions.

The problem of translating Rúmí has two aspects that I would like to mention. First, the translator must not only acquaint himself with the cultural background of the work but should have some affinity or experience with the esoteric traditions out of which the poetry grew. Secondly, he must find or create equivalent terms for experiences that might themselves be almost anachronistic to the modern mentality. I agree wth the poet and critic Kathleen Raine who has said that the work of any serious artist our time is "to recreate a common language for the communication of knowledge of spiritual realities, and of the invisible order of the psyche.”"

~Kabir Helminski

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