Monday, August 3, 2020

Transcreating Rumi

For lovers of Coleman Barks' versions of Rumi, this book, 'Mystical Poems of Rumi' by A.J. Arberry, should be a place of pilgrimage. This is the source of most of his transcreations. The way the story goes is that Robert Bly introduced this book to Barks in 1976 saying, these poems need to be released from their cages.

Here is Arberry on his book in the introduction (it is one paragraph which I have divided into five for blog readability): 

"These versions, being in the vast majority the first renderings into a western language (and the modern Turkish translation has been fully consulted), and intended primarily for non-specialists, have been made as literal as possible, with a minimal concession to readability. Short notes have been appended, to clarify obscurities and to explain unfamiliar allusions. 

For the rest, the reader is earnestly advised to make himself familiar with the Mathnawi in Nicholson's translation, and with the Fihi mā fihi in my own Discourses of Rumi. The poet is always consistent in his thought, and often repetitive in his expression, so that all his writings shed an abundance of mutually clarifying light. 

When all is said and done, however, it must be admitted that a number of passages in these poems still baffle the understanding, which is hardly surprising, considering the occasional nature of some of the references (for these poems were the spontaneous utterances of an ecstatic, unpremeditated and unrevised). 

There is also the further difficulty, that the language of the poems, though of course greatly influenced by literary style, is basically colloquial. It incorporates many Khorasanian idioms, affected by long residence in Arabic-speaking and Turkish-speaking lands, all from seven hundred years ago, so that the colloquial usages of the present day are not always a reliable guide.

Rūmī himself appears to have been conscious of the elusive, evanescent nature of his utterances, as when he says (in poem 125 of this selection), "My verse resembles the bread of Egypt—night passes over it, and you cannot eat it any more.”"

And here is Franklin Lewis on Barks and Bly and Rumi (one para divided into 3 here): 

"On the other hand, Bly and Barks tend to present Rumi as a guru rather calmly dispensing words of wisdom capable of resolving, panacea-like, all our ontological ailments. This effect is created in their writing not only by simple diction and plain sentences, but by the tendency to resolve paradoxes, and in the breathy knowing pauses and placid demeanors of their recitation style.

In reality, Rumi, especially in the Divân, is a poet of overpowering longing, trying to grope through his acute and shattering sense of loss – loss of Shams and alienation in the material world from the spiritual source - to achieve catharsis, usually in some kind of silent, sagacious suffering.

Rumi's Persian ghazals, spontaneous, excited, full of sonorous, urgent sound play and rhythm, constantly toy with unresolved paradoxes, and do not impress the reader with a sense of serene wisdom calmly dispensed, but with frenetic search and longing to understand. Bly and Barks's view of Rumi corresponds more closely to the tenor of the narrator of the Masnavi than to the poet of the ghazals."

And of course there is the backlash to Barks: The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi.

So I decided to try my hand at one of Arberry's translations which Kabir Hemninski also translated. 

Here is the Arberry:


Sit with your comrades, do not go to sleep; do not go to the bottom of the sea like a fish. 

Be surging all night like the sea; no, do not go scattered like a torrent. 

Is not the water of life in darkness? Seek in darkness, and do not hurry away. 

The nightfarers of heaven are full of light; you too, go not away from the company of your companions. 

Is not the wakeful candle in a golden dish? Go not into earth like quicksilver.

The moon shows its face to the night-travelers; be watchful, on the night of moonshine do not go.

And here's Helminski's translation:

Search the Darkness

Sit with your friends; don't go back to sleep.
Don't sink like a fish to the bottom of the sea.

Surge like an ocean,
don't scatter yourself like a storm.

Life's waters flow from darkness.
Search the darkness, don't run from it.

Night travelers are full of light,
and you are, too; don't leave this companionship.

Be a wakeful candle in a golden dish,
don’t slip in the dirt like quicksilver.

The moon appears for night travelers,
be watchful when the moon is full.

I just found the Coleman Barks version:

The Ocean Moving All Night

Stay with us. Don't sink to the bottom
like a fish going to sleep.
Be with the ocean moving steadily all night,
not scattered like a rainstorm.

The spring we're looking for
is somewhere in this murkiness.
See the night-lights up there traveling together,
the candle awake in its gold dish.

Don't slide into the cracks of ground like spilled mercury.
When the full moon comes out, look around.

And finally here's my transcreation of the Arberry translation:

My Rumi A-282

Stay with the ship and do not fall asleep. Do not sail away to the bottom of the sea. 

Gather yourself as the ocean surges. Do not disperse into the tempest. 

Night travelers are bathed in heaven’s light. Do not fade away from their circle. 

The water of life is rising from the darkness. Stand in the dark and do not light away. 

The midnight candle sits in a golden dish. Do not bury yourself in quicksilver. 

The moon guides all travelers at night. Stay in focus and do not let your full face go. 

It's obvious to me that Heminski also used Arberry as his template, although it's said he did go to the Persion or Farsi as well. Mine is a transcreation and so wanders from the original but in a direction which I feel is closer to the intent of the original. Also, in my transcreation, I tried to stay with the parallelism, paradox, nonduality, and form (the couplet is in each line although I am reconsidering this strategy and dividing the lines into an actual couplet). At the least, the process was enjoyable, and I look forward to a second.

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