Hiding Islam in Rumi Translations

My daughter sent me this article, published in The New Yorker in January 2015. “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi” is – in part – a remarkable and shocking story of how the original English translations of Rumi were “uncoupled” from their Islamic history.

Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University, says that it was in the Victorian period that readers in the West began to uncouple mystical poetry from its Islamic roots. Translators and theologians of the time could not reconcile their ideas about a “desert religion,” with its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez. The explanation they settled on, Safi told me, was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.”

Rumi’s poetry is beloved by many Americans, largely through the translations of Coleman Barks, but there is a controversy over whether or not Barks’ translations are true.

Barks, like other poets who seek to make secondary translations of poetry in many languages so that a mainstream American audience can understand, rather than finding a universal poetic essence, collapse distinct poetries into a familiar, feel-good, spiritual quick-fix. The strength in poetic expression is twofold: to show the human in all of us, but also to show us a new way of thinking about something, sometimes drastically so. Through Barks’ secondary translations, the lay reader sees the former but is deprived of the challenges of the latter.

Re-rendering orientalist or literal translations perpetuates the mistakes of past translations rather than move past them. We should not disregard past work on Rumi. Rather, we should analyze it, compare it with the original text, and suggest new translations that can benefit from the last half century of self-reflective translation studies and literary theory.

(From “Rumi for the New-Age Soul: Coleman Barks and the Problems of Popular Translations” March 2015, published in the Ajam Media Collective).

It’s always tricky to translate poetry (or any literature) into English (or any other non-original language) but Rumi has had it particularly tough. This article from the Chicago Tribune (July 2015) also discusses translations of the (Hebrew and Greek) Bible into English and about the problems of reading religious texts out of context.

So, if you’re looking for an understanding of Iranian poetry, or poets of Islam, look carefully. Read Hafez, of whose poetry there are fewer new-age translations. Read about Rumi’s life, so that you can understand the context in which his poems were written. Better yet, find a friend who reads Persian (Farsi) and ask her to read them in the original language and then have a conversation. Look for literature that will not necessarily sound like something you already understand.


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