By Katy Butler
Years of spiritual work help a new breed of translators illuminate the modern wisdom in ancient verse.
EVERY AFTERNOON THE POET Coleman Barks walks up the stairs of his house in the university town of Athens, Georgia, to an airy sleeping porch that his son Benjamin has enclosed and turned into a study. There he opens literal and Victorian translations of the poems of the 12th-century Sufi poet and saint Jelaluddin Rimi.
“I find a page at random and start rephrasing it, trying to make it accessible, “ says Barks, describing the ritual he has followed for 14 years. “I love that randomness. It seems to be a way that the universe can speak through you.”
It is a muggy Georgia afternoon, after a night of summer lightning storms. Barks, a big bearish southern man who once played football at Baylor Military Academy in Tennessee, wears shorts and a frayed cotton shin. There is nothing ethereal about him.
He opens an old red book and smooths back a page. “I sometimes leave out the extravagances,” he says. His voice comes slowly, like a man searching for something hidden in a deep well; it ends in questions and caresses, opening ecstatically into talk of Rumi, and then trails away. “In the Persian, Rumi is fill of rhyming. You can have six internal rhymes in a single line. To the medieval mind, these arabesques, and all the repetitions, were a sign of devotion—it’s like Arab architecture.” He reads a sample from a translation by A. J. Arberry, a turn-of-the-century Cambridge Islamicist:
Lord of beauty and quintessence of loveliness
Enters the soul and mind us a man will stroll in the garden at spring.
Come, come, for you are the life and salvation of men.
Come, come for you are the eye in the lamp of Joseph…
Then he reads his own re-translation:
The lord of beauty enters the soul
As a man walks into an orchard in spring.
Come into me that way again.
Light the lamp in the eye of Joseph…
“Today, the sign of devotion is the clear plain talk of the man who’s trying to be honest,” says Barks. “That is the sign of ecstasy—stammering, rather than ornate overstatement.”
FOR BARKS AND A NUMBER OF OTHER contemporary poets including Robert Bly, Stephen Mitchell and Buddhist poet Jane Hirshfield, translation has become a spiritual path. The result is a wealth of ecstatic poetry, stunningly translated from Persian, Hindi. Japanese, Chinese and even Netsilik Eskimo Unlike the highly qualified academic translators who preceded them, the new poet-translators rarely speak the language they translate from. Working with linguists and literal translations, they re-phrase the poems in simple English words that one might overhear at a coffee shop or whisper to one’s lover in the middle of the night. To sharpen the impact, they acid words or leave out phrases, and their free hand with ancient texts has disturbed some scholars. Yet at a time when contemporary American poetry has become the possession of a remote, closed circle who seem to speak more and more gracefully about less and less, they have returned poetry to a place of vital importance in the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary readers. Nowadays it is not unusual to find otherwise nonliterary people quoting Rumi or the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in conversation; mailing a poem by the 15th-century Hindi saint Kabir to a friend in trouble; or buying Jane Hirshfield’s The Ink Dark Moon for a lover on Valentine’s Day.
That popularity is reflected in a volume of sales unheard of in the field of poetry today. Coleman Barks’s first collection of Rumi translations, Open Secret, sold more than 25,000 copies—a bestseller in a field where it is unusual for a collection to sell more than 10,000 copies. The Ink Dark Moon, a collection of love poems by medieval Japanese court women, has sold 15,000 copies, Stephen Mitchell’s version of the Tao Te Ching, completed in less than four months, sold more than 80,000 copies and won a $130,000 advance from Harper & Row Perhaps what readers are most hungry for in Rumi, Kabir, Rilke and Lao-tzu is their fluency with a spiritual dimension. Reading these poets helps a person digest the wealth of Eastern religious practices brought to the West in the past 20 years. It brings eroticism and body-based longing into the ethereal diction of Western spiritual tradition. It enriches our culture with ancient wisdom. “Our tradition is very narrow,” says best-selling author, poet and men’s advocate Robert Bly. “The Persians have 3,000 years behind them, and what do I have-two or three Ludieran ministers who weren’t even sure that what they were talking about was true? It’s the obligation of our poets to go back and eat the literary history of the world.” And when the poets are themselves embarked on a spiritual path—as many modem translators of these ancient texts are—they bring to the eating a keen appetite and a deep appreciation.
MY OWN INTRODUCTION TO sacred poetry came ten years ago, long after I had stopped reading most contemporary American poetry. It was Christmas, at twilight, and I was being courted by the man whom I later married. We walked through the city streets after Zen meditation to his apartment in the slums. He changed out of his robes and gave me a piece of white paper, scrolled and tied in black ribbon. Beautifully calligraphed and illustrated with a bold Sanskrit syllable evoking Vairo-cana, Buddha of all universes, it contained this poem by Kabir as translated by Bly:
It’s the wanting-creature inside me;
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travelers on the river road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or resting?
There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!
And there is no body and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.
Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
There you will have a solid place jar your feet.
Think about if carefully!
Don’t go off some where else!
Kabir says this: Just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things And stand firm in that which you are.
The poem grabbed me by the shoulder across continents and centuries. In Bly’s translation, Kabir was spiritual but not sticky He united body and soul. He used common, everyday words as well as an elevated spirituality. (“By sweeping up and clown the way Kabir does,” Bly has said, “the body and spirit become connected again. If you want a spiritual point to come across with full force, you need to use absolutely ordinary cat-and-dog language.”)
I was in love with poetry again. In subsequent years, I stumbled across, and then searched out, other translations. In a Berkeley bookstore, I opened Unseen Rain, a collection of Barks’s Rumi translations:
The light you give off did not come from a pelvis.
Your features did not begin in semen.
Don’t try to hide inside anger
Radiance that cannot be hidden.
The poem stunned me with its bluntness. Radiance and semen, anger and light. Again, body and soul were united in language that oscillated between the vulgar and the pure. Later, I found Jane Hirshfield’s translations of the erotic poetry of medieval Japanese court-women, and a book of sacred poetry called The Enlightened Heart, collected by Stephen Mitchell. I did not know then what the poems were doing to me. I only knew that I kept them by my bed and read them before I went to sleep. Looking back, I see they were leading me away from a path of religious renunciation and toward what the medieval Christian mystics called the via affirmativa—a reaching for God by embracing the world and the body, with all their yearning, sadness and sweetness, without becoming lost and entangled in them.
“In Rumi, you feel a constant conversation going on between spirit states and vulgar states,” Bly observes. In Coleman Barks’s versions, he continues, “Rumi is being translated for the first time into a language that satisfies the soul as well as the spirit, and simultaneously confuses both. The vulgar language confuses the spirit. And the desirous soul becomes confused when it becomes clear that the wine Rumi speaks of is not real wine, but spiritual wine. In that confusion, as Coleman would say the door opens and we slip in.”
IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY TWENTY years ago, Americans reading sacred poetry in translation were like listeners at a closed door. They heard a few clear notes of a flute, perhaps, but mostly silence, distortion and muffled sounds. As Stephen Mitchell, the poet-translator of The Book of Job and the Tao Te Ching has commented, about reading The Book of Job: “It was like hearing a voice in a distant room. You know the voice is beautiful, but you can’t make out the words.”
Very little English poetry—with the exception of William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins—contained the earthy,
The words are like a meal. You just serve them. I see my role as a cook, or at least a waiter. I bring the food out and take the plates away.
COLEMAN BARKS ecstatic quality of the non-Western traditions. Except for some translations from Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder and Ezra Pound, most non-Western poetry in translation sounded like The Prophet or The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam— elevated Victorian doggerel, full of thees and thous and strained rhymes.
According to Bly, that sort of language no longer works for English readers; it lost its credibility shortly after World War I. Bly explains by citing a famous essay by Robert Graves called Goodbye to All That, which blames idealistic European language and thinking for failing to foresee or prevent the carnage in the trenches. “In the West, elevated language is basically the language of denial,” says Bly. Graves believed that it leads directly to mass death because it’s so attractive it hides the shadow.
Bly discovered this truth the hard way in the 1950s, when he first tried to translate the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke into English. “Rilke wrote a great deal in high German, and I tried to use an elevated Shakespearean language to get the elevated quality, “ he says. “It was a failure.” Bly says he abandoned the language of denial as he came to terms with his own family history. “I came from an alcoholic family, and I was already tilted toward that language. My first book was called Silence in Snowy Fields, and when I think of the darker things in my own family. I think it meant, I’m not going to talk about it.”
In his early 40s, Bly began to admit the truth of his family history, he also translated Pablo Neruda and Antonio Machado, whose works in Spanish contain the earthy language of the village and traces of the Arabic and Jewish influences on Spanish culture.
Kabir later took him further. “I don’t think that what I’ve accomplished with iron John would have been possible without Kabir,” he says now. “I suppose what I’ve done is urge myself to get out of denial in relationship to my own father. And Kabir has helped. Kabir doesn’t hide the shadow.”
Bly discovered Kabir in the 1960s, when the poet James Wright gave him a copy of One Hundred Poems of Kabir, translated by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, Kabir, an illiterate 15th-century weaver who lived most of his life in a back alley in Benares, is claimed as a saint by both Muslims and Hindus. The songs he made up were intensely religious, and yet playful enough to taunt the sacred dogmas of his time. Though they are sung by wandering Indian holy men and women to this day, they were unknown in English until Tagore translated sanitized versions of a few in 1911.
“I opened Tagore and read, ‘I laugh when I hear the fish in the water is thirsty,’ and said, ‘Who is this genius?’” recalls Bly. Working off and on from Tagore, Bly slowly wrote new “versions”—published in 1977 as The Kabir Book. Some years later, Bly says, he heard Swami Muktananda answer someone’s question with two lines from Kabir:
Let others, go on eating shit.
You just speak the holy name in your heart.
“And I realized that Kabir was even wilder than I had thought.” Kabir, says Bly, was a “wild man”—part of a soulful, vulgar religious strain that has been suppressed in the West.
“The Catholic Church not only destroys the people like Kabir and Rumi, it destroys the women, the humor, the vulgarity, the wild man values. In India, both lines—the wild men and the elevated ‘bald men’ of academic religion—are loved and kept alive by the common people and the saints. That’s why you’re reading Kabir and Rumi rather than American poets,” Bly says. “It’s very sad.”
FOR THE POET TRANSLATORS the work of translation has provided both cultural and personal medicine. For Coleman Barks, Stephen Mitchell and Jane Hirshfield, the poems first led toward spiritual practices and teachers. For all of them, translation later became a way of expressing what they had learned.
For Barks it began in 1976, when he was a poet and a professor at the University of Georgia with a longstanding but rather academic interest in mystical subjects. At a conference on the Great Mother, Bly showed him A. J. Arberry’s formal translations of Rumi. “Robert thought they were poems in cages,” Barks recalls. “He said they needed to be let out.”
Trapped in the Arberry translations were the spontaneous utterances of Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, originator of the Sufi turning practice known as “dervish dancing” and widely regarded as the greatest poet of the Muslim world. Rumi lived in 13th-century Konya in what is now Turkey when it was the western end of the Silk Road and the crossroads of the Christian, Islamic, Hindu and even Buddhist worlds. He was a fairly conventional Islamic religious scholar until age 37 when a wandering Sufi dervish known as Shams of Tabriz threw alt of his theological books into a well. According to legend, Rumi met Shams’s wordless challenge, and the two men entered week-long periods of mystical conversation and merging. Rumi’s conventional students became jealous and plotted revenge. Shams either disappeared or was murdered—the legends vary. Out of the meeting with Shams and the pain of separation, Rumi’s poetry began. The religious scholar was now an ecstatic and for long nights he and his disciples turned in circles to the sound of the reed flute, the lute-like oud and the drum. As the music rose and fell. Rumi began spontaneously uttering his intricately rhymed poems. By the time of his death in 1273 at the age of 66, his students had recorded more than 40,000 odes, quatrains, discourses and teaching stories in medieval Persian.
Rumi was first translated into English at the turn of the century by two Cambridge Islamicists, but he remained thoroughly obscure to English speakers until Barks returned to Athens after the Bly conference, bent on finding a linguist to help him. In a hallway at the university, he asked a Sanskrit scholar if he knew of any Persian linguists and was given the name of John Moyne, a computer expert at the City University of New York.
“I wrote John, and wonderful coincidences began to happen,” Barks says. “John wrote me back a letter on New Year’s Day 1977. He had always wanted to find a poet to help him translate Rumi. He wrote, I have all the manuscripts. We begin now!”
Moyne began sending Barks literal translations. “When those packets came, it was like food,” Barks recalls. “I would keep them on my person at all times and work on them wherever I was. I was amazed at what was being said, the joy and freedom of it. It was a very strong pull, an opening of some sort that I couldn’t deny.
“When I first read Walt Whitman and Whitman’s descendants, William Carlos Williams and Galway Kinnell. I fell very free, knowing that anything in my Life could be included in a poem,” he says. “Rumi sort of upgraded that sense of freedom to include some sort of soul-work or spirituality that’s ecstatic.”
Barks first undertook the translations as a kind of devotion, with no thought of publishing. As he worked on the poems, the poems worked on him. In May of 1977, four months after he began translating, he slept outside one night near the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, behind the house when; he had grown up.
“I dreamt a UFO, a ball of light, came off the island across the river and came right over to where I was sleeping and clarified, from the inside. There was a little man sitting there with a white thing over his head. He had his head bowed, but he raised his head and said, ‘I love you.’ And I said, ‘I love you too.’ And the whole landscape was filled, saturated with love.” Later that year, Barks met the man he had dreamed about. At the suggestion of a law student who had heard his Rumi translations, he had gone to Philadelphia and entered the modest room of the Sufi teacher Bawa Muhaiyaddeen The meeting was as important in Barks’s tile as Rumi’s first encounter with Shams of Tabriz. It was the moment when intellectual knowledge gave way to something lived. Until Muhaiyaddcen’s death in 1986, Barks continued translating Rumi and visiting Muhaiyaddeen, listening to his stories and jokes, but learning the most just by being in his presence.
“Nobody quite knows his life history,” says Barks, clearly hesitant to reduce his experience of his teacher to words. “He spent 50 years in the jungles of Ceylon studying God just through looking at the animals, not taking notes.”
“I would have no idea what Rumi was, what his poetry was about, if I hadn’t sat in the presence of Bawa,” Barks goes on. “Bawa, that being, whoever he was, was a real mystery to me. There were boundaries that he just went right through. The normal sense of who we are, he just cracked that to pieces….” Barks’s voice trails off.
FOR BARKS TRANSLATION IS A KIND of spiritual practice in itself. He recognizes that one can never reproduce the original poem in all its nuances and connotations, and he also knows that his own limitations have affected his translations.
The poetry of Rumi, he says, has been like a Rorschach test for him. “When I first began translating, I saw a lot of erotic imagery That’s in Rumi, but that’s not my focus now. Then I saw a kind of Whitman-like expansion in Rumi—I think it was there—then laughter and comedy. I could do the same poems again and hear different tonalities in them, hear different strains being emphasised of the inner life. It’s an expression of my own growth.”
Which brings up the question—is it really Rumi we are reading or some thinly veiled version of Coleman Barks? Isn’t his presence there in every poem? Perhaps. “Re-working Rumi,” he says, “allows me to say things that I want to say, that I say through him.”
But it’s not simply a case of expressing the views of the small personality of Coleman Barks, he says, and illustrates with an example; “One year, I had to leave the Bly conference early, and I asked my friend Andrew to hand out Rumi books for me after I left. The next morning the man who was driving me to the airport told me he had dreamed about Andrew giving away books of mine. They’d had no chance to talk to each other. The only conclusion I can draw from that little glimpse into the working of things is that sometimes our minds are not discrete. We go into each others dreams even. If so, then who are we? Do I write out of a voice that’s Coleman? Or is it truer to write out of the voice of a whole lineage of people? And who gets the royalties? It’s a communal effort.
“I’m a phraser. I phrase things,” Barks continues. “It’s a talent that I have, so that I can get out of the way and let something
The main challenge in Lao-tzu is translating the subtlety and depth of the spiritual
experience. So I had the chutzpah not to learn Chinese.
BARKS AND OTHER CONTEMPORARY poets often feel their spiritual experience allows them access to the heart of a poem that lies beyond its words, and this gives them license to depart from the original form. In Barks’s case, rhyming patterns, stilted to the modern ear, are abandoned and bluntness replaces respectful arabesque. Translator Stephen Mitchell simply left out passages of Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching that he felt were the product of a “narrower consciousness” than the rest of the text. In one Kabir poem, Robert Bly substituted the somewhat jarring image of a “loaded gun” for a medieval weapon. Working only from a translation by Tagore, who was working from a Bengali translation of Kabir poems which had been orally transmitted in Hindi for centuries, Bly changed many things freely, calling his works “versions” rather than “translations.”
“There are some poets who are so marvelous that you simply pull the fish out and throw it in the pan and see if you can eat it,” he says. “I’m not taking responsibility for the accuracy. I’m just having a good time.”
Such taking of liberties has opened this new crop of poet-translators to criticism from academic purists.
“People sometimes ask me, ‘Why is so-and-so’s translation so much more interesting than yours?’” says Burton Watson, adjunct professor of East Asian languages at Columbia University and the respected scholarly translator of Han-shan’s Cold Mountain and other works “And I have to tell them, ‘It’s because he made up half of it.’” Watson recalls Gary Snyder’s version of poems by Han-shan. a Buddhist recluse in 9th-ceniury China, that came out at about the same time as his translation. “It was written in a very West-Coast American idiom. For instance, he talked about being ‘high on mountains.’ Some people who read it complained that ‘This is the Sierras in California, it’s not Cold Mountain any more.’”
RECENTLY SOME ACADEMICS GRUM-bled when Stephen Mitchell received a $130, 000 publisher’s advance for his translation of the Tao Te Ching, a text he had never read in the original. In his defense, Mitchell says his extensive experience with Zen meditation gave him other qualifications for the job.
“The main challenge in Lao-tzu is translating the subtlety and depth of the spiritual experience, not the linguistic level. So I had the chutzpah not to learn Chinese,” Mitchell says “I felt I had a kind of umbilical connection through my Zen training that allowed me to understand at a level beneath the words.”
Mitchell’s translations of Rilke and The Book of Job—both from languages that he knows well—were acclaimed for their technical accuracy and poetic brilliance. But those translations, too, depended on a firsthand experience of the spiritual subject matter.
Like Bly, Mitchell feels his experience with a spiritual path is what qualifies him in his task as translator. He first turned to The Book of Job in 1966, when he was a graduate student at Yale, studying Hebrew and Hasidism and suffering over the end of his first love affair.
“The pain in my heart was so intense that after a year or two of trying to get a handle on it, I felt myself magnetically drawn to The Book of Job,” he says. “It was the one place I knew where there was a profound encounter with the question of human suffering—and an answer.” he says. Little is known about the biblical book, written in verse, which so drew Mitchell, although scholars think it had its origins in a folktale and was written by a gentile between 600 and 400 B. C. Widely regarded as parable for the post-holocaust age, it tells the story of the faithful job, who loses his children and his fortune and is struck with plagues and boils until he cries out to the heavens for an answer to why suffering strikes “good people.” Finally a voice speaks to Job from a whirlwind:
Where were you when I planned the earth?
Tell me, if you are so wise.
Do you know who took its dimensions, measuring its length with a cord?
What were its pillars built on?
Who laid down its cornerstone, while the morning stars burst out singing and
the angels shouted for joy?
“I thought that if I could somehow understand that voice, I would be able to solve the problem of my own personal pain,” says Mitchell “What drew me was the sound of truth, the depths of life.”
Six years later, Mitchell gave up trying to understand the words and looked for a teacher “for whom the words had become flesh.” After years of studying Judaism, he went outside his culture. In a tenement building in Providence, Rhode Island, he met Seung Sahn (Soen Sa Nim), a Zen teacher newly arrived from Korea who was making a living repairing washing machines in laundromats. Soen Sa Nim was sitting at a kitchen table in his undershirt and a sailor’s cap, “His eyes had a light that I had never seen before in any eyes.” Mitchell recalls. “It was as if I could walk into them as far as I could go, miles and miles and miles, and at the end of them meet myself.”
Mitchell began practicing Zen “like a madman” and sitting a seven-day sesshin every month. “I had painted my self into a comer. Either I was going to die or find my answer.” Six months later, during a sesshin, Mitchell had a spiritual opening from which he said he could understand the voice that answered Job from the whirlwind. The experience made it possible for him to embrace everything that makes up the way things are—the good and the bad. the light and the dark. He returned to his translation with more confidence and quietly polished it for years until it was published in 1979.
In the process, Mitchell became a biblical scholar, but that alone wasn’t enough “If I hadn’t bumped into the Zen tradition, hadn’t actually stood at the place where the voice from the whirlwind was addressing Job,” Mitchell says, “I never could have presented my vision.”
PERHAPS THE MOST CAREFUL OF the new poet-translators is Jane Hirshfield, whose The Ink Dark Moon, a book of translations of poems by two master poets of the Heian Court of 9th- and 10th-century Japan, won a Columbia University translation prize in 1987. The poets, Izumi Shikihu and Ono no Komachi, were court ladies who had numerous love affairs, and their poems are soaked with eroticism and longing, and with the self-consciousness of court society Yet they transcend mannerism because of their vivid brevity and their Buddhist awareness of life’s quick passage.
Hirshfield first discovered a handful of their poems when she was a literature student at Princeton in the early seventies, “I was young and failing in love a lot, and things were ending.” she recalls. “My own experience was being given back to me in these beautifully achieved, compressed little poems.” The poems eventually led Hirshfield to study Buddhism, and she spent three years as a monastic student at Tassajara, a Zen monastery organized along Japanese lines in the mountains near Big Sur, California.
Hirshfield, who has published two well-received books of her own poetry, spent a year translating the two Japanese women poets with the help of native Japanese speaker Mariko Aratani. They met weekly throughout 1985 in what was a labor of love, filling out elaborate charts giving the literal Japanese as well as the cultural connotations of each word. Then Hirshfield worked alone, reproducing the poems’ five-line forms but not their strict 21-syllable meter. Hirshfield tried to recreate each poem’s effect on her, rather than the exact text, but she stayed as close to the text as she could. When the poems seemed too abstract, she added an occasional concrete image or word. To a poem of Shikibu’s reading literally. “While lying down without taring about black hair’s tangling, longing for the person who stroked it first,” Hirshfield added the word, “uncombed,” to produce this poem:
Lying alone, my black hair tangled, uncombed.
I long for the one who touched it first.
Although the Hirshlield-Aratani translations have been praised by Asian scholars, Hirshfield thinks it is far preferable for the translator to speak the language. “When I discovered a handful of these poems when I was a college student, I thought that if I just waited, someone who spoke Japanese would translate more of them,” she says. “But nobody did.”
On the other hand, she had other qualifications. “I think I am one of the few poets alive today who lived for three years in ways similar to those Japanese court women,” she says, referring to her experience at Tassajara. “We lived in a world with no heat or electricity, with kerosene lights, temple bells, close quarters and thin walls. I was a poet and a woman who had fallen in and out of love a lot—as the poets had—and these were my other qualifications.”
To Hirshfield, both poetry and her Zen practice are spiritual paths. “Poetry is a path, and a way to wake up. It’s virtually a yogic practice.” she says. “When you read a real poem, you and the poet are different by the end of it, and in this way, poetry and religious practice are
When you read a real poem, you and the poet are different by the end of it, and in this way, poetry and religious practice are very close to each other.
GIVEN THE GIFTS CREATED BY THE present marriage of these poets’ sensibilities and the poetry they have encountered, it is perhaps shortsighted to quibble about the authenticity of their English renderings. Linda Hess, a Hindi scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, notes that the art of translation is always fraught with dilemmas. “It’s a dangerous business,” she says. “As soon as you write down a single word, you’ve already committed some error. In a sense, you’re a killer, but in another sense, you’re a life-giver.”
Hess, who has translated Kabir herself, admires Robert Bly’s versions of the poems. “If you want to look at things from a scholarly point of view, they aren’t translations,” she says. “But you should forget the scholarly point of view and see Bly’s work as picking up an oral tradition and transmitting it. giving his versions with real insight. I’m a scholar, but I don’t want to be a scholar when I read Bly’s Kabir, I want to drink it in.”
Burton Watson says he appreciates the way this new crop of translators is introducing the ancient texts to a whole new readership- “We need all different kinds of translations,” he says, “very literal ones for historians and scholars, and something else to reach out to a wider audience. In any case, any translation is going to last only a little while,” he says, referring to the fact that translations are ephemeral and must constantly he re-cast in contemporary language to reach new generations of readers. “They are creations of their time.”
For Coleman Barks, the job of translation is to serve as a channel for an understanding that, although it must be couched in words, ultimately points beyond them.
“Rumi is always trying to say the un-sayable, and that’s difficult,” says Barks. “He believes that all the sounds we make are like the reed flute that could not make any sound unless it was pulled from its source. No matter what song it’s playing, it’s singing, ‘I want to go back to the source.’ Its hollowness means it’s not where it wants to be, where it came from. But it wouldn’t be able to make music unless it had first been pulled from the reed bed. All human sound, all language is a grieving. All it’s saying is separation.
“When you hear Rumi’s poems, you don’t feel so disconnected. I hope that when people read this poetry, that it’s speaking in their voice. That somehow the language becomes transparent. There’s no Rumi. There’s no me. It’s them speaking”
©1991 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.