a community of lovers
Rumi’s poetry and prose was composed in Persian, and those of us who do not understand this language must of course rely on translators to bring Rumi’s words to life. Translations of his work into European languages first began appearing in the late eighteenth century. French and German renderings led the way, with English translations not appearing until the end of the nineteenth century. Of the earlier English translators, it is Reynold A. Nicholson whose work continues to be of immense value to us today. He was a local lad (that is, local to us here at Rumi’s Circle), being born in the Yorkshire town of Keighley in 1868 (I am fond of recounting this fact – it is as if Rumi and Yorkshire have an established relationship).
Nicholson became an outstanding linguist and scholar, specialising in Arabic, Persian, and Islamic Studies, and lecturing at Cambridge University. With publication beginning in 1925, he was the first person to translate Rumi’s entire Mathnawi into English (accompanied by a commentary). He also translated many of the odes from the Divan-i Kabir. Şefik Can, a twentieth-century Mevlevi shaikh from Turkey and a man who had some ability to assess these things, offers this affectionate picture of Nicholson’s dedication to Rumi:
Nicholson was not only a great Orientalist and a renowned scholar but also a great lover of God. As related by his friends and students, he would shed tears during Mesnevi lectures, becoming enraptured. In a room of his house decorated in oriental fashion, he would prepare the explanation of the Mesnevi dressed in clothing wearing the long, round Mevlevi hat on his head. It is said that Nicholson completed this commentary in forty years.
[Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought, Şefik Can]
Nicholson’s translation and commentary on the Mathnawi can be found in eight volumes going under the title of The Mathnawi of Jalalu’din Rumi. He passed away in 1945.
Nicholson was succeeded as Head of the Oriental Languages Department at Cambridge by A.J. Arberry, who was the first person to translate Rumi’s Fihi Ma Fihi into English. This book’s gnomic title translates as ‘In It What Is In It’. It is a collection of prose lectures that Rumi gave to his followers, and Arberry’s translation was published in 1961 under the title of Rumi’s Discourses. Arberry also translated many selections of Rumi’s poetry, and in his introduction to Mystical Poems of Rumi, he modestly makes the following wish:
[Rumi] invites and deserves the most attentive and intensive study, by a succession of devoted scholars, whose combined explorations will vastly improve upon our first halting attempt. Future generations, as his poetry becomes wider known and more perfectly understood, will enjoy and applaud with increasing insight and enthusiasm the poems of this wisest, most penetrating, and saintliest of men.
[Mystical Poems of Rumi 1, translated by A.J. Arberry]
Arberry passed away in 1969, and from the 1970s/80s onwards the main focus of inspiration for translating Rumi into English seems to have shifted across the Atlantic to the U.S.A. With so much of Rumi’s message being about beauty, his poems yearn to find beautiful expression, and whilst Nicholson’s and Arberry’s literal renderings in their scholarly, archaic English are invaluable translations to turn to when we want to know exactly what Rumi said, it is fair to say that they can be quite dry and do not capture the poetry, nor the colloquialism, of the original Persian. This is an area that contemporary contributors to the translation process have often tried to address – with varying levels of success and with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original. Most are not professional linguists themselves, and they rely on the work of Nicholson and Arberry (or colleagues fluent in both English and Persian) to navigate around the original. However, what the very best of them do tend to bring is a gift for poetry, some limited grasp of Persian, and, crucially, an experience of Sufism as a lived reality. Though fine scholarly translations continue to be offered (by American Mevlevi shaikh Ibrahim Gamard for instance, and English professor Alan Williams and his former student Jawid Mojaddedi), it is these more poetic collections focused on the spiritual needs of our time that have led to an explosion of interest in Rumi in the West.
Many are familiar with the translations of Coleman Barks, and his were the first translations of Rumi’s work that I came across. Barks is himself a Sufi (a follower of the late Bawa Muhaiyaddeen) and a remarkable poet. To hear him recite his versions of Rumi in his rumbling Southern baritone, accompanied by musicians, is quite something. His renderings of Rumi are extremely free with the original text, paraphrasing and sometimes missing out or bringing together lines which are quite separate in the original. His freedom with Rumi’s poetry seems to stem from the perception of a fluidity at work in the originals. He writes:
…these poems are not monumental in the Western sense of memorializing moments; they are not discrete entities but a fluid, continually self-revising, self-interrupting medium. They are not so much about anything as spoken from within something.
[The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks]
The more literal-minded can be very critical of such a freewheeling approach, but those interested in Barks’ versions can check out The Essential Rumi.
For this lover of Rumi, the translations that come closest to achieving a balance between fidelity to the original and good poetry are those of Kabir and Camille Helminski (see Love’s Ripening, Jewels of Remembrance, and The Rumi Daybook). Again, Sufis native to America, they have lived and taught the Mevlevi path for some decades now. They speak from the same deep, interior expansiveness as Rumi himself, and beauty and faithfulness in conveying his message are equally important to them. To hear them recite their versions accompanied by oud, ney, and daf on the album You Are Joy is to hear English Rumi taken to a whole new level.
In his preface to The Rumi Daybook, Shaikh Kabir compares a selection that they have rendered into English with one rendered into English by Nicholson. It is a fascinating insight into the translation process and he concludes:
It would, of course, be unfair to judge Nicholson on the basis of poetic criteria when his intention was to accurately translate every word from Rumi so that a student could go through it along with a Persian text and make sense of it. We owe to him a great debt. But the need we are trying to serve is the need for intelligibility and faithfulness to the spirit of Rumi. You will notice that we have given the selection a title that it did not have, and we have broken the lines according to the conventions of contemporary free verse. It is hoped that our version can be more directly understood and yet will have some of the qualities of good poetry: imagery, rhythm, allusiveness, economy.
[The Rumi Daybook, selected and translated by Kabir and Camille Helminski]
For those wishing to take a closer a look, I include their more poetic rendering alongside Nicholson’s more literal one below.
It is with deep gratitude that we read the translations of Kabir and Camille Helminski, Coleman Barks, Alan Williams, Jawid Mojaddedi, Ibrahim Gamard, A.J Arberry, Reynold A. Nicholson, and many others not mentioned here who approach the translation of Rumi’s words with profound love and respect. May we each find the translation that opens our heart.
Mathnawi I, 417-423
Reynold A. Nicholson version
The bird is flying on high, and its shadow is speeding on the earth, flying like a bird:
Some fool begins to chase the shadow, running (after it) so far that he becomes powerless (exhausted),
Not knowing that it is the reflexion of that bird in the air, not knowing where is the origin of the shadow.
He shoots arrows at the shadow; his quiver is emptied in seeking (to shoot it):
The quiver of his life became empty: his life passed in running hotly in chase of the shadow.
(But) when the shadow of God is his nurse, it delivers him from (every) phantom and shadow.
The shadow of God is that servant of God who is dead to this world and living through God.
Kabir and Camille Helminski version
Of Shadows and Saints
A bird is flying high;
its shadow speeds over the earth like an actual bird:
a fool starts to chase the shadow,
running so far that he exhausts himself,
not knowing that it is but the reflection of that bird in the air,
not knowing where the origin of the shadow is.
He shoots arrows at the shadow and the quiver is emptied—
his life is wasted by what he seeks.
But when the shadow of God tends to him,
it saves him from every illusion.
The shadow of God is that servant of God
who has died to this world and is living through that One.