Sep 23 2016
by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi
English version by Coleman Barks
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
— from The Essential Rumi, Translated by Coleman Barks
/ Image by FredG /
First, let me say how much I appreciate the warm response to my message on Wednesday. I have already received several donations, which are a huge help in covering my expenses necessary to keep the Poetry Chaikhana running smoothly, especially through this bumpy period when my personal income is down due to illness. More support is needed, but we have a good start. Thank you to everyone!
Also, thank you for the many kind notes wishing me renewed health, often with good suggestions and advice. In the last 24 hours I have finally begun to feel some noticeable improvement, a trend that I hope to nurture and continue. So much adventure and drama to be had without even having to step out the front door… 🙂
Now, on to today’s poem.
I was surprised to realize that I have never featured this poem by Rumi on the Poetry Chaikhana, especially given how well known and loved it is. Actually, I did feature this poem years ago, but in a different, less known translation by Bernard Lewis.
This morning I read the two versions side-by-side, the one above by Coleman Barks, and the version below by Lewis. It occurred to me that this might a good opportunity to invite some discussion about the nature of poetry and translation.
Here is the Lewis translation of the poem. Take a moment to read it, while the Barks version is fresh in your mind, and think about the differences, why they are different, how those differences affect our reading of the poem…
What can I do, Muslims? I do not know myself.
I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Magian nor Muslim,
I am not from east or west, not from land or sea,
not from the shafts of nature nor from the spheres of the firmament,
not of the earth, not of water, not of air, not of fire.
I am not from the highest heaven, not from this world,
not from existence, not from being.
I am not from India, not from China, not from Bulgar, not from Saqsin,
not from the realm of the two Iraqs, not from the land of Khurasan.
I am not from the world, not from beyond,
not from heaven and not from hell.
I am not from Adam, not from Eve, not from paradise and not from Ridwan.
My place is placeless, my trace is traceless,
no body, no soul, I am from the soul of souls.
I have chased out duality, lived the two worlds as one.
One I seek, one I know, one I see, one I call.
He is the first, he is the last, he is the outer, he is the inner.
Beyond “He” and “He is” I know no other.
I am drunk from the cup of love, the two worlds have escaped me.
I have no concern but carouse and rapture.
If one day in my life I spend a moment without you
from that hour and that time I would repent my life.
If one day I am given a moment in solitude with you
I will trample the two worlds underfoot and dance forever.
O Sun of Tabriz, I am so tipsy here in this world,
I have no tale to tell but tipsiness and rapture.
(version by Bernard Lewis)
So, what do you think? Do you prefer one version over the other?
The Barks version is much leaner. It’s easier on the eyes, especially when grouped together into couplets with line breaks. The language arguably flows a bit more easily. But the biggest difference to me is that Barks is obviously taking huge liberties with the language, trimming out entire phrases and ideas, while significantly reformulating others.
The Lewis version is generally using modern English, as well, but my impression is that he is sticking much closer to a literal translation of Rumi’s original. He doesn’t do as much to try to replicate the poetic flow that the original undoubtedly has, but the more literal the translation, the more difficult it becomes to also reproduce rhythm and rhyme. Still, there are some juicy bits that Lewis manages to keep which I miss in the Barks translation.
There are always imperfect compromises in translation, especially so in poetry:
– How literally should the poem be translated?
– Should it be so literal that the poetry is lost?
– When the original poem has meter and rhyme or alliteration, as most classic poetry does, should the translation attempt to reproduce it or create a new pattern suggestive of the original or completely abandon meter and rhyme?
– How free should the translator be with introducing line breaks to make the poem flow more naturally to the modern eye or to emphasize specific words and ideas?
– What should the translator do when even a strictly literal translation looses the poem’s inner meaning? Metaphor and word play are culturally specific. A word-for-word translation often doesn’t carry the same meaning in another culture or time. How much liberty should the translator take in order to convey the intended meaning by introducing new phrases and metaphors?
– At what point does a translation become so loose that it is more the work of the translator than the original poet?
– Barks or Lewis? (Or both?)
I have my own answers to these questions, but I am particularly interested in your thoughts. Post a comment on the blog or send me an email. These are issues I find myself weighing in my work with the Poetry Chaikhana. What do you think?
Once again, thank you for all of the heartfelt messages you have been sending me lately. I’m sending all of you love in return.
And… Have a beautiful day!
|Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi|
I haven’t yet sketched out a short biography about Rumi. It always feels a bit foolish to try to distill a rich, full life into just a few paragraphs, but it’s especially difficult with Rumi since so much has been written about him and his life.
How about just a few interesting details about Rumi:
Rumi was born in Balkh, in what is today Afghanistan. While he was still a child his family moved all the way to Konya in Asia Minor (Turkey). They moved to flee from Mongol invaders who were beginning to sweep into Central Asia. Konya, far to the west of the invaded territories, became one of the major destinations for expatriates to settle, turning the city into a cosmopolitan center of culture, education, and spirituality. (These lands were part of the Persian Empire, so, while he lived most of his life in what is today called Turkey, culturally he was Persian.)
In fact, Rumi wasn’t the only famous Sufi teacher living in Konya at the time. The best known spiritual figure in Konya at the time was not Rumi, but the son-in-law of the greatly respected Sufi philosopher ibn ‘Arabi. The wonderful Sufi poet Fakhruddin Iraqi also lived in Konya at the same time as Rumi.
“Rumi” was not his proper name; it was more of a nickname. Rumi means literally “The Roman.” Why the Roman? Asia Minor (Turkey) was referred to as the land of the Rum, the Romans. The Byzantine Empire, which had only recently fallen, was still thought of as the old Eastern Roman Empire. Rumi was nicknamed the Roman because he lived in what was once the Eastern Roman Empire. …But not everyone calls him Rumi. In Afghanistan, where he was born, they call him Balkhi, “the man from Balkh,” to emphasize his birth in Afghanistan.
Rumi’s father was himself a respected religious authority and spiritual teacher. Rumi was raised and educated to follow in his father’s footsteps. And, in fact, Rumi inherited his father’s religious school. But this was all along very traditional lines. Rumi was already a man with religious position when he first started to experience transcendent states of spiritual ecstasy. This created a radical upheaval, not only in himself, but also within his rather formal spiritual community as everyone tried to adjust to their leader’s transformation.
One more note about Rumi’s father: It was only after his death that some of the father’s private writings were discovered, revealing that he himself was also a profound mystic, though he had kept this part of himself private, apparently even from his son Rumi.
Many of Rumi’s poems make reference to the sun. This always has layered meaning for Rumi since he was deeply devoted to his spiritual teacher Shams of Tabriz… as the name Shams means “the sun.” The sun for Rumi becomes the radiance of God shining through his beloved teacher.
The spiritual bond between Rumi and Shams was profound, but the two individuals were very different. Rumi was a member of the educated elite within the urban expatriate community, while Shams was a poor wandering mystic who rarely stayed in one place long. Shams would often disappear unexpectedly, then return months later. Many of Rumi’s family and students were jealous of Shams, resenting the closeness he shared with their master. Finally, Shams disappeared, never to return. Some believe that he was actually kidnapped and murdered, possibly by Rumi’s own sons! Or he may have simply followed his dervish nature and journeyed on, never to return to Konya.
You’ve heard of “whirling dervishes,” right? Not all Sufis practice that spinning meditative dance. That is specific to the Mevlana Sufis, founded by — yes, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. The story is told that Rumi would circle around a column, while ecstatically reciting his poetry. The spinning is a meditation on many levels. It teaches stillness and centeredness in the midst of movement. One hand is kept raised to receive from heaven, the other hand is kept lowered to the earth, thus the individual becomes a bridge joining heaven and earth.