Sep 23 2016

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – Only Breath

Published by at 9:24 am under Poetry

Only Breath
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!


Recommended Books: Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hebrew Poems Perfume of the Desert: Inspirations from Sufi Wisdom Open Secret: Versions of Rumi
More Books >>

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

Afghanistan & Turkey (Persia) (1207 – 1273) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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.

More poetry by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

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10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – Only Breath”

  1. Christineon 23 Sep 2016 at 10:19 am

    I had no idea there were such differences! The Coleman version seems almost “watered down.” I like the detail in Lewis’ version, which is more like prose poetry – not attempting to create rhythm or rhyme, but more telling a story. In some ways it seems more “accurate” to the original writer’s “intent.” But how does one know that… How does the “translator” know the intended meaning?, especially with these ancient poets from different cultures…

    Am glad your energy is coming back. I have Adrenal Fatigue – a subset of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and know what it’s like to be flattened and wiped out, not able to function well. May your stamina return soon!

  2. Alice Whooleyon 23 Sep 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Both poems convey the same message to me:BEWARE OF PUTTING A LABEL ON YOURSELF.

    I have always loved the words of Rumi and have never given much thought to the fact that they are translations.

  3. Paolaon 23 Sep 2016 at 1:35 pm

    I think a translation especially in poetry can be at time not so precise -strictly adhering to the literal meaning – for the sake of the overall balance and harmony of the text, but should by no means become a precis. I have no ground to judge whether Bark’s translation is keeping closer than the other one to the original text – unfortunately I can’t read nor speak persian – but nonetheless it seems to me that a good deal of it has been rendered rather than translated.

  4. steveon 23 Sep 2016 at 2:26 pm

    The/your request for a reply is divided in two. First it asks for MORE thinking, which is the duality he the poet says he lives with two worlds as one.
    secondly you request MORE judgments, like this or that, don’t like this or that.
    All this is NOT what the poem teaches about, which is enlightenment.
    So the point is then… of U requesting MORE thought is….?
    missing the point of the teaching of the poem .

  5. ebrahimon 23 Sep 2016 at 3:20 pm

    The version of coleman barks is dressed up poetry – colourfull fashion statement cut to accord to modern western taste. It serves its purpose in regards to initial attraction, but falls far short. Key words and phrases with deep significance are missing; which renders it as a translation without real heart.

    The version of lewis is far more superior, especially in conveying the sense of the real meaning and so has far more heart than dress.

    But The real true wonder of rumi’s words lies not in the poetry itself, but rather in the spirit that his words are imbibed with. A single verse or two can send ones heart into an ecstatic state; ( in its original or a more true and accurate translation). The very spirit of his words capture you and the light from which his words have come fill you with ecstatic bliss. It is really for such that his word (not his poetry) has endured with people oh hearts.

  6. Serap Avanoğluon 24 Sep 2016 at 5:34 am

    Dear Ivan,
    I come closer to Rumi’s soul in Lewis’ version, i.e. I feel more touched and taken into Rumi’s sphere. Rumi does not only tell about his relationship with the beloved and the world which Bark’s translation communicates for me but also his lack of means or pain to relate to those who are submerged in the culture which is an important aspect of the poem where I feel Rumi adresses directly to me.
    Hence although formal or outer aspects of the poem such as meter and rhyme or alliteration would be nice if they could be transported to the translated version, this concern should not veil the spirit of the poem, i.e. the richness of the feelings, meanings which are conveyed in the poem that transmit the state of the poet. I find most of the time that literal translations are far more succesful in this aspect then the free ones.

    with my very best wishes to you,

  7. Bob Corbinon 24 Sep 2016 at 7:59 pm

    Two years ago, Rumi came in a dream,
    speaking perfect English
    with slight American midwest accent.
    He told me Coleman Barks is a lousy translator
    and a great poet.

    Actually, i love both versions of the poem.
    in fact it is two of my favorite poems.
    I wish i could read (and understand) ancient Persian.

  8. Siddharth Gundechaon 12 Jul 2019 at 2:17 am

    I am with Lewis. The spirit of Rumi is vibrant in his translation.

  9. Emeryon 27 Feb 2020 at 2:01 am

    This is from Waleed Rashid’s post from the link attached below:
    Franklin Lewis – attempted to balance literal with figurative translations and is quite academic in this regard.
    Coleman Barks – He admits his version has faults as it is “a homemade, amateurish, loose, many-stranded thing, without much attention to historical context, nor much literal faithfulness to the original.” Primarily because he does not know the Dari/Farsi/Persian language so is actually doing interpretations of a translation (often not the best ones).

  10. emeryon 29 Feb 2020 at 3:28 am

    By the way: Why Bernard Lewis? Is not he Franklin Lewis instead?

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