Late Sunday night I had horrible trouble sleeping. The hows and whys don’t matter here, nor are they something I want to share, but suffice to say I only got about two hours of sleep that night. So when instances happen to come up that rob me of my sleep, I take part in one of my favorite activities and that’s browse through Wikipedia clicking link after link after link to see where I can get.
That night I decided to look up Rumi of all people. He’s a Sufi mystic who has been a major cultural and philosophical influence in both the Middle East and Asia. Many people in the west know him quite well too, though chances are if you bring up Rumi while socializing at a wedding or something, there’s a good chance people won’t know who you’re talking about. I like Rumi. I like his works. Or at least, I thought I did. You see, I have in my collection of books “The Essential Rumi: Translations by Coleman Barks.” I fucking love this book. It strikes me as warm, insightful, perplexing, and a ton of other adjectives. Turns out, what I thought I loved is a total, fucking, lie. Upon clicking the link to Coleman Barks’ Wikipedia page, I find this passage under “Criticisms.”
WTFF? WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK?!
How the FUCK can you title a book “THE ESSENTIAL RUMI: TRANSLATIONS BY COLEMAN BARKS” when the fucker doesn’t know a lick of Persian? Better yet, how come this is literally the only book of Rumi I’ve come across in bookstores, repeatedly, when there damn well must be better translations by more reputable sources. Do you know how long I’ve had this book? Almost a decade. Do you know how often I crack it open to read something random to inspire me for the day? Almost weekly. I got dog eared pages, of favorite poems, and they’re practically lies.
If that’s not bad enough, it gets better. As big of a fan of Rumi as I am, I’m even a bigger fan of Hafiz. The writings of his I’ve found have given me the impression that he’s warm, playful, and so very, very deep. The books I have of his have all been translated by Daniel Ladinsky. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about him . . .
Critics point out that Ladinsky's poems are originals, and not translations or interpretations of Hafez. Christopher Shackle describes The Gift as "not so much a paraphrase as a parody of the wondrously wrought style of the greatest master of Persian art-poetry." That his poems are neither written nor intended to fall under the purview of literal and/or scholarly translations of Hafiz' work, Ladinsky states in each of his volumes.
Lord. Mercy. Shame on me for not reading the boring shit in the front and back of books. But, maybe, here’s a thought. If you’re not gonna be translating actual poems by the man, maybe you shouldn’t be attributing them to him.
Now I’ve got myself a dilemma. I have in my book collection, three different translations of Beowulf, by Seamus Haney (who is my favorite), Robert Nye, and Burton Raffel. I have an anthology of Haikus edited by Faubion Bowers, a collection of Ryokan’s poetry translated by John Stevens, The Epic of Gilgamesh translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs. And that’s just what I pulled off my bookshelf in the matter of a few minutes. I have anthologies of Japanese folktales, Chinese folktales, Norwegian folktales, Irish folktales and on and on and on. One of the collections of Irish tales is actually collected and edited by Yeats and has works from people like William Carleton and Lady Wilde, so at least I know that one is legit.
Now though? Every time I pick up a book, I gotta ask “How authentic is this?” Without jumping to Google or Wikipedia every minute, I don’t know. In fact, I don’t know if I want to know. These books touch me. They move me. They make me feel like a bigger person in a strange and confusing world. What if they’re all like this. Who the hell goes around thinking it’s okay to publish books without actually making sure what’s in the books is actually legit?
Fucking well read my ass. I feel like I’ve bought the literary equivalent of a fake Rolex. At best now, the only books I have that I know are written by their authors are modern western literature, like Twain and Steinbeck and shit. Which is fine. Cause they’re good, but I never remember half the stuff I read anyway. Which, I guess is a plus. I can re-read the same 30 books and it’s like something new all over again.
Fuck. At least I know Victor Appleton isn’t a real guy.
I'm with you here. Trying to read any works that aren't in English is tough, but only reading things that were written originally in English gives you a very narrow view of the world, so translations are a necessary evil. I've found that, unless the language is one that many English speakers are familiar with (French, Spanish), or the translation was supervised by the author, then it's basically a crapshoot and you have to do a lot of research before you buy anything. And unfortunately, the public domain stuff is even more likely to suck, since there weren't as rigorous standards and fewer bilingual people around to call bullshit, so things like Constance Garnett's dry, bowdlerized translations from Russian were able to not only happen, but be praised.
You might like this piece by Vladimir Nabokov on the difficulty of translation. He was fluent in both Russian and English, and knew a decent amount of French, so he was able to discern just how poor many of the translations of his day were. Sadly, I'll bet most of the translations you have wouldn't pass his standards, although most of them probably aren't nearly as bad as the translations from Persian.
There's a fairly large group of literary theorists, including Borges, who have countered Nabokov, saying that an unfaithful but aesthetically pleasing translation can have literary merits of its own, that a cultural exchange is taking place even if it isn't the most accurate one. Personally, I find this to be a poor argument. Literary merit isn't so important to me if I'm trying to understand how one author influenced another. For example, I can't understand the effect that Goethe had on Nietzsche with an aesthetically pleasing translation of Goethe; I need an accurate one. But I suspect this "literary merits" argument is the origin of your fake-Rolex versions of Rumi and Hafiz.