First, let’s be clear – translation butchers poetry. I make no claims to being a poet myself, so my goal is to convey the meaning as accurately as possible. Obviously, that means sometimes interpreting rather than strictly translating the text. But still, when in doubt, I tend to favor meaning over fluidity of verse, as is no doubt evident. In fact, I have usually avoided translating poetry outside of academic contexts because it makes me feel like a cross between a grave robber and a person who desecrates churches, but, parenthood having destroyed the last vestiges of my self-esteem, I’m ok with it now.
The first things lost are meter and rhyme. These were essential to the classical Persian form and highly codified. I’m not going into the details, most of which baffle me, but here’s the first line in transliteration which may give a taste:
zi had gozasht joda’i, zi had gozasht jofa
biya ke mawsum-e aish ast o ashti o safa
Is there some way to put audio on these blogs? Suggestions welcome.
As to content, this is a fairly standard 14th century ghazal. The love relationship in classical Persian poetry (modern poetry in Iran is altogether different) is not the stuff of rom coms. The beloved is always described as a cruel beauty who spurns the poet’s advances. The unattainable character of the beloved thus became a perfect foil for the Sufis in their quest for union with the godhead. All this is obvious from the contrast in this poem between the description of the beloved and the poet’s seemingly estactic state.
The second bayt posed a particular problem. The first misra’, which I translated as “Your lips are lined with the blood of lovers,” actually has a more specific translation. The verb describing the “lips lined with blood” actually refers to the “downy mustache of the young beloved,” as a friend helpfully described it, because the traditional object of the poet’s affection in the ghazal was the saqi, or wine-bearer at the party, usually a young boy. Social mores being what they are, it probably would have been more scandalous if these raucous male gatherings were served by women. Still, I couldn’t get all that in to the translation in any sort of artful way. Literally, it is something like “the down on your lip is the blood from the hearts of your lovers.”
And the Ethiopian line. I know, what can I say, it was the 14th century. A good example of when a perfectly worthy line in Persian sounds absurd in English.