[The following is an adapted and shortened version of a rather lengthy analytical piece published elsewhere on this site as “The Poverty of Translation”.]
Previously I wrote:
I would also contend that translation, of the Cloud or any similar texts concerning esoteric religious experience, must necessarily presuppose a theory of mind. Translation of these things is not a matter of striking upon the proper word-for-word correspondences that will bring out the “real” meanings.
Here’s some of what I mean.
If I were to translate the Cloud, I would need to make some choices about the locus of knowing and unknowing. Is it the brain? The mind? The heart? If I say the heart, do I mean this metaphorically? Analogically? Is there a subtle, immaterial heart corresponding to the coarse, material pump in the chest?
I don’t believe this could be avoided, because all of these are loaded words — loaded, that is, with concepts.
This is not a simple matter of saying, “The words hert, hart, heorte, etc., mean the same thing as heart.” The problem is in this little phrase, mean the same thing. What is that same thing that they mean? What if it is not at all a thing? What if, in our day and age, we simply do not recognize the existence of such a thing?
Thus, translation of texts like these is not to mistake word-to-word correspondences for word-to-concept correspondences.
Some things have to be read in translation. It can’t be helped. But I have some very strong feelings about the implications of this when it comes to approaching texts that can lead people astray. The translator needs to assume responsibility for potentially placing readers in a kind of mortal peril.
The following is a bit of a case study on what has happened to other books in translation, in particular the highly commercialized franchise known as Rumi. I hope there will be readers who consider it worth their time to consider how and why reading the works of Mevlânâ Jalâl ad-Dîn Rûmî in English might be a seriously fraught endeavor, and to apply these lessons to other translated texts.
It is well known that Rumi means money in America, and that words taken to be based upon his own can be a source of gratification, entertainment, and self-help. As a newspaper published in Mevlânâ’s homeland remarked recently:
A phenomenon sweeping both Turkey and the world, the “Rumi frenzy” is a juggernaut that has transformed a Sufi saint into a commodity bought and sold across the globe. Books of poetry, calendars, ballets, performances accompanied by “live music,” CDs and hundreds of websites have already rendered Rumi an indispensable component of popular culture. Some, like Franklin Lewis, however, are making a serious effort to halt the head-long rush toward the superficial popularization of Jamal ad-Din Rumi, a 13th century Persian mystic who died in the Central Anatolian province of Konya in 1273.
Lewis decries the popular appropriation of Rumi in his new biography of the Sufi, “Rumi: Past and Present, East and West.”
“I watch, feeling devastated by how popular culture dilutes and corrupts his teachings, with the foresight that the unrelenting advertising and consumerist tools of contemporary profane culture will inevitably homogenize the divine,” he said. Already the United States’ best-selling “poet,” Rumi’s works are read and sung as “live music” as an increasingly mainstream part of American popular culture; many others, meanwhile, listen to the great man’s poetry to relax while in traffic jams.
As you might expect under these circumstances, it also comes an no surprise that that much of what passes for the work of Mevlânâ Jalâl ad-Dîn (not at all the same person as “Rumi”) has been distorted beyond any fair similarity to the original. For one thing, the guy was a Muslim. Islamic identity does not exactly move product in America these days. So there are commercial advantages to playing this matter down.
This problem is not new, but was already at play when the only good (or, at least, the least bad) translation of the Masnevi was published early in the 20th century. Of the many highly remunerative translations that drive the Rumi Industry, Reynold Nicholson’s stands apart as (we are told) especially accurate. Is this a fair appraisal? One way to appraise Nicholson’s work is to search for nuance that is, as the phrase goes, lost in translation. What follows is a close reading of two pages of his Book V with particular attention to Qur’anic and technical religious vocabulary. Is the potentially offensive Islamic substrate preserved?
We begin with the following verse:
Abandon, then, the dry (verbal) prayer, O fortunate one. [Masnevi V: 1188]
Taken alone, this can be subject to many interpretations — and the taking of verses alone is, to be sure, a common conceit of the Rumi Industry. Among the ways this version of Mevlânâ’s actual words could be read are the following:
· Abandon religious obligations, and count yourself fortunate to have done so.
· Being exceptional in your spiritual gifts, consider yourself exempt from religious obligations.
· Leave aside religious practices that are exoteric (a “dry husk”) and replace them with esoteric spirituality.
· Pray, but not with verbal formulae.
Other verses in proximity to this one seem to suggest that the problem of prayer is not necessarily inherent, but resides somehow in its verbal expression:
These words, (whilst they stay) in the breast, are an income consisting of (spiritual) kernels: in silence the spiritual kernel grows a hundredfold. When it (the word) comes onto the tongue, the kernel is expended: refrain from expending, in order that the goodly kernel may remain (with you).
[Masnevi V: 1275-1276]
But this “keep it to yourself” notion is also a problematic way to interpret this section of the Masnevi, for at least two reasons. First, the section immediately following the one from which these verses have been taken carries the heading “Prayer” and begins as follows:
O Giver of (spiritual) nutriment and steadfastness and stability, give Thy creatures deliverance from this instability.
[Masnevi V: 1197]
This would seem to be a “verbal prayer”, if only because it begins with a vocative particle and continues in an imploring manner that one could readily imagine saying aloud. Perhaps what redeems this is that it is verbal, but not dry; or else, that it is neither dry nor verbal, expressing an inner voice having no vocal counterpart. But this is undeniably a section of a well crafted poem, structured for recitation aloud, and by no means what one expects of a spontaneous outpouring “within the soul” or such like.
A second problem arises in the heading of the previous section (i.e., preceding line V: 1171), which reads as follows in Nicholson’s rendering:
Explaining that when the evil-doer becomes settled in evil-doing, and sees the effect of the (spiritual) fortune of the doers of righteousness, he from envy becomes a devil and preventer of good, like Satan; for he whose stack is burnt desires that all (others) should have their stacks burnt: “hast thou seen him who forbids a servant (of God) when he performs the (ritual) prayer?”
Taken as given here, one faces a third conflict. Dry prayer is to be abandoned. and this tends to have a verbal character to it; but a verbal prayer is then offered, seeming to contradict the first injunction; and finally, a verse from the Qur’ân is presented stating that to bar the worshipper from ritual prayer is plainly demonic. Given these apparently conflicting statements, what is one to conclude about the necessity, permissibility, desirability, and nature of prayer?
In actual fact, this problem is a creation of the translator of the Masnevi, and not of the poem’s author. What Nicholson translates as prayer is a different word in each case, and what is lost in the translation is simply the shades of meaning inherent in each word in the original language. Thus the “dry (verbal) prayer” refers, in Mevlânâ’s own words, to ducâ, or supplication. This is not the ritual prayer prescribed for Muslims at five particular times of each day — the word for that is salât, and it is preventing the worshipper from the fulfillment of the obligation of salât that is considered Satanic and explicitly forbidden by the Qur’ân.
In no way, therefore, is Mevlânâ to be understood as urging the abandonment of religious obligations, and in this distinction is the resolution of the first apparent contradiction in the section quoted here. The obligation of salât is in no way contingent upon whether its performance is dry or not. On the other hand, the supplication [ducâ] ought to have some personal significance to the one who utters it. It is not obligatory, even if it is strongly urged that the believer offer ducâ. Admittedly, the ducâ can be formulaic, consisting of the repetition of some words from traditional texts whose meaning does not really reach the heart of the one uttering it. What the reader might consider is Mevlânâ’s position regarding the purpose of ducâ. As some have written, the gift of ducâ is not in the response to it, but in the upwelling of the need for Allâh within the seeker to which the ducâ gives voice. One who, like Satan, is in the thrall of envy and other vices is not susceptible to this gift, while remaining capable of dry recitation of a ducâ received at second hand.
As for the “prayer” that begins O Giver, the word in the original language of the poem is munâjât, which is to say, yet a third category of interaction with the divine. Having urged us to abandon the dry supplication, what is offered next is a more authentic one. We cannot simply repeat this as a formula, but must seek within ourselves a corresponding sincerity. The Arabic word munâjât means something like “intimate discourse or conversation” and originates from the radical √n-j-w, a variant of which is seen in the following verse of the Qur’ân:
And we called him from the right side of the mountain, and brought him near, in confidence [najiyyan].
[Maryam 19: 52]
This refers to the prophet Mûsâ, or Moses (peace be upon him), given the privilege of approaching his Lord Most High on Mount Sinai, as the Torah also reports. It is this communion with the divine, exemplified in a prophetic model [sunna], which may be inaccessible to us as ordinary seekers, but which is nevertheless to be sought in the sincerity of munâjât. It is also to be considered whether every truth is expressible in words, or whether the kernel is expended through expression because the referent of the experience of munâjât is neither known through language, nor reducible to it.
If Rumi really called the believer to abandon prayer, there would be at least two consequences: He would have left Islam (which may suit the publishing industry in America just fine); and he would have dragged an uncountable number of his readers away with him.
As with Rumi specifically, “mysticism” generally has the power to move product. There are no doubt strong motives to commodify mysticism as something to which a religious orthodoxy is extraneous, the better to reach a wider readership (— well, buyership). Thus Rumi is held to be who he is in spite of his Islam, not because of it — never mind that the original language supports no such claim.
Quacks like Coleman Barks and Deepak Chopra have made a mint on this desacralized Rumi. Despite being “widely regarded as the world’s premier translator of Rumi’s writings,” it is an open secret that Barks does not actually read Persian. (See here for a discussion of this and other issues in Rumi translation.)
How much of the literature of the Christian mystics translated into English has already suffered this twisted fate? How long will it be until someone tries the same thing with the Cloud? Has Carmen Butcher done so already?
These are issues to take seriously, if you really believe that words matter.