This fall, I had the honor of interviewing Zara Houshmand about her newly released book of Rumi translations for Rachel Howard’s Yuba Lit reading series. Both the book, Moon and Sun: A Selection of the Rubaiyat of Molana Jalal al-Din Rumi, and Houshmand’s responses re-contextualize the writing, life, and Muslim mysticism of the West’s most popular poet. In the days before even Facebook, Houshmand began translating Rumi’s beloved poems daily for an online magazine that was the first home of the Iranian American community on the internet. At the time, it was uncommon for translators to be able to work with a community of bilingual readers who could offer real-time critique, clarification, and encouragement. This year, Houshmand’s translations have been released in a beautifully rendered bilingual edition organized around the story of the thirteenth century theologian and poet’s life and spiritual transformations, available here.
Zara Houshmand’s translations of the work of Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid were awarded the first National Theatre Translation Fund grant, and have been produced in Los Angeles and San Francisco. A contributing editor for Words Without Borders and their first anthology, Literature from the Axis of Evil, Houshmand has also co-authored A Mirror Garden with Monir Farmanfarmaian (Knopf, 2007) and Running Toward Mystery with the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi (Random House, 2020).
Stephanie Sauer: I, like many North Americans, grew up with Rumi’s verses infusing everything from New Age philosophies to coffee mug artwork, though his actual life and theological background remained vague. The front flap description of Moon and Sun poignantly reminds us that, “Rumi has the unique honor of being recognized as America’s best loved poet today, though he was a Muslim who lived eight hundred years ago and wrote in Persian.” Why was it important to you to re-contextualize Rumi for readers today?
Zara Houshmand: As an Iranian American, I’ve lived under the shadow of conflict between my two homes for much of my life, and it seemed to me that there was a strange irony there, a potentially fertile blind spot, and a possible bridge in Rumi’s popularity in America today. If he were alive today, Rumi probably wouldn’t get a visa to enter this country, though he’s clearly under our skin regardless.
It’s a commonplace that every generation deserves a new translation of the classics – presumably one that reframes them in terms of contemporary taste, though it may also reflect the evolution of scholarship. The wildly popular Coleman Barks versions are described as that kind of reframing in their origin story – Robert Bly directing Barks to “release these poems from their cages.” The cages in question were the translations of an earlier generation of British orientalists, whose scholarship was groundbreaking, but whose diction seems dated and alien to Americans now.
It was a worthy task, but Barks set about it with no knowledge of Persian, so his renderings are selective adaptations of the earlier translations, one filter on top of another. Of course, in applying multiple filters at angles to each other, you’re getting less rather than more of the light from the original. The claim implied by his success is that Barks has opened some direct channel to Rumi’s essential spirit that can bypass the need to learn his language. I don’t want to argue with that. Barks clearly has managed to communicate something that touches countless readers deeply, and far be it from me to question the mysterious pathways of Rumi’s power or how spirit travels through poetry. What I would argue with is a different implied claim that is buried in all this: that the unvarnished, minimalist style of American modernism that Barks applies to voicing Rumi is a neutral, culture-free lens – that some cultural dross, whether of orientalism, or of Rumi’s exterior circumstances as a 13th century Muslim theologian, has been stripped away and we are seeing a truer, purer version of Rumi through Barks’s ventriloquism.
It’s true that certain qualities of these short poems make Rumi’s quatrains more amenable to a modernist style than much else in Persian classical poetry. Their language is colloquial and highly compressed. They are often tiny dramas charged with conflict in a four-line exchange between Rumi and his antagonist. They seem wonderfully spontaneous, but that spontaneity is the product of skill in handling the language; not exactly an illusion of spontaneity, but rather like watching the effortlessness of a great athlete. The poems are profoundly witty, and they are highly musical, with an intricate architecture of sound patterns constructed in four lines. In trying to re-imagine Rumi’s voice for a modern audience, I wanted to capture some of that musicality, and the sense of polished spontaneity, but without falling back into the style of an earlier generation of English poetry. I chose to go with a loose approach to meter that relies on natural speech rhythms, with very occasional rhyme but a lot of slant rhyme and other patterning that creates musical effects. It’s far more subtle than if I tried to recreate the exact form that Rumi used, but it does leave an impression on the ear, and hopefully there is an equivalent effect of a kind of relaxed and fluid musicality. Much of that happened instinctively in the process of translation and only became obvious to me in retrospect once a poem was complete; but it couldn’t have happened at all if I wasn’t engaging directly with the original text.
Another way that I hoped to re-contextualize Rumi was to find a middle path between the scholarly baggage that the orientalist translators piled up on the platform, and Barks’s streamlined editing out of culturally specific context. There is a universalist claim in Sufism, that its spiritual path is apart from organized religion and speaks directly to the human heart. Rumi echoes this, and his American fans have amplified and broadcast that portion of his world view. But in doing so, they’ve erased a lot of complexity. Sufism has always been a dissident current in Islam, and yet Rumi was also a voice from the pulpit of mainstream Islam in his time. Is that a contradiction? No more so than the fact that Sufism entirely pervades the values and aesthetics of Iranian culture and its literature and music, and yet we also have the rigid reality of today’s Islamic republic. I would venture that when we stumble on what seems to be a conundrum, there’s a world out there that is more complex and richer, or maybe just more different, than we’ve been able to wrap our minds around. I believe that part of the task of translation is to help us explore that complexity rather than looking away, and to understand difference instead of erasing it.
You have definitely explored and even illuminated this complexity in your translations. Can you tell us how they first came into being?
It was around 2000 when I first paid attention to the Coleman Barks versions, and I recognized that, whatever their virtues, there was a wide gulf between what Barks was doing and what I knew of Persian poetry. I didn’t then know Rumi in the original other than a handful of verses that are in the broad domain of Iranian cultural literacy, and I was familiar in a kind of embedded/embodied way with the Sufi ethos and values that are expressed most eloquently through the classical poetry but pervade the culture as a whole. Persian was a second language to me, picked up at first casually when I lived in Iran for several years as a young adult. Later I worked hand in hand with the playwright Bijan Mofid on translating his plays, which are so loaded with allusions to the classical literature and folk tales that they became the scaffolding for a deeper education. Translating for theatre also gave me a solid grounding in a functional approach to translation. You aren’t asking just what the words mean, but also: What is this passage trying to accomplish? – dramatically, emotionally, in terms of character development, and so on.
My undergraduate work in English literature had included a focus in Early Middle English religious writing, exactly parallel with Rumi, so I had an inkling of the distance that might have to be crossed, though it turns out that Rumi’s language is much closer to modern Persian than the English of the same period is to modern English.
In any case, I decided to tackle Rumi in the original. I know no better method of close reading than translation, so that’s what I did, not thinking at all about publishing it. My first quandary was knowing where to start, given the many thousands upon thousands of verses that Rumi wrote. By chance, an online magazine aimed at the Iranian diaspora community offered a poem a day and was then featuring Rumi’s quatrains. I decided that was my assignment, a quatrain every day. Eventually I connected with the editor, Jahanshah Javid and he offered to publish the translations at the same time, so I had a daily deadline. I continued that practice, one quatrain a day, for a year and a half, published daily.
You’ve written that the audience of this magazine was largely bilingual. What impact did the process of translating these poems for an audience that was fluent in both the original and translated languages have on your work and approach?
It’s very unusual in our time for a translator to reach a broadly bilingual audience, because translation doesn’t normally get published unless it answers a need where the audience can’t read the original. An audience of bilingual connoisseurs who can critique translation as its own art has arisen historically where a literary second language lives side by side with a vernacular. Latin once had this status in Europe, as did Persian in India beginning with the Mughal empire in the 16th century. The surprise was finding a similar situation in a diaspora community chattering on the internet. I began sharing the translations in the very early days of social media, when responses still came as email “letters to the editor” rather than comments, and the sense of far flung connection was a novelty. The result was a sort of crowd-sourced peer review. If I made a mistake, I was called out quickly and fiercely—Iranians are passionate on the subject of poetry!
I also discovered that Persian classical literature still holds a place of honor among the literati of India and Pakistan, and that extends also to the diaspora communities from the subcontinent, who bring to the table a wider knowledge of how Persian poetry has evolved in its far-flung branches, as well as a deeper familiarity with the ways of English poetry than most Iranian American immigrants can claim. Some of the most encouraging response to my work has come from this realm.
I found the way you organized this book especially compelling. For each section, you provide readers with a brief introduction that describes a facet of Rumi’s spiritual journey. Many of these introductions read like prose poems in themselves and the cumulative story they tell gives us a much richer understanding of Rumi’s context and life. What led you to shape the book in this way?
The original text gives absolutely no guidance for a coherent way to structure a collection in English. There are close to two thousand quatrains included in Rumi’s Divan-e Shams, and traditionally they are organized alphabetically. In translation, that’s just an obscure code generating a random sequence. Persian speakers often first encounter the poems orally, as occasional verses that someone will pull up from memory at a moment that seems pregnant with meaning, or at the beginning or end of an important undertaking. Memorization and recitation are still a vital part of the experience of Persian poetry, which means that literacy is not even a requirement for access and appreciation. It also means that how the poems live in people’s memory or how they relate to daily life has nothing to do with how they are traditionally ordered in a book.
I imagined Rumi using poetry in the same way, as spontaneous expressions of the moment. Indeed, he is often described as improvising verses in the midst of the meditative whirling dance that was part of his practice. Given that the driving force behind so many of the poems is Rumi’s relationship with Shams, it was natural to focus on the emotional course of that relationship as a narrative, and then from that loose structure to go deeper into thematic clusters – such as silent communication, separation and longing, the joy of union – that explore spiritual development relative to the relationship, as well as tropes like the garden, drunkenness, and insanity, where some additional cultural context is helpful to understanding what Rumi is up to. So the shape of the book arose very organically from the material, and the introductions to each section fill in briefly some of the life narrative or the cultural context. If they sound like prose poems, it’s only because I instinctively tried to sustain the mood that the poetry itself creates, and not break it with dryly academic digressions.
Throughout these framing narratives, we also learn that the sun in the title refers to Shams, Rumi’s spiritual mentor. What does the moon in the title reference?
The moon is Rumi himself. The moon reflects the sun’s light, though it’s a separate body with its own path. The name Shams quite literally means “sun.” The title Rumi gave to the collection that includes his quatrains is the Divan of Shams, which would normally imply that Shams is the author, though at a stretch it could mean that it is a collection of poems about Shams, or inspired by Shams. Naming it that way is a gesture of self-effacement on Rumi’s part, a bow to his mentor, and I wanted to capture a hint of that in the English title. At the same time I wanted to reference Rumi and Shams together, because their relationship is at the heart of the book.
On another level, I think of translation as the reflected light of the original. What reaches the reader in English is some portion of the original – and keeping the two texts, English and Persian, visible together on the page is a reference to that understanding of “Moon and Sun.”
I found the placement of original Persian verses alongside your English translations both visually striking and in keeping with your intent to re-contextualize Rumi’s poetry. Can you tell us more about this choice to publish the work as a bilingual edition?
In many ways it was a political choice. For readers who have no understanding of the Persian, the visual reminder of the original language is present on every page as an antidote to erasure. The choice was also a bow to the bilingual diaspora community that was so much a part of the beginnings of the project, and of course the book is also a resource for serious students who want to compare the translation with the original. And maybe in a small way I was reacting to my frustration at being asked so many times, over the years, by strangers online to provide the original of Coleman Barks’ translations, or worse, to translate his English back into Persian. I could have sabotaged so many tattoos!
A bilingual edition was an expensive choice, because almost every step of design and production needed double the effort, duplicating the skills in each language. But it was worth it. I was very concerned that the book design should carefully balance the aesthetic of two cultures, and that the Persian would be fully integrated into the design. I did not want it to be merely decorative, an exotic Orientalist gesture. I think of the many times I’ve been on a long flight and hesitated before opening a Persian book or a stack of pages I was working on, lest that alien script cause a fellow passenger to freak out. Part of my intention was to normalize the sight of that script.
Were there any particular phrases or poetic forms that you found impossible to translate? If so, how did you work with those?
Nothing is truly impossible to translate, but every choice involves trade offs. When there is no exact one-to-one correspondence of terms in the two languages, then you might hover a bit, and offload some of the cloud of meaning that a particular word holds to shade your choice of another word in the line.
Perhaps the single most challenging difference between the two languages is that pronouns are ungendered in Persian. The same word can be translated as he, she, it, or even God, depending on context. That ambiguity allows for multiple interpretations, and in general ambiguity or layering of meaning is prized in Persian poetry. But in English you have to choose. My solution was to vary the choice, letting the feminine or masculine qualities of the imagery of any single quatrain influence my decision rather than impose a single strategy consistently.
That ungendered – or slippery-gendered – eroticism caught my attention and brings me to one final question. Given that expressing spiritual desire in the language of romantic or carnal love was, as you and others have written, common to classical Persian poetry, how did Rumi’s particular treatment of this ambiguity inform your word choice in poems like, “The names I gave him – wine, sometimes the cup. / At times he was raw silver, gold, refined. / A tiny seed, at times my prey, my trap – / All this because I could not say his name”?
Aside from the ungendered pronouns, gender ambiguity is often typical of the imagery that is traditionally invoked around the person of the beloved. The figure of the Saqi, the cupbearer who serves wine in the tavern, is iconic in this context. He is male, but young enough that his beauty has an effeminate quality. But the real attraction is the wine he offers, and that too is not the literal wine forbidden by Islam, but the “intoxication” of spiritual experience. And yet the allegory would be powerless if it didn’t have roots in some kind of reality where actual taverns and literal wine existed – if there weren’t some turf, however marginalized, where the intoxicating attractions of the Saqi himself were physical.
Americans sometimes point to this with questions about a homosexual relationship between Rumi and Shams, but I think that misses the point. There’s probably a good research topic in how erotic expression in the arts interacted over centuries with the social constraints of a conservative culture to open a space for same-sex relationships that were condoned only within very specific spheres. But I think it’s wrong to try to map our own categories onto a very different culture. For example, the line “All this because I could not say his name,” is in no way a reference to “the love that dare not speak its name” but rather to the impossibility of expressing the ineffable nature of mystical experience in language. Notice that the metaphors he uses aren’t just expressions of beauty or precious value, but also self-contradictory: both the prey and the trap, the container and its contents.
I think what’s really interesting here is not the opportunity to poke around looking for autobiographical or sociological material, but instead the ways that literary convention – which we in a modern context tend to think of as tired, hollow, drained of spirit – in another time and place could be vibrant, tremendously passionate, and creatively generative. And again, the dissident stance of Sufism, its appropriation of things illicit and forbidden with the aim of shaking up our mundane categories and challenging our righteous self-image, is very much a part of this creative energy.
Stephanie Sauer is an interdisciplinary artist and the author of Almonds Are Members of the Peach Family (Noemi Press) and The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force (University of Texas Press). As a co-founding editor of A Bolha Editora in Brazil, she helped bring the work of Hilda Hilst into English for the first time. She currently teaches prose in Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas program. [www.stephaniesauer.com]