A Review of “Moon and Sun: Rumi’s Rubaiyat” by Zara Houshmand

by Ali Minai

Your love stirs the ocean into reckless storms.
At your feet, the clouds drop their pearls.
Dark smoke rises in the sky, a fire burns
Where your love’s lightning strikes the earth.

These energetic lines open Moon and Sun: Rumi’s Rubaiyat, Zara Houshmand’s brilliant translation of selected ruba’iyat – quatrains – by Molana Jalaluddin Rumi, and set the tone for an inspiring and exhilarating sojourn through the passions of the peerless Sage of Konya.

It has become almost a cliché to cite Rumi’s status as the most widely read poet in America today. If that is so, it is only because of the many translations of his works into English by poets as distinct as Robert Bly and Coleman Barks. Clearly, all of these translations have something that touches the hearts of 21st century Americans in ways that even modern American poets seldom do. Perhaps it is because this poet who lived thousands of miles away and eight centuries ago has a strikingly modern sensibility – a directness of expression and connection that, couched in appropriate words, can grab a reader across the gulf of centuries. But finding those words also requires a creative act – a re-ignition of the original fire, so to speak. In many cases, translations of Rumi have succeeded by glossing over the complexity of the original, or injecting it with a little modern – even Western – attitude. Most translations have drawn on Rumi’s matchless didactic work, the Masnavi, which is a tapestry of poetic tales embedded within tales, each taking the reader to deep ethical and existential insights. Unlike most other classical Persian poetry, the Masnavi is written in a direct – almost modern – voice. As such, poems from it can be – and have been – translated well by focusing on the stories they tell and the moral conclusions they reach, without worrying too much about replicating Rumi’s poetic diction. The other body of Rumi’s work that has been translated extensively are his ghazals from the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, ranging from A.J. Arberry’s beautiful literal translations to Nader Khalili’s more poetic ones and the impressionistic renditions of Kabir Helminski – all satisfying and lacking in distinctive ways, as must always be the case in translations of this genre. The task undertaken by Zara Houshmand in Moon and Sun is distinct from all these predecessors.

The ruba’I, or quatrain, (pl. ruba’iyat) is one of the oldest genres in classical Persian poetry, going back to at least the 10th century works of Abu Sa’id Abul Khayr, and finding its apotheosis in the poetry of Baba Tahir Hamadani and Omar Khayyam in the 11th and 12th centuries. As its name implies, the ruba’I is a poem in four lines. Each line is of exactly the same metrical length, and the rhyme scheme is either AABA or AAAA. No other option is allowed. The meters permitted for the Ruba’I are also specified strictly, though some poets – notably Baba Tahir – have violated these constraints. Because of its short length and specific form, the ruba’I is especially suited to aphoristic expression – a capacity taken to perfection by Khayyam. Apart from Ferdowsi, all the great masters of classical Persian poetry – Sana’I, Attar, Sa’di, Hafez – wrote ruba’iyat though they all became famous for other genres. Such is also the case with Rumi, whose Masnavi and ghazals so overwhelmed his readers that his ruba’iyat have largely been obscured, though they are part of his great Divan – almost two thousand of them. As with all his poetry, they are imbued with a mystical passion unlike that found in any other poet, but they also hold – or should hold – a unique place in Rumi’s canon for another reason. All of Rumi’s best-known poetry is expansive in nature. The Masnavi, with its intertwined stories, has meanings stretched out across long sequences of lines, and so ramified that it is often impossible to define the boundaries of any single idea. The classical Persian ghazal, with its individual, self-contained couplets, has usually been the quintessential means for concentrated expression of ideas. Not so with Rumi; his ghazals are almost invariably a continuous sequence of tightly connected couplets expressing a single idea across the whole ghazal, which, in some cases, can stretch to thirty or forty couplets. The ruba’I is the one genre where Rumi is denied this opportunity for extension – where he has to complete his thought in four lines and no more. The result is a purity of expression and concentration of meaning that cannot be found anywhere else in the vast volume of his famous works. Capturing this sublime purity in English is the challenge Zara Houshmand has accepted and met with remarkable success.

The translation of ruba’iyat into English has strong pedigree because of Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of selected rubai’yat from Omar Khayyam. It is certainly the most spectacularly successful translation of poetry from Persian to English, and – for all the criticisms leveled at it – fairly faithful to the spirit of the original. Apart from the superb poetic quality of his work, FitzGerald succeeded as a translator by using two devices. First, a choice of idiom that created an authentic and plausible voice for the 11th century poet, and second, a careful selection and ordering of the quatrains. The latter strategy enabled FitzGerald to turn quatrains that were otherwise disjointed and disconnected into a single poem with a unified ethos, which gave the translation a distinctive mood. It can be argued justifiably that this strategy obscured many dimensions of Khayyam’s work, and showed him as writing only about the transience of life and its pleasures. Houshmand carefully avoids doing any such thing to the work of Rumi. In a stroke of genius, she groups the selected quatrains into fifteen chapters, each representing an aspect of Rumi’s thought, thus providing a virtual map of his mind. In Moon and Sun, she has also found an idiom that is completely modern, yet captures the timeless quality of Rumi’s poetry to perfection. By largely avoiding the strictures of rhyme and meter but retaining the poetic essence of the original, Houshmand’s translations take the reader to the very core of Rumi’s mystical world without sacrificing any of the poetic quality of the original. A few examples will illustrate this.

In the chapter entitled “Alone in the Desert”, one of the quatrains is translated as:

I journeyed through the desert of your love,
Searching for some hint that you might join me.
I saw in every home I passed along the way
Scattered corpses of those who went before me.

which captures perfectly Rumi’s conception of the seeker’s journey of self-discovery that ends in union with the Beloved after traversing a desert full of dangers and temptations.

In the chapter “The Heart’s Messenger”, we find the following quatrain:

There’s another kind of calm in the congress of lovers,
A different oblivion in the wine of love.
The knowledge that the classroom yields is one thing,
And love — love is something else again.

This too goes to one of Rumi’s central themes – the idea that love and the fulfillment it finds in the beloved is an education discovered only by experience and devotion, not by learning.

One idea that runs through all of Rumi’s ecstatic poetry is the ubiquity of paradox – that being only achieves fulfilment through annihilation, that love can only be found when all is lost, that only the hidden can fully expose the truth – as expressed in this beautiful quatrain with evocative refrains:

It is treasure buried in earth, concealed —
Both from the pious and faithless, concealed.
We saw that it surely was love, concealed —
This hidden thing left us naked, revealed.

Though not forcing it, on occasion Houshmand finds a felicitous rhyme that transfers the essence of Rumi’s original into English with true perfection, as on page 51, where we find the following quatrain:

The moment my eyes are flooded with tears
Her image, like a lustrous pearl, appears.
“Pour more wine for this dear honored guest,”
I tell my eyes, whispering in their ears.

Sun and Moon is 200 pages of inspiration that whispers deliciously in the ear of the eye.

No translation – let alone a translation across a divide as wide as classical Persian poetry and modern English – can possibly overcome all challenges. Inevitably, some of these are apparent in Moon and Sun, though none mar its essential quality. As the translator points out in the Introduction, pronouns in Persian lack gender. Persian poets have exploited this to the hilt – in particular by leaving the gender of the object of the poet’s love ambiguous. This, in turn, makes it possible to read all love poetry as referring to an earthly beloved – typically (though not always) a woman, since all classical poets were men – or God, who is inevitably masculine.  This ambiguity poses a difficult problem for the translator. Houshmand has chosen to address it by translating each ruba’I on its own terms – using the gender that seems most consistent with the words or imagery in the quatrain. This reasonable choice could easily have worked against the cohesion of the translations as a whole, but Houshmand largely avoids this because grouping the quatrains into thematically self-consistent chapters removes a lot of potential conflict.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that translating classical Persian poetry poses is the density of meaning in the original. Drawing on the vocabulary of sufism, the traditions of ancient Persia, the imagery of Arabic literature, and the heritage of Islamicate culture, classical Persian poetry developed a distinctive idiom very early in its history. It is apparent already in Khayyam, Attar and Baba Tahir, but finds its first truly complex voice in Rumi. The most important features of this idiom are multiplicity of meaning, layers of allusion, and a pervasive symbology that is understandable only to the initiated. These things conspire to render literal translations, not just inadequate but often ridiculous. This problem is especially acute when the translator is trying to retain the brevity of the original and to resist the urge to “explain.” It is compounded further because English has a much more direct, descriptive mode of expression than Persian and virtually no tradition of hidden meanings and mystical symbolism. Houshmand’s translation, which does aim to retain the poetic and aphoristic quality of the original, faces this challenge of semantic density with almost every quatrain, and often resolves it by finding a delicate balance between the literal and the mystical. Sometimes, this is helped by imagery that already bridges across the linguistic divide, such as the symbolism associated with the moon or the moth drawn to the flame. In other instances, the mystical meaning is expressed directly without retaining the symbolism. And, in a few cases, the tension remains unresolved and one gets a translation that leaves something unexpressed. On rare occasions, a reader may also quibble with the translation, but what translation can ever be free of such disputes? Fortunately, these things are issues more for the critic and the reviewer than for the reader of Moon and Sun. A reader who understands Persian can thus always go to the original, which is always included with the translation, and one who does not can sit back and enjoy the English translations as pure poetry suffused with the spirit and wisdom of Rumi. Indeed, the inclusion of the original Persian text in beautiful Nastaliq script is one of the best features of Moon and Sun – one that adds immeasurably to its effect. Even for those who don’t read Persian, it provides an abstract physical embellishment evocative of Oriental romance. The book is a work of art in more ways than one.

Reading Moon and Sun is an exceptionally rewarding experience. Thoughtful readers will find themselves lingering on almost every page, their attention arrested by the deep thought and dazzling imagery of Rumi’s poetry refracted through Houshmand’s limpid translation. Moon and Sun will, no doubt, immediately become an essential part of the Rumi canon in English.


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