Translations

Sir William "Oriental" Jones, from The Works of Sir William Jones (1799)

[Click on image to enlarge] Sir William Jones (1746–1794) was a scholar and lawyer who was famous in his lifetime for reportedly knowing twenty-eight languages. Jones worked his way through university at Oxford with the help of scholarships and a job as tutor to young Lord Althorp (brother of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire), through whom he formed important connections to high society. Jones was a member of Samuel Johnson's famous literary club, and published a number of translations of "Asiatick" writing before being called to the bar in 1774. From 1783 to his death in 1794, Jones lived in India, where he worked as a judge of the high court of Calcutta and founded the Bengal Asiatic Society for research into Indian languages, literature, law, and other subjects.

Yet, despite Jones's brilliant reputation, George Psalmanazar's Formosan fakery cast a long shadow over eighteenth-century translators. Jones writes in the preface to his translation: "so many productions, invented in France, have been offered to the publick as genuine translations from the languages of Asia, that I should have wished, for my own sake, to clear my publication from the slightest suspicion of imposture; but there is a circumstance peculiarly hard in the present case; namely, that, were I to produce the originals themselves, it would be impossible to persuade some men, that even they were not forged for the purpose, like the pretended language of Formosa" (401).

In translating the poem shown below, Jones translates the work of perhaps the most important poet in all Persian literature — the man he refers to as "Hafiz." "Hafiz" or "Hafez" is not just a name, but an honorific title given to any person who memorizes the Qur'an. The fourteenth-century Persian poet's full name has been transcribed into English in a number of ways: as Khwaja Shams ad.Din Mohammad Shirazi, or Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafiz-I Shirazi, or Mohammad Shams Od-din Hafez (1326–1389). The word "Shirazi" in his name refers to the poet's birthplace, Shiraz, where he worked for many different aristocratic patrons. Shiraz is a city in Iran (formerly known in the West as Persia), apparently notable in Hafiz's time for its attractive inhabitants (see the first line of the transcribed "gazel" below).

The poetic form of which Hafiz is the master is the ghazal. A ghazal is a lyric poem. The ghazal's unique form developed in seventh-century Arabic poetry and song, and it continues to evolve, especially as Western translators and English-language poets interested in the form often misinterpret the central caesura in each line of Persian script as a line break. Ghazals typically concern topics such as love, hedonism, and mysticism. Ghazals usually comprise eight to fifteen couplets. The most important characteristic of the ghazal is that each of these couplets represents a complete poem in itself. This economy of expression gives ghazals a sense of intense vitality and disciplined elegance. Both lines of the couplet have the same metre. A refrain may develop. Traditionally, the last couplet of a ghazal will contain the poet's name.

Here is the first stanza of the original Persian "Gazel" by Hafiz, as transcribed by Sir William Jones:

Egher an Turki Shirazi
      Bedest ared dili mara,
Be khali hinduish bakhshem
      Samarcand u Bokharara.

Sir William Jones provides this transcription of the original Persian text at the bottom of the page, bearing his English translation as proof that he is no Psalmanazar, but unlike his contemporary, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, Jones prefers a less literal translation process. Jones abandons the couplets of the ghazal form in his verse translation.

What excites Jones about Hafiz's work is that it reminds him of the sonnets of Petrarch, and his translation highlights these similarities by emphasizing the role of the cruel, resisting, but beautiful lover. Jones even includes a translation of Petrarch's "Canzone 27, "Chiare, fresche, e dolci acque, / Ye clear and sparkling streams" (453), so that the reader can make this comparison himself. At the same time, Jones acknowledges a tradition of mystical Sufi interpretations of the poems of Hafiz, which point beyond the poem's literal meaning and consider the poems as a form of "meditation on the divine perfections" (456).

Jones's translation makes other significant changes too: the Persian ghazal contains the poet's name (Hafiz); Jones's version does not. Also, the beloved's gender is not specified in the original poem. For example, the author of an article on Hafiz in The Encyclopedia of Religion translates the opening couplet like this:

If that Shirazi Turk will take my heart into his hand
I'll give up, for his Indian beauty spot, all Samarkand and Bukhara.

Here is the eighteenth-century poem, "A Persian Song of Hafiz," by Sir William Jones, which invokes ideas from several of Hafiz's ghazals. It is followed by a more literal, modern translation of a Hafiz ghazal by Reza Ordoubadian.

"A Persian Song of Hafiz"


Sweet maid, if thou would'st charm my sight,
And bid these arms thy neck infold;
That rosy cheek, that lily hand,
Would give thy poet more delight
Than all Bocara's >> note 1 vaunted gold,
Than all the gems of Samarcand. >> note 2
Boy, let yon liquid ruby flow,
And bid thy pensive heart be glad,
Whate'er the frowning zealots say:
Tell them, their Eden cannot show
A stream so clear as Rocnabad, >> note 3
A bower so sweet as Mosellay. >> note 4
O! when these fair perfidious maids,
Whose eyes our secret haunts infest,
Their dear destructive charms display;
Each glance my tender breast invades,
And robs my wounded soul of rest,
As Tartars seize their destin'd prey.
In vain with love our bosoms glow:
Can all our tears, can all our sighs,
New lustre to those charms impart?
Can cheeks, where living roses blow,
Where nature spreads her richest dyes,
Require the borrow'd gloss of art?
Speak not of fate: — ah! change the theme,
And talk of odours, talk of wine,
Talk of the flowers that round us bloom:
'Tis all a cloud, 'tis all a dream;
To love and joy thy thoughts confine,
Nor hope to pierce the sacred gloom.
Beauty has such resistless power,
That even the chaste Egyptian dame >> note 5
Sigh'd for the blooming Hebrew boy; >> note 6
For her how fatal was the hour,
When to the banks of Nilus >> note 7 came
A youth so lovely and so coy!
But ah! sweet maid, my counsel hear
(Youth should attend when those advise
Whom long experience renders sage):
While musick charms the ravish'd ear;
While sparkling cups delight our eyes,
Be gay; and scorn the frowns of age.
What cruel answer have I heard!
And yet, by heaven, I love thee still:
Can aught be cruel from thy lip?
Yet say, how fell that bitter word
From lips which streams of sweetness fill,
Which nought but drops of honey sip?
Go boldly forth, my simple lay,
Whose accents flow with artless ease,
Like orient pearls at random strung:
Thy notes are sweet, the damsels say;
But O! far sweeter, if they please
The nymph for whom these notes are sung.

 

Compare this to a modern verse translation by Reza Ordoubadian, included here by his kind permission, from his book The Ghazals of Hafez: Poems of a Master (forthcoming from Ibex Press).

Would that Shirazi Turk behold our heart; then,
I'll gift, to her Indian Mole, both Samarkand and Bokhara.
Pour the remaining wine, Saghi! — in paradise you shall not find
the river banks so firm — nor the pleasure of a prayer rug.
These impudent beauties of the city of confusion steal
patience from my heart, like a Khan in a joyous plunder.
The face of the beloved is pleased with our unconsummated love:
what need the beauteous face has of earth, water, or art?
From the ever.increasing beauty of Joseph, this I understood:
love rends the curtain of virtue from Zoleykha's face.
If you curse — if you abuse me, I will pray for you:
bitter response suits the ruby lips of the sweetest heart.
My love: more precious than life the lucky youth
holds the advice of the virtuous sage.
Come, sing of wine and minstrels — seek less the secrets of life;
none has solved — nor can — this enigma with the logical mind.
Hafez, you sang ghazal, made pearls of words; come and sing:
the Universe graces your verse with a marriage to the Pleiades.


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