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A new translation of ‘Khayyam’s’ Rubaiyat

May 11, 2020

Cole ROKIt is not often that we are treated to a completely new translation from the Persian of the Rubaiyat attributed to Omar Khayyam.  So we have been delighted to learn from publisher I B Tauris of their recent publication of a new version in English of the Persian verses, produced by Professor Juan Cole.  Details of the book and where to find more information are given at the end of this post. *

Juan Cole is described as ‘a public intellectual, prominent blogger, and essayist’;  he is also Professor of History at the University of Michigan.  Previous translations by him include some Arabic works by Kahlil Gibran.  He says that he has been thinking about doing the Khayyam translation since his student days in 1976 when it struck him that the original Persian verses had things to say to a contemporary audience.  His translation is based on the quatrains contained in the Bodleian manuscript of the Rubaiyat (Ouseley 140) which dates from 1460 CE.  Professor Cole has included all but one of the 158 verses in the MS and they are presented in the original order of the MS.  His translation is in a mixture of blank and free verse, avoiding archaic terms and objects.  He says that ‘like FitzGerald I feel that it is more important [that} the poetry be accessible to contemporaries than for this translation to be pedantic.’

On first reading, we find the translation pleasant to read and illuminating, and we look forward to studying it more closely.  The book also contains a 17 page Introduction and a considerably longer Epilogue, both by Professor Cole.  The Introduction provides general background to the verses and how they came, through FitzGerald’s translation, to prominence and influence in the Western literary world of the late 19th and 20th century.  The Epilogue is subtitled Persian Literature and the Rubaiyat and it deals with the nature of the Khayyamic verses and how they and their content fit into the history of mediaeval Arabic, Mongol and Persian culture and literature.  Professor Cole is a supporter of the view that the verses were by many different authors;  they were collected together, for various reasons, under the name of Omar Khayyam, though he did not write them.  The Epilogue presents an interesting analysis of the disputed question of the meaning of wine and other themes in the quatrains, and how this fits with what Professor Cole describes as secular Muslim civilization.

Overall this book provides a valuable addition to the interpretation and study of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  It is well worth taking a look at.  There are both hardback and paperback editions.  For details, see  This gives information on the paperback version with links to the other formats available.

* Cole J., The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  A New Translation from the Persian.  (London: I B Tauris, 2020)

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