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Siamak Akhavan’s Modern Translation of Khayyam’s poems

December 7, 2021

Earlier this year, we posted several blog items relating to a new publication by Siamak Akhavan entitled Omar Khayyam Poems, A Modern Translation. The most recent post is on https://omarkhayyamrubaiyat.wordpress.com/2021/07/29/omar-khayyam-poems-new-translation-now-available/.  Since then a number of readers, including ourselves, have received their copies of the book and have had a chance to look in detail at the content of book.  Here are some of our own reactions.  Comments from others will follow.  If you would like to contribute to the dialogue, please comment below, or send a short piece for posting to sandrabill@omarkhayyamrubaiyat.com

Akhavan is aiming to ‘share a more accurate and relevant presentation of Khayyam … with modern english [sic] readers.’  In trying to assess whether he achieves this aim, we have looked at three specific aspects of the book.  There are:  the choice of verses attributed to Khayyam that have been chosen for translation;  the presentation of the verses in the book;  the content and accessibility of the individual verses and what they tell us about Khayyam and his thinking.

The question of whether Khayyam, the historical figure who was an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, actually wrote any verses, has been much discussed elsewhere.  Akhavan recognises the problem of selecting the verses, most likely to be by Khayyam, from the many hundreds that have been attributed to him.  The modern author has selected 122 quatrains that ‘in my opinion are likely genuine Khayyam poems, based on my own familiarity with Omar Khayyam’s style and mindset and with Persian literature and poetic mysticism.’  In his book Akhavan does not quote specific sources for his selection, but, in a private communication, he has indicated that he drew on the widely accepted work of Foroughi and Ghani, and Sadeq Hedayat, as well as a number of other recent American and Iranian experts on Khayyam.

Having made his selection of Persian verses, Akhavan had the problem of how to present them in his English version.  Here he made two critical decisions, neither of which is justified in his Preface or Introduction.  First he chose not to follow the AABA rhyming scheme of the original Persian which was also adopted by many earlier translators.  Instead his English verses are mostly simple rhyming couplets, which, for us, create a significantly different effect from the original.  Second, there is the question of the order in which to present the verses.  The original Persian verses are normally alphabetical, based on the end rhyme, which achieves a certain randomisation of content, consistent with the idea that each rubai is an entity on its own.  Some translators have followed this Persian order, others have grouped the verses by subject matter, while FitzGerald, whose work Akhavan uses as a critical foil for his own, chose to create a specific order generally based on the passage of time through the day from morning to evening.  In fact, Akhavan does not tell us the basis for the final order of verses in the book, nor is it easy to find any obvious grouping by subject theme.  The reader is left to pick and choose individual verses at will, perhaps an intentional effect and closer to the original Persian.  But we feel that the new, non-Persian, reader, with no previous knowledge of Khayyam’s work or other translations, would be rather bemused by this set of unrelated verses. One technical complaint about this approach is that it is very difficult to find individual verses again within the 122 quatrains shown, given that the verses have not been numbered or separately identified in any way.

Finally we come to the content of the individual verses and whether this is a ‘more readable and accurate version’ of Khayyam’s thinking for modern readers.  We have compared a few of Akhavan’s English verses first with what we know to be fairly literal translations (by Edward Heron-Allen in 1898/99), and then with Edward FitzGerald’s.  Matching up the Persian originals for different translations is not easy but some comparisons are shown at the end (a few more are available).  Our reactions from this limited exercise, is that Akhavan’s ‘modern translation’ cannot really be called a ‘translation’ in any literal sense.  Just as FitzGerald produced a version of the Persian verses, rendering what he saw as the sense of the original into good English verse of his time, so Akhavan has tried to do something similar for today’s world.

Unfortunately we do not think that Akhavan has achieved his expressed aim.  He has used reliable and accepted sources but his adoption of an alternative rhyming pattern fails to give an authentic feel of Khayyam’s quatrains, and we are worried about the lack of any guide to his intentions in selecting how he presents the quatrains to his readers.  The content of the verses that Akhavan has produced rightly reflects his own interpretation of Khayyam’s quatrains and thinking.  But we have considerable difficulty with his use of the English language and the quality of his verse.  This point will be taken up by other reviewers in later blog posts.  Quite radical modern interpretations of early Persian poets like Rumi have been notably popular among younger audiences;  some versions, like those by Coleman Barks, have a very direct and modern appeal.  But Khayyam’s more abstract quatrains are difficult to present and, to us as readers, some of Akhavan’s verses have non-sequiturs in the English which makes them even more obscure than they need to be.

Despite these comments, we welcome Akhavan’s attempt to bring the Rubaiyat to new audiences. And we look forward to finding out the response of readers of a younger generation.

Two examples of different translations

(The original Persian quatrains can be found by reference to the relevant pages in Akhavan’s book or to the numbered quatrains for FitzGerald’s 3rd edition in Heron-Allen 1899.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2021 11:19 am

    Martin Kimeldorf sent the following comment.

    I may be the outliar but
    I liked Siamak’s poetry.
    I finally found it on amazon.
    Take care.

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  1. More reflections on Siamak Akhavan’s Omar Khayyam Poems | Omar Khayyam Rubaiyat

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