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The Rubaiyat of Siamak Akhavan – Another view

December 10, 2021

Following on from the previous post on Siamak Akhavan’s Omar Khayyam’s Poems, A Modern Translation, here are some further comments sent to us by Bob Forrest. Please add your own comments below.

Akhavan hopes that his “Modern Translation” will be “a more readable and accurate version” than FitzGerald’s “outdated English prose” (p.ix), but to my mind his version is very far from being an improvement on FitzGerald. It is true that FitzGerald’s version was “an excessively free translation” (p.xiv). but that FitzGerald misrepresented Omar in picturing him as a “hedonistic / nihilist poet” (p.xv) as opposed to one who “used such code words as ‘wine’ and ‘beloved’ to make vague references to then forbidden esoteric and alchemical philosophies and practices” (p.x) is as debatable now as when FitzGerald took J.B. Nicolas’s 1867 Sufi-inclined translation to task in the preface to his second edition of 1868. As Prof. Cowell said of FitzGerald’s efforts, in a letter to W. Aldis Wright dated 19 July 1883, they are “too free to be called translations, yet what closer translations could ever give such a vivid idea of the original ?” (George Cowell, Life and Letters of Edward Byles Cowell (1904), p.283): certainly not Akhavan’s, it seems to me.

Looking at Akhavan’s translation, I am puzzled by some of his word usage, which sometimes seems to be governed more by finding a rhyme (frequently forced / clumsy) than making clear sense. Since Akhavan doesn’t number his quatrains, I will use page numbers for readers to locate the following examples, which are chosen from a much larger number.

On p.3: “Thus flowed to me this advise, /  ‘once I was you, don’t surmise’” – “advise” should be “advice”, but this doesn’t rhyme with “surmise”, of course,  “surmise” presumably being a reference to trying to fathom the “secrets for a life long” (rather than a long life ?) in line 2. All somewhat clumsy, it seems to me.

On p.8: “Mull not over what’s past and ran. / Praise presence, that’s the plan.” “Past and ran” is forced – “past and gone” would be better – but then “gone” doesn’t rhyme with “plan”. “Praise presence” presumably means, “Enjoy the present”, which makes much more obvious sense (and is “realm” supposed to rhyme with “psalm” in lines 1 & 2 ?) Then we have, “The many that rose and went under, /  then flew asleep in vanity’s asunder” – but “flew asleep” not “fell asleep” ? And does he mean “vanities asunder”, and if so, what does he mean by “asunder” ? Or did he use it largely because it rhymed with “under” ? These lines, continuing the rhyme, are followed by, “Of their fate there is no wonder, / Their words lost in aeon’s thunder” – aside from rhyming with “wonder”, I’m not sure what “thunder” is doing here.

On p.17: ”Cosmic wheel’s a cycle of ether. / Galaxies are rivers of purified tear.” Aside from the lack of “The” in front of “Cosmic”, are “ether” and “tear” (which should surely be “tears”) supposed to rhyme ? Would “ether” have been known in Omar’s day ? Certainly “Galaxies” were not, until the advent of modern telescopes (beginning with Messier in the late eighteenth century.) Likewise on p.21 we have “Pleiades and Saturn flaunt their rings”, which could never have been written by Omar: the Pleiades are a star cluster visible to the naked eye, now as in Omar’s day, but it has no rings; plus the rings of Saturn were unknown, again until the advent of modern telescopes (Galileo first saw them in 1610.)

On p.27: ”Rise oh light, to heart’s aid go / With radiance absolve its throe. / Rinse my dirt in your brightness, / so a purer ash in clay they throw.” The verse clearly follows FitzGerald’s a-a-b-a rhyming pattern (though not his 10 syllable lines – Akhavan’s consist of wobbly 7-8-7-9 pattern.) Again, I know what he means, though who “they” are, I don’t know. But is this honestly an improvement on FitzGerald ? Certainly not for me.

On p.32: “No one masters infinity’s letter. / Dirt is the fate for flesh forever./ Vain one, if not in soil yet, know, / your time’ll come too, don’t glow.” I must confess that I find the repeated use of “dirt” instead of “earth” a little irritating and not very poetic, though that view that might not be shared by others. Does “infinity’s letter” mean “infinity’s depths” or what ? And what does “don’t glow” mean here ? Again, it seems, a case of finding a rhyme for “know” in the previous line has muddied the waters.

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I was curious to know what Akhavan had made of Omar’s various references to pots and the potter’s shop.

Here is the one on p.15: “A potter’s I passed a fortnight. / In dim silence sat pots in sight. / Roared one silent pot with desire, / ‘where’s maker, seller and buyer ?” Here “passed a fortnight” is clearly used to rhyme with “pots in sight”, and “desire” with “buyer”, but it jars that there is no clarification of “A potter’s” (a potter’s what ? Shop ?), that there is no “at” or “in” at the front of “A potter’s”, and that one of the pots is roaring “with desire” rather than with impatience (as in v.60 of FitzGerald’s first edition.) To my way of thinking, FitzGerald version is much better, Victorian or not.

On p.43 we have: “A pot I bought from the bazar, / whispered secrets of lands afar: / ‘A king I was once, on a golden throne, / but clay now, with deeds to atone.’” Not a bad effort, this one, though “deeds to atone” seems to be there mainly to give a rhyme for “a golden throne”, and “I am clay now” would be better.

Unfortunately, just as things seemed to be improving in the potter’s shop, along came this verse on p.44 to spoil things: “Passing the potter’s one night, / saw the master’s usual sight. / Crafting clay pots without vaunt, /of beggars’ crud and kings’ flaunt.”  No “I” in front of “saw” is again a minor irritation, and does “the master’s usual sight” mean “the potter’s shop in its usual state” ? Using “vaunt” to rhyme with “flaunt”, and with neither word used in a correct sense, just doesn’t work. And “crud” ? Not for me, I’m afraid.

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I freely admit to being the sort of person who cannot see anyone playing Sherlock Holmes other than Basil Rathbone, or anyone playing James Bond other than Sean Connery, but it is a fairly common phenomenon, I think, to retain a particular fondness for what one grew up with. Likewise, for me, no translation I have ever seen has ever come close to the magic of FitzGerald’s and to my mind Akhavan’s comes nowhere near.

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