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Futher comments on Siamak Akhavan’s Omar Khayyam Poems

December 13, 2021

Barney Rickenbacker has sent us his comments on Siamak Akhavan’s Modern Translation of Omar Khayam Poems. He writes as follows.

It’s generally agreed that the best English translations of Persian poetry come from those who know Persian and who are themselves poets. This of course applies when translating quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam. Knowledge of Persian and at the least, a poetic sensibility, are necessary.

Next, I would argue for imagination coupled with a command of both the language and metrics to create a rich metric line. FitzGerald possessed all these attributes when he wrote his Rubaiyat.

Reading through Siamak Akhavan’s new translation of over a hundred poems attributed to Omar Khayyam, I am pleased that he chooses worthy examples from Khayyam’s corpus, primarily from the compilation of Forughi-Ghani. What’s more, the Persian text accompanies each translation. Good news for those of us who wish to compare text and translation.

My first impression is that Siamak Akhavan brings imagination to his translations. You might say that he has a lot he wishes to express. The problem is that he does not always express it well. He often expresses it poorly owing to his penchant for a forced aabb rhyme scheme, a preferred scheme that seems to direct him to use incorrect or ridiculously contrived rhymes. He needs a guide or mentor to help him. Then he might consider publishing a second, revised edition.

All Siamak’s infelicities will be quickly apparent to the reader. And rather than point them out, I wish to cite just one poorly translated quatrain, beautifully rendered by FitzGerald, not so by Akhavan.

Akhavan, p.11, “All comrades of the way parted,/with eternity merged, fate flaunted,/Light’s path we tried to unravel./Sooner some gained the mantle.” The Persian (my almost literal translation): “convivial companions all have departed/pressed by fate underfoot one by one/they drank from one cup in life’s gathering/they got drunk a round or two earlier than us.”

What to say here? He misses the simplicity and sadness of this quatrain, chiefly by departing in lines two and three from the Persian text. Compare FitzGerald (Stanza XXII4th):

                        For some we loved, the loveliest and the best

                        That from his vintage rolling Time hath prest,

                        Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,

                                And one by one crept silently to rest.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2021 2:51 pm

    A clear sighted, uplifting loving gesture Barney – thank you.

  2. Barney Rickenbacker permalink
    December 13, 2021 11:20 pm

    On the front page of my site, exploringkhayyam, I had entered this poem of the Spanish-Roman poet, Martial (1.16):

    sunt bona sunt mediocria sunt mala plura
    quae legis hic aliter non fit, Avite, liber
    “What’s good what’s middling much not worth a look
    without this mix, my friend, we wouldn’t have a book.”

    Uneveness is almost always in the mix, and I took refuge in Martial’s quote. What’s hoped for in translations is something to wake you up — something to bring you to the dance. As Duke Ellington is supposed to have said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Some translations just “ain’t got that swing.”

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