Thursday, July 19, 2007

"A Rumi of One's Own"

That's the title of a provocative essay by Rachel Aviv, at the Poetry Foundation website.

She takes issue with the popular Coleman Barks translation -- or, really, paraphrase -- of the medieval Sufi poet. Barks is a good poet, but he doesn't read Persian, which means he was working from older English versions (and in at least one instance, copying their mistakes). More seriously, he seems to remove "God" from some poems and replace it with "love."

This is, to put it mildly, a discourtesy toward the author. Nor does it do the reader any favors. God may very well BE love -- such is the contention of St. John -- but that does not mean that a sophisticated writer can be presumed to use the words interchageably. It's a bit like going through the Narnia books and putting in "love" each time Lewis wrote "Aslan" -- there is logic to it, but you make a hash of the story.

The responses on the page are thoughtful, and worth reading. Here's my own:

I'm a little sad, but not surprised.

Sad, because I am so fond of Barks' version of Rumi -- as I will continue to be, despite knowing that he didn't translate from the originals, and that he took significant liberties with the author's religious commitments.

But not surprised, because this sort of thing happens so often. Robert Bly's paraphrases of Kabir are useful for comparison -- like Barks, they are good English poetry. But they aren't especially good Kabir. (As opposed to the Linda Hess/Shukdev Singh renderings).

Among Christian writers, a little of this has gone on with Hildegard of Bingen, but less egregiously so. I suppose it is harder to bowdlerize the religiosity of one's own parent culture -- or at least to get away with it.

No comments: