April 29th, 2008

Review by Deborah Bacharach (email)

Hafiz, translated by Peter Avery
& John Heath-Stubbs

Chetwynd House, Bartlow
Cambridge, CB1 6PP
United Kingdom
ISBN: 1-870196-15-5
224 pp., £19.95 cloth, £9.95 paper


Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson St.
New York, New York, 10014
ISBN: 0-14-303781-1
89 pp. $15.00

I've been reading Hafiz. A 14th century Persian mystic and poet, he wrote The Poet:

A poet is someone
Who can pour light into a cup
Then raise it to nourish
Your beautiful parched, holy mouth.

This poem makes me so happy--the first line break, how it claims importance and identity for a poet; then that image, a poet pouring light into a cup as if the poet is God, which, in many Hafiz poems, he is, pouring God through himself to you; that string of adjectives that builds and builds. The poem makes me beautiful; it makes me realize how parched I have been; it makes me holy. Hafiz is an incredible writer.

Except, he didn't write this, of course. Daniel Ladinsky did.
Hafiz wrote in Persian. Translator, Daniel Ladinsky, says his artistic works are "renderings" not "translations." He has not kept the ghazal form. He has "opened himself to the guidance of the spirit contained within the poetry." He's pretty upfront about taking liberties in structure and tone. I don't read Persian, so I can't say whether Ladinsky has been fair to Hafiz in style or substance. I can say his version of Hafiz fills my soul. The translations by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs do not.
Avery and Stubbs have an agenda. They consider their book a "manifesto on the subject of translation from the Persian." They absolutely reject writers like Ladinsky who freely admit to riffing on Hafiz. As they say in their introduction, "our purpose was to convey that hardness of the Persian lyric, which is totally devoid of the misty whimsicality with which English translations have tended to endow it."
Misty whimsicality like You Better Start Kissing Me?

Throw away
All your begging bowls at God's door,
For I have heard the Beloved
Prefers sweet threatening shouts,
Something on the order of:
"Hey, Beloved,
My heart is a raging volcano
Of love for you!
You better start kissing me--
Or Else!"

--trans. Ladinsky

Whimsy, light-heartedness, joy overflowing--these seem hallmarks of Ladinsky's translations. Every other word seems to be "drinking," "dancing," or "laughter," and all in the name of the Beloved. I am usually wary of words like "love," and "heart" in a poem. They tend to tell me how I'm supposed to feel instead of taking me there. But despite a plethora of these words, Ladinsky's translations make me feel like I am floating with the Divine.
Maybe it's the strong voice and the message of complete acceptance in poems like You Don't Have to Act Crazy Anymore.

You don't have to act crazy anymore--
We all know you were good at that.
Now retire, my dear,
From all that hard work you do
Of bringing pain to your sweet eyes and heart.

Or the completely affirming deity that Ladinsky's Hafiz brings to us:

I rarely let the word "No" escape
From my mouth
Because it is so plain to my soul
That God has shouted, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"
To every luminous movement in Existence.

--Every Movement, trans. Ladinsky

I just know that Ladinsky has brought me a "wonderful, wild companion," Hafiz, and I am so grateful to be with him.
Avery and Heath-Stubbs have moments when that wonderful, wild, sensual companion peeks out of their poems. In poem VII, the lines "They are spread for the wedding-feast of the wine-seller's son/ And I'd sweep his floor with my eyelashes to win such grace"
flow with the sexual energy, vivid simple language and connection to the holy of the Hafiz I know and love.
But most of their writing does not rise to this level. Their poems are full of archaic language--"screed," "auguries"--or lines so chockfull of syllables--"That magistrate has no jurisdiction here,"--that the tone stops dead. There are lines that seem like the Hafiz vision of the world (LXXIX) "Love knows no difference between monastery and drinking-booth / For the light of the Friend's face irradiates all"--but words like "irradiates" kick me out.
The first poem can illustrate several of these problems:

Boy, bring the cup, and circulate the wine:
How easy at first love seemed, but now the snags begin.
How many hearts lie bleeding, waiting for the wind-loosed musk
Out of these tresses--the bright twist of black curls?
For what security have we here in this halting-place,
Where every moment the bell clangs, "Strap up your packs"?
Stain your prayer-mat with wine if the Master tells you:
That seasoned voyagers knows the ways of the road.
But traveling light, what can these land-lubbers know of it--
Black night, our fear of the waves, and the horrible whirlpool?
My self-willed love will sink my reputation:
The truth leaks out; they make a ballad of it at their meetings.
If you seek his presence, Hafiz, do not let him alone:
And when you meet his face, you can tell the world to go hang.

--trans. Avery and Heath-Stubbs

I love "the bright twist of black curls" beautiful balancing syllables, alliteration, and a strong sensual metaphor. But words like "circulate," "snags," and "land-lubbers," seem overly formal and unnatural.
In the first stanza, I assume I am sitting with Hafiz passing around the wine. But in the next stanzas, I lose that sense of grounding. Where are we and what is going on? Are we physically in a "halting-place" or discussing it metaphorically? I stay lost with lines like "my self-willed love will sink my reputation." Laying aside the awkward wording, I simply don't understand the meaning.
Actually, we can't set aside awkward wording; this is poetry after all. "Black night, our fear of the waves, and the horrible whirlpool" has momentum and energy. "The truth leaks out; they make a ballad of it at their meetings" and many of the other lines do not. I am willing to engage hard poetry, but I think Avery and Heath-Stubbs did not find that diamond edge.
I don't think anyone would call Ladinsky's versions hard. Light, in fact, might be apt. But they are also transcendent. I highly recommend this Hafiz.


Deborah Bacharach is a poet and writer living in Seattle, WA.




Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.