New Delhi: Much of Jalaluddin Rumi's work was in rhyming couplets and retaining their meaning, thought or metaphor and yet delivering the English in rhythm and rhyme are a challenge, says Farrukh Dhondy who has translated a new collection of the 13th century Persian poet's verses.
A translation, the India-born British writer said, is a delicate thing and entails rendering a construction from one country, one culture, one century even, into an equally alluring construction in another.
The popularised phrase in our time is "lost in translation" and the virtue of a translated verse, then, is keeping the loss of meaning and music to a minimum, he said.
"Rumi writes for much of his work in rhyming couplets. To retain the meaning of the couplet, the thought or metaphor that it contains, and yet deliver the English in rhythm and rhyme is a challenge," Dhondy, also a playwright, screenwriter and activist, told PTI.
He said, "Translations from one language, culture and century to another pose the two questions of all relationships: Is the beauty of one reflected in the other and is the other faithful to the one?"
"Rumi: A New Translation", a HarperCollins India publication, is a selection from the vast ocean of works of the poet, in which Dhondy attempts to "convey both the allure and the message of his verses".
Asked if he has adopted any set of rules for translating Rumi, he replied: "The only rule is to render as much of the truth of the verse, while ensuring that the English is presented with good grammar and not in some outlandish invention – and using rhyme and rhythm is not a rule, it's avoiding the label of vandalism."
Dhondy said all his life he had been brought up on English poetry and Hindi songs, and knew nothing of Rumi, except that his great grandfather had translated several Persian poets, including Rumi and Omar Khayyam, and copies of the books were proudly kept in the family.
A friend of his presented him an anthology of Rumi translations once when he was catching a plane to go to Australia.
"The translations were tedious, boring and without rhyme, rhythm or charm and written in a pedestrian if pretentious Americanese or in some ungrammatical chopped-prose English. I stopped reading," he said.
"On my return to Mumbai I casually said to my mamaji that I thought his favourite poet was rubbish. He was absolutely shocked and began to recite Rumi verses in Persian which he had studied and memorised. His recitation was melodic and mesmeric," he said.
Dhondy asked his uncle to translate and soon started to take notes in English and Hindustani. He sat up for hours and attempted to render these notes into verse. This was how Dhondy was attracted towards Rumi.
He believes Rumi and the Sufis' search for ways of orienting the mind and the emotions to accept that God or the primal energy of the universe, the essence that infuses all living things, is within oneself and discoverable.
"Human beings, however bound by empirical science, however sceptical about religion and God, are never free from wonder about life and creation. The Sufi path is a very attractive manifestation of this wonder and humans, in any age and culture, can find a resonance, if not solace, in it."
A scholar and poet, Rumi (12071273) founded the Mawlawi Sufi order, a leading mystical brotherhood of Islam. He wrote the six-volume epic work, the "Masnavi", known as the Persian "Quran in verse".
The popularity of Rumi in Iran is a manifestation of the continuity of a national culture – he may have lived in Konya in Turkey but wrote essentially in Persian, said Dhondy.
His popularity in the US and in Europe is one of the clearest symptoms of the rejection by millions of the materialism that modern life, and its essentially capitalist organisation, traps them in, he added.
"It's a search for a meaning that an 'alienated' way of life doesn't give them. It can induce a feeling, however shallow, of absorbing a 'spiritual' message," he said.
"In India, some readers of the verse may be subject to the same motivation, but I sincerely hope that a few at least will recognise the closeness of the Sufi doctrine to those of Advait Vedanta."
The Sufi professions of love, according to Dhondy, are expressed in terms of devotion to the 'beloved'.
"The beloved in all Sufi expressions is not the girl-next-door or the person you met on Tinder, but 'God' or the eternal spirit, the 'brahmand' (universe) of which you are part. Very many of the idiotic American translations mistake this devotion to the 'beloved' as professions to an active or desired sexual partner," he said.
"It perhaps accounts for their popularity. If Rumi, wherever he is, can read these translations, there will certainly be a rotating motion within a tomb in Konya," he added.