October 15, 2016

Rumi: Love Story

Rumi "Love Story" poem, calligraphy by Stewart J. Thomas

Rumi “Love Story” poem, calligraphy by Stewart J. Thomas

Coleman Barks has done a great deal to bring the work of Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī—the poet Rumi—into the forefront of English-language poetry. The published volumes of Barks do not provide good citations of the original sources for the translations. As a consequence I receive a great many requests to identify the Persian/Farsi language originals of popular Barks poems. This is one of a series of posts looking into the original poetry that inspired a very popular rendering into English. Translations of poetry are rarely literal and always include interpretation. My goal here is not to critique Barks, but to provide deeper understanding of Rumi. I start with as literal a translation as possible and then wander into my own interpretations.

For a wonderful look at the intricacies of translation I highly recommend 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz.

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Original Persian:
ز اول که حدیث عاشقی بشنودم
جان و دل و دیده در رهش فرسودم
گفتم که مگر عاشق و معشوق دواند
خود هر دو یکی بود من احول بودم

Literal, word by word translation:

from first that story love heard-I
soul and heart and sight in pursuit (path) wearied/fatigued-I
said I that if-not lover and loved (beloved) two-are
self each two one were, I cross-eyed/squint-eyed was-I

Barks Version:

The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.

My more-literal version:

When I first heard [the] story of love
I wore out soul and heart and sight on its path.
I said: are lover and beloved two?
[The] self two were one; I was seeing double (because cross- or squint-eyed).


Most classical Persian poetry is written in half-line format. Therefore, the lines of poetry quoted here are counted as two lines in Persian. I refer to them as lines 1 through 4 in this analysis.

The first three lines above are fairly straightforward to translate. The last line is the trickier because of the grammar. The literal wording of the last line reads:

self both two one (singularity emphasized) were; I cross-eyed (or squinting) was-I

The tricky part is the word “self” at the beginning of the line.

Is the word referring to the poet’s own “self” as both lover and beloved? Is it referring to “self” as in the oneness found in all lover/beloved relationships? Is it referencing the original subject of the two lines—the “story of love”? After all, the poet did not get worn out looking for a lover, per se, but on the path of love itself. How did the poet become worn out? By looking for something “other” when it was “not other” the entire time. I believe this is where Barks gets the line “lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.”

When looking at Barks translations I find that he consistently adds in a clarifying line that is not in the original Rumi. Herein is a glimpse of the genius of Rumi’s poetry, that the essential conclusion is left for us as hearers of the poetry to fill in. It is a “heech”, a “khali” or an emptiness around which the poetry flows and by its absence is given the most important place.

This sentence, and the use of the word “self” at the beginning is very typical of the grammar of Rumi (and Persian poetry) and leads to the ambiguity and multi-faceted and layers of meaning. It is from this construct that Barks translates that the lovers have been in each other all along (one self). Rumi emphasizes the word “one” by placing an ending on it that also means “one” — so it is truly singular!

The line finishes with another metaphor, that of sight that is not true. The poet has been squinting or cross-eyed (probably from ruining the sight in the pursuit of love, as told in line two) and thinking that things were double that were actually one.