« | Home | »

Versions of Omar Khayyám

Tags: | |

Last year the Turkish pianist and composer Fazıl Say retweeted some lines attributed to Omar Khayyám:

You say rivers of wine flow in heaven,
is heaven a tavern to you?
You say two huris await each believer there,
is heaven a brothel to you?

Say was accused of inciting hatred against Islam and taken to court. As a schoolboy fan of Khayyám’s epigrammatic rubais (Persian quatrains) about wine and women, I once wrote an essay entitled ‘From Omar Khayyám to Karl Marx: The Struggle for Freedom’, in which I made some bold claims about the revolutionary role I believed he had played in the middle ages, based on my selective reading of some of the more than thirty Turkish translations of Khayyám that appeared during the 20th century.

The image of the revolutionary Khayyám I had at school was illusory. Some of the verses on which my idea of him was based had in fact been written by other, anonymous Persian poets; Khayyám’s name came to stand for a certain poetical form and political stance, rather than a specific author with a specific biography and bibliography. His translators, most notably Edward FitzGerald in England, added to the confusion with the liberties they took. As Marina Warner wrote in the LRB:

FitzGerald’s approach to translation consciously reprised Dryden’s idea of imitation, rather than paraphrase or word-for-word accuracy. But his imitations are also ‘overdrafts’, as Basil Bunting brilliantly entitled his experiments with Latin and Persian poets, perhaps with FitzGerald distantly in mind.

In his excellent 1953 edition, Rubâiyyât-ı Hakîm Hayyâm, Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı described the sharper quatrains, like the one Say tweeted, as ‘untypical’. Gölpınarlı, who was imprisoned by the single-party regime in 1945 because of his interest in eastern literature, also doubted the authenticity of verses in which the poet says he ‘goes to the mosque not to pray but to steal its carpets’. Sabahattin Eyüboğlu, in the preface to his 1961 translation, calls Khayyám a ‘mythologised sage’ and gives a good account of the confusion surrounding the authorship of verses attributed to him.

A few days after Say was sentenced to ten months in prison, I received an e-mail from the editor in Istanbul who is publishing my translation of Tom McCarthy’s C. He asked me to send along my version of McCarthy’s epigraph, from FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát:

Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend, ourselves to make a Couch – for whom?

Finding myself in the uneasy role of a translator of Khayyám, I’d left the epigraph till last. Should I use an existing Turkish translation? If so, which one? Or should I try to craft yet another Turkish version, even though I don’t read Persian, working from English, French and Turkish sources? Or should the epigraph be regarded as two lines of English verse, by FitzGerald, and treated accordingly? My editor is still waiting.

Comments on “Versions of Omar Khayyám”

  1. alex says:

    Whatever you do, don’t do what Robert Graves did: http://bit.ly/14TrFaP

  2. MuratErturk says:

    There are some some misleading claims in your post. Fazıl Say was not sentenced because he “reweeted” Omar Khayyam’s poem. It was not Omar Khayyam who was on trial. It was not Omar Khayyam’s poem that was sentenced. Fazıl Say was also not tried and was not sentenced because he declared that he was an atheist. And finally, that line you put over even doesn’t belong to Khayyam.

    Say has been sentenced mainly because of this sentence of his: “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but wherever you have an asshole, despicable, tabloid, thieving buffoons, all of them are followers of Allah. Is this a paradox?” Sure, It’s not an artistic, elegant and refined style! But, to me Fazil Say’s sentence still was wrong and it has been added to the long chain of episodes that reflect Turkey’s freedom-of-speech deficit.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • name on Who is the enemy?: Simply stating it is correct doesn't make it so, I just wish you would apply the same epistemic vigilance to "Muslim crimes" as you do to their Hebrew...
    • Glen Newey on Unwinnable War: The legal issue admits of far less clarity than the simple terms in which you – I imagine quite sincerely – frame them. For the benefit of readers...
    • Geoff Roberts on The New Normal: The causes go back a long way into the colonial past, but the more immediate causes stem from the activities of the US forces in the name of freedom a...
    • sol_adelman on The New Normal: There's also the fact that the French state denied the mass drownings of '61 even happened for forty-odd years. No episode in post-war W European hist...
    • funky gibbon on At Wembley: If England get France in the quarter finals of Euro 16 I expect that a good deal of the fraternity will go out the window

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Edward Said: The Iraq War
    17 April 2003

    ‘This is the most reckless war in modern times. It is all about imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in its violence and the cruelty of its technology.’

    David Runciman:
    The Politics of Good Intentions
    8 May 2003

    ‘One of the things that unites all critics of Blair’s war in Iraq, whether from the Left or the Right, is that they are sick of the sound of Blair trumpeting the purity of his purpose, when what matters is the consequences of his actions.’

    Simon Wren-Lewis: The Austerity Con
    19 February 2015

    ‘How did a policy that makes so little sense to economists come to be seen by so many people as inevitable?’

    Hugh Roberts: The Hijackers
    16 July 2015

    ‘American intelligence saw Islamic State coming and was not only relaxed about the prospect but, it appears, positively interested in it.’

Advertisement Advertisement