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Translation of Poetry: Sa`di’s Oneness of Mankind Revisited

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I. Introduction

Language is the central subject of any discussion about translation. However, there are certain elements involved in the process of translation which go beyond this conventional area. This is especially true for literary translation in general and translation of poetry in particular. According to Jackson (2003), literary translation is a translational species in itself, but it "differs in many important respects from the kind of translation practiced in a language class. He contends that, on the one hand, literary translation involves a good deal of interpretation about intent and effect. On the other hand, the literary translator is often not as much interested in literal 'transliteration' as in finding a corollary mood, tone, voice, sound, response, and so forth. Jackson brings forth the following extract from Petrarch to confirm the idea of similarity (but not sameness) as well as creativity in translating a poem as a literary genre:

An imitator must see to it that what he writes is similar, but not the very same; and the similarity, moreover, should not be like that of a painting or statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father, where there is often a great difference in the features and body shape, yet after all there is a shadowy something—akin to what the painters call one's air—hovering about the face, and especially the eyes, out of which there grows a likeness ... [W]e writers, too, must see to it that along with the similarity there is a large measure of dissimilarity; and furthermore such likeness as there is must be elusive, something that it is impossible to seize except by a sort of still-hunt, a quality to be felt rather than defined.... It may all be summed up by saying with Seneca, and with Flaccus [Horace] before him, that we must write just as the bees make honey, not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavors into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.


So, contrary to some critics' argument that poetry "loses" in translation or poetry is "untranslatable", there are others with the opposite standpoint that it can be preserved, illustrated and illuminated if a good job is done, because poetry is in large part found again and re-painted by the translator. Of course, many of the original poetical touches of color cannot be transposed and "they must be arranged; yet these new arrangements may be even more luminous than the original." Thus a good translation discovers the "dynamics" of poetry, if not necessarily its "mechanics" (Kopp, 1998). The point to be noted here is that as Newmark (1988) states, literary translation is "...the most testing type of translation..." (p.162). It can further be claimed that translation of poetry is the acid test showing the challenging nature of the task. In this study, through a comparative analysis of different English translations done of a piece of poetry by Sa`di, "Oneness of Mankind", efforts will be made to establish such a claim as well as to re-create a new version of the poem.

Shafi'ee Kadkani (2001) believes that "good poetry, ranging from the most modern to the most traditional types, is one which would sediment totally or partially in the memory of serious readers of poetry..." (p.23). This 'sedimentary' aspect of poetry among Persian speakers can be traced in their appreciation of their great poets such as Ferdowsi, Rumi, Sa'di, and Hafiz. Among these great figures, Sa'di was the one who, according to Arberry (1945), "brought the high style down to the understanding of the masses, but without sacrificing either purity or elegance." (p. 22)

Among the huge bulk of Sa`di's masterpieces a very short but universally known piece has been selected for this study, i.e. "Oneness of Mankind." This has been done for two reasons: First, Sa`di's style is a model of 'elegant simplicity,' i.e. while his poems are not devoid of the artificial aids of such figures of speech as puns, allusions, and metaphors, he nevertheless keeps a tight rein upon his exuberant fancy and avoids the pitfalls of becoming precious and obscure, of overloading his matter with too great a burden of learning (Arberry 1945). Thus, it seems that one who wants to translate Sa`di would not have to tread a 'thorny' road. Second, the availability of different English translations of the selected piece persuaded the researchers to examine it through a comparative analysis, with the purpose of coming up with a clear understanding of the rhetorical diversities involved in translating poetry.

II. Method

Following Andre Lefevere's opinion that "Translations can only be judged by people who do not need them" (Lefevere 1975, p.7), this study starts with a semantic analysis of the original poem to provide the reader, who does not know Persian, with a way of checking on the real meaning of the source text, and with some criteria to evaluate different translations.

2.1. Source text

Bani aadam a'adhaae yek peikarand,
Ke dar aafarinesh ze yek guharand.
Chu 'udhwi bedard aawarad ruuzgaar,
Degar 'udhwhaa raa namaanad gharaar.
Tu kaz mehnate digaraan biqamii,
Nashaayad ke naamat nehand aadami. *

Furooqi 1987 ( p. 88)

This didactic poem starts with an analogy, comparing human beings (Adam's sons) to the members of a unified body, or more interpretatively, members of a greater community called 'humanity.' In the second hemistitch, the reason for this comparison is given: the unity of the holy essence from which all humanity has been created. After creating such a solid background, Sa`di leads the reader to a natural result in the third and fourth hemistitches; namely, if a member suffers, other members should normally feel sympathy towards him/her. Addressing all humanity in the last line, the poet convincingly advises them to care about others' miseries; or else, they won't deserve to belong to Adam's lineage.

Although the poem is very rich in content, it owes its uniqueness and universality to a plain form. The only figurative devices used are alliteration and allusion. As to the latter, some literary scholars (Khatiib Rahbar 1983, p.79, for instance) believe that the poem is perhaps based on a tradition coming down to us from the Holy Prophet of Islam, reading:

Believers are like unto body organs in their friendship and kindness. When one suffers pain, others uneasy remain.(Nahjul Fasaaha)

Vahid (tr.) 2002, No. 2705

So, there is an allusion surely to give a sense of religiosity to the poem. The other figure of speech which should be considered is alliteration. The ponderous pace of the [r] sound in the first two lines is softened by the mild sound of the [m] sound in the last line, creating a sort of preaching atmosphere. The poem starts and ends with a reference to Adam, perhaps to indicate the focus of the poet's attention. Having all this in mind, an evaluation of the efforts of different translators in conveying the form as well as the content of this poem will follow.

* This is Sa`di's well-known poem decorating the entrance of the United Nations Organization


2.2. Target texts

2.2.1. Prose translations

Most translation authorities believe in some sort of stylistic loss in translating poetry into prose, let alone for rendering a poem into its equivalent verse. This is partly true for Sa`di, where the intended meaning and the whole beauty of his style lies in the beautiful wording of his poems and the application of 'art prose' (Saj'). This will be better clarified by taking a look at the prose version of Rehatsek (1964) below:

All men are members of the same body,
Created from one essence.
If fate brings suffering to one member,
The others cannot stay at rest.
You who remain indifferent
To the burden of pain of others,
Do not deserve to be called human. (p. 85)

Although faithful to the meaning of the original poem, this rendering has not been able to create its aesthetic effect. Sa`di's art is to put the most manifest truths into the most memorable words. But Rehatsek's version has just considered the first part of this reality, i.e. putting the simplest truths into the simplest words. Moreover, he has not been able to show the sense of religiosity characterizing Sa`di's poetry. At the same time, the last two-three lines are so pedantic and laborious that one may feel the translator is not a native speaker of English.

2.2.2. Verse translations

Arberry (1945) likened rhymed translation to an acrobatic performance of "setting an elephant to walk a tightrope." This statement alone might suffice to show the difficulty inherent in performing such a task. The following four translations are in verse, and in order to show whose elephant walked the tightrope of translation more successfully, a comparative line-by-line analysis of each will be given. First line

All human beings are in truth akin,
All in creation share one origin.
   N. Sharp

All Adam's sons are limbs of one another,
Each of the self same substance as his brother.
   A. J. Arberry

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
   M. Aryanpoor

Adam's sons are body limbs, to say;
For they're created of the same clay.
   H. Vahid Dastjerdi

All these renderings have succeeded to some extent in imitating Sa`di's style: beautiful wording and impressiveness in its simplicity. However, Aryanpoor's version must be appreciated for its smoothness and fidelity. At the same time, Arberry's artistic use of compensatory alliteration of /s/ and /r/ sounds is not something to be ignored. None of the translators has, of course, been successful in finding a perfect equivalent for the key word 'guhar' (literally: 'pearl'). This word has different layers of meaning in Persian. All the words used (origin, substance, essence and soul, and clay) can only cover one layer of this multi-layered word. The most innovative and precise ones are Aryanpoor's and Vahid's choices: 'essence and soul' and 'clay' respectively, which reflect the sense of 'Orientalism' and Islamic belief it conveys. Meanwhile, as far as the other key word 'bani aadam' is concerned, Arberry and Vahid have surpassed the others in using 'Adam's sons', which is not only the most faithful equivalent in form, but also the closest to its religious notion. Second line

When fate allots a member pangs and pains,
No ease for other members then remains.
   N. Sharp

So while one member suffers aches and grief,
The other members cannot win relief.
   A. J. Arberry

If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
   M. Aryanpoor

Should one organ be troubled by pain,
Others would suffer severe strain.
   H. Vahid Dastjerdi

All these versions share a common feature: beauty. Still, Vahid's rendering must be appreciated for its skillful use of consonance (the /s/ sound). Sharp's choice of vocabulary is of course the closest to the source text in form and meaning ('fate', 'allot'). In Aryanpoor's version, if the word 'uneasy' is shifted to the end of the line, the whole line will turn out to be nothing but prose. Third line

If, unperturbed, another's grief canst scan,
Thou are not worthy of the name of man.
   N. Sharp

Thou, who are heedless of thy brother's pain,
It is not right at all to name thee man.
   A. J. Arberry

If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.
   M. Aryanpoor

Thou careless of people's suffering,
Deserve not the name, 'human being'.
   H. Vahid Dastjerdi

The last line is abundant in /n/ sound in the source poem to accentuate the effect of the word /nashaayad/ at the beginning of the second hemistitch. Aryanpoor's version is the most successful in reproducing this effect. As far as exact semantic equivalents are concerned, Vahid's version is somehow superior to others.

III. Conclusion

Brief as this study was, it was aimed at showing some problematic issues to be tackled in the translation of poetry. A more thorough examination of the cited and other English versions of Sa`di's poem (e.g. Ross, J. & Eastwick, E. B.), which are not discussed here, would surely reveal more complicated problems. Furthermore, translating the works of such poets as Hafiz and Rumi in whose poetry ambiguities and mystic speculations abound, would undoubtedly make translators face far more obstacles.

Based on the findings of the present study, it is assumed that though the translation of literary texts in general and that of poetry in particular seems a far-fetched challenge and, in rare cases, only possible with partial semantic and stylistic loss, it is by no means totally impossible. The evidence of past masterly achievements indicates that a skilled translator with a poetic taste can achieve this end with the necessary literary features and devices of the source text kept intact. Here a new version incorporating all the above-mentioned missing points in the above-discussed English translations of Sa`di's poem is offered for further critical scrutiny.

Adam's sons stem from the same holy trunk,
With the first sacred clot they've become drunk.
When Father Time afflicts a fellow with pain,
Others will restlessly start to complain.
You heedless of other humans' distress,
Deserve never to don Adam's dress.



Arberry, A. J. (1945). Kings and Beggars: the first two chapters of Sadi's Gulistan, Luzac & co., London.

Aryanpoor, M. (1970). Classical Persian Literature. Tehran: College of Translation Press.

Eastwick, E. B. (1984). The Rose-Garden of Shaikh Muslihud-Din Sadi of Shiraz. London: The Octagon Press.

Furooqi, M. A.(1987). The Collection of Sa`di's Works. Tehran: Tulooa' Press.

Ilaahii Qumsheii, H. (2000). A Study of Translated Islamic Texts. Tehran: SAMT.

Jackson, R (2003). From Translation to Imitation. Retrieved March 12.2003 from the Worldwide Web:

Khatiib Rahbar, Kh. (1983). Gulistan. Tehran: Safi Alishah Press.

Kopp, M (1998). Poetry in Translation. Retrieved March 12.2003 from the Worldwide Web:

Lefevere, A. (1975). Translating poetry: seven strategies and a blueprint. Assen: Van Gorcum.

Newmark, P. (1988). A Textbook of Translation. New York: Prentice Hall.

Paayadeh, A. (1982). Nahjul Fasaaha. Tehran: Jaavidaan Press.

Rehatsek, E. (1964). The Gulistan or Rose Garden of Sa'di. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.

Ross, J.(1890). Sadi's Gulistan. Shiraz: Marefat Bookseller & Publisher.

Shafi'ii Kadkani, M. R. (2001). The Music of Poetry. Tehran: Aagaah Press.

Sharp, N. in Dehqani-Tafti, H.B.(2004). An awareness of Christian Thought in Persian Poetry.

Vahid Dastjerdi, H. (1999). An Anthology of Wise Sayings. Isfahan: Basaaer Press.

Vahid Dastjerdi, H. (2002). The Way of Eloquence: the Holy Prophet's collection of 3223 wise sayings (tr.). The University of Isfahan. English section of an unpublished research project.

Acknowledgment: Mr. Mahmood Sharifpoor, has made a scholarly contribution to the rough draft of the article. His help is gratefully acknowledged.


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