In the past few days I read some rather infelicitous translations into English and German of the extant poetry of Abu Abdollah Jafar ibn Mohammad Rudaki (c. 880 - c. 941 CE), who, as I understand it, is viewed as the first literary star of the New Persian language written with the Arabic script, which replaced Middle Persian (Pahlavi) not long after the Arabic conquest of Central Asia. I was beginning to think that perhaps this was a poet who could not be translated, but in Father of Persian Verse: Rudaki and His Poetry Sassan Tabatabai has rendered what is left of Rudaki's poems (approximately 90 % have been lost to the winds of time) into modern English in a manner that charms and at least partially convinces.
Rudaki spent most of his active life in the fabled city of Bukhara and became the official poet and boon companion to the emir Nasr II (914-943), thereby coming into great wealth.(*) Though he was a Muslim, Rudaki's poetry is quite secular in nature, occupying itself with elegies, love, the seasons, wine, but also with consoling the emir on the loss of his father, encouraging him in his interest in the life of the mind, etc. Indeed, it appears that in the old Persian courts the poets were not mere flatterers and entertainers but were expected to provide counsel and moral guidance.(**)
At least in Tabatabai's versions Rudaki's poems are remarkably fresh and grounded. Here is his complaint about a disappointing lover:
If I'm not unlucky, how did I get involved
With this quick-to-anger woman of easy virtue?
She likes it if I'm thrown to the lions.
I can't stand it if a fly sits on her.
She tortures me. But my love for her
And loyalty to her never leave my heart.
Nor was his love expressed solely to women:
Dear heart, why are you so selfish?
Why do you love the enemy in vain?
Why do you seek faith from the unfaithful?
Why do you strike iron that is cold?
And you, whose cheeks are like the lily,
The lily is jealous of your beauty.
Go down this dead-end street just once,
You'll light a fire under its residents.
My heart is a grain, your love, a mountain.
Why crush the grain under the mountain?
Forgive me, dear boy, forgive me.
Don't needlessly kill a lover like me.
Come now, take a look at Rudaki,
If you want to see a lifeless body walk.
There are some real surprises, like the lengthy "The Mother of Wine" (too long to quote) where in an extended conceit mother = grape, baby = wine, the process of making wine becomes something cruel and strange which makes the miraculous consequences of drinking wine
The miser becomes generous, the weak becomes brave.
After one sip, a rose garden will bloom on pale cheeks...
not to mention
Wine brings out the dignity in man,
Separates the free from the man bought with coins.
Wine distinguishes the noble from the base:
Many talents are bottled in this wine.
Those who have read the poems of Omar Khayyam and Rumi will find that many of their characteristic images and tropes appear in Rudaki's poetry, written centuries earlier. The later poets were standing on his shoulders, for, according to experts, Rudaki founded the traditions of New Persian poetry.
Fresh though the translation is, when it brushes the colloquial I have to wonder if it actually reflects the original. What is certain is that Rudaki's poetry followed rhythmic and rhyme structures which disappear in this translation. The English
and the German
translations I read recently were rhymed and rhythmed, but they struck me as little better than clumpety-clumpety-clump limericks - Rudaki's graceful and sophisticated poems (according to those who can read the originals) came out sounding like those of a mediocre American(German) poetaster. No thanks.
Tabatabai includes an informative introduction to Rudaki's life, times and work.
(*) The other side of the coin of this close relation with Nasr II: In an early Sunni-Schiite struggle Nasr II lost his throne, his vizier was beheaded, and Rudaki was blinded. Reportedly, Rudaki died soon thereafter.
(**) Tabatabai reports that the founder of the Persian Sassanian dynasty in the 3rd century considered the poet "a part of government and the means of strengthening leadership," which reminds me strongly of the role of the poet in ancient China.