By Seyyed Mostafa Mousavi Sabet

FitzGerald translation of Rubaiyat still worthy of praise, whether Persians like it or not   

May 16, 2020 - 18:27

Persian classical poets such as Sadi, Hafez, Ferdowsi and Attar are more or less famous in the West, but perhaps Omar Khayyam Neyshaburi is treated differently by Westerners from his other Persian counterparts.

The reason for this differential treatment is that Khayyam’s brave attitude and apparently materialistic approach to the world in his poetry have caused people in the West to feel more empathy toward the Iranian poet, who is also renowned as a scientist in mathematics and astronomy.

Such an attitude drew English writer Edward FitzGerald in the middle of the 19th century to do a translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam based on a manuscript of the masterpiece, which dated back to the 15th century.

As many scholars believe, the translation marked the beginning of Westerners’ acquaintance with Khayyam’s poetry, although FitzGerald’s friend, Edward Byles Cowell, a noted translator of Persian poetry and the first professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge University, had previously translated several poems from the collection of the quatrains.

“FitzGerald brilliantly introduced Khayyam to the West while managing the impossible, that is, conveying the spirit of Khayyam’s Rubaiyat in a way that even some of the more accurate translators of Khayyam after him failed to achieve,” Mehdi Aminrazavi, professor of philosophy and religion and co-director of the Leidecker Center for Asian Studies at the University of Mary Washington, wrote in his book “The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam”.  

“Having reviewed most, if not all, available English translations of Khayyam, many of which are more accurate than FitzGerald’s, I would still refer non-Persian readers to FitzGerald’s translation, which simply captures the heart and the soul of Khayyam’s poetry,” he added. 

But the key point is that if the British linguist and diplomat Sir Gore Ouseley had not taken a rare copy of the Rubaiyat and several other Persian manuscripts with hims to England during his mission to Iran in the early 19the century, perhaps there would have been no translation of the collection by FitzGerald. So, Iranians seem to have mixed feelings about this plunder by Ouseley.

The London book dealer Bernard Quaritch published the first edition of FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat in 250 copies in 1859. It did not sell well at first, however, increasing interest in the poems encouraged Quaritch to produce a second edition nine years later.  

The Rubaiyat enthusiasts such as English poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne decided to found the Omar Khayyam Club in London. 

FitzGerald’s translation was also behind the introduction of Omar Khayyam in America as American critic Charles Eliot Norton wrote a review on the translation in 1869 and his enthusiasts established the Omar Khayyam Club of America.

The Rubaiyat also traveled to France, the Netherlands and Germany. But the story of its reception in Germany is also interesting: Its Germany translator, Walter von der Porten, was under the influence of the FitzGerald translation.

The rise of Nazism in Germany brought the Rubaiyat into disrepute, because the message of the poems was against despotism and the Nazis could not tolerate such an outlook.

As mentioned before, Khayyam’s apparently materialistic approach to the world has attracted Westerners, including FitzGerald, to his poetry.

However, Leili Anvar, a translator and professor of Persian literature at the Institut des Langues et des Civilisations Orientales in Paris, believes that Khayyam and some other Persian classical poets such as Jalal ad-Din Rumi and Hafez have been introduced with a misunderstanding in the West.

Speaking at a literary meeting in Tehran in July 2015, she said FitzGerald has adapted the Rubaiyat of Khayyam for English readers.

“Although, his English adaptation is very delightful, you never think what you are reading is Khayyam’s perfect poetry. In fact, Khayyam has been introduced with a misunderstanding to the world,” Anvar stated.

Anvar, who is the translator of a French version of Persian classical poets Jalal ad-Din Rumi’s Masnavi-ye Manavi, criticizes American Persian literature expert Coleman Barks’ translation of the Masnavi-ye Manavi.

She also called the French translation of the Divan of Hafez by the renowned French Hafez scholar Charles-Henri de Fouchécour “really bad.”

In any case, FitzGerald was a pioneer in the introduction of the Rubaiyat of Khayyam to the West. He and other Western scholars such as de Fouchécour and Barks deserve great respect for their contributions to Persian literature.

* Tomorrow marks Khayyam Day in Iran.

Photo: A portrait of the English writer Edward FitzGerald by an unknown artist.


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