Losing Rumi in the Translation

A couple years ago I attended an interfaith discussion at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati: “Welcoming the Stranger.” Their guest, Ismaeel Chartier of the Clifton Mosque, spoke to this theme. One attendee literally thumped a Qu’ran on a table and demanded an answer of Chartier:

“Do you know what is written in this book?”

He delivered this inquiry with a sharp accusatory tone. Then he gave the Qur’an interpretation another thump.

The Imam calmly replied:

“It depends on the translation.”


Translation is a science, it’s an art, and there’s a lot at stake. Interpretations that serve a trenchant agenda may wish to cloud understanding, to close open minds. This is an odious breach of ethics and a declaration of cultural militance. An imperious position that lusts power. Most Muslims are not Arabs, but each adherent relies upon a faithful transmittal of the Word in Arabic language. It is in the marrow of Islam.

Simple answers to complex societal questions are wrong-headed and arrogant, but they are widely believed and have entered the body politic like a body-blow.

Yesterday I happened upon an article in the The New Yorker on the inescapably important Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī . Coleman Barks is a decades-long lover of Rūmī, but it is unfortunate that his is an interpretation that informs his Christian upbringing. Barks is not disingenuous in working the poet through that innate filter, but the heart of Rūmī speaks to Islam — the faithful focus of his heart and being is integral.


From the article:

Rūmī is often called a mystic, a saint, an enlightened man. He is less frequently described as a Muslim.”

Source: The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi – The New Yorker

Memes that attribute heartfelt insight through search-engine algorithms often misattribute, mistranslate, misinform. Truth becomes an early victim. Allow me to repeat the oft repeated:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

This quote is attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a voice much worth hearing. But this very popular attribution adopted by innumerable memes is not sourced to Moynihan.


To quote the late and astonishing John Ciardi: writer and world-class translator of Dante.

“Good Words to You.”

As an incurable pedant I assign vetting this quote as a reading assignment 🙂

Thanks for reading.


Author: Bill Ziegler

I am a former resident of Delhi Township. These are memories of my life and times in that community during the 1950s and 1960s. A time capsule.

6 thoughts on “Losing Rumi in the Translation”

  1. Lisa Chieco
    Just now ·
    My husband does important work. He has translated millions of words professionally for German business. He has such a gift for seeking in the most foul and heart rending places to bring truth to the surface; to expose the crime. I’m so proud of him and his academic standing is so incredible but he’s the kind of guy who says things such as, “so it’s not like you need to hear anything from some geographer or German literary master. He reminded me when he was in his European fellowship of one of his best friends saying, “I may never get a job with my MA in Philosophy but I sure am smart! I like this humility but I celebrate his incredible talent and guts for digging and writing about things that would cause me to wonder why any people get to exist in this world with such things being daily occurrences. I’m the moody Italian – anyone who has known me as an adult knows the depths of despair that reach out and call to anyone with an ear. It’s one reason I had to stop watching regular news because when I was very very ill, it would have broken my resolve. So, I take this image and it’s words and float along the red ribbon to find the portal of hope.


    1. Thanks Lisa 🙂
      Your gushingly kind words are an early silver-wedding anniversary gift that I am gushing to share with my kind readers. Lisa and I met online (what there was of it those days) in 1993: TriState Online BBS for the record. I saved our conversations on a floppy disk and printed it out many years later — calling it an inexpensive birthday present.
      A couple errors here — it was a Slovakian company and the number of translated words was a single million. One way to really learn a language is to spend a great deal of time translating it.
      Lisa got to hear many intensely boring details about German literature by becoming a sounding board for my comp exam prep. By the way, Franz Grillparzer really is as boring as you might not have heard. It helped to hear her say “That’s nice, honey” and such words of encouragement.
      I met my philosophy-grad friend at the youth hostel in Vienna. He had hitchhiked across North Africa and arrived in Austria by way of Italy. By the bye, Lisa’s foreparents emigrated from Italy. Any the way, I was Eurrailing south into Italy during semester break (February 1972). We toured the town together and bade farewell. My friend set off with his remaining $15 dollars and a plane ticket to get to the airport in Amsterdam and to go home to Victoria, B.C. To make a long story less Grillparzery, we met four months later in Giessen West Germany, where I studied. He met an employer who offered him a factory job and the opportunity to stick around. For some three months he had been living a single block away from me. We met as passersby in that quite small town. He now resides in Edmonton AB. To finally reach the end of this Grillparzer — he actually *did* get a job, and several more, if you’re interested.
      Anyway, to get back on task. If you are going to criticize something you find distasteful you have to spend some disquieting time listening to foul as well as fair.
      And here’s another fault I find with your response, Lisa. You are in all truth the ebullient, dancing and singing Mediterranean lass who reads gentle stuff that no one ever reads. Primers from the Edwardian Period in England and their counterparts in North America. To name but one genre, you understand. On ‘tother hand, I am the Northern European Germanic pedantic moody sort, with all the baggage that implies. We don’t want to delude the reader now, do we?
      So, I am floating right behind you along that red ribbon leading to portal hope, thanking readers all and each for reading with such patience and courtesy. 🙂


  2. And a happy year to you Hariod! Quite right you are. Rumi celebrates his love of the Qur’an in his Sufi faith — he also memorized the entire book, as many still do. Muslim sects are wide-ranging. It’s unfortunate that so many observers and commentators try to cage each and every adherent by imposing an interpretation of the five pillars of Islam as an unyielding and blood-thirsty monolith with a single-minded goal — consume the other two monotheistic faiths in the most stereotypical manner portrayed by countless Hollywood depictions of the Arab threat.
    My Imam friend is of the Sufi tradition. I have attended several of his presentations on the Rumi. Heady stuff indeed.
    Stay well, my friend. I am looking forward to your February exposition 🙂


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