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.”

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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.

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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.

lies

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

“Good Words to You.”

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

Thanks for reading.