But it also has enormous rewards: for the translator, for the reader, for poetry itself. Some years ago, I was asked to teach a workshop about this impossible process. Among other materials, including essays about translation, I gave the participants two side-by-side English translations of a poem by Pablo Neruda, along with the original Spanish. Those translations proved to be the most valuable resource I offered. Seeing what different translators have done with the same poem immediately eliminates easy assumptions that beginning translators often make: that there is a single way, a most correct way, or a best way to translate a poem.
The packet of materials began to grow. Soon I had made several compilations of translations, illustrating different kinds of choices translators invariably make, whether they do so consciously or not. Sometime after that, I began asking the students themselves to compile multiple translations of a single poem for class presentation.
Where, on another continuum between most loyal to form and most free of it, does a translation of a formal poem lie? What about levels of diction? If the latter, does this reflect the original poem, or is it an unfortunate or deliberate result of the translation? Beyond style, does a translation substitute contemporary references for original ones? An examination of multiple translations will confirm what any dual-language dictionary tells us: there are many ways to translate even single words.
This is especially true in English, which has, thanks to its multiple origins, an enormous vocabulary. And then there is syntax, the principles by which words are arranged in sentences, which differs considerably from language to language. Does a translation attempt in some way to replicate the order in which the original words appear, or is it more interested in keeping the stylistic simplicity or complexity of the original syntax?
All of this is not to mention the knottier problems. A translation may go smoothly for a while, and then come upon a section or line that, for any number of reasons semantic, syntactic, stylistic, cultural , runs into trouble. The trouble spots are the places where multiple translations are most apt to differ. Looking at them carefully can take us more deeply into the nuances of both the original language and English—and, more generally, challenge our assumptions about how language itself works.
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All these benefits began to suggest that an anthology of multiple translations might be a good idea, even a necessary one. There were, as I discovered, a few related resources. I finally discovered an actual anthology of multiple translations, compiled and edited by the distinguished translator Rainer Schulte. Useful as these resources were, they made the need for a new anthology seem even more pressing. And so began a great deal of deliberation, leading to conversations with Kevin Prufer about how multiple translations of several poems might be compiled and presented.
Our first step was to ask several translators whose work we knew to choose a poem and three translations of it, and then to write a commentary about what they had chosen. We aimed for a range of languages and periods, but knew from the beginning that several compromises would be necessary. Foremost among them: the book could not claim to be representative of the enormous diversities of people and poetries in the non-English-speaking world, past and present.
We would be limited to a tiny sample. The rhythmic structure of the music is based on the prosodic system that poetry uses aruz , a cycle of short and long syllables. Singers must therefore be masters not only at singing but know Persian poetry and its metrical aspects intimately. Skilled vocalists must be able to interpret poems. Lines or phrases can be extended or repeated, or enhanced with vocal ornaments.
Thus, even for a Persian speaker who knows the poems being sung, Persian music can still reveal new interpretations.
Here, for example from to mins is another example of Rumi by M. This is a charity concert from in Bam, Iran, after a horrendous earthquake destroyed the town. After a tragedy such as the earthquake, these lyrics can take on special urgency in the present. When people listen to traditional music, they, like the singers, remain still.
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Audiences are transfixed and transported. According to Sufi cosmology, all melodious sounds erupt forth from a world of silence. In Sufism, silence is the condition of the innermost chambers of the human heart, its core fuad , which is likened to a throne from which the Divine Presence radiates. Because of this connection with the intelligence and awareness of the heart, many performers of traditional Persian music understand that it must be played through self-forgetting, as beautifully explained here by master Amir Koushkani:. Persian music has roughly twelve modal systems, each known as a dastgah.
Each dastgah collects melodic models that are skeletal frameworks upon which performers improvise in the moment. The spiritual aspect of Persian music is made most manifest in this improvisation.
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Shajarian has said that the core of traditional music is concentration tamarkoz , by which he means not only the mind but the whole human awareness. It is a mystical and contemplative music. The highly melodic nature of Persian music also facilitates expressiveness. Unlike Western classical music, there is very sparing use of harmony. This, and the fact that like other world musical traditions it includes microtonal intervals, may make traditional Persian music odd at first listen for Western audiences. Solo performances are important to traditional Persian music.
In a concert, soloists may be accompanied by another instrument with a series of call-and-response type echoes and recapitulations of melodic phrases. Similarly, here playing the barbat, a Persian variant of the oud, maestro Hossein Behrooznia shows how percussion and plucked string instruments can forge interwoven melodic structures that create hypnotic soundscapes:.
The roots of traditional Persian music go back to ancient pre-Islamic Persian civilisation, with archaeological evidence of arched harps a harp in the shape of a bow with a sound box at the lower end , having been used in rituals in Iran as early as BC.
Under the pre-Islamic Parthian BCAD and Sasanian AD kingdoms, in addition to musical performances on Zoroastrian holy days, music was elevated to an aristocratic art at royal courts. Centuries after the Sasanians, after the Arab invasion of Iran, Sufi metaphysics brought a new spiritual intelligence to Persian music. Spiritual substance is transmitted through rhythm, metaphors and symbolism, melodies, vocal delivery, instrumentation, composition, and even the etiquette and co-ordination of performances.
The main instruments used today go back to ancient Iran. It is played here by master Hossein Alizadeh and here by master Dariush Talai. Traditional Persian music not only cross-pollinates with poetry, but with other arts and crafts. At its simplest, this means performing with traditional dress and carpets on stage. In a more symphonic mode of production, an overflow of beauty can be created, such as in this popular and enchanting performance by the group Mahbanu:. They perform in a garden: of course.
Iranians love gardens, which have a deeply symbolic and spiritual meaning as a sign or manifestation of Divine splendour. The walled garden, tended and irrigated, represents in Persian tradition the cultivation of the soul, an inner garden or inner paradise. The traditional costumes of the band as with much folk dress around the world are elegant, colourful, resplendent, yet also modest.
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The lyrics are tinged with Sufi thought, the poet-lover lamenting the distance of the beloved but proclaiming the sufficiency of staying in unconsumed desire. As a young boy, I grasped the otherness of Persian music intuitively. I found its timeless spiritual beauty and interiority had no discernible connection with my quotidian, material Australian existence.
For 20 years since my boyhood, traditional Persian culture has anchored my identity, healed and replenished my wounded heart, matured my soul, and allowed me to avoid the sense of being without roots in which so many unfortunately find themselves today. It constitutes a world of beauty and wisdom that is a rich gift to the whole world, standing alongside Irano-Islamic architecture and Iranian garden design. The problem is the difficulty of sharing this richness with the world. In an age of hypercommunication, why is the beauty of Persian music or the beauty of traditional arts of many other cultures for that matter so rarely disseminated?
Much of the fault lies with corporate media.
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Mahbanu, who can also be heard here performing a well-known Rumi poem, are mostly female. But readers will very likely not have heard about them, or any of the other rising female musicians and singers of Persian music. According to master-teachers such as Shajarian , there are now often as many female students as male in traditional music schools such as his. Almost everyone has seen however, through corporate media, the same cliched images of an angry mob of Iranians chanting, soldiers goose-stepping, missile launches, or leaders in rhetorical flight denouncing something.
Ordinary Iranian people themselves are almost never heard from directly, and their creativity rarely shown.
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She may, indeed, be the best contemporary female vocalist. Yet she is unheard of outside of Iran and small circles of connoisseurs mainly in Europe. A list of outstanding modern Iranian women poets and musicians requires its own article. Here I will list some of the outstanding singers, very briefly. From an older generation we may mention the master Parisa discussed below , and Afsaneh Rasaei. Finally, one of my favourites is the marvelous Haleh Seifizadeh, whose enchanting singing in a Moscow church suits the space perfectly.