There is a near-holy trinity of lyric poets in the Persian premodern tradition: Molana (13th c.), Sa’di (13th c.), and Hafez (14th c.). All three are revered in Iran as masters of the ghazal (~sonnet) form, so why has Sa’di’s lyric work not been picked up by translators? Many people (wisely or not) have taken a stab at Hafez’s lyrics. Whenever someone’s eyes light up with that “I-might-have-actually-read-some-of-the-poetry-you-devote-your-life-to!” look, 99.9% of time they’re talking about Molana, known as Rumi in the West.
All of this to say, what about Sa’di? The UN has one of his poems engraved on its outer wall, which Obama even quoted in a video addressed to Iranians. A ton of Western attention has been given to his two major didactic collections of anecdotes, Golestan (The Rose Garden) and Bustan (The Orchard), translated as early as the 19th century, but I was shocked that so far I have only been able to find one translation of his lyric poetry, and it’s by someone who doesn’t know the language!
Translation issues aside, Sa’di’s style itself is most commonly described two ways: ravān (flowing, smooth) and sahl al-momtane’ (deceptively simple, of inimitable simplicity). He has the most adroit grasp of meter, and his poems are always recognizable because of it. He prefers direct language, but at the same time is very tongue-in-cheek and clever. The poem I have translated here is one that I adore, so I can only hope I haven’t ruined it. It’s particularly impressive for it’s internal rhyme. You can listen to it read in the original Persian here, with admittedly cheesy music in the background.
With my dying breath, I’m wishing for you.
I give my life in hopes I may be dirt on your doorstep.
Dawn of Judgment Day, when I lift my head from dust,
I rise at your word, I go searching for you.
When the beauties of both worlds convene,
I gaze only at you, enslaved to your face.
If I sleep a thousand years in the abode of nothingness,
I will awaken from timeless slumber, alert, at the smell of your hair.
I speak not words of sermon; I smell not the rose of Paradise;
I seek not the beauty of the nymph; I rush towards you alone.
I drink not heaven’s wine from the cupbearer’s hand.
What need have I of wine when intoxicated by your face?
Translation by: Michelle Quay
در آن نفس که بمیرم در آرزوی تو باشم
بدان امید دهم جان که خاک کوی تو باشم
به وقت صبح قیامت که سر ز خاک برآرم
به گفت و گوی تو خیزم به جست و جوی تو باشم
به مجمعی که درآیند شاهدان دو عالم
نظر به سوی تو دارم غلام روی تو باشم
به خوابگاه عدم گر هزار سال بخسبم
ز خواب عاقبت آگه به بوی موی تو باشم
حدیث روضه نگویم گل بهشت نبویم
جمال حور نجویم دوان به سوی تو باشم
می بهشت ننوشم ز دست ساقی رضوان
مرا به باده چه حاجت که مست روی تو باشم