What is it that makes something “untranslatable?” Is it the vocabulary with no easy analogue? Does one language lack a concept the other uses regularly? Maybe one language is more specific in terms of gender or number. Or maybe, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, there’s just too many flipping fish.
Technically, everything is translatable from one language into another. It might take me ten words to explain one Persian word, or vice versa, but in the end, I can get the meaning across. The problem is, the line between translation and explanation is extremely difficult to distinguish. And when it comes to literary texts, there’s no quicker way to make them lose their power and charm than to explain them too thoroughly instead of translate them. It’s a bit like explaining the punch-line to a joke. Nobody’s going to enjoy that.
Of course, these issues are only amplified when it comes to poetry. Then (if it’s traditional poetry), we have meter and rhyme to contend with too. How do you reproduce all that? Should you? These are some of the essential questions facing translation studies right now, and for centuries translators have adapted to these issues differently according to time, language, and place. The dilemma is what caused Robert Frost to declare the whole project futile, with his famous line, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”
The poem I have chosen to translate for this month’s post may, in the end, represent an exercise in such futility. But this masterpiece of the 19th century poetess Tahere Qorrat al-‘Ayn is too good not to be shared. Tahere was a truly revolutionary figure and disciple of the Babi movement in Iran in the 1840s and early 1850s. For her affiliation with this movement, she was executed by the state in 1852. The Babi movement, which is the forerunner to the modern Baha’i Faith, was an offshoot of Shi’ism that began in 1840s Iran when the Bab declared himself to be the 12th Imam or Mahdi. Tahere established contact with the Bab via letter and accepted his religious teachings in 1844. She became a disciple of the faith, the only woman among the “Letters of the Living,” what the Bab called his 18 disciples. She was a key figure in the movement and highly controversial, as (it is claimed) she was the first woman in Iran ever to unveil herself before a gathering of men, at the Conference of Badasht in 1848. The Babi movement represented a significant challenge to the authority of Shi’ite clerics and as such, its followers were brutally suppressed. To this day, Bahai’s are persecuted in Iran and systematically denied opportunities to education and the right to practice their religion openly.
In addition to epistles and Qur’anic commentary, Tahere wrote a small number of poems. The one I have translated here is probably her most famous, although its attribution to her has been questioned. It is unique for its structure, the second half of all the lines taking the form of “X to X” or “X by X.” Its rhythm is enchanting, and it has been sung a number of times by Iran’s greatest vocalists. Speaking of untranslatable, the final line rests on a triple pun. The last phrase, tū be tū, I’ve translated as “ply by ply,” which is one meaning, but it also means “inwards,” “inside,” or “core.” Finally, it is also a visual pun on to be to, “you to you.” There’s a lot more I could say about this one, but I’ll let you get to the text itself.
Were my gaze to fall on you,
face to face, cheek to cheek,
I’d spell out my grief over you,
Line by line, point by point.
Seeking only your face
I wander like the wind,
House to house, door to door,
Lane to lane, street to street.
In longing for you,
Blood flows from my eyes
River by river, sea by sea,
Pool by pool, stream by stream.
Around your pursed little lips,
Your cheeks sprout amber down
Bud by bud, rose by rose,
Bloom by bloom, scent by scent.
Brow, eye, and mole — all have snared
My heart’s bird, binding us
Essence to essence, heart to heart,
Love to love, soul to soul.
My grieved heart weaves your love
Into the fabric of my soul,
Strand by strand, thread by thread,
Warp by warp, weft by weft.
Tahere has delved into her heart,
And seen nothing but you,
Fold by fold, veil by veil.
Page by page, ply by ply.
Translation by: Michelle Quay
گر به تو افتدم نظر چهره به چهره رو به رو
شرح دهم غم تو را نکته به نکته مو به مو
از پی دیدن رخت همچو صبا فتادهام
خانه به خانه در به در کوُچه به کوچه کو به کو
میرود از فراق تو خون دل از دو دیده ام
دجله به دجله یم به یم چشمه به چشمه جو به جو
دور دهان تنگ تو عارض عنبرین خطت
غنچه به غنچه گل به گل لاله به لاله بو به بو
ابرو و چشم و خال تو صید نموده مرغ دل
طبع به طبع دل به دل مهر به مهر و خو به خو
مهر تو را دل حزین بافته بر قماش جان
رشته به رشته نخ به نخ تار به تار پو به پو
در دل خویش طاهره گشت و ندید جز تو را
صفحه به صفحه لا به لا پرده به پرده تو به تو
This post is dedicated to the late Dr. Amin Banani, the warm and devoted professor of Baha’i studies and Persian Literature, who taught me everything I know about Baha’i history and literature. روحشان شاد