A new translation of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’

Omar Khayyam’s immortal Rubaiyat has seen a host of translations after Edward Fitzgerald’s path-breaking effort in the late 19th century. Fitzgerald’s version is the most well-known but there are many who charge him with taking liberties and in a sense, interpreting the original rather than translating it. However, his contribution is popularising the work is immense and we have to judge his effort within the prevailing millieu – the Victorian age.

As part of my tradition to acquire a book or two on both the final day of a year as well as the first day of a new year, I was browsing contentedly when I came across a new translation of Khayyam by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs. It caught my interest and I lost no time in acquiring it.

The translators announced their intention “to give as a literal an English version of the Persian original as readibility and intelligibility permit”, which is credible. Avery and Heath-Stubbs noted  that Fitzgerald had “often been very free” and “not precisely accurate” in his translation and “gave to the ruba’ais a Victorian richness and lushness of sentiment which was alien to them”. However, they praised his “poetic intution in guiding him alright in diving the essentially sceptical and unorthodox nature of the Persian poet’s thought”.

However, so much for their rationale and divergence from Fitzgerald’s version. I will put some of their translations so those who are interested can relish the difference and though the new ones are not as poetic as Fitzgerald, they can appreciate a close and quite faithful translation of the Tentmaker’s original verse. They are no doubt quite interesting…. lets roll

Although I have a handsome face and colour,
Cheeks like the tulips, form like the cypress,
It is not clear why the Eternal Painter
Thus tricked me out for the dusty show-booth of Earth.

He began my creation with constraint
By giving me life he added only confusion
We depart reluctantly still not knowing
The aim of birth, existence, departure.

Heaven’s wheel gained nothing from my coming
Nor did my going augment its dignity;
Nor did my ears hear from anyone
Why I had to come and why I went

Oh heart! you will not arrive at the solving of the riddle
You will not reach the goal the wise in their subtlety seek
Make do here with wine and the cup of bliss
For you may and you may not arrive at bliss hereafter.

If heart could grasp the meaning of life,
In death it would know the mystery of God.
Today when you are in possession of yourself, you know nothing.
Tomorrow, when you leave yourself behind, what will you know?

The bodies that occupy the celestial vault
That give rise to wise men’s uncertainties.
Take care not to lose your grip on the thread of wisdom
Since the Powers That Be themselves are in a spin.

The cycle which includes our coming and going
Has no discernible beginning nor end.
Nobody has got this matter straight
Where we come from and where we go to.

To be continued…..


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