A poet, faqih, scholar, theologian, and mystic, Muhammad Jalal al-Din Balkhi – known popularly as Rumi – is arguably the most popular poet in the modern world. Born in 13th century Khorasan, Rumi’s path to enlightenment has remained an inspiration to his followers for centuries, offering wisdom to all its seekers. Transcending national borders and ethnic divisions, his name and the translations of his verses remain on the tongue of all modern spiritualists – Muslim devotees and general enthusiasts alike.
The popularization of Rumi in the West is owed mainly to Coleman Barks, the man behind the most popular translations of Rumi’s poetry (written originally in Persian). In a world where most poetry is seen as esoteric, Barks’ hundreds of thousands of copies sold signify a seemingly commendable feat.
However, Barks himself is more an interpreter than a translator: he speaks no Persian and does not consult the Persian source text in authoring his “translations.” Instead, Barks has relied entirely on other English translations of Rumi. In his own words, Barks says, “Of course, as I work on these poems, I don’t have the Persian to consult. I literally have nothing to be faithful to, except what the scholars give.”
In doing so, Barks presents a view of Rumi that fails to show the full picture behind Rumi’s verses. The problem transcends beyond just the West, with non-Persian speakers worldwide – including the Muslim world – grasping on to the image of Rumi presented by Barks, reading a body of work entirely different from that intended by the author.
To compare, let us shift our focus towards a sample verse. Coleman Barks’ translation says: Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. In stark contrast, a translation by Persian Poetics (via @PersianPoetics on Twitter) says: Beyond kufr and Islam there is a desert plain, in that middle space our passions reign. When the gnostic arrives there he’ll prostrate himself, not kufr not Islam nor is there any space in that domain. In preparing a more presentable version of Rumi, Barks strips away the cultural, religious, and spiritual essence which defines much of Rumi’s work. The stylistic difference is also clear: while Rumi’s original poetry was metered and rhymed, Barks switches to free verse.
The problem stretches beyond just Barks’ translation – a whole host of writers such as Shahram Shiva, John Moyne, Andrew Harvey, and Deepak Chopra all face similar accusations of misrepresenting the essence of Rumi’s message. A translation from an unknown source reads: Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times come, yet again, come, come. A more accurate translation by Persian Poetics (via @PersianPoetics on Twitter) reads: Come again come again whatever you are come again. If you’re a kafir or idol-worshiper come again. This home of ours is not a home of hopelessness, even if you’ve repented one hundred times, come again. Similar to Barks’ translations, the former neglects key religious, spiritual and cultural themes being put forward by Rumi.
With the mass adoption of social media, inaccurate translations only spread further. When false quotes spread like wildfire, the importance of recognizing and actively combatting them only increases. The first step in this comes with recognizing writers who pay due respect to Rumi’s message and not their own. Notable among them, Jawid Mojaddedi is in the midst of a project to translate the Masnavi. In remaining true to Rumi, his translations may require more effort to read and challenge preconceptions, but truly understanding the foreign is precisely that: retaining the text's original spirit instead of adapting it to your own beliefs.