murdering Khayyam

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Murder of Khayyam

Idries Shah had said about Rumi, that his "technique prevented those who were incapable of using the material on a higher level from experimenting effectively with it, allowing those who want poetry to select poetry, giving entertainment to people who want stories; stimulating the intellect in those prize such experience."(The Way of the Sufi, 2007)

Perhaps Edward FitzGerald did not see the deep philosophy in the poems, or did not want to see the Sufi mysticism in it because it would have been contrary to his beliefs. FitzGerald was writing about a woman, while Khayyam was writing about God. As Osho commented, perhaps FitzGerald did not know that to a Sufi, 'saki' meant God.

"Much of Sufi symbolism is correspondential, and is worship. The tavern means the call of contemplation, the lips open to the inscrutable mysteries of God's essence. Tresses and curls illustrate expansion and infiniteness. Wine is wisdom." (Sufism:Omar Khayyam and E. Fitzgerald, C. H. A. Bjerregaard, 1915)

Anand TNN, wrote in the Lucknow edition of Times of India 03-12-2003, "The Rubaiyyat, for its length of 75 four-line rubai or stanzas, is perhaps the most frequent source of modern entries in English dictionaries of familiar quotations (35 citations in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; 33 in Bartlett's).

Anand continues, "The most famous line, "Thou beside me singing in the wilderness" has been the subject of countless illustrations; and "thou" has always been depicted as a handsome young houri (maiden). The admirers of Khayyam may be loath to know that "thou" does not sing, and is not a houri in the original, but merely his Sufi fellow-initiate with whom he meditates over a book of poems."

In Fitzgerald's Rubaiyyat, a garden is the setting for the musings and the yearnings of the persona and an expression of his moods; in the original there is no garden at all and each "rubai" is an individual short poem, a kind of epigram.

Using a 15th century manuscript, 'accidentally discovered', Fitzgerald recreated the poems in the mid-Victorian style that was loosely based on the original Persian text. He is believed to have studied this very complex language for about four year before translating Khayyam, but had to use a Persian-English dictionary, and relying more on his intuitive guess than his knowledge of Persian in interpreting what a passage meant. It reminds us of Mark Twains translation of his 'Jumping Frog' into French and then back to English. FitzGerald's lack of confidence in his translation is indicated by his four revisions later on, with numerous changes, additions and deletions, before his death in 1883.

FitzGerald's translation went unnoticed at first, and then was enthusiastically received by eminent Victorians including Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Meredith and Sir Richard Burton. He was lionized by critics for imposing a general order upon a disparate collection of Oriental verse, by which time his fame had spread to America.

FitzGerald was guilty of more than paraphrasing, or mistranslating; he portrayed Khayyam as anti-Sufi, a hedonist and atheist. "Saki" in Suffic tradition can be a metaphor for God, and "Wine" for divine love. This simple concept was not readily grasped by Westerners who believed that wine-drinking was forbidden for all Muslims.

In his translation of a 12th-century manuscript of The Rubaiyyat, made with the help of Omar Ali-Shah, the Sufi poet and classical Persian scholar, Robert Graves, claimed that Fitzgerald's version of "Omar Khayyam's mystical poem has been erroneously accepted throughout the West as a drunkard's rambling profession of hedonistic creed: "Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die."

"Khayyam is also credited with a flat denial either that life has any ultimate sense or purpose, or that the Creator can be, with any justice, allowed any mercy, wisdom or perfection illogically attributed to him, which is precisely the opposite view to that expressed in Khayyam's original."

Since Khayyam was translated into most other languages from the FitzGerald translation, the readers of these translations also never had an opportunity to learn of the real Khayyam. We have forgotten Khayaam for who he was. That is the tragedy of translations. Anand called him an 'Interpretive Translator'. Interpretations and translations by people with vested interests, or with their ingrown bias or the inadequacy of their knowledge of the time and the culture of the original writing is what we are faced with.

To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Poetically, Khayyam represents a voice of protest against what he regards to be a fundamentally unjust world. Many found in him a voice they needed to hear." Did FitzGerald hear that voice?

FitzGerald translated only 110 quatrains. Peter Avery and John Heath Stubbs translated 235, while Swami Govind Thirta (A.M.Datar) published 1096 quatrains in translation. Did FitzGerald find only these 110 rubai, in the manuscript he was given, or did he ignore the 900 other rubai, or did Swami Thirta add rubai of other writers?

Here is a rubai translated by Saidi Ahmad, which is not found in FitzGerald.

"Of knowledge naught remained I did not know,

Of secrets, scarcely any, high or low;

All day and night for three score and twelve years,

I pondered, just to learn that naught I know.

(Rubā‘iyyāt of Omar Khayyam, Sa‘idī Ahmad,1991, p. 125)

The question remains: can Fitzgerald be indicted for this transformation - or, to use his own jocular word, "transmogrification" - of Khayyam's mystical poem? If something had been lost in the process of translation, then anything that was gained would be FitzGerald and not Khayyam.

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