Only Breath

by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

English version by Coleman Barks
Original Language Persian/Farsi & Turkish

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

-- from The Essential Rumi, Translated by Coleman Barks

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

I was surprised to realize that I have never featured this poem by Rumi on the Poetry Chaikhana, especially given how well known and loved it is. Actually, I did feature this poem years ago, but in a different, less known translation by Bernard Lewis.

This morning I read the two versions side-by-side, the one above by Coleman Barks, and the version below by Lewis. It occurred to me that this might a good opportunity to invite some discussion about the nature of poetry and translation.

Here is the Lewis translation of the poem. Take a moment to read it, while the Barks version is fresh in your mind, and think about the differences, why they are different, how those differences affect our reading of the poem...

What can I do, Muslims? I do not know myself.
I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Magian nor Muslim,
I am not from east or west, not from land or sea,
not from the shafts of nature nor from the spheres of the firmament,
not of the earth, not of water, not of air, not of fire.
I am not from the highest heaven, not from this world,
not from existence, not from being.
I am not from India, not from China, not from Bulgar, not from Saqsin,
not from the realm of the two Iraqs, not from the land of Khurasan.
I am not from the world, not from beyond,
not from heaven and not from hell.
I am not from Adam, not from Eve, not from paradise and not from Ridwan.
My place is placeless, my trace is traceless,
no body, no soul, I am from the soul of souls.
I have chased out duality, lived the two worlds as one.
One I seek, one I know, one I see, one I call.
He is the first, he is the last, he is the outer, he is the inner.
Beyond "He" and "He is" I know no other.
I am drunk from the cup of love, the two worlds have escaped me.
I have no concern but carouse and rapture.
If one day in my life I spend a moment without you
from that hour and that time I would repent my life.
If one day I am given a moment in solitude with you
I will trample the two worlds underfoot and dance forever.
O Sun of Tabriz, I am so tipsy here in this world,
I have no tale to tell but tipsiness and rapture.

(version by Bernard Lewis)

So, what do you think? Do you prefer one version over the other?

The Barks version is much leaner. It's easier on the eyes, especially when grouped together into couplets with line breaks. The language arguably flows a bit more easily. But the biggest difference to me is that Barks is obviously taking huge liberties with the language, trimming out entire phrases and ideas, while significantly reformulating others.

The Lewis version is generally using modern English, as well, but my impression is that he is sticking much closer to a literal translation of Rumi's original. He doesn't do as much to try to replicate the poetic flow that the original undoubtedly has, but the more literal the translation, the more difficult it becomes to also reproduce rhythm and rhyme. Still, there are some juicy bits that Lewis manages to keep which I miss in the Barks translation.

There are always imperfect compromises in translation, especially so in poetry:

- How literally should the poem be translated?

- If it is too literal, at what point is the poetry is lost?

- When the original poem has meter and rhyme or alliteration, as most classic poetry does, should the translation attempt to reproduce it or create a new pattern suggestive of the original or completely abandon meter and rhyme?

- How free should the translator be with introducing line breaks to make the poem flow more naturally to the modern eye or to emphasize specific words and ideas?

- What should the translator do when even a strictly literal translation looses the poem's inner meaning? Metaphor and word play are culturally specific. A word-for-word translation often doesn't carry the same meaning in another culture or time. How much liberty should the translator take in order to convey the intended meaning by introducing new phrases and metaphors?

- At what point does a translation become so loose that it is more the work of the translator than the original poet?

- Barks or Lewis? (Or both?)

I have my own answers to these questions, but I am particularly interested in your thoughts. Post a comment on the blog or send me an email. These are issues I find myself weighing in my work with the Poetry Chaikhana. What do you think?

Recommended Books: Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hebrew Poems Perfume of the Desert: Inspirations from Sufi Wisdom
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Only Breath