It is an astonishing fact that, after more than 700 years, Jalaluddin Rumi is the most popular poet in America. This is largely due to American authors, such as the poet Coleman Barks who has rendered literal translations of Rumi into free verse “American spiritual poetry” in a manner which has reached so many different sectors of American society.

One finds Rumi quotes following the titles of newsletters, on the bottom lines of e-mails, and in many different kinds of published articles. Many people have memorized their favorite lines — usually those rendered by Coleman Barks, because his versions communicate far more successfully than literal translations. The reasons for such a response are unclear, but it likely has to do with a certain “spiritual hunger” in America (perhaps due to an absence of a mystical and ecstatic dimension in general American spirituality). Yet this popularization has had a price, and the price is a frequent distortion of Rumi’s words and teachings which permeate such well-selling books. The English “creative versions” rarely sound like Rumi to someone who can read the poems in the original Persian, and they are often shockingly altered– but few know this, and the vast majority of readers cannot but believe that such versions are faithful renderings into English of Rumi’s thoughts and teachings when they are not.

The public has been deceived by the publishers of many of the popular books, who proclaim their authors as “translators” of Rumi– when, in fact, very few of them can read Persian. Coleman Barks, from the very beginning, called his renderings “versions.”1 And he has consistently clarified, in both his books and poetry readings, that he doesn’t know Persian and works from the literal translations of others.2 However, subsequent book covers and title pages proclaim, “Translations by Coleman Barks.” And he has been (and allows himself to be) promoted as “widely regarded as the world’s premier translator of Rumi’s writings…”3 Sometimes the title pages within his books give some further information about the translators whose work he depended on: “Translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, A. J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson.”4 However, the general reader would tend to recognize Barks as the “translator” and not pay attention to “small print” statements explaining that he used literal translations made by John Abel Moyne (an Iranian formerly named Javaad Mo`een), Arberry and Nicholson (both British scholars at Cambridge University).

Where did the idea come from that poets could “translate” spiritual poetry into English without knowing the original language? According to Professor Franklin Lewis, “The idea that poets can ‘translate’ without knowing the source language seems to have originated with Ezra Pound and his circle Pound took Ernest Fenellosa’s scholarly translations of Li Po’s Chinese poems and Japanese Noh plays and worked them into a startlingly new kind of English poem.”5


It is therefore necessary to clarify the difference between true translations of Rumi’s verses (made directly from Persian) and versions (falsely advertised or claimed as “translations”). Accurate translations of Rumi’s poetry have been made by such scholars as R. A. Nicholson, A. J. Arberry, Annemarie Schimmel, William Chittick, and Franklin Lewis. Iranian authors who have made popular translations into English from Persian (which are of variable reliability due to unfamiliarity with classical Persian, religious terms and references, and compromises with popularization) are Shahram Shiva and Nader Khalili.

Translations from secondary languages into English (of variable reliability) have been made by Nevit Ergin (from translations into Turkish from Persian by Golpinarli). And reliable translations have been made by Simone Fattal (from translations into French from Persian by Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch) and Muriel Maufroy (from de Vitray-Meyerovitch’s French translations)……

Excerpts taken from

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