I have Rumi The Big Red Book: The Great Masterpiece Celebrating Mystical Love and Friendship on my shelf of poetry books. And I feel remiss, because I never thought much about who Coleman Barks, named on the cover of the book in letters almost as big and visible as Rumi’s name, was, and why I should trust him to interpret Rumi, the great 13th century Persian poet, for me. The title page says: “The collected translations of Coleman Barks, Based on the work of John Moyne, Nevit Ergin, A. J. Arberry, and Reynold Nicholson.” Now that I am thinking about this, I notice that only one of those is a non-Anglo name. I also notice the acknowledgments, where Barks says, “I should also acknowledge that, as I put this collection together, I felt drawn to relineate and revise, slightly, almost every poem.”
If these were in fact his translations, that acknowledgment might be okay. But according to the @PersianPoetics Twitter account, Barks speaks no Persian (!). In a long and thoughtful Twitter thread, whoever writes for PersianPoetics tells a very different story.
The first thing I notice is that PersianPoetics calls the poet Moulana Rumi, while Barks calls him Jellaludin Rumi. A little research reveals that Jellaludin is a transliteration of his first name, while Moulana is a transliteration of his title, apparently roughly equivalent to “Master.” The next thing is that Rumi didn’t write exclusively in Persian: he also wrote in Turkish, Arabic, Greek, and Konya (a language named for its city on the Central Anatolian Plateau). So one wonders if Barks speaks any of those languages, and just how much he relied on the four names his translations are “based on the work of.”
The Twitter thread leans in some part on a 2017 New Yorker article, “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi” by Rozina Ali. Ali, drawing on interviews with several scholars, says:
Translators and theologians of the time could not reconcile their ideas about a “desert religion,” with its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez. The explanation they settled on, Safi told me, was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.” This was a time when Muslims were singled out for legal discrimination—a law from 1790 curtailed the number of Muslims who could come into the United States, and a century later the U.S. Supreme Court described the “intense hostility of the people of Moslem faith to all other sects, and particularly to Christians.”
The exceedling apt phrase “spiritual colonialism” comes from Rumi Scholar Omid Safi, as does the analysis just above.
Here’s a telling example from @PersianPoetics:
The one on the right is the stuff of celebrity tattoos, inappropriate quotes from public figures, and inspirational posters. The one on the left is described as “mostly literal,” which as a non-Persian speaker, I am inclined to believe. If it is mostly literal, the point is made.
Barks has profited greatly from his Rumi work, all the way to TED Talks and best-selling titles. It seems extremely unlikely that any of the money has gone back to Iran, or Turkey, or Islamic charities.
Stories like these (Islamophobia, erasure, cultural appropriation, Orientalism) are endless and endlessly shaming: this one caught my eye because I know some of the work. @PersianPoetics finishes the thread with an appeal for supporting their Patreon and supporting honest translations. Me, I’m just looking at my Coleman Barks book and thinking maybe recycling it is better politics than putting it in a free box for someone else to misinterpret.
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