The Musician in the Garden: On Translating Shahnameh

In passing on medieval Persian epics, such as those in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, the translator should, according to the author, use whatever skill and sweetness as he can muster, but must remain hidden, concealed by the foliage of the historic garden whose beauties he celebrates. Yet, his task is such that it cannot be one of simple, unmediated transmission. In order to speak at all, the translator is forced to add his own voice to the material and in doing so must make many choices, some small and some large, but all affecting the presentation and reception of the artifact with which he has been entrusted. Among these choices the first is that of form-- should he translate the text into verse or into prose? Inspired by the Naqqali tradition of Iran, the author decided to translate Shahnameh in prosimetrum, a text which is largely prose but which contains passages of verse at significant moments of the narrative. The prosimetrum, the author notes, was also a not uncommon medieval European form.

The decisions as to which episodes to pass over and which to foreground were made according to similar criteria to those which helped the author decide whether a given passage should be rendered in verse or prose. Another choice facing the author was how to translate the passages on war. Although, there are quite a lot of spirited fighting in the Shahnameh, there is, the author suggests relatively few passages that actually celebrate war. These passages are balanced, and far outweighed in their intensity and nobility, by passages on themes that derive from warfare such as elegy, the perception of loss, and the tragic understanding of the inevitability of human conflict. The author concludes by noting that his choices were minor, of emphasis and not of substance. He also notes that no translator can reproduce a work from another language without adding his own emphases and lending his own voice to the artifact in question.

Dick Davis
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