Translating Hafiz

What is a “translation”?

I recently came across a reference to the 14th century  Persian poet Hafiz (thanks, paulinelaurent!) who recommended the book The subject tonight is love, translated by Daniel Ladinsky. Wanting to explore Hafiz further, I googled for some texts of his poems and found a few examples of the Ladinsky poems here. Here is one:

Damn Thirsty


The fish needs to say,

“Something ain’t right about this

Camel ride –

And I’m

Feeling so damn


[*disclaimer:  I am thoroughly enjoying this particular Camel ride.—N]


Not satisfied with this snippet, I looked further in google books for a full  (free)  text, and found an assortment of Hafiz poems, translated by, of all people the Victorian adventurer Gertrude Bell.   A version of the book published in 2004 available in preview has an interesting  preface by Ibrahim Gamard about Persian poetry forms.  Here is his transliteration of a ghazal that illustrates Hafiz’s internal rhyme:

Hafiz, you sang ghazals, and you pierced pearls with delicate skill, so come and recite sweetly! For the heavens will scatter the necklace knotted starry jewels  of the Pleiades as your reward.


Several American poets who do not read Persian have published versions of Hafiz’s poems that are not accurate translations, remarks Gamard, but they have  been successful in making Hafiz well known in our time.  Gamard praises Bell’s translations for their accuracy, although he says some is lost in forming the rhymes. He also makes many informative observations about the imagery of wine in the Sufi mystical tradition and reproduces Bell’s 1897 introduction with headings that make sense of her seemlingly rambling remarks about Persian history.

Bell’s translations are not available for view in the Gamard edition, but fortunately, for those who care for Victorian language, the entirety of Gertrude Bell’s translations is here in full view. Here is a sample of one of the more readable ones:


My friend has fled! alas, my friend has fled,
And left me naught but tears and pain behind!
Like smoke above a flame caught by the wind,
So rose she from my breast and forth she sped.
Drunk with desire, I seized Love’s cup divine,
But she that held it poured the bitter wine
Of Separation into it and fled.

This is not quite what I had in mind.  If Bell’s poems are accurate and Ladinsky’s poems are accessible, where is the real Hafiz?

So I turned to the readers’ reviews on Amazon, always good for losing an hour or two. This comment turned up some useful names: Dick Davis, “Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz” (can’t find this yet, but Davis has some other Persian translations here), and Jeffrey Einboden’s and John Slater’s “The Tangled Braid: Ninety-nine poems by Hafiz of Shiraz.” (with an academic quarrel in the reviews). Excerpts:

Should anguish form a death-squad to wipe out lovers
all of us at the wine-house would rebel, and yank the chair out from under them


My heart pumps blood through the memory of you
every moment: how, in the dark garden, the night wind loosened
the rose-bud knot of your robe….

And the person recommending these translators not only speaks Persian, but has a blog with some original translations and audio.  Listen to him read it here.  No really.  He has a …haunting?…voice.

Ghazal 98: News From Abroad

Hafiz, translation by A.Z. Foreman

Last night, the wind brought wind of one I love who’d gone away.
I too shall yield my heart unto the wind, now. Come what may.

At length my love has come to this: I can confide in none
but blazing lightnings every night and dawn winds every day.

Defenseless in your deep curled locks, and out of me, my heart
never once said “Let me recall the body where I lay”

Today, I see my friends were wise to counsel against lovefall.
Elate my counselors’ souls, O Lord, for all the truth they say.

Remembering you, my heart was bloodstruck every time wind blew
open the rosebud’s robe out on the grass in gentle play.

My weakened being leaked out through my fingertips till dawn,
whose wind blew hope of you, and brought the life back to my clay.

Your spirit of good will, Hafiz, will earn you what you yearn for.
When good-willed men cry out, all souls are ransomed to obey.

Here is the original Persian:

دوش آگهی ز یار سفرکرده داد باد من نیز دل به باد دهم هر چه باد باد
کارم بدان رسید که همراز خود کنم هر شام برق لامع و هر بامداد باد
در چین طره تو دل بی حفاظ من هرگز نگفت مسکن مالوف یاد باد
امروز قدر پند عزیزان شناختم یا رب روان ناصح ما از تو شاد باد
خون شد دلم به یاد تو هر گه که در چمن بند قبای غنچه گل می‌گشاد باد
از دست رفته بود وجود ضعیف من صبحم به بوی وصل تو جان بازداد باد
حافظ نهاد نیک تو کامت برآورد
جان‌ها فدای مردم نیکونهاد باد

Just for kicks, here is what Google Translate does with the Persian (it does some other languages a lot better).  The similar sound at the end of each stanza seems to be the word “wind” repeated in different ways.

G ad will bear friend traveled to the heart of the wind I do what the wind Wind Wind
Intimates that it was my job to do every evening and every morning the wind power Lame
China edging my heart I never talked bleak housing Malvf remember the wind
Remember loved ones today, so I knew we Naseh or paste your mental happiness winds
Was blood shit I remember you all the para grass flower bud Qbay Mygshad Wind
There was a poor lost my Sbhm connect you to smell the wind died Bazdad
Hafiz Nick puts you estimate Kamt
People sacrificed lives Nykvnhad Wind

But by far the most interesting thing to come out of this search for Hafiz is a discussion about translating Hafiz, or rather “On Not Translating Hafez” by recommended translator Dick Davis.

Two kinds of problems for the translator of a literary text are well-recognized, and these we may call, for convenience’s sake: first, the linguistic and second, the cultural; naturally, the two often overlap.

The linguistic problem is the easiest to formulate. We know that exact synonyms do not exist between languages; idioms are even more challenging to the translator and a literal word-for-word translation will often convey virtually nothing of the originally intended meaning. Persian, for example, has some extremely inventive — one might almost call them Gongoristic — ways of cursing or threatening people, and a literal translation will convey very little of their intended force. One such locution means literally, “I will bring your father out,” a threat that seems at once mysterious and reassuringly mild in its implications. What it actually means is, “I will give you one hell of a hard time (either because you have already done X, or if you don’t in the future do Y).” Various origins for the phrase have been suggested, the most plausible perhaps being that it means “I will give you such a hard time that your father will rise up out of his grave in consternation.” Clearly, to translate the phrase — for example, as part of a character’s speech in a novel — one can only abandon literal translation altogether and search instead for some threat that carries equivalent force and menace in the target language. Similarly, puns can rarely be translated; only in English can one make Sidney Smith’s joke on two housewives yelling at each other from opposite houses: “They will never agree, for they are arguing from different premises.”



A millennium of classical Persian poetry: a guide to the reading & understanding of Persian poetry from the tenth to the twentieth century. Wheeler McIntosh Thackston – 1994 – Poetry – 186 pages. “The Persian metrical system and poetic forms are explained, and selections are given from the works of all major poets, from Rudaki in the tenth century to …” Google books preview. (Recommended by A.Z. Foreman)

Some other Hafiz sources:

New Nightingale, New Rose, 1903, tr. Richard Le Gaullienne, a member of the Rhymers Club and an associate of Yeats, Oscar Wilde, etc…Google books snippet view, but quite a few poems can be read.

Versions from Hafiz, tr. Walter Leaf, Google books full view of limited edition, introduction has lengthy discussion of meter, transliterated stanza at the beginning of each poem


My Portrait of Hafiz” statement on Amazon review about “translations”

Love poems from God: twelve sacred voices from the East and West By Daniel James Ladinsky, Google books preview (several poems viewable)

I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Hope and Joy,  Ladinsky, Google books preview

The gift: poems by the great Sufi master, Ladinsky, Google books preview

The subject tonight is love: 60 wild and sweet poems, Ladinsky, Google books preview

I heard God laughing: renderings of Hafiz, Ladinsky, Google books preview

Wikipedia on Ladinsky’s spiritual mentor, Zoroastrian Meher Baba


3 Responses to “Translating Hafiz”

  1. A.Z. Foreman Says:

    The google gods have a way of letting me know when the internet says something about me.

    Thank you for the comment about my voice. *bows*

    You may be interested to know that I wrote a very in-depth and unflattering review of one of ladinsky’s books here:

    The review ends with a sample of one of Dick Davis’ translations from his upcoming book.

  2. Nijma Says:

    Whoa, you were pretty rough on the guy, but I have to admit that “enjambed fortune-cookie” made me smile.

    It looks to me, from the “My Portrait of Hafiz” statement on the Amazon review, like Ladinsky has backed off from calling what he does “translation”–he says he had originally written “versions” and it was changed by the publisher.

    I’m sort of conflicted about this. On the one hand, I do think the poems are much more than fortune cookies. They seem to have a little twist at the end, as if you were walking down the road in one direction and suddenly the sun came out and you saw your path was much simpler than it had at first appeared.

    It’s hard to judge the quality of someone else’s spiritual experience, but it’s pretty clear from even a cursory look at the comments that people with horrible sadness and difficulty in their lives have been inspired by the readings, and that if not for this series of books, many would not have been introduced to Hafiz at all.

    I have also heard of a tradition of “borrowing” that in the west we would regard with the same horror as plagiarism. That is, in earlier times it was regarded as an accomplishment to write something as if it had been penned by a particular author and sign that person’s name to it, as if they were somehow still alive in another person’s mind to carry on their work. I’m thinking in particular of some of the cabalistic stuff from medieval Spain with unclear authorship, mystics, Zohar …maybe some of the tens of thousand of writings attributed to Hermes Trimegistus are in that category too.

    Still, it’s troubling that these are being marketed as translations, when it seems the original Hafiz, if indeed this was a real person and not an accretion of oral traditions attributed to Hafiz by someone in antiquity, seems to have a very well documented body of work in a living language. I like to read things (for instance, Norse sagas) on two levels, 1) just taking them at face value, for enjoyment or serendipity, and 2) in their historical and academic context. The Ladinsky materials are lacking the second level–I would prefer to call them “meditations on Hafiz”.

    Thanks for the Davis preview, and the Thackston book recommendation–I have added it to my bibliography at the end–and of course for the audio….I suspect that Hafiz was originally meant to be read out loud.

    • A.Z. Foreman Says:

      > On the one hand, I do think the poems are much more than
      > fortune cookies. They seem to have a little twist at the end,
      > as if you were walking down the road in one direction and
      > suddenly the sun came out and you saw your path was much
      > simpler than it had at first appeared.

      At best, what you describe only elevates it from versified fortune-cookie to something like versified horoscope.

      >I have also heard of a tradition of “borrowing” that in the west
      >we would regard with the same horror as plagiarism. That is, in
      >earlier times it was regarded as an accomplishment to write
      >something as if it had been penned by a particular author and
      >sign that person’s name to it.

      Absolutely. A good bit of all literature (including many poems from the Bible such as the Song of the Sea, the Song of Songs and probably many of the Psalms as well) would fall into that category. For example, in the canon of Welsh-language literature, one of the strangest figures is Iolo Morganwg (birth name Edward Williams), an eccentric antiquarian and bibliophile whose entire poetic corpus consists of forgeries which he attributed to various medieval poets- in an attempt to construct a Druidic celtic history for wales. His forgeries were so good that they fooled a great many specialists, and were only discovered because, after his death, people started to wonder how he alone could be responsible for the discovery of so many texts which aren’t found in any manuscript he himself didn’t find. And today, Iolo Morganwg is regarded highly as a poet, and his work is found in many prestigious anthologies, including the Oxford Book Of Welsh Verse.

      But this is different because Hafiz didn’t write remotely as Ladinsky would have us believe, and Ladinsky’s verse is so bad that it was probably unpublishable till Hafiz’ name got stuck onto it. Consider the fact that, as far as the internet knows, Ladinsky -though he seems to have already wanted to do the poet thing- published nothing before the Hafiz books, didn’t publish any of his “versions” in any magazine (though most translators do at first), and, since then, hasn’t published anything in magazines that have a blind review-process. I don’t know how Ladinsky landed the book deal but, quite frankly, I probably don’t want to. For all I know it involves blackmail. For the publisher’s sake, I hope so.

      > but it’s pretty clear from even a cursory look at the
      > comments that people with horrible sadness and difficulty
      > in their lives have been inspired by the readings,

      This argument could apply just as easily to Scientology, the KKK, or any number of despicable things. E.g. the fact that so many converts to Scientology have found it inspirational in no way makes it any less of a fraud or any less exploitative.

      In fact, there are and have been entire genres of artlessness and bad art geared toward people with specific dispositions, worldviews, moods and affiliations e.g. daytime soap operas, blaxploitation, cheesy romance novels, porn, christian rock etc. The degree of consumption often has little to do with the quality of the art. Indeed, most commercials are built on this principle. Given enough people to choose from, you can find individuals who will be inspired by anything you try out- and all sorts of people exist. Moreover, it’s no secret that, given the right conditions, people with horrible sadness and difficulty in their lives can display all kinds of lapses in judgment- not the least of which is artistic. Indeed, people and populations in turmoil are probably even *more* blind to absurdity, duplicity and triteness. Consider: Whom do cults usually target as potential members? Why do so many people have such a hard time realizing that they’re in an abusive relationship? Would Hitler have managed to seem so persuasive in a Germany that wasn’t wounded by the Depression? Why is antagonistic religious fundamentalism so often associated with (real or imagined) victimhood?

      Stephen Corey makes a related point nicely in “The Blooming of Sentimentality”:

      I hear it coming from the start,
      the claptrap all shamelessly marshalled:
      the hordes of muted violins
      swelling and subsiding, the voice
      wrenching to a wail I know
      that makes a cheapshot bid for my heart

      > and that if not for this series of books, many would not have
      > been introduced to Hafiz at all.

      This brings me to my next point: the people who, for one reason or another, are inspired the strongest are naturally going to be the ones most likely to comment. Consider this: if someone walks into a bookstore, picks up one of ladinsky’s books, reads a few poems and finds it insipid and dull and then just puts it back on the shelf, such a person -regardless of how much sadness they suffer from- is not very likely to go on and post a comment about a book that didn’t seem worth buying. There’s no way of knowing how many such people there are. However, if my own experience in showing Ladinsky’s tripe to friends is any indication, I’m willing to bet that there are a whole lot of em. How many such people has Ladinsky’s deception prevented from being introduced to Hafiz by making him seem like something less than he really was?

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