By Meaghan Menzel
The Rose O’Neill Literary House kicked off the first event of this semester’s series “What’s Found in Translation” with a reading by Professor Emeritus of Persian at Ohio State University Dick Davis. This event, held Feb. 3 at the Rose O’Neill Literary house, was sponsored by Dr. Jude and Miriam Pfister according to Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House Dr. Jehanne Dubrow.
Dr. Dubrow said, “Tonight’s speaker is a distinguished teacher and scholar of medieval Persian poetry, a noted translator, and a highly regarded poet in his own right.” According to Davis, he has been writing poetry since his teenage years and translating since his late 30s.
Davis published scholarly works on English and Persian poetry and eight volumes of his own poetry. He was the Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Ohio State University from 2002-2012 and has won awards such as Ingram Merrill and Heinemann awards for poetry and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
“What has drawn me most about medieval Persian poetry is that it is such an alien civilization to ours,” Davis said. “It’s such a different culture—so distant. It’s a thousand years ago… Also it’s from an Islamic culture so it’s very different from a modern, Western, secular, Christian culture… and yet when you read it, you constantly… see these lines and think, ‘yes that’s me’ [or someone you know]. There’s this constant sense of both strangeness and closeness.”
Davis lived in Iran in the 1970s but left just before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. He said, “It was tricky being a westerner there… The image in the west was that it [Iran] was entirely brutal and appalling to westerners. This is not the case. It’s brutal and appalling if you were seen as a representative of your government. If you were there as a private citizen, people were terribly nice.” Davis ended up marrying an Iranian woman. In a way, translating medieval Persian poetry, he said, creates a “sense of being close to a culture that I would never really enter.”
When he lived in Iran, Davis learned Persian and began to read their literature. “When I realized I wanted to be able to read medieval Persian poetry, I found a teacher who had a good reputation,” Davis said. He and the teacher met two times a week. “It was very serious, and it was like beginning to learn about English poetry by reading ‘Paradise Lost.’ We just sat down and read it line by line by line. We did about two lines a week because he was insistent… that I understand everything.”
Davis has a book of translations out called “Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz” that includes poems by three writers all from the town Shiraz. One of them is Hafez who is, according to Davis, “difficult to translate because he is constantly ambiguous.” At first, Davis refused to translate Hafez when his publisher suggested the idea to him. He even wrote an essay titled “I’m not Translating Hafez,” but then ended up translating Hafez anyway. Davis also translated works by a Persian princess, Jahan Melak Khatun. “She was almost forgotten for 500 years, and she’s just a marvelous poet,” Davis said.
Another translation Davis has published is Fakhraddin Gorgani’s “Vis and Ramin.” This tale is “probably, though there is much argument about it, the origin of the ‘Tristan and Isolde’ story,” Davis said.
Dr. Dubrow said that she first heard Davis at a West Chester Poetry Conference and that he read from “Vis and Ramin.” She said, “What’s so remarkable about Dick Davis’ translation is the way that he discovers an English idiom for the narrative.”
“This is a translation I have a particular affection for,” Davis said. “I never translated a work in which I felt so close to the author… [but] when I was translating Gorgani… I really felt, I really did feel, that if I turned around, Gorgani would be standing there.”
Overall, Davis said in regards to translating itself, “I feel that one should keep as closely as possible to the Persian when making an English poem.” He does his best to replicate the form and keep to the same style and meters. Overall though, he said, “What is found in translation is two different voices.”