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On the Difficulty of Translating

Pre-Modern Texts,

Such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu

From an interview with Dr. William Chittick

Ed. OmarKN

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What follows are quotes from an interview with Dr. William Chittick by Katherine Schimmel: 'The Mystic Pen: Dr. William Chittick Remembers,' regarding the great difficulty of translating Pre-Modern Texts, such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu; if not impossibility of it.
The Mystic Pen: Dr. William Chittick Remembers, by Katherine Schimmel

Dr. William Chittick has made 'considerable scholarly contributions in the field of Sufi thought, literature, and Islamic philosophy' over a period of about 50 years and written many books in the field.

The interview is also about his friendship with the outstanding friend and interpreter of the Muslim world, Prof. Annemarie Schimmel. One of her many books, The Triumphal Sun - about Shams-e Tabrizi, the spiritual teacher of Rumi, influenced W. C. to further his studies in this area, and as a result he wrote: 'The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi'

The main Islamic concept which is evoked in many ways, is that Allah - God is creating the world so that He might be known.



Everyone has turned his face toward some direction, but the saints have turned in the direction without directions…
(Rumi, Mathnavi v 350, Translation by Dr. William Chittick)

Existence is all dust, its luminosity coming from that moon: turn not your back toward the moon, follow not the dust!
(Rumi, Divan v. 12236, Translation by Dr. William Chittick)

From the Interview

01 Radically Different Outlooks on Reality

WRR: What are some of the challenges a translator of Eastern languages faces when trying to take linguistically complicated texts in Urdu, for instance, and not only translate the work or poem into another language but also place it within a context that a western reader would understand and appreciate?

Dr. William Chittick: It is a lot more difficult to render someone like Rumi adequately than someone like Iqbal, who had thoroughly imbibed Western philosophy and German romanticism. I cannot speak for Urdu, but I do have experience with Arabic and Persian.

The most significant stumbling block for translators and their readers is the radically different outlooks on reality that separate pre-modern worlds from our own culture.

To use Rumi's terms, language provides us with forms (surat ) that point at "meanings” (ma`na ). When we hear him say this, we think it is unremarkable. It simply means that words have meanings that we can look up in the dictionary.

But for Rumi, and for pre-modern worldviews generally, "meanings” are the realities that lie behind appearances (whether the appearances be words, or objects, or animals, or humans, or thoughts, or imaginings). Ultimately, as Rumi remarks, quoting his teacher Shams-e Tabrizi, "Meaning is God” (M I 3338), and God is the only true Being, the only "reality” worthy of the name. Take, for example, this line [in 02]:

02 Pass Beyond Form, Escape From Names!

Pass beyond form, escape from names!
Flee titles and names toward meaning! (M IV 1285)[1]

We moderns understand this to mean that we should not get caught up with superficialities, but there is far more to what Rumi is saying. We live in a worldview that refuses to acknowledge the reality of "meaning” as he understands it. To the extent we give credit to pre-modern cosmologies and their talk of angels and such, or to various forms of God-talk, we think that this has nothing to do with "reality” and everything to do with personal beliefs and predilections. I won't object to your beliefs, and you should be nice enough not to object to mine.

This sort of approach would be anathema to Rumi and pre-modern thought in general, because it ignores the way things actually are—that is, the fact that we live in a realm of appearances, which are in effect illusions, obscuring our vision of the way things are. Our human responsibility, the very reason for our existence, is that we are called upon to pass beyond appearance and enter into the realm of Reality. Moreover, we will be called to account for how we deal with the illusory appearances by the very nature of Reality itself (or by "karma” if you prefer). For Rumi, the science of Reality is precisely that, a science—real knowledge, more real in fact than anything that passes for "scientific fact” in our day and age.

What about "love?” you may respond. Surely Rumi called us to love everyone and to accept everyone. Yes and no. The fact is that the only true love is God's love, for, as the Koran says in a verse that Rumi likes to quote,
{ He loves them, and they love Him } (5:54).

This is to say that God does indeed love human beings—at least some human beings—and human beings are able to love Him in return. But, as Rumi insists, it also means that human love, to the extent that it is truly love, can only be God's love reflected in the human soul. And God does not love ugliness and stupidity. "God is beautiful, and He loves beauty,” said the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace).

We live in a world where stupidity—that is, taking appearances at face value and not seeing that we are called to something infinitely higher—rules over our perceptions, much more so than in Rumi's time, and, as he repeatedly tells us, we need to pass beyond those appearances to find the face of God that is present in all things.

03 Know That the Outward Form Passes Away

Know that the outward form passes away,
but the world of meaning remains forever…
You've seen the form, but you're heedless of the meaning.
If you're intelligent, pick out the pearl from the shell.
(M II 1020, 22)

How does one go about picking out the pearl? Basically—again, a constant theme in Rumi—by following the prophets and saints, those who have loved God before us and who have achieved oneness with their Beloved.

Love, for Rumi, is not a wishy-washy sentiment that sees all things as equally wonderful. Not at all. Things are wonderful only if we can see them in God and as coming from God, and that is the most difficult task with which human beings are faced, because it demands giving up self-centeredness and self-satisfaction, and it requires throwing oneself wholeheartedly into the path of "following” (as Shams-e Tabrizi calls it), that is, doing what God wants us to do, as indicated by His chosen messengers.

Love, after all, is fire, as Rumi never tires of reminding us. And fire burns. At the beginning especially, that burning really hurts, because it consumes everything that provides us with our precious illusions and personal identity.

Though Rumi refuses to define love—it is, after all, rooted in the Unknowable Essence of God Himself—he does provide helpful descriptions.

Love is that flame which, when it blazes up, burns away everything except the Everlasting Beloved. (M V 588)

To come back to the question, real translation, "carrying over,” needs to provide forms (words) in a second language that point to the same meanings that are pointed to by the forms of the first language. But that presupposes that the two languages share the same realm of meanings. This is precisely the problem—we do not share the same realm.

04 In Modern Times, We Have Debased and Degraded Meanings

In modern times, we have debased and degraded meanings, made them subjective, delivered them over to the realm of the illusory, the imaginative, the individual.

Without a great deal of preparation, we will not be able to appreciate the fact that Rumi is speaking of the world of permanent realities, of divine meanings that never change, of things as they are in themselves and as they are known always and forever by the Infinite Consciousness that gave birth to the cosmos and everything within it.

Annemarie worked very hard in her many books to provide the cultural context for the poets whom she translated. Invariably, the popular translators have ignored that context and presented Rumi as if he were simply one of our free-thinking, open-minded contemporaries who has seen beyond the hypocrisies of modern life and who can steer us in the direction of being loving and tolerant human beings.

But, what a human being is—what a human being is in fact and in reality, that is, in relation to the Supreme Beloved—this gets little if any attention, even though Rumi devotes much of his poetry to explicating our cosmic and divine situation.

Without sufficient familiarity with the realm of real meanings, however, a realm that transcends time and space, we will fail to notice what he is talking about.

#the realm of real meanings
#the world of permanent realities, of divine meanings that never change

05 The Essence of Meaning That Is Lost

WRR: It seems to me that the "essence of meaning” could be all too easily lost when jumping from language to language. Over time, small mistakes in translations can become big mistakes when other scholars rely too heavily on information that may not be entirely accurate. Is there a current way to guard against this, a filtering method if you will, or perhaps a central body of linguists that check translations for accuracy?

Dr. William Chittick: Absolutely, it is precisely "the essence of meaning” that is lost. But this is not only a problem in translation, it is also a problem generally in scholarship. In the case of Rumi, it is not only a problem in the modern West, but also in the Persianate world (Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent), where Rumi is still a living presence, despite the attempts of scholars to reduce him to a cultural phenomenon or a national hero.

Modern-day scholarly approaches to Rumi—and here Annemarie was largely an exception—spend far too much time analyzing his language, his rhetoric, his social and political context, his debts to previous figures and his influence on later figures, and everything else one can possibly uncover about him—except what he thought the point of it all was.

Most scholars take for granted that the dominant worldview of our times deals with the real world, and that Rumi was a "medieval” and therefore did not really understand the way things work. Of course, they will tell us, he had interesting insights into psychology—where we are no longer dealing with "reality”—and this helps explain his appeal. Rumi scholarship is generally interesting for other scholars, but offers little help for those who have a sense that Rumi was in fact a saint and a spiritual teacher who has something important to say to us in the modern world.

The problems in translation go far deeper than linguistics, as I suggested earlier. There is a profound gulf between our perception of the world and that of the "medievals.” Any translation of Rumi will be inadequate, but in order to remedy the faults, it is not sufficient to pay more attention to language and the mistakes of earlier translators.

06 The Difficulty of Stepping Out of the Dominant Prejudices

The stumbling block is not the language but the difficulty of stepping out of the dominant prejudices and presuppositions of our age. How is the translator going to avoid the omnipresent scientism, relativism, and ideology and put himself or herself into another worldview?

In order to do that—if it can be done—one needs to devote a great deal of time and study, and few imagine first, that there is a problem, and second, that it is worth all the trouble. Certainly, there are no academic rewards to be reaped.

In any case, we all imagine, don't we moderns stand at the pinnacle of objectivity, science, and progress, and don't we have every right to look back and judge all those benighted cultures, poets, and prophets, who were deprived of the wisdom of science and the artifacts of technology?

If we asked Rumi how we are going to solve the problem of interpreting and translating his works, he would tell us that the problem lies with ourselves, not least because we refuse to face up to our cosmic responsibilities.

The only way for us to grasp the true meaning of life, the universe, and ourselves—for these indeed are the issues that Rumi presents us with—is to tackle the problem of meaning head on. Our means to engage in the quest is love, which demands erasing everything in ourselves that is antithetical to the Everlasting Beloved. We need to get rid of self-centeredness, pride, and willfulness. We need to keep our own individual destinies constantly in mind - the fact that we will be called to account for what we do, how we think, and who we end up being.

Scholarship and linguistics will never provide the answers, nor, for that matter, will beautiful poetry. As Rumi puts it in one of many similar passages,

Interpret yourself, not the reports!
Speak ill of your own brain, not the rose garden! (M I 3744)

07 Understand That Islam Is Part of Us in the West

WRR: Annemarie felt very strongly about the biased treatment of Islam in Western scholarly circles and tried very hard to illuminate the underlying "kernel” of truth to all who were interested. If you had the power to change one aspect of the Western perception of Islam what would it be?

Dr. William Chittick: The misperceptions run deep and have a long, long history. Much would change if people could come to understand that Islam is part of us in the West, that we all belong to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

How many people in the West are shocked when it sinks in that "Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God, and that Muslims worship exactly the same God as Jews and Christians! Indeed, anyone who uses the word Allah without explanation increases this all too common misunderstanding and play into the hands of fundamentalists and exclusivists on both sides.



Related texts

  1. Variant:
    Pass on form the (outward) form, and rise beyond the name,
    flee from title and from name (and enter) into reality.
    Mathnawi, Book IV 1285

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