September 01, 2007

Zolf bar baad

Today's NYT has a piece on Mohsen Namjoo (Nazila Fathi, "Iran's Dylan on the Lute, With Songs of Sly Protest", 9/1/2007). Searching on YouTube for Namjoo turns up this lovely song, a setting of a 14th-century ghazal by Hafez, as the first hit:

[Update 7/23/2015 -- since the older video has been deleted, here is a newer version:


In this case, the "sly protest" appears to be mainly that the embattled actress Zahra Amir Ebrahimi is featured in the accompanying video. (But perhaps Hafez is intrinsically problematic in today's Iran, I don't know.)

When the video came out back in March, the Persian poem and an English translation were posted at TehranAvenue. I don't know any Persian, but in this case, I'll bet that the translation loses even more of the original than usual. An interlinear version doesn't seem to be available -- if someone can help me to create one, let me know, and I'll post it here when we're done.

[One of the YouTube commenters suggests that Namjoo is more like Vladimir Vysotsky than like Bob Dylan, and after listening to a few of his songs, this seems right to me.]

Hafez was one of the most important and influential Persian writers, and also played an interesting role in the history of Western linguistics and of English literature. William Jones, later known as the author of the Indo-European hypothesis, published in 1771 a Persian Grammar that includes many quotations from the Persian poetry, especially that of Hafez:

I shall in this manner quote a few Persian couplets, as examples of the principle rules in this grammar: such quotations will give some variety to a subject naturally barren and unpleasant; will serve as a specimen of the oriental style; and will be more easily retained in the memory than rules delivered in mere prose.

He begins the grammar (p. 10-12) by quoting an "ode" of Hafez, in full and in Persian, and ends it with a paraphrase of the poem (p. 135) and a (separate) verse translation in English. (Unfortunately, this is not the same poem that Mohsen Namjoo sings in the video above.)

Here's how the Persian version of the first couplet is printed in Jones' grammar -- as the illustration of the section "Of Vowels"!

Here's the wikipedia's unicode version of the same couplet (I think...):

اگر آن ترك شيرازى بدست‌آرد دل مار

and here's Jones' transliteration:

Egher ân turki Shirázi bedest âred dili mára
Bekháli hindúish bakhshem Samarcandu Bokhárára.

Jones' paraphrase:

If that lovely maid of Shiraz would accept my heart, I would give for the mole on her cheek the cities of Samarcand and Bokhara.

Here's his version in verse. It might have been written by Coleridge, who was born the year after Jones' Persian Grammar was published.

Sweet maid, if thou wouldst charm my sight,
And bid these arms thy neck infold,
That rosy cheek, that lily hand
Would give thy poet more delight
Than all Bocára's vaunted gold,
Than all the gems of Samarcand.

According to the wikipedia article on Hafez,

In one famous tale, "a tradition too pretty to be trusted" says a noted historian, the famed conqueror Timur the Lame angrily summoned Hafez to him to give him an explanation for [this couplet...]

With Samarkand being Timur's capital and Bokhara his kingdom's finest city,"With the blows of my lustrous sword," Timur complained, "I have subjugated most of the habitable embellish Samarkand and Bokhara, the seats of my government; and you, miserable wretch, would sell them for the black mole of a Turk of Shiraz!". Hafez, so the tale goes, bowed deeply and replied "Alas, O Prince, it is this prodigality which is the cause of the misery in which you find me".

So surprised and pleased was Timur with this response that he dismissed Hafez with handsome gifts.

An interesting essay by Dick Davis, cited back in 2004 by Language Hat: "On Not Translating Hafez."

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 1, 2007 05:58 AM