Versions of Omar Khayyám


Last year the Turkish pianist and composer Fazıl Say retweeted some lines attributed to Omar Khayyám:

You say rivers of wine flow in heaven,
is heaven a tavern to you?
You say two huris await each believer there,
is heaven a brothel to you?

Say was accused of inciting hatred against Islam and taken to court. As a schoolboy fan of Khayyám’s epigrammatic rubais (Persian quatrains) about wine and women, I once wrote an essay entitled ‘From Omar Khayyám to Karl Marx: The Struggle for Freedom’, in which I made some bold claims about the revolutionary role I believed he had played in the middle ages, based on my selective reading of some of the more than thirty Turkish translations of Khayyám that appeared during the 20th century.

The image of the revolutionary Khayyám I had at school was illusory. Some of the verses on which my idea of him was based had in fact been written by other, anonymous Persian poets; Khayyám’s name came to stand for a certain poetical form and political stance, rather than a specific author with a specific biography and bibliography. His translators, most notably Edward FitzGerald in England, added to the confusion with the liberties they took. As Marina Warner wrote in the LRB:

FitzGerald’s approach to translation consciously reprised Dryden’s idea of imitation, rather than paraphrase or word-for-word accuracy. But his imitations are also ‘overdrafts’, as Basil Bunting brilliantly entitled his experiments with Latin and Persian poets, perhaps with FitzGerald distantly in mind.
In his excellent 1953 edition, Rubâiyyât-ı Hakîm Hayyâm, Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı described the sharper quatrains, like the one Say tweeted, as ‘untypical’. Gölpınarlı, who was imprisoned by the single-party regime in 1945 because of his interest in eastern literature, also doubted the authenticity of verses in which the poet says he ‘goes to the mosque not to pray but to steal its carpets’. Sabahattin Eyüboğlu, in the preface to his 1961 translation, calls Khayyám a ‘mythologised sage’ and gives a good account of the confusion surrounding the authorship of verses attributed to him.

A few days after Say was sentenced to ten months in prison, I received an e-mail from the editor in Istanbul who is publishing my translation of Tom McCarthy’s C. He asked me to send along my version of McCarthy’s epigraph, from FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát:

Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth 
Descend, ourselves to make a Couch – for whom? 

Finding myself in the uneasy role of a translator of Khayyám, I’d left the epigraph till last. Should I use an existing Turkish translation? If so, which one? Or should I try to craft yet another Turkish version, even though I don’t read Persian, working from English, French and Turkish sources? Or should the epigraph be regarded as two lines of English verse, by FitzGerald, and treated accordingly? My editor is still waiting.

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