Coleman Barks, Ambassador for Allah

February 3, 2009

A few days ago I was telling a friend that for me translation of a literary work is somewhat separate from cultural issues, that my primary interest is not in translating Zeitgeist or milieu, or in bridging gaps between cultures, but in finding words in English for a piece of writing I find beautiful or important or even just interesting. An article in Religion Dispatches by Ryan Croken finds precisely the opposite value in Coleman Barks’s translations of Rumi. Barks’s success in finding words for Rumi that have touched millions of English-speaking hearts, Croken says, is poetically “significant” but politically “momentous.” He looks at the Islamophobia of mainstream American culture and marvels at its affection for a Muslim mystic poet born in Afghanistan, arguing that Barks, however far he may stray from Rumi’s words, has embarked on an essential project of cultural ambassadorship that acts as a counterbalance to a “climate of propaganda and militarism.”

I’d be more persuaded, really, by an aesthetic justification of Barks’s “infidelities,” or by a contention, for example, that Barks’s translation honors the intentions of the original text, however they might be deduced from the contents or tone of the work or from what is known of the author’s position or the function of the original when it was written. Even if scholars do claim, as Croken writes, that Barks prefers to gloss over historical context and “engage Rumi in the less problematic realm of eternity,” surely eternity is where a mystic poet would want us to concentrate our attentions.  But then, I’ve already acknowledged that the cultural stuff isn’t where my primary interest in translation lies. (Of course, as this grim article by Spencer Ackerman reminds us, sometimes the cultural stuff is all there is.) In any case, an interesting perspective on the eternal battle between the purists and the profligate.

-ar

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One Response to “Coleman Barks, Ambassador for Allah”


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