Translating Classical Persian Literature: Introducing Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh – Part 1

Often called the national epic of Iran, the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, was written in the 10th century CE by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, who took as his subject the pre-Islamic history of the Iranian people, starting with the creation of the world and ending with the 7th century Arab conquest of the Persian empire. A literary expression of what Sandra Mackey calls in The Iranians “the separate identity within Islam that Iranians [have always] felt” (64-5), the Shahnameh represents an act of cultural resistance, an assertion that, despite Muslim rule, the values and traditions of ancient Iran were not only still relevant, but perhaps even superior to those of Iran’s conquerors, whose reign, as A. Shapur Shahbazi suggests in his Ferdowsi: A Critical Biography, was threatening to reduce the majestic sweep of Iran’s past into a single chapter in the history of Islam (34). The success of this resistance can be seen most prominently in the fact that, even today, in the words of Dick Davis, the Shahnameh is “one of the chief means by which both Persian rulers and the people of [Iran] have sought to define their identity to themselves and to the world at large” (3). The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, for example, invoked the Shahnameh in order to underscore Iran’s historical, cultural, racial and linguistic difference from (and superiority to) Iran’s Arab neighbors; and then, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when Iran’s new and theocratic government wanted to discourage its citizens’ identification with the nation’s pre-Islamic past, the Ayatollah Khomeini himself attested to the cultural importance of the Shahnameh when, along with discouraging the use of Persian first names and expressing the hope that people would stop celebrating Norooz, the Persian New Year, a holiday with deep Zoroastrian roots, he singled out Ferdowsi’s poem as representing everything the revolution had fought against when it ended the Shah’s reign.

More recently, to take another example, it could not have been an accident that the scenes of protestors carrying green banners through the streets in the weeks following Iran’s contested presidential elections in 2009 bore such a striking resemblance to the scene near the beginning of the Shahnameh in which the blacksmith Kaveh marches through the streets carrying a banner and calling the Persian people to rise up against the evil Arab king Zahhak. Kaveh is an unapologetic revolutionary, intent on overthrowing the despot who has killed all but one of his eighteen sons, but he is also a Persian calling for the overthrow of his people’s Arab monarch, which makes it very tempting to read Ferdowsi as more seditious than he really was, as if his purpose in writing the Shahnameh had been to foment a revolution against Islam. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Just as the protestors in Iran sought to have their votes counted in the context of the government they already had, not to overthrow that government, Ferdowsi, who was a practicing Muslim, wanted to preserve and transmit Iran’s cultural heritage within an Islamic context, not present that cultural heritage as a replacement for Islam.

In this purpose, Ferdowsi was not alone. He may have been a practicing Muslim, but he was also a proud dehqan, a member of Iran’s landed gentry, a group Shahbazi calls “the backbone” of Iranian society, powerful enough that Arab commanders sometimes felt it necessary to negotiate peace treaties with them, and a group that saw itself as duty bound to preserve the “memories of the golden days of [the Persian] empire and the heroic traditions and cultural heritage of [their nation]” (20-21). After three hundred years of Muslim Arab rule, the dehqan had reason to be concerned. Not only had Arabic replaced Persian as the language of law, literature, philosophy and science, but there was also a growing acceptance among Muslim Iranians that it might be possible to rebuild Iran’s imperial structure within an Islamic context. Indeed, revisionist histories of Iran, such as Tabari’s Tarikh, which is contemporaneous with the Shahnameh, were written in support of this idea. In Tarikh, Tabari incorporates Iran’s origins into the creation story as told in the Koran. His goal is to demonstrate that the reigns of the Persian monarchs fit into Koranic chronology, placing Iran’s legendary kings and heros into the world inhabited by, and ultimately subordinating those kings and heros to, characters like Adam and Nuh (Noah), who are far more important to Islam’s overall narrative than Iran could ever be.

In the eyes of the dehqan, this was an unacceptable diminution of Iran’s cultural heritage, and so when Ferdowsi wrote of the beginning of the world in the Shahnameh, he placed Iran squarely at the center of the narrative, and when he told the stories of Iran’s mythical monarchs, he told the stories in their own terms, without trying to justify their existence within the dominant cultural, political and spiritual context of Islam (Davis 14). Yet it would be a mistake to understand the Shahnameh purely as a historical or political text, of interest primarily not for its literary worth, but for its role as a repository of ancient Iranian legends. To do so would be to ignore not only Ferdowsi’s literary intent–he was, very self-consciously, writing a poem–but also the fact that, as any of the apocryphal stories told about him illustrate, both in their content and by the fact of their existence, it was as a poet, not a historian, that Ferdowsi made his reputation. In one tale, that reputation was preordained. Ferdowsi’s father, this story goes, had a vision of his recently-born son climbing a roof and calling out loudly towards each of the four corners of the earth. Each time the child called out, a strong voice answered him. Najm-al-Din, who was a dream-interperter, explained to the boy’s father that the vision foretold Ferdowsi’s achievements. “Your son will be a genius, a poet whose name will be known to the four quarters of the world and whose songs will be learned and revered everywhere” (Shahbazi 39, n. 1).

In another story, Ferdowsi travels from his home in Nishapour to Ghazna, the capital city of Sultan Mahmoud, who was a great patron of the arts and about whom I will have more to say later. Upon entering the city, Ferdowsi encounters three of Mahmoud’s court poets, Ansari, Asjadi and Farrukhi, who did not want to be disturbed by someone whose manner of dress so clearly marked him as provincial. Thinking to have some fun at Ferdowsi’s expense, and to make sure he did not bother them again, they issued him a challenge. “We are the king’s poets,” Ansari, who was the most senior, said, “and only a true poet can keep company with us. So, to test your ability, each of us will compose one line of a quatrain using a single rhyme. If you can provide the fourth, we will allow you to join us.” Ferdowsi, confident in his skill as a poet, agreed.

The rhyming word Ansari chose was roshan (bright) and, at least according to Edward G. Browne, in whose Literary History of Persia I first read this tale (129-30), he chose that word because he was sure there were only two other words in Persian that would rhyme with it: golshan (rose garden), with which Asjadi ended his line, and joshan (cuirass), with which Farrukhi ended his. The difficulty of reproducing Persian rhymes in English forces Browne to offer two translations. The first, in the main body of Browne’s text, preserves the rhyming challenge–though the rhyme he chooses is hardly challenging in English–while losing both the meaning and, because he has to change the images and metaphors, the Persian character of the lines. The second translation, which he gives in a footnote, preserves the meaning of the quatrain but loses the rhyming challenge entirely. In each translation, though, his rendering preserves the sense of Ferdowsi’s completing line. Here is Browne’s mono-rhymed quatrain:

Ansari: Thine eyes are clear and blue as a sunlit ocean
Asjadi: Their glance bewitches like a magic potion
Farrukhi: The wounds they cause no balm can heal, nor lotion
Ferdowsi: Deadly as those Giv’s spear dealt out to Poshan.

And here is the quatrain that more accurately renders the sense of the quatrain:

Ansari: The moon is not so radiant as thy brow
Asjadi: No garden-rose can match thy cheek, I trow
Farrukhi: Thy lashes through the hardest breastplate pierce
Ferdowsi: Like spear of Giv in Poshan’s duel fierce.

The court poets were deeply impressed. Not only had Ferdowsi survived their poetic challenge; he had done so by referring to an obscure story from Persian lore, demonstrating not only that he was a fine poet, but also a man of some learning. Realizing that they had underestimated him, Ansari, Asjadi and Farrukhi decide to present Ferdowsi to Sultan Mahmoud as a poet worthy of completing the versification of the national epic begun two or three decades earlier by another poet, Daqiqi, whose murder had left the court with only a thousand or so completed verses. This the poets did and the rest, as the saying goes, except that the story I have just told you is almost entirely apocryphal, is history.

Works Cited

Davis, Dick. Epic & Sedition: The Case of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. Washington, DC: Mage Publishers 2006.

Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation. New York: Dutton 1996

Shahbazi, A. Shapur. Ferdowsi: A Critical Biography. Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1991.

Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.

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One Response to Translating Classical Persian Literature: Introducing Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh – Part 1

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