From Sa’di of Shiraz, 13th Century Iran

A day or so ago, in response to the escalating tensions between Iran and the United States, I posted to Twitter my version of what are perhaps the most famous lines written in 13th Iran by Sa’di of Shiraz:

The last two lines of the verse, in case you don’t want to click through to see the second tweet in the thread, are:

You, who will not feel another’s pain,
no longer deserve to be called human.

Oonagh Montague replied with this important question:

She made me think that it would be good to post the entire piece from which those lines are taken. It’s from Sa’di’s Golestan–the title means Rose Garden—which is a collection, broadly speaking, of teaching stories that combine prose and poetry. Notable about the story the lines I tweeted come from, which is in “Kings,” the first section of the book, titled “Kings,” is that they are specifically directed at a despotic ruler who as asked for the help of Sa’di’s speaker. In other words, they are not intended as an abstract expression of liberal humanism, but, rather, as practical advice for how the ruler can achieve the ends he desires. Here is the story in its entirety, which I think speaks for itself in all kind of ways:

An Arab king who was notorious for his cruelty came on a pilgrimage to the cathedral mosque of Damascus, where I had immersed myself in prayer at the head of the prophet Yahia’s [John the Baptist’s] tomb. The king prayed with deep fervor, clearly seeking God’s assistance in a matter of some urgency:

The dervish, poor, owning nothing, the man
whose money buys him anything he wants,
here, on this floor, enslaved, we are equals.
Nonetheless, the man who has the most
comes before You bearing the greater need.

When he was done praying, the monarch turned to me, “I know that God favors you dervishes because you are passionate in your worship and honest in the way you live your lives. I fear a powerful enemy, but if you add your prayers to mine, I am sure that God will protect me for your sake.”

“Have mercy on the weak among your own people,” I replied, “and no one will be able to defeat you.”

To break each of a poor man’s ten fingers
just because you have the strength offends God.
Show compassion to those who fall before you,
and others will extend their hands when you are down.

The man who plants bad seed hallucinates
if he expects sweet fruit at harvest time.
Take the cotton from your ears! Your people
deserve justice. Otherwise, justice will find you.

All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn
from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us,
all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another’s pain,
no longer deserve to be called human.

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11 Responses to From Sa’di of Shiraz, 13th Century Iran

  1. 1
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Perhaps this is a good place for unpoetical nitpicking.

    If we are all limbs of one body, is it cheating to say that cruel people aren’t human? Or is it that cruel people don’t deserve to be called human, but they’re still human anyway?

  2. I suppose, Nancy, I would go with the second of your readings, but I also think the way you’ve asked the question points to a difficulty in how I have rendered these lines. I don’t remember it well off the top of my head, but someone pointed out in an article about translating this passage the fact that my rendering might create an ambiguity that was not in the original. Now I will need to dig that up.

  3. 3
    Petar says:

    I have the Bulgarian translation, and the meaning there is unambiguous:

    You are undeserving of the name human

    I also looked at an Arabic translation, and my (imperfect) interpretation is:

    Do not lay claim to the name of human

    My guess is that it’s definitely the second meaning. Hell, Saadi was smart to understand that being cruel is part of being human. Hyperbole to press a point I can see, but plain dehumanizing people who may be better suited to survival in a harsher environment than that familiar to the average Westerner?

    Most people who display what other view as cruelty would explain, more or less succinctly, what makes their targets subhuman and not part of God’s body, anyway.


    One of the many things that make me feel old is how names change, and using the wrong one marks you as an outsider.

    For more than half a century, as far as I was concerned, Gulistan was a Persian book, and Golestan was an Iranian province. But today Gulistan is Golestan, Saadi is Sa’di, Kiev is Kyiv, and don’t you dare use the former.

    (By the way, I have no objection to Golestan! Gul/gül is the Turkish pronunciation, and as a Bulgarian, some think that I am duty bound to shit on anything Turkish.)

  4. I have the Bulgarian translation, and the meaning there is unambiguous:

    You are undeserving of the name human

    I also looked at an Arabic translation, and my (imperfect) interpretation is:

    Do not lay claim to the name of human

    Thanks for this, Peter. It is both interesting in its own right and will be useful when I finally dig out the critique I mentioned.

    For more than half a century, as far as I was concerned, Gulistan was a Persian book, and Golestan was an Iranian province. But today Gulistan is Golestan, Saadi is Sa’di…

    When I first started working on my translations, all the sources I used had the transliterations Gulistan and Saadi. It took a while for me to realize that they were all both very old sources—some from the 18th century—and their lineage was heavily influenced by the fact the British interest in Persian literature, at least at first, had more to do with Persian being the language of the Mogul courts in India than with anything having to do with Iran per se. Then, when I started to use more contemporary sources, I saw the contemporary transliterations, and as I listened to the Iranians whom I consulted and/or just talked about my work with here in the States, I began to hear that the other transliterations did not—at least in American spelling—capture the way I was hearing those words being pronounced. This is pure intuition on my part, but I do wonder if those older spellings have to do with how the British ears of the time heard the way Persian-speaking Indians pronounced the words.

    It reminds me a little bit of the difference between how I have heard people from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan pronounce the word ghazal (meaning the poetic form), which sounds something like “guzzle” in English and how the words is pronounced in Persian, which sounds like “gah-zahl” (with the “a” sounding in both syllables more or less like in “father”)—though in each case the initial “gh” is far more guttural than an English “g.” (I so wish I still knew how to transcribe things in IPA; it makes this kind of thing so much easier to describe.)

  5. 5
    Petar says:

    Do not forget that while the official language of the Mughal Empire was Persian, the native languages of both its first Emperor and the most of his troops were Turkic if not Turkish. (They were Afghani, Uzbecks, Ottoman, etc. and all these nations had great respect for the Persian legacy in the region, but spoke Turkic languages).

    So it’s reasonable to expect that Mughal Persian pronunciation was heavily influenced by Turkish.

  6. I did not know that. Again, thanks.

  7. 7
    FAB says:


    It could very well be that I am misunderstanding something here — so don’t feel irked by my questions. I worked as a translator for 15 years and am interested in this.

    You said that all of the sources you used have a particular transliteration. Why aren’t you translating from the actual source (i.e. the document you are supposed to be translating)? Why would there be a transliteration if the source language remains the same? How did you gain competence in the type of Persian / Farsi that was spoken in the 13th century? I assume that you lived in Iran for a long while to gain basic competence in the language — you don’t have to answer this (of course), but I would be interested in what took you there.

  8. FAB,

    Your question is a reasonable one. I just don’t retell the story of how I came to make my translations each time I make them. I speak and understand some Persian, but I am not literate in the language. Technically, I am a co-translator. I was commissioned by an Iranian cultural organization that no longer exists to create from pre-existing translations, out of date/scholarly, contemporary, literary versions of the texts in question. (Which means all my co-translators are dead.) Within the field of literary translation, it is the practice to refer to me as a translator, without the qualifying prefix, but I try not to do that anymore for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, I believe the products of my work are translations, and I structure my work very explicitly to try to earn that, and so I refer to them that way.

  9. 9
    FAB says:


    You are an editor, not a translator. You can naturally call yourself whatever you want, but that’s just a “heads up” for what the translation community considers you to be. If you are working from a previous translation (I assume into English) and rearranging it, you are not doing translation work from a foreign language.

  10. FAB,

    I understand that, and I am not interested in arguing the point about whether what I am doing is editing or something more. (Obviously, I think it is.) In the literary-translation community, they refer to what I do as co-translation, and since that’s the community I am working in, that’s the way I refer to myself.

  11. 11
    Petar says:

    Speaking as someone who does not care much about labels… (My first job involved ‘passing’ as various professionals, minorities, and political activists.)

    What you do is who you are.

    I would much rather read a book of poetry edited by a great poet who was aided by decent translators and scholars, than one translated by a native speaker of both languages, if the latter turns a less than stellar phrase.

    So if the end result is a good translation, the one who produced it is a good translator.

    And yes, I know that this means that I’ll allow the translator to shift the meaning of the text. But just as all art is political, all translators and all editors have their politics, too.

    If I really want to know exactly what the original author intended, I’ll try my hand at deciphering the original.