Translation is magic

Page from a manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds), Isfahan, Iran, ca. 1610.
Page from a manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds), Isfahan, Iran, ca. 1610. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art Public Domains

Coincidentally, I just finished reading two books — G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King (4/5) & Rabeah Ghaffari’s To Keep The Sun Alive (3/5) — that heavily referenced the poem of poet and mystic Farid ud-Din Attar’s, The Conference of The Birds (Persian: منطق الطیر‎, Mantiq al-Tayr). The masterpiece follows the journey undertaken by a group of birds to find the legendary Simorgh, of whom they deemed to be their bird king. The hoopoe, which is the wisest of them all, leads the entourage, where they have to overcome the great seven valleys to reach the land of Simorgh.

From Faena Aleph:

The hoopoe explains that in order to reach the dwelling of the simurgh, the birds need to cross seven valleys – the steps along which Sufis travel on their way to understanding the true nature of God. The first is the Valley of the Quest (Talab), where the traveler is freed from dogma, belief, and at the same time, from disbelief. The second, the Valley of Love (Ishq), moves travelers away from reason and closer to the feeling of love. The Valley of Knowledge (Ma’refat), third along the journey, is a place where mundane knowledge becomes useless. Fourth is the Valley of Detachment (Isteghnâ), where desires and apprehensions for the material world are let go. The Valley of Unity (Tawhid) is the fifth valley, where the birds learn that absolutely everything in the universe is connected. The sixth is the Valley of Wonderment (Hayrat), where travelers, fascinated by the beauty of the Beloved, understand that in reality they’ve never understood anything. Finally, in the Valley of Poverty and Annihilation (Faqr and Fana), being disappears entirely and becomes one with the universe, a timeless entity existing in both the past and in the future.

Some of the birds even perished along the way, leaving only thirty of them. As they arrived, they found out that they themselves are the kings they have been looking for:

While listening to the descriptions of these valleys, the birds are overcome with affliction and fear. Some even die at that very moment. Finally, the flock begins their epic journey during which still others will die of hunger, thirst, disease, or by falling prey to other animals. Just 30 birds arrive at the home of the simurgh where they realise a startling truth: they are themselves the simurgh. In fact, the word in Persian means “30 birds.” Finally, the birds understand that the Beloved is like the sun in that it can be reflected in a mirror. In other words, we all reflect God because we are God’s shadow and reverberation: nothing is separated from its creator.

To be honest, there were a few decisions towards the end in The Bird King that I felt didn’t morally connect with mine (for the sake of spoilers, I am not going to mention which). I also felt that towards the end, it starts to get draggy and the ocean scene lasts longer than it should have. However, after reading snippets of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, I understood more on the relevance of the ocean, and ordered the poem translation by Sholeh Wolpé. This is from the Kindle sample which I have downloaded so I could read the first few pages:

The parables in this book trigger memories deep within us all. The stories inhabit the imagination, and slowly over time, their wisdom trickles down into the heart. The process of absorption is unique to every individual, as is each person’s journey. We are the birds in the story. All of us have our own ideas and ideals, our own fears and anxieties, as we hold on to our own version of the truth. Like the birds of this story, we may take flight together, but the journey itself will be different for each of us. Attar tells us that truth is not static, and that we each tread a path according to our own capacity. It evolves as we evolve. Those who are trapped within their own dogma, clinging to hardened beliefs or faith, are deprived of the journey toward the unfathomable Divine, which Attar calls the Great Ocean.

I have also taken to reading translator’s notes in every translated book, as they often explained the context as well as challenges in translating a non-English manuscript, which is hard (I have tried before!) and made me appreciate the work more. This is how Wolpé described translating Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (Wolpé is a native Persian speaker — whenever available, I always try to read work translated by the language’s own native speaker):

Translation is a scalpel. It cuts to reveal and heal. It is exciting and powerful. It bridges, it connects. It is violent but loving. It is death that leads to rebirth, and this new life rouses the appetite. It multiplies perspectives and widens the world. Translation is magic.

In the realm of literature, poetry is a god; the epic poem in particular contains the storytelling facets of the other genres as well as qualities unique to poetry, such as beat, tone, measure, and rhythm of songs. The poem is everything, and everything is held condensed within the poem. Hence, poetry is the most difficult form to guide through the process of translation intact. Like any god, poetry’s power lies in its appeal to the heart. The words swirl in the consciousness like atoms; they merge and make the matter of the heart possible. To facilitate the transference of power from one form, language, and time into another, a translator must understand that heartfelt power. She must own the magic of the poet on the other side of time and earthly boundaries. She must give the poem her own poetic voice.

I am also currently reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, another translated work which chronicles around the impacts of South Korea’s violent 1980 Gwangju Uprising. It’s a short book (less than 200 pages) but the gory details are unapologetically, matter-of-factly, almost dutifully told and to be honest I am still deciding about this book. More to come about it, maybe.

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