A huge conservation project
Interview with Dick Davis, translator of the Shahnameh
July 24, 2004
With the publication of Sunset
of Empire --
the third and final volume of the Shahnameh by Mage
Publishers -- Dick
Davis's work seems complete, for now at least. I emailed him
questions to see what he thought of the whole project and how
his views of the epic poem have evolved during the years. Also See Illustrations
of Empire Read Introduction
How was the Shahnameh translation project first conceived?
What compelled you to pursue it?
At first Mohammad and Najmieh Batmanglij [of Mage Publishers]
and I began with the idea of a small book, which would be a translation
stories at the opening of the poem which are contained in Dr. Yarshater's
modern retelling of the work. Then we thought that as this group
doesn't include the Sohrab story, which seemed a pity as it's the
most famous tale in the poem, we would add that too, and the intervening
tales as well. When I got to work on the translation I soon realized
that what was really needed was a much more complete version of
as much of the poem as possible.
Levy's translation was the only
one easily available then; this had been done done in the 1950's
from relatively bad texts, and it missed out enormous parts of
the poem, including very important parts. We wanted to make a
literate, interesting, more complete alternative to the Levy version,
also to make something beautiful, in a way that would be worthy
of this magnificent poem, so we illustrated the volumes with
miniatures, mainly from the Safavid era, in particular from the
great Shahnameh produced for Shah Tahmasp. What kept me going through the six
years or so I've been at work on this project was the sense of
and of my great privilege in having access to it , and of my
being a way that it could be a carried over into another culture.
Did your understanding and interpretation of the Shahnameh change or evolve during the translation years?
Enormously, I feel I could write a book about the way it has changed,
and maybe I will. I've become very intrigued by Ferdowsi's relationship
to his sources, and what he did with them or didn't do with them,
and how this differs in different parts of the poem.
For the early
mythological stories, like say Esfandyar, we know that he had
different versions of some of these stories, but that he would
present one version and ignore the others; a bit like the way
he ignores the Qoranic account of the creation of the world at
opening of the poem, and sticks entirely to the Zoroastrian /
But in the historical part of the poem, the
by Mage's volume 3, he seems unwilling to select between versions,
and he will give you entirely different, even contradictory,
versions, right next to each other. For example he clearly
used one source
that told him Sekandar (Alexander) was an evil conqueror, and
another source that told him Sekandar was an enlightened seeker
he puts both versions in his poem almost side by side, and
sometimes seems to favor one, something the other.
In translating it, I've also come to see how the poem has a huge
two-part structure, in which many of the stories in the opening
sections are mirrored, or in some way echoed (sometimes distorted),
in stories in the second half (our volume 3). For example in the
first half, fathers kill sons, or are responsible for their deaths;
in the second half sons kill fathers, or are responsible for their
In the first half women are men's equals (more or less),
or at least they act with great independence and are often successful
in getting what they want (think of Rudabeh, Sindokht and Manizheh).
But in the second half women in general have to do what they
are told and be subservient to their menfolk, and when they
act with independence (as Gordyeh does for example) all hell
breaks lose, and there is a lot of trouble.
Again the women in the first
half are mostly non Persians (Rudabeh, Sindokht, Sudabeh, Manizheh...
none of them are Persians) , but in the second half they're virtually
all Persians. So as I said there is a kind of mirroring
contrast between the pre-Sekandar parts of the poem, and the parts
in our volume 3 (Sekander and beyond). There are many other ways
in which I feel that my understanding of the poem has deepened
and changed due to my immersing myself in this translation; these
are just a couple of examples.
In your opinion who is the most interesting character? Who
is your favorite? Why?
This is a very hard question, there are so many who are so fascinating.
Rostam is endlessly fascinating for example - someone who is Iran's
savior but whose parents (and his father's upbringing outside of
civilization, by the Simorgh), are associated with wildness, magic,
and the enemies of Iran. Also he's someone who's clearly a composite
character, a coming together of different traditions from different
times and places, and who is yet strongly coherent as a character.
And then he's someone who is so emphatically associated with Zoroastrianism,
and yet who in versions of his story not used by Ferdowsi, he is
actually an anti-Zoroastrian figure.
Of the poem's women, I love
Rudabeh especially, and her magnificent mother Sindokht, and her
hen-pecked bully of a father, Mehrab, who is a delicious and very
accurate portrait of one kind of male who thinks he's a really
macho, capable guy whereas in reality he always makes the wrong
decisions and his women run circles round him. Seyavash is a very
great tragic character, and Esfandyar is almost equally great as
an aesthetic creation, and is in some ways a more complex and so
more interesting figure than Seyavash, even if finally a less moving
In volume 3 there are the rebel Bahram Chubineh, who is drawn
with wonderful liveliness and panache (he has the most wicked tongue
of any character in the poem, for example), and his equally inspiring
sister Gordyeh, who is one of the great characters of the poem,
and certainly its most complex female character, in that she is
someone who is passionate in defence of the old order, which she
sees her brother as destroying , but in order to defend this order
she has to break it by asserting herself against her brother. In
the same volume, the weak king Khosrow Parviz, and the strong pleasure-loving
king Bahram Gur, make a magnificent contrast as images of sovereignty.
I could easily go on, there are so many very fine portraits scattered
through the Shahnameh.
How much of it is history and how of much of it is Ferdowsi's
imagination? Is there evidence, or suspicion, that the stories
in the Shahnameh are based on earlier Persian or non-Persian
Volume 3 is the historical volume, that is, the kings in volume
3 correspond to actual historical kings of whose existence we have
independent corroboration. Before volume 3, the stories of the Shahnameh hardly
coincide at all with the historical record; the stories up to just
before Sekandar (Alexander) are virtually all
myths and legends, each of which may of course have a kernel of
historical truth, but the stories as we have them are elaborated
way beyond anything that we would recognize as history.
that some of the stories go back to pre-history. The weapons
especially associated with Rostam for example are pre-metallic
weapons - a
mace and a lariat (even if the mace is sometimes characterized
as made of metal). Even in volume 3 much of the history is romanticized,
and is not very accurate. For example Ferdowsi mixes up Shapur
I and Shapur II, giving the victories of one to the other.
all the stories existed before Ferdowsi wrote them down; in fact
that's why he wrote them down, because they had existed
and were in danger of disappearing, under the impact of a new religion,
new rulers, and a new culture. His poem is a huge conservation
project. Some, and maybe even all, of the mythological and legendary
stories probably came to him via oral sources (I think most of
the early stories did, and Mehrdad Bahar was also of this opinion,
though scholars disagree about this); the historical stories, Mage's
volume 3, came overwhelmingly from written historical sources,
some of which we still have.
Volume 3 is also incidentally the
volume where there are the most domestic scenes, and scenes taking
place outside the court, as well as quite a few very funny passages
(especially in the reign of Bahram Gur - for example, there is
a very charming comic tale about why Bahram Gur declared wine
to be in general a good thing), something one doesn't usually
with the Shahnameh.
As to Ferdowsi's imagination, I think
it is most active in the overall shaping of the tales, and in
as a whole, and obviously in the wonderful rhetoric, which even
though much of it is formulaic bears the strong imprint of a
major poet's mind. I doubt he invented almost any plot details
what actually happens.Those things I think he took from his oral
and written sources, sometimes selecting, sometimes simply reproducing
what he had available.
Has your understanding of Ferdowsi -- the man -- evolved as
a result of your work?
He's become more mysterious to me, further away. I used to think
I "knew" him, or something of him anyway; I don't feel
that now. The more one knows of the poem the more complex and fascinating
one sees it is, and of course for a poet to produce a very complex,
fascinating poem he has to be a very complex, fascinating man.
I think Ferdowsi was such a man; he isn't someone who can be simply
encapsulated in a word like "genius", or "patriot",
or "father of his country". He's much bigger than those
things, and I feel he was much less simplistic than the kind of
simple, straightforward person such words imply.
He has the discomfort-producing
quality that all truly great narrative artists have; he makes
you question what you know and what you assume, especially
what you know and assume about himself. He sets up paradigms
and then knocks them down, and then before you know it he builds
His project is a mighty one; it's not something childish
and parochial. As I say, he has become more mysterious to me.
In a very good and I hope healthy way, I'd add.
What makes the Shahnameh uniquely Persian and at the same time universal?
That's a hard question for a non-Iranian to answer. Because the
stories come to us in Persian clothing they can sometimes remind
us of things in contemporary Persian society, for example the
ways in which family members are both very loyal to one another
can also be very competitive with one another. But such things
are true of many societies.
The one quality that most of the
poem has which is absent from epics in most other cultures
is its earnestly
ethical atmosphere. In most epics, the characters want to win,
pure and simple; in the Shahnameh, especially in the
mythical sections, the sympathetic characters want to do what
even if that
means they don't win. This is distinctive to the Shahnameh,
and is probably traceable to the fact that the stories had
in the Zoroastrian world-view before they reached Ferdowsi.
obsession with the nature of sovereignty - though of course Ferdowsi
was highly critical of many if not most of his kings - has also
been taken to be distinctively Persian, and I suppose there is
something to that claim.
The universality is everywhere evident
in the poem - the concern with justice, with what it is to
be a good man or woman, with the depredations of time and
the apparent unfairness of the world that so often seems to
reward evil and destroy goodness and innocence, with the
nature of love
and honor - all these concerns can speak to almost anyone with
ears to hear, from almost any culture, and Ferdowsi treats
them with wonderful thoroughness, examining such questions
over again, each time with a slightly different nuance.
anything in the Shanameh that remains a mystery to you?
A great deal. As I mentioned above there is first of all Ferdowsi's
relations to his sources, and connected with this is the very
basic question of how much of Ferdowsi there is in the poem,
much it is simply a reproduction of what was available to him.
We don't know. Then there is the question of why the historical
sections are so different in feeling and rhetoric from the earlier
sections (e.g. he doesn't smooth away inconsistencies as he did
in the earlier parts of the poem).
And then as you read the poem
you get a sense of what you feel Ferdowsi's priorities are,
but the more you read the poem and come to know it, the less
you become, the more mysterious the poem appears to be. I'm
sure now than I was twenty years ago that I know what Ferdowsi
was up to in his poem. But my admiration for the poem has increased
as my puzzlement has: it has been a great privilege to live
with, and to try to interpret and translate, such a magnificent
for so long.
from Sunset of Empire
from Sunset of Empire
Dick Davis is Professor and Chair of the Near Eastern Languages
and Cultures Department at Ohio State University [>>> Homepage >>> Features
in iranian.com]. His particular
interest is medieval Persian poetry, but he is also concerned with
and problems of verse translation. His published works include translations
of the Manteq Altair of Attar (1984, with Afkham Darbandi);
an edition of Fitzgerald's translations of Khayyam (1990), The
Legend of Seyavash of Ferdowsi (1992), and Epic
and Sedition: A Study of Ferdowsi's 'Shahnameh' (1992); translations
of medieval Persian epigams, Borrowed
Ware (1996): and a comic novel by Iraj Pezeshkzad entitled My
Uncle Napoleon (1996). His most recent publications are "Panthea's
Children: Hellenistic Novels and Medieval Persian Romances" (2002),
and three volumes of translations from the Shahnameh (1998,
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