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A huge conservation project
Interview with Dick Davis, translator of the Shahnameh

Jahanshah Javid
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 from Sunset of Empire Read Introduction from Sunset of Empire

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 of the mythological 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, and 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 that magnificence, 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 consistently present one version and ignore the others; a bit like the way he ignores the Qoranic account of the creation of the world at the opening of the poem, and sticks entirely to the Zoroastrian / Persian account.

But in the historical part of the poem, the part covered 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 after truth: 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 deaths.

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 try to 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 one.

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 tales?
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.

It's clear 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.

Certainly 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 associate with the Shahnameh.

As to Ferdowsi's imagination, I think it is most active in the overall shaping of the tales, and in the poem 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 - i.e. 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 perhaps what you know and assume about himself. He sets up paradigms and then knocks them down, and then before you know it he builds them up again.

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 but 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 is right, 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 been bathed in the Zoroastrian world-view before they reached Ferdowsi.

The 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 warfare, with 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 and over again, each time with a slightly different nuance.

Is there 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, and how 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 sure you become, the more mysterious the poem appears to be. I'm much less 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 work for so long.
Illustrations from Sunset of Empire
Read Introduction 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]. His particular interest is medieval Persian poetry, but he is also concerned with the history 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, 2000, 2003)

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