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Satisfaction of human appetites
New translation of Hafez poems



August 4, 2006

Several excerpts from the introduction to Poems of Hafez by Reza Ordoubadian (IBEX Publishers, July 2006). See translations of nine ghazals.

How does one fall in love with Hafez, or any other artist, for that matter? Hafez is one of the principal foundations of the Persian culture, someone whose word is not just experienced on the surface, but whose word provides an inner light, a sense of otherness, that permeates the way of life of the people who experience it. Hafez is, with Rumi, Sadii, and Ferdowsi, one of the rare souls who has molded the thinking of the Iranian people and Persian speakers all over the world for six centuries. One need only go to the traditional music of Iran to notice how often the poems of this fourteenth century poet (1325?-1389? A.D. ) are used as the lyrics for the most delicate airs of the Iranian people. No one who has lived any period of time in Iran escapes exposure to Hafez because he is everywhere in the culture: in the market places and in the streets, on the radio stations and among lovers, between husbands and wives, children at school and taxi drivers.

I was on a Fulbright grant in Iran in 1970, and as the taxi weaved through the streets of Tehran, the driver began mumbling something very musical, which I could not hear clearly. I asked what he was singing, and with delighted laughter he said, “Nothing (heechi, agha)! Just reciting some ghazals of Hafez.” He said he was depressed, and reciting Hafez always gave him a boost. “Oh, I can recite a couple of dozens of ghazals,” he answered when I asked how many lines of Hafez he had in memory. “I just learned them.” He had only an elementary education, and whatever he knew of Hafez, he had picked up from the market places and street corners, and, of course, his innate intelligence and a need to move to “the other” to make sense of his own very confused life. He informed me that his father knew two books by heart: The Holy Quran and the Ghazals of Hafez. I do not question the veracity of the claim, for it is likely that he did.

I fell in love with Hafez when I was in my late teens; of course, I had no choice in the matter: anyone who had any claim to intellect and knowledge had to love Hafez, and I pretended I did. I would have made myself the object of ridicule by declaring that I found the man boring and unintelligible. Yet, I convinced myself that I did love him and recited a few lines from memory to my father, who was a great admirer of the poet and whose collected works, Divan-e Hafez, he kept in the middle drawer of his desk at home, where he also stored boxes of gourmet yellow raisons and Turkish delight;  he had a copy of the book at his office, too. Here was a merchant of some success, who cared enough to keep the poems of a distant poet close by for consolation and pleasure.

Before I was twenty, I had collected a number of beautifully illustrated and bound volumes of the poet’s Divan in my limited library, but I never bought a single one of those copies in my collection: they had been given me by family members and friends, each aware that I probably did have a copy, but a gift of Hafez was precious and an expression of love. One copy I have kept to this day; I brought it with me to the United States when I was studying at Duke University. It is the selected ghazals of Hafez in small print with a very skimpy introduction, but gloriously gaudy illustrations in the style of master miniaturists. My volume is a lithographic printing in the four-color process. A woman friend at the university gave it to me the day I was leaving Iran -- not to return, although I did not know it at the time.

How does one translate Hafez? Many have tried, some with a measure of success, but to my knowledge, there has not been a collected number of ghazals published in the west which compares with Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubayiyat of Omar Khayyam. In India, in the Arabic speaking countries, and in Turkey, Hafez’s works have been indeed translated with great success, but not in English. The problem is not that one just takes a dictionary in one hand and the Divan in the other to match words in Persian with those in English: this will be counter to any linguistic intuition, necessary to produce meaningful language.

Translation at best is a marker because matching of words in itself is an impossible task; one theory holds that synonymy is a myth and that each word in each language has its own life-force and set of meanings. Even in the same language, there is a problem dealing properly with such words as the English word “fatherly” and its supposed synonym “paternal.” True, they both refer to a male parent, but in actual usage, especially when they are used in metaphors, the two words prove to be quite different. We can say, “Our Heavenly Father,” but hardly, “Our Heavenly Patron!” The two words “glad” and “happy” have a vague similarity, but are not really synonyms, as it is true with the Persian words  “khoshroo” and “zeebaa.” Certainly no Persian speaker will agree that they are the same words, although they both refer to some sort of vague sense of “beauty.” So, even in the same language it is difficult to match words indicating the same referent.

A sentence has a meaning as a form, like the form of a statue; remove the form, all that remains is scattered metal and raw material, as words are. However, when we put words into the form of a sentence, we move away from the concrete and face a higher degree of abstraction because those missing parts must be provided by other human activities, such as culture, history, and the arts of the particular society that uses the language.

For example, there are twelve musical modes in Persian and only three in western music. Since language is closely connected with music (sounds we make with our oral cavity are musical notations), when we produce Persian sentences, unaware, we make use of these modalities. The English language uses three. Then, when one translates a sentence from Persian to English, how does one account for this aspect of language? Nothing much can be done here except to improvise and hope for understanding. This is a problem in translating a simple sentence: when we move from prose to poetry, music becomes even more important.

Hafez uses not only musical terminology, but he employs musical devices to create his songs. No wonder they lend themselves so beautifully to singing, as the traditional music of Iran will show. How often have we heard Wordsworth or even Shakespeare set to popular music, recorded and performed in all the various venues of the media? (True, a number of Shakespearean plays have been made into operas, but they are hardly the direct words of the bard).

With this new introduction of sound the single, more or less concrete, word used in a poetic phrase becomes even more abstract. Reading a poem in any language requires more than just the knowledge of the literal meaning of the words. It requires a deep sense of and an intuitive grasp of elements in philosophy, history, and psychology, even though the reader of the poem may not be aware of them at all. At this level of language use, we approach the final abstraction: the meaning of the language no longer depends on single words or the form of sentences, or even discourse, but on tacit understanding of deep, hidden, often subconscious notions by the user of the language.

This is true not only in the case of the so called educated class, but it is a universally occurring phenomenon, by degrees, for any native speaker of the language, to which my taxi driver friend in Tehran testified. At this abstract level, we must use all our human possibilities to see into the heart of the poem and make sense of the jumble of words. Here we come to such elements of language as metaphors, imagery, and intentional ambiguities that a poet incorporates into his poems.

We know for a fact that Hafez is variously considered by people as the “divine bard,” a “libertine,” an “atheist lout,” worthy of flogging, or a man of supreme spiritual attainment who beckons us to join him in the celebration of life through both wine from the tavern and wine from the vat of spirit. I think he is all of these, an Epicurean and a mystic, who sees the mystical gnosis through Epicurean sensibilities. Of course, age must play a role: I am confident that Hafez’s later poems are much more sedate than the ones he wrote as a young man, and if by any chance, someone were able to make a chronology of his poetry with ample documentation, this evolution would be obvious.

Obviously, poetry uses many of the devices of music, and to create his music, a poet must fashion devices of his own that are available to him in the form of sounds and the harmony of his text. One of the essentials in music is repetition; as a matter of fact, the human psyche receives a great deal of pleasure hearing patterns that are repeated, in sound or in sight. Poets often use the same sound or the same phrases to create music, the most obvious being refrains.

However, a poem requires less obvious means of music-making, such as repeating the same sound at the beginning, middle or the end of words in the same line of poem; this device is called alliterative structuring. Reading the Persian version of Ghazal 71 (Khorramshahi numbering) will illustrate the point. I will quote line 1 in transliteration: “jaan be jamaaleh jaanaan meyleh jahaan nadaarad.” The sounds /j/ and /n/ have been repeated four times each, not to mention the repetition of /aa/. It is impossible to find four English words with the same sound that will provide the appropriate meaning for this half line of Hafez’s poetry. This is just one example of hundreds of instances of alliteration in the ghazals.

On the most superficial level, Hafez’s ghazals deal with the worldly satisfaction of human appetites. He seems to have a keen eye for beautiful faces and an appreciation of the “flirtation” of the beloved, a word that he uses frequently (naaz, kereshmeh, and such). One can be quite satisfied with his worldly wine and beloveds -- even appreciate Hafez’s rarified sensuality. It seems to me that Hafez reached a tremendous individuation and discernment; that is, if we are to talk about the divine and the mystical, our starting point must be the physical. It is in the real flesh-and-blood lovers and consummation of love that we begin our initiation into the ranks of the elect.

Hafez argues that the transcendent can be only understood through the flesh because flesh gives spirit a house, and the understanding of the nature of the house is imperative for an understanding of the content, the spirit. Not for a moment do I think Hafez considers his debauchery a terrible state of mind. On the contrary, it is from there that one slowly approaches a window at the end of the room and very slowly looks through the opening to see the other side. Without this flesh and blood awareness, spiritual awareness is at best difficult, at worst, misunderstood.

On the first level of writing, Hafez provides the reader a table of delights to be consumed, experienced, and enjoyed, but one cannot remain in this place of delight for long. One must move on for better understanding of the world on the other side of  the window. Therefore, the second level of expression is a painting of the transcendent. Ordinary wine becomes an element of God, beloved is the divine Person, and “Peereh Moghan” or “Tavern Keeper,” a manifestation of the divine. Without the literal tavern, understanding the metaphorical tavern is impossible. No wonder, Hafez has been considered both a “lout,” ready to corrupt the minds of men and “a spiritual,” who is conversant with the divine through his art, conflicting stances! He is both, of course, and unless we see the whole of the poet, we will only have access to a part of his mind.

Fortunately, there are English poets who have a similar mind set. Keats considers this metaphor of window in his idea of “negative capability,” and Wordsworth talks about the attainment of the mystical through exposure of the body to the physical (nature). In this sense, then, my task as a translator becomes easier than I had anticipated. Not that I have substituted English metaphors for the metaphors of Hafez, but my awareness of English poetry makes it easier to deal with the task of translation with foreknowledge.

Persian poetry enjoys such a variety of form and structure that discussing the style of even one poet will require an extended exploration. Since this book is a translation of the ghazals of Hafez, a few words should suffice here.

Structurally, as in Anglo-Saxon poetry (e.g. Beowulf), all traditional Persian poetic lines are divided into two half-lines with a caesura in the middle. I suggest that most Persian poetry, as the traditional poetry of any other culture, was composed not so much to be recited as sung -- even without accompanying musical instruments -- either as chanting or straight singing. The caesura technically affords a singer to catch his breath -- certainly most singers were men -- in the middle of the line and then continue to the second half; Persian music is commonly in minor key and uses quarter-tone notes and trill, the rapid alternation of two tones either a whole or a half tone apart in the voice, requiring a great amount of exhaling breath.

Some scholars use the term sonnet -- from sonata, meaning a song -- to refer to ghazal. Ghazals are certainly sonata, but this is not exactly an accurate naming because sonnet has a definite form of fourteen lines, both in the Pertrarchan and Shakespearean forms. An English sonnet is divided into three quatrains and an ending couplet; a Petrarchan sonnet is composed of two sections, the first with eight lines and the second with six. They both require definite rhyming schemes, which are consistent and syllabic.

However, Hafez composes his ghazals in a varying number of lines and often uses whole words -- one could consider them as word refrains -- for his rhyming, which come at the end of all second half-lines and the two halves of the first line, a good reason for the editors of Hafez in Persian to arrange his poetry alphabetically and according to these end-words.

The narrative voice in both English and Latin sonnets remains somewhat constant, which allows the poet to propose a theme in the first section of a sonnet and then go to a conclusion in the second part. Hafez has a clever twist to his ghazals. He commonly uses at least two voices, one in the main body of the ghazal, with varying conversational or descriptive tones, the voice remaining constant, as if an observer is making comments and is not necessarily involved with the content of the poem.

Yet, when the final couplet is reached, often the voice changes, and it is Hafez’s turn to make a comment openly or be addressed by another mysterious voice, which could be the voice of his inner self, consciousness, or reason. I assume this device allows Hafez to say more than he is willing to say, at the same time escaping even a harsher censor from his critics. After all, when his voice is heard, it is all reason and circumspection. In the 202 ghazals that I have translated, rarely does Hafez leave himself open to criticism in the final couplet. If anything, he is self deprecatory and evasive >>> See translations of nine ghazals

Poems of Hafez is available at

Reza Ordoubadian holds a Ph.D. degree in English and linguistics. He has held a professorship at Middle Tennessee State University and Visiting Professorship at Umea University (Sweden). He has published numerous pieces of fiction and poetry as well as scholarly articles and books on both sides of the ocean. He was the editor of SECOL Review for 18 years. Features in

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Reza Ordoubadian



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