November 13 Omar Khayyam: excerpt from The Rubaiyat as translated by Edward FitzGerald

This is part three of my translations series. This was an interesting selection, because this poem excerpt was put in with the “revisions” portion of the textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed., Kennedy), but the poem was not originally written in English, so I decided to put it in the “translations” portion of my posts.

It was originally written in Persian, and the best guess is that it was written around 1120 A.D. The Edward FitzGerald translation is the best known translation and he was also known to have done several different translations of this work over the years, which gives us the rare opportunity to see how the disciplines of revision and translation cross over. Unfortunately, I don’t have the Persian version on hand (not that I could read it), but I think through comparison of the two passages, we could get a fair idea of what had been contained in the originals.

A little bit of background on the poem itself, so that the revisions have context. The Poet, Omar Khayyam, was a mathematician and astronomer. The poem was written in an Arabian version of a quatrain. “A ruba’i is a two line stanza with two parts (or hemistichs) per line, hence the word rubaiyat (derived from the Arabic language root for “four”) meaning quatrains.”  (Wikipedia: In the Wikipedia post about the poem, the author states that the way the translators chose to translate the poem was based heavily on the interpretation of Khayyam’s philosophy. Some claimed him to be Sufi, while others stated that he was an atheist. FitzGerald claims that the poem was meant to be fatalistic and Khayyam was a bit of a nihilist. Also in the article, it is made clear that FitzGerald wasn’t true to the original text. Some parts were paraphrased and some stanzas may not have even come from the original poem. It is difficult to say even if what we are looking at today is entirely a part of the original poem.

The stanza that I found is fatalistic. It speaks of all the people in the world as shadows, like when Shakespeare spoke of the world as a stage (“Life’s a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more”).

In the 1859 translation, FitzGerald translates the passage as if the poet meant to refer to the world as a box with a lamp in it and puppets popping in and out of the lamp putting on a show. But in the 1889 version, the world is a lamp through which rows of shapes are pulled through (I imagine that they’re like strings of party decorations meant to be draped along the walls).

In the first version, the box is described and in the second the actions of the Master who holds the lamp (God?) is the one who bears the most description. These are subtle variations on the same stanza. One retains the nihilism of the world empty of a creator; the magic of the show is akin to stage magic, merely an illusion. In the other, there is reference to someone greater “pulling it’s strings” and we, poor shadows, are its puppets.

What happened between 1859 and 1889 to change the translator’s view so drastically? Why is the Sun a mere candle, then it becomes a lantern “held/ In Midnight by the Master of the Show”?  The Master of the Show appears no where in the 1859 version, so it is a mystery as to how the passage came to be so dramatically altered. In the first, the “Magic Shadow-show” is played, but does not refer to who is playing it (“‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,/Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun”). I assumed that it was the puppets doing the playing, but in the original poem might there have been a play-er who directs the show? Or maybe the translator felt that the text made no sense without there being some one to operate the show. Who knows. (Since I can’t read Persian, I’ll never know.)

Rubaiyat excerpt

by Omar Khayyam as translated by Edward FitzGerald 1859

For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a magic Shadow-show,
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phatom Figures come and go.


Rubaiyat excerpt

by Omar Khayyam as translated by Edward FitzGerald 1889

We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show;…

About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s