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The Development
of Iranian Literatures

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Several features of traditional Persian poetry make life difficult for its translators. One is its rhythmical musicality, which cannot be rendered satisfactorily in Western languages. Another is its ornamental aspect, often dependent on the sound and shape of words, all of which is lost in translation. A third feature is the rhyming pattern of the qasida and ghazal, where the same rhyme is employed throughout the poem. Yet another is the tendency of Persian poets to play on the associative meaning of words and their overtones, impossible to reproduce in a different idiom. With good fortune one might find a translator who can absorb the original and express it in his or her own language as genuine poetry. Such is the case with Edward Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam, Omar Pound's translation of Zakfini's The Gorbi and the Mouse, and to some extent Ruckert's German translations of Sadi. Even Matthew Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum" (although much abridged and not entirely following Ferdowsi's plot) is, in the absence of a satisfactory translation of the Shah-nama, a treasure to be valued.

Many have tried their hand at translating Hafez, but we must perhaps despair of ever finding an adequate translation for the rich arabesque of his thought and the music of his lines. Even Sadi's Golestan, despite several translations, awaits one comparable to Arthur Ryder's translation of Kalidasa's Shakuntala. The Shah-nama is an excellent candidate for an effective translation in verse, perhaps on the model of Dorothy L. Sayer's translation of Le Chanson de Roland.

Modern Persian literature, on the other hand, having eschewed the formal and stylistic features of traditional writing, lends itself easily to translation, and some good translations of both poetry and prose are available in English and some other languages.

While few of the literary products of ancient Iran remain in their original form, Persian literature on the whole offers a vast corpus of poetry and prose written in Persia, Afghanistan, India, Central Asia, Turkey, and elsewhere. Persian poetry exhibits a distinct character, reflecting a distinguished literary culture; its form, its conventions, and above all its imagery impart to it a flavor all its own. Once we have acquainted ourselves with its modes of expression, a new vista of literary delight opens before us. We can enjoy the noble sentiments, passionate feelings, and profound thoughts that Persian poets and writers have been able to express so well.


The Development
of Iranian Literatures

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Copyright© 1999 K. Kianush, Art Arena