The Poems of Hafez
Translated by Reza Ordoubadian
Publisher:: Bethesda, MD: Ibex Publishers, 2006
ISBN: 1 – 58814 – 019 – 9
Hafez (1315–1390 CE) is considered to be among the world’s greatest poets, alongside Jalal al – Din Rumi, who lived a century after him. But, in Iran, Hafez has always been distinguished as the people’s poet. Even now, more than six hundred years after his death, almost everyone in Iran can recite his poetry. His verse is so rich in metaphor and imagery that it can be interpreted for many tastes – as pithy worldly wisdom, as the poetry of passionate romantic love, or as revealing the heights of spiritual love for God and one’s spiritual guide (murshid).
Translation of these evocative poems into English is a challenging task. Hafez used highly structured metrical forms, with sometimes three rhymes in a single line. Many words in the original Persian have no easy English equivalent. Attempts at literal translations are often stilted, even incomprehensible. Only the rare translation can be faithful to Hafez’s meaning and suggestive of its poetic form, and yet also speak, as Hafez’s poetry unfailingly does, to both imagination and heart.
The Poems of Hafez by Reza Ordoubadian is a skillful, graceful, and authentic translation of 202 poems. Ordoubadian manages to capture both Hafez’s lyrical genius and his profound spiritual insight. Ordoubadian seems especially qualified to work with Hafez. A native Iranian well versed in the literature of his country, he has spent his career teaching English literature in the United States. But, along with his academic preparation, he is adept at poetry, so that his poems often capture not only the verbal meanings but also the melody of the original. He provides extensive notes at the back of the book to explain subtleties in the original Persian, the choices he made as translator, and some cultural background needed to fully comprehend the poems.
Even single lines of Hafez can illumine one’s spiritual understanding. Here are some examples of such lines, as rendered by Ordoubadian:
Though old and frail and tired of life,
Remembering your face turns me into a youth again.
Hafez, your duty is uttering prayers – that is all –
Never mind if God hears them or not!
On the way what comes to the disciple is a blessing.
In the straight path of truth, no one is lost.
Why turn away from the Master’s threshold?
Our fortune is in that house, and the answer is at that door.
Hafez is not a poet for the faint of heart.
Whatever we thought, it was a mistake.
Moonless nights, fear of waves, horrid whirlwinds,
How could they know our lot – those landlubbers!
Hence nothing but resignation and appreciation of the Master:
my heart inured to pain, farewell to healing, I spoke.
One of the great themes of Hafez is what it feels like to be divided; to be part in love with God, and part sunk in the material world:
Show me a way out of the darkness of my bewilderment!
In the sea of sinfulness I am drowned in a hundred ways:
Acquainted with love, I’m among the graced…
Deep sea and mountains on my path, and I, tired and weak,…
Help me with my resolution.
My heart away from the doors of your mansion;
Yet soul and heart, I am a resident of your mien!
Blessed God! What temptations crowd our heads!
Who resides inside my weary heart?
I remain full of passion and fight!
Discord rules my heart: O where are you musician!
Sing your tune: bring harmony…
Disinclined with the affairs of this world;
only the beauty of your face opens my eyes.
Bereft of sleep, heart breaking with empty thought,
Hung-over for a thousand nights! Where is the tavern?
Hafez also offers wonderful descriptions of the long-awaited blissful union of soul with God:
The day of separation and the night of absence have ended…
The dawn of hope, that mystical veil of those who retire to pray:
Tell them to come out, the darkness of their night has ended…
Although no one counted Hafez much, praise God,
All that boundless burden and reckoning has ended.
Reza Ordoubadian is clear and strong is in his treatment of Hafez’s words of comfort and consolation to the struggling soul:
This heart, mournful, it will heal, do not despair –
This head, frenzied, it will heal – do not grieve.
Perchance heaven denies our desires for a day – or two.
There is no constancy to the notion of time – do not grieve.
Last dawn I told my story to the wind, my yearning;
a voice declared, “Be secure in the grace of God.”
Morning prayers, sighs at night:
Key to unlocking the treasure gates.
Follow this path to be united with the object of love.
With many translations and even renditions of Hafez available, we can seek the one that best speaks to our heart, mind and soul. For example, here is a single line as translated by three respected translators. Ordoubadian writes, “O You, the royal falcon, worthy to sit on the tree of life – your presence in this humble place is a cause for lamentation. You are summoned by the heavenly voices from the throne.” In the book, The Green Sea of Heaven: 50 Ghazals from the Divan of Hafez, by Elizabeth T. Gray Jr., Gray writes, “O royal falcon of keen vision. Perched in the tree of Heaven, your nest is not this corner filled with suffering. They whistle to recall you to the battlements of Heaven.” An edgier version is offered by Robert Bly in “The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door: 30 Poems by Hafez”: “Your perch is on the lote tree in paradise. Oh, wide-seeing hawk, what are you doing crouching in this mop closet of calamity?”
The poets of mysticism offer the seeker companionship on the journey, and fresh ways to understand one’s blessings and challenges. Hafez is unparalleled in his ability to remind us that we are loved, and that love is demanding, occasionally frustrating, and always bewildering. Most important, Hafez reminds us that God’s love is our unfailing destination.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.