Friday, January 21, 2011

Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot? - the faithful translation of Edward FitzGerald

The only task FitzGerald finished and published in his lifetime was his marvellous rendering of the Rubaiyat of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, with whom he felt a curiously close affinity across a distance of eight centuries.  FitzGerald described the endless hours he spent translating this poem of two hundred and twenty-four lines as a colloquy with the dead man and an attempt to bring us tidings of him.  (W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, Ch. 8)

W. S. Merwin became a translator so he could become a poet.  He was following Ezra Pound’s advice: “[Pound] spoke of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of the possibilities of his own language.”  Merwin insists that he keeps his own poems and his translations “more and more sharply separate,” but his phrasing simply emphasizes the truth that when I read Merwin’s Apollonaire I am reading some blend of the two, and that the proportion of the blend can vary greatly from translation to translation.  See the introduction to Selected Translations 1948-1968 for this and more.

Some people, I know, are deeply – I want to say shallowly, but let’s stay with deeply – bothered by this lack of certainty.  These people seldom read much poetry at all.  The enthusiast embrace the conundrum, makes the puzzling magic of translation part of the fun.

The most magical puzzler in English must be Edward FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859 and on).  Or second most, after the King James Bible.  FitzGerald’s translation, whatever it’s qualities as such, is now an English poem, with its own descendants, it's own life.

Quatrain 36 (1859 version)

For in the Market-place, one Dusk of Day,
I watch'd the Potter thumping his wet Clay:
    And with its all obliterated Tongue
It murmur'd--"Gently, Brother, gently, pray!"

Fred’s Place has been examining The Rubáiyát quatrain by quatrain, including all of FitzGerald’s revisions.  I picked this stanza because that’s where Fred is right now, and because it features my favorite part of the poem.  The bowls, possibly the ones destined to contain all of the wine required by this oenophilic poem, begin to talk.  Bowls have lips, so they must have mouths, so they can talk (see quatrain 34).  Bowls are made of clay, men are made of clay, men can talk, so bowls can talk.  Poetry logic.

The bowls fall silent for a bit, but some come back to life in quatrain 59, the beginning of The Book of Pots.

And strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot,
Some could articulate, while others not:
    And suddenly one more impatient cried –
“Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

I want to adapt this.  Who is the Poem, pray, and who the Poet?  Whenever I come across an ordinary reader wondering about the fidelity of a translation – sometimes I am that reader – I try to remember The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which is supremely faithful, faithful to the art of poetry.

Sebald’s claim, by the way, that FitzGerald only published a single “task” is untrue, a fiction.  FitzGerald’s loose translations of the plays of Pedro Calderón de la Barca, are excellent, alive and performable.  They were most recently available as Eight Dramas of Calderón, University of Illinois Press, 2000.  The Rings of Saturn is a work of fiction.


  1. Hi A.R.

    This post has made me want to read the Rubáiyát again. There are many translations to choose from. Do you think that FitzGerald’s is the best? Thanks.


  2. Oh, good question. I know there have been a number of translations aiming at accuracy, but I know nothing about them. I can't believe there's a translation that's better as an English poem.

  3. do we know what yearPam
    the Rubaiyat was published