A print by Edmund Sullivan from the first edition of FitzGerald’s translation
My vintage book collection began a few years ago when my grandfather gave me a book that had belonged to his mother, an edition of Edward FitzGerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam published in London in 1906. To this day, this book remains one of oldest and most prized pieces of my collection, and for me one of the most fascinating. For many English speakers, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is their first introduction to Persian poetry, and history of FitzGerald’s translation reflects many broader interactions between Anglophonic and Iranian literature.
The first edition of Edward FitzGerald’s “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat was published in 1859, and was subsequently revised several times, with the final edition published in 1889 following FitzGerald’s death. I use the word “translation” in quotes because, as many subsequent scholars and translators have pointed out, FitzGerald’s work is far from a literal rendering of Khayyam’s original verses into English. In fact, FitzGerald seems to have combined quatrains freely, omitted lines at will, and simply made up his own verses regardless of the source material. FitzGerald himself admitted in letters that his project was a “transmogrification” of the original poetry. We can see his “loose” translation style in action with the most famous lines from The Rubaiyat: “A Book of Verses beneath the bough/ A Jug of Wine, a loaf of bread and Thou”. The original Persian reads ”تنگى مى لعل خواهم و ديوانى/سد رمقي بايد و نصف نان “, which has been rendered as “Ah, would there were a loaf of bread as fare, / A joint of lamb, a jug of vintage rare” by Ahmad Saidi, an Iranian-American translator whose stated goal was fidelity of translation in both language and theme. The same line is also rendered literally into English by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs as “I need a jug of wine and a book of poetry, Half a loaf for a bite to eat,”. Unfortunately, this variation is not unique in supposed “translations” of Persian poetry, especially in “mystic” translations of Sufi poetry, which often “transform” if not completely abandon the original source material. Poetry by nature is difficult to translate, but FitzGerald seems to have invested more in the quality of this English verse than his fidelity of translation.
Despite its inaccuracy, FitzGerald’s “translation” of Khayyam remains very important even today for three principal reasons. For one, regardless of the accuracy of FitzGerald’s supposed “translation”, his verses are, however loosely based on Khayyam’s original, quality poetry, and many of his lines are still widely quoted today. FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, especially illustrated editions thereof, are also fascinating because they provide a window into what the English speaking world thought of the Persian world. One thing to notice, besides EuropeanWestern-style appearance and clothing of the figures in illustrated editions of the Rubaiyat, is the unfailing depiction of the Beloved as a young woman. According to Encyclopaedia Iranica, in Classical Persian poetry, like that of Khayyam, the Beloved was always understood to be a young man. The portrayal of the Beloved as a young woman thus reflects both FitzGerald’s failure to understand some of the cultural nuances of the poetry, and an imposition of Victorian heteronormativity.
The final importance of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat is its seminal role of introducing Persian poetry to the Anglophonic world. FitzGerald single-handedly took a poet who was much better known in his native land for his work in mathematics and astronomy and suddenly made him perhaps the most famous Persian poet in the English speaking world. In doing so, FitzGerald has undeniably shaped the popular understanding of Persian poetry in England and America, and forever colored the average person’s understanding of it. Despite the failures and profound flaws of FitzGerald’s “translation”, it remains one of the most important literary interactions between the English speaking world and Iran.