BooksWeekend

War Elephants and Pious Cats: Basil Bunting’s Persian Poems

by Carl Little on February 22, 2014

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Cover of “Bunting’s Persia: Translations by Basil Bunting” (2012) edited by Don Share, published by Flood Editions (via booktryst.com)

He mourned so long on the bare ground / his beard grew down to his chest.
—Bunting’s Persia

The recent death of William Weaver, the acclaimed translator of Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Primo Levi, and other modern Italian authors, spurred memories of the translation class he taught at Columbia University back in the late 1970s. A small group of students listened attentively to his thoughts, and those of his esteemed guests (among them, Francis Steegmuller and Gregory Rabasa), about how best to go about rendering the literature of another culture into English.

It was certainly important to Weaver’s sense of the language he loved that he lived in Italy — in Rome and the hilltop town of Monte San Sevino in Tuscany — for much of the year and for much of his life. Immersing himself in the place added to his ear for the nuances of the words he was translating.

I wonder if such immersion isn’t a shared qualification of all great translators. I bring this up because the British modernist poet Basil Bunting (1900–85) had a similar relationship with Persia, and it led to the fine translations gathered here.

In his informative introduction to this collection of Bunting’s translations from classical Persian literature, editor Don Share makes a point of highlighting the poet’s bona fides for undertaking the task. Bunting was an intimate of that part of the world. He was posted there as a military interpreter with the Royal Air Force during World War II (“Called upon to translate the language at a court martial, Bunting could only hope, he said, that they put the right man in jail”). He married an Iranian woman (they named their children after characters in Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnameh) and spent time in Teheran as a journalist. He may have even done some spying, a sideline that will remain a mystery, explains Share, until documents from the period are declassified.

Bunting photo

Basil Bunting at Rapallo, Italy, 1930s (courtesy the Basil Bunting Poetry Archive, Durham University Library)

Like Weaver, who first fell in love with the Italian language while serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War II, Bunting turned to his chosen language — Farsi — at a young age. In the early 1930s, he came across a French translation of the Shahnameh in a bookstore in Genoa. He responded to what he read with enormous enthusiasm, quickly making a case for the greatness of the writing to his friends Ezra and Dorothy Pound.

The French translation was an excerpt. Yearning to read the entire story, Bunting acquired various dictionaries and began translating. By 1932, he felt confident enough in his skills to apply for a Guggenheim to translate the Shahnameh. Share quotes from the poet’s (unsuccessful) application, which made claims to Ferdowsi’s greatness: “No other poet except Homer has so great a share of the unmistakable epic accent, no other book except the Arabian Nights has such variety of narrative.”

Bunting’s Persia features translations from six poets: Rudaki, Ferdowsi, Manuchehri, Sa‘di, Hafiz and Obaid-e Zakani. The writings date from the first to the fourteenth centuries.

Not equipped to judge the accuracy of the translations, I can vouch for their beauty and craftsmanship. Where to begin? Perhaps with an untitled poem by Rudaki (ca. 859-940), in which two men discuss an encounter with a woman. The poem begins:

Came to me—
Who?
She.
When?
In the dawn, afraid.

The man recounting the tryst likens the woman’s mouth to a cornelian, the reddish berry-like fruit of the cornel tree, Share tells us, “said to be common in Persia.” In its simple prosody, the poem might have been written by William Carlos Williams (and it brought to mind the many love poems of James Laughlin).

The selection of Ferdowsi’s poems includes a musing on approaching 60 years of age: “forgotten the skill to swerve aside from the joust / with the spearhead grazing my eyelashes.” There is dark humor here: “Since I raised my glass to fifty-eight / I have toasted only the bier and the burial ground.”

Bunting also tackled Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. Share includes a section of his translation of “Faridun’s Sons,” the tale of the legendary Persian king who divided his empire among his three sons, which eventually led to fratricide. This saga has all the trappings of Lord of the Rings: “huge war-elephants chained on the right / and so many nobles’ and warriors’ talk / blended in one heartshaking roar.” Proverbs abound: “When the heart is drained of desire / the revenue is nothing but rubbish.” And the dramatic flourishes are suitably hyperbolic: “He mourned so long on the bare ground / his beard grew down to his chest.”

Hafiz (1315–90) is the Catullus of the group, offering tributes to wine and women in poems that are self-addressed. “Give respectability and pride the go-by, Hafiz, / cadge yourself a drop of booze and get crapulously drunk” run the last lines of one of his poems. Share tells us that Hafiz’s poetry influenced both Goethe and Robert Bly.

Perhaps most impressive, craft-wise, of the poems in the collection is Bunting’s brilliant translation in rhyming couplets of the popular “The Pious Cat” by Obaid-e Zakani (c. 14th century). More entertaining than Eliot’s feline verses, the story of the cat Tibbald includes the perspective of his victims, the mice:

Once on a time that ravenous ratter ate
his daily mouse at a steady flat rate,
but since he took to prayers and pieties
he bolts us down by whole societies.

Bunting’s knowledge of the Persian poets, Share notes, had an influence on his own work, in particular a longer poem titled “The Spoils” (1951). He cites Bunting scholar Victoria Forde, who noted how “the techniques acquired from translating Persian poetry may have meshed with the basic techniques [Bunting] refined under Pound’s influence” to become the poet’s “own unique method.”

Share offers several excellent appendices, including a thorough glossary and notes on the poets. He fittingly wraps up his introduction to the collection with the final lines from Bunting’s Guggenheim application: “My ultimate purpose? To make a respectable contribution to civilization as I understand it.” A noble mission, the unmistakable success of which lies in this slender and exceptional volume of Persian verses.

Bunting’s Persia: Translations by Basil Bunting is available from Flood Editions.

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