Oh, and theres usually some drinking involved, too. And sex.
Does this sound like a scene out of 1956 Greenwich Village, perhaps at the Whitney Studio Club on 8 West 8th? How about Shiraz, Iran in the fourteenth century? Thats the backdrop for Dick Davis new book Faces of Love.
In Faces Davis, a translator, poet and emeritus professor of Persian at Ohio State University, faithfully revives and translates medieval masters Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani. The three are very much accomplished and heralded writers of verse, but few westerners are familiar with Iranian poets apart from Rumi and Saadi.
All these poets were in the same city at the time, and their respective works show the variety of literature at that time and how rich it was, Davis says. Each poet brings a distinct perspective to life in Shiraz during the fourteenth century, a place and time of lush lyrics, lovely flowers and strong wine.
First theres the great lyrical poet, Hafez, whom Davis compares to a sort of Persian Bob Dylan. Hows that for a hook?
When I translate stuff for people who dont know the culture or language, I try to allude to someone more recent or familiar, because it gives the reader a hand, says Davis. For instance, Hafez is very often thought of as a wise, spiritual man. But hes also a rebel. He has a young mans anger, but also a young mans enjoyment of life.
Another to consider is Jahan Malek Khatun, a fascinating woman poet. In fact, she is a poet as well as a bona fide princess. Jahans voice is very individual with lots of personality, says Davis, who is very fond of her moving yet simply stated lines.
We get the idea from her poems that Khatun did not have a very happy marriage. She sometimes laments going to bed alone while her lover stays out drinking, Davis explains.
And if there were a dirty old man of the three, Obayd-e Zakani is it. He was a court poet in Shiraz for Shah Abu Ishaq (Jahans uncle). Zakani is masterful at satire and the obscene. He can turn taking a trip to the market into a crazed, drunken, remorseful bender.
The title Faces of Love alludes to the unifying theme of each poets body of work. Davis says Hafezs is an almost metaphysical love; he is a very sophisticated man. Jahans is a feminine and often unhappy love. With Obayd-e Zakani its just sexbasic physical aspects of the erotic experience.
For Davis, Faces of Love was a labor of love. Translating medieval text and staying true to a poets original work is no small task.
Ive always loved reading, writing and poetry.
Always having been a fan of Medieval English literature, Davis began his career immersed in the classicsItalian, Latin and French. In the late 1960s while Davis labored in Europe, he had a friend who was also traveling in Iran. I went to Iran and met the person who would become my wife, he recalls.
Davis says good translating should accomplish two things: first, it should show your audience that this is a very different culture with people that think and feel differently from us, and also show that these people are indeed like us.
And second, to be a good translator, one has to be a good reader first. You have to read a poem for what it is, not for what you want it to be. You cant put words in the poets mouth.
While Davis was hesitant to translate Hafez at first, he was inspired when Jahans complete poems were first published in 1995. That was when he realized that Jahan often quotes Hafez, and sometimes refers to him directly. It turns out Jahans royal uncle was a patron of Hafez, and Hafez was friends with Obayd-e Zakani. All three were connected, in life and in art.
Poets tend to gravitate towards each other, united only in their neuroses for the impulsion to compose. Who knows, may be it has been that way since at least the 14th century.