How many books have you read where the protagonist tells the story from their own eyes?
Where the narrator has opinions that end up defining and shaping the rest of the characters, and it’s up to us viewers to catch the slivers of objectivity and piece together the whole story?
We rely on the narrator’s lens to show us the whole picture.
But, what if… we don’t know the narrator at all?
It was with these thoughts that I came across a Twitter thread by Persian Poetics that explained the removal of Islam from the famous poet, Jalaluddin Rumi’s writing.
Born in the early 13th century, Rumi grew up in what is now Afghanistan and eventually settled with his family in Konya, today’s Turkey.
Rumi is known for his life-changing, mystical, enlightened-esque poetry, but hardly known as what he truly was: a scholar of Islam, and a practicing Muslim.
The thread goes on to draw a massive distinction between Rumi’s original writing that was ingrained with the teachings of the Quran, and Rumi’s spiritual and religious knowledge. His original poems, written in Persian, were a vivid reflection of Rumi’s Muslim identity and spiritual beliefs. In the hands of colonialist ‘translators’, Rumi’s poetry was distorted, stripped of the culture it steeped in, and converted to a diluted version of his true poetry.
The interpreter responsible for most prominently separating Rumi from his Muslim identity and who made a career out of his ‘translations’, was Coleman Barks. He may have had a degree in Literature, but Barks had never studied Islam or Sufism academically.
Yet, somehow, this man who could not understand a word of Persian decided to ‘translate’ the work of Rumi, a poet who wrote fifty-thousand lines of mostly Persian, some Arabic poetry, and often used Islamic anecdotes in one of his final works: a six-book monumental poem titled ‘Masnavi’.
In a brilliant article for the New Yorker, Rozina Ali writes, that Jawid Mojaddedi, a scholar of early Sufism at Rutgers, told her that, “the Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion.”
So, when I heard that Brad Pitt had one of Rumi’s more famously translated poems tattooed on his arm, I immediately began wondering how he’d feel when he found out what Rumi was actually saying.
On the right is Barks’ ‘translation’ and what Pitt has tattooed.
On the left is a true translation by Persian Poetics.
In the hands of colonialist ‘translators’, Rumi’s poetry was stripped of the culture it’s steeped in.
See what I mean?
In the words of Persian Poetics: my heart aches for those who only know Rumi via this orientalist garbage masquerading as a translation.
Let’s pull this back and examine the role of a reliable narrator.
Even as a translator, Coleman Barks wasn’t reliable. He tried to westernize centuries-old poetry that represented a religious scholar’s life work, in order for it to seem more approachable and easier to face by an audience that it probably was never even meant for.
It makes you seriously question: how much do we just not know? How much of the history and culture of the past has been deliberately mistranslated, before it was even misinterpreted?
Culture seems to scare people.
A narrator’s job is to be reliable and tell the truth. A narrator should merely translate the scenes playing out; it’s up to us to interpret them.
The truth is that an unreliable translator can change the story instantly.
That’s how you preserve all of history – not just a single dimension of it. The truth is that an unreliable translator can change the story instantly.
It can trick you into mixing up the good and evil, the black and white.
But, most dangerously, an unreliable narrator can take all the shades of grey and distort them into one giant blob, making it unable to ever understand the story and risk losing its true essence forever.
You’ll never trust the story.
If nothing else, the weak, one-sides translations of Rumi’s powerful work are proof of that.