Friday, April 10, 2009

The Persian Poem that Became a Victorian Sensation

In the London Review of Books, Marina Warner reviews a new edition of Edward FitzGerald's classic translation of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, an 11th-century Persian poem. Fitzgerald's translation, first published in England in 1859 to little notice, became a surprising Victorian sensation. Fitzgerald's relaxed view of translation involved a "casual flouting of the integrity of [the] work." In a letter to a friend, FitzGerald explained his methods: "But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle." The results of Fitzgerald's work was a strangely compelling translation that captured the Victorian imagination.

The history of Fitzgerald's translation is told in a current exhibition, The Persian Sensation: ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ in the West, at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas (through August 2nd), which boasts a collection of more than 400 editions of the poem. Molly Schwartzburg, co-curator of the exhibition comments:

It's difficult for us to understand today just how important a part of Victorian and even Modernist literature this translation was. ... A century ago, the average American and certainly every poet writing in English could quote stanzas of this poem verbatim.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Interesting! I have a copy of an older translation - it would be interesting to compare new and old translations, see what differences I could find.