Whispers of Love: Dick Davis's Quest to Translate Persian Epics

Hafez, Iran’s ubiquitous poet, as depicted in 16th Century painting by Sultan Muhammad. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art/President And Fellows Of Harvard College

When Dick Davis, the preeminent translator of Persian poetry of our time, was a boy in Portsmouth, England, in the 1950s, he found on his parents' bookshelf a copy of Edward FitzGerald's swooning Victorian translations of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Its presence was not so unusual, as those verses ("A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou") had set off a minor craze. If an English middle-class family owned just three books, along with the Bible and Shakespeare would be FitzGerald. "It was a kind of universal badge of culture," Davis jokes. Yet he absorbed so much of what he later described as "the candied death-wish of FitzGerald" that he knew most by heart. Instead of anxiety of influence, he experienced an opiated hit of influence.

Teleport forward 60 years, and Dick Davis, white-haired, spectacled professor emeritus of Persian at the Ohio State University and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, is still adding tile by colored tile to a busy mosaic of translation that former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia insists is the "most remarkable poetic translation project in the last 20 years." He began with epics the equal of The Iliad in Persian civilization—the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, and The Conference of the Birds, Attar's flight of Sufi fancy about various birds in search of the eternally elusive Bird of Birds. Now Davis has succeeded at the enigmatic 14th-century poet Hafez, along with his contemporaries female poet Jahan Malek Khatun and dirty-minded Obayd, in Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz. Hafez is so beloved in Iran that cabdrivers recite his lyrics by heart and families at holidays tell fortunes by opening to random lines of his poems—attesting to both their seductive beauty and their Sphinx-like ambiguity. Davis reminds us by folding in these two other court poets that Shiraz in Hafez's lifetime was a poetry genius cluster.

Davis and his wife, Afkham Darbandi, met in Iran when he went to a hospital. Courtesy of Mage Publishers

Not only Davis's career track, but his entire life, as he tells the tale, has a hint of FitzGerald's kismet—"The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,/Moves on"—until he found his way to Iran and its ancient language. The author of eight of his own books of poems (in unfashionable meter and rhyme), in "A Letter to Omar" he asks, "Was it for you I answered that advertisement?" The want ad, for an English instructor in Tehran, caught Davis's eye after Cambridge, where as an undergrad he befriended the aged novelist E.M. Forster, who filled his head with the glories of Persia's Mogul culture. In 1970, Davis arrived in Iran to teach at the University of Tehran. A year later, he met his wife, Afkham Darbandi, an Iranian who arranged for a blood transfusion when he arrived in a hospital emergency room. "A doctor said to me, 'You see that nurse? She saved your life,'" recalls Davis. "That was worth following up."

Since fleeing Iran in 1979, Davis has not returned for fear of spoiling his happy memories. Abbas/Magnum

Eight years into his romance with both his wife and the Persian language, after living full time in Tehran, the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79 drew a bright red line between past and future. At first he and his wife "expected things to blow over," says Davis. "It wasn't nearly as dramatic as Argo. The revolutionary crowds were actually very sympathetic to Westerners. I went to demonstrations, and I never felt in any danger. They would say, 'Tell your people what we are doing!' This was before the hostages, and there was a kind of euphoria about it all." Soon, though, Tehran was under martial law, the streets full of tanks, with shooting. As they lived in a third-floor apartment with big windows on Avenue Villa, a main boulevard, they moved in with Indian friends from England on a hidden narrow backstreet, and they devised an exit strategy.

By the time the Davises escaped Iran in November, shortly before the shah's departure in January 1979, the tick of drama was much more Argo. One of Davis's students worked at the airport and helped him get plane tickets. Another worked at the National Bank, where all their savings were frozen: "I mentioned this to my student, who said, 'If you trust me, Mr. Davis, give me your money, and when you get to England, it will be in your bank.' Indeed every cent of it was there." While his wife returns every few years to visit family, Davis has not. "I am reluctant to go back," he explains. "I had students who were killed in the revolution. I can remember faces of people I know were killed, so that gives me an extremely bitter feeling. I met my wife there and found my intellectual passion for the rest of my life. When my wife comes back, she cries for two weeks at the dreadful changes. I have this very positive image of Iran. I don't want that spoiled."

‘Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz’ by Dick Davis. 368 pp. Mage Publishers. $45. Courtesy of Mage Publishers

Far from such realpolitik, the "shining wine" (Hafez's phrase) of art is less serious, though often daunting, even for this prize-laden Robert Caro of Persian translation. "When the Lois Roth Prize for translation from Persian was established about 10 years ago," says scholar and translator Jawid Mojaddedi, "the only question anyone had was which one of Dick Davis's books it would be awarded to. In the end, he got it twice, for two books. He would have won it nearly every year, but they had to give other people a chance." Yet Davis shied away from Hafez until now, writing a hex sign of an essay titled "On Not Translating Hafez." "Any translation of Hafez is a failure," says Davis. "His poems radiate possibilities of meaning. When you translate, you're often forced to choose one." Yet he wore down his own protests with winning lines, such as: "O friends, to know the fire in Hafez' heart/Ask candles what they're burning, melting for." And he was emboldened by pairing Hafez with two literarily sexy contemporaries, a woman poet, toying with gender, and the raunchy Obayd-e Zakani: "This tool of mine that's taller than our minaret."

Hafez’s epic is the equivalent of Homer for Persians. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art/President And Fellows Of Harvard College

Dick Davis is a bit of a Method translator, like a Method actor, feeling his way into the spirits of the poets he translates, resonating with them. "I need to have an emotional connection to translate a poet," he admits. So he has been staying away, so far, from Rumi, a poet with bigger name-recognition in America than Hafez. "I like poets who are modest before the world," explains Davis. "Hafez is a towering literary figure, but he's full of 'I don't know.' Rumi has all the answers, and by God he's going to tell you, and you better shut up. There's something of the bully in Rumi that I rebel against." Davis imagines that FitzGerald found, in Khayyám, "his alter ego." Likewise in Hafez, the long virtuosic Davis has found his ideal foil, the urbane poet offering an intimate glass of wine, while inviting, "With art's initiates undo your collar."