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13th Century Persian Literary Masterpiece in English: An Interview with Richard Jeffrey Newman


By : Pejman Akbarzadeh (Member of Artists Without Frontiers)


Saadi's "Golestan", one of the best-loved masterpieces of Persian literature has been newly translated into English by Richard Jeffery Newman. The 168-page new translation has been published by Global Scholarly Publications in association with the International Society for Iranian Culture, both of which are based in the United States.


Richard Jeffrey Newman is an essayist, poet and translator who has been publishing his work since 1988, when the essay "His Sexuality; Her Reproductive Rights" appeared in Changing Men magazine. Since then, his work has appeared in, The American Voice, On The Issues, The Pedestal, Circumference, Prairie Schooner, ACM, Birmingham Poetry Review, and other literary journals. The Silence Of Men, a book of his own poetry, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press. He is currently translating selections from Saadi's other masterpiece, the Bustan.

An Associate Professor in the English Department at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY, where he teaches courses ranging from ESL Composition and Business Writing to Modern Poetry and the Theory of Comedy, Professor Newman chairs the International Education Committee, which sponsors an annual speaker series. In one of the first days of the Persian new year I interviewed Prof.  Newman and firstly asked him how did he learn Persian language: 


Richard Jeffrey Newman : My wife, who is a Persian, and I have been married for nearly 12 years, and the Persian that I know-which consists mostly of being able to understand the conversations others have rather than being able to converse myself-I have learned from spending time with her and her family. When we were first married we looked for a school where I could study Persian formally, but there were none for adults and the ones that existed for young people met on days and times when my professional life made it impossible for me to attend. Now that I have become a translator of Persian literature, however-and how I have done that without being fluent in Persian I will explain below-I plan to begin more formal study, not so much for conversational purposes, but so that I can read and understand the classical Persian in which the texts that I am translating were written.


Richard Jeffrey Newman

Pejman Akbarzadeh: Please tell us briefly about Saadi's Golestan, especially for those who are not familiar with this Persian literary work.


R.J.N: In his prefatory material to the book, Saadi dates the completion of the Gulistan in the year 656 of the Muslim calendar, which corresponds to 1258 CE. The central focus of the Gulistan is an inquiry into what it means to live an ethical life, and it is worth noting that Saadi wrote this book at a time of great civic upheaval, when his patron Abu Bakr (1226-1260) was very busy trying to placate the Mongols and keep his city safe from the Tartars-a time, in other words, when questions of ethical behavior, the responsibilities of rulership and the practical necessities of politics would have been most pressing. Yet the Gulistan is not merely a handbook for kings and statesmen. It is a work of the finest literary quality that touches on all aspects of life, from the politics of the royal court to the politics of the bedroom; from the responsibilities of education to those of living a spiritual life. Saadi organized his masterpiece into eight chapters, each pair of which addresses two related aspects of life:

- Chapter 1, "On The Manner of Kings," and Chapter 2, "The Morals of Darvishes" mark the high and low points, in terms of socioeconomic and political power, of the social hierarchy in which Saadi lived;
- Chapters 3 and 4 deal respectively with the virtues of "Contentment" and "Silence," natural extensions of the discussion of darvishes in chapter 2;
- Chapters 5 and 6, "Love and Youth" and "Weakness and Old Age" complement each other quite naturally;
- Chapters 7 and 8, "Education" and "Rules of Social Conduct" deal directly with the purpose of the Gulistan, to educate its readers.


P.A: What motivated you to translate Persian literature and why did you choose to start with the Golestan?


R.J.N: This is an interesting story because if you had told me three years ago that I was going to become a translator of classical Persian literature, I would have laughed. It was the farthest thing from my mind. In 2003, a friend of mine called to ask if I wanted to get involved in a cultural project that would involve reading and summarizing some of the great works of Persian literature. The project's goal was to foster a greater cultural understanding of Iran [Persia] among people here in the US. I agreed, but when I finally met with the project's originator, Mr. Mehdi Faridzadeh, a former cultural ambassador to the UN from Iran and currently the executive director of the International Society for Iranian Culture (ISIC,, I discovered that the project was not to summarize these books, but to translate them. Since I neither read nor write Persian, especially not Saadi's 13th century Persian, I told Mr. Faridzadeh that I didn't think I was qualified for the job. He explained to me, however, that my lack of Persian would not be a problem. The goal of the project, he said, was to produce a literary translation of the Gulistan- and of at least four more books after that-and for this he wanted a native-English speaking poet more than he wanted someone who was fluent in Persian. There were, he said, already scholarly English translations of these works that everyone agreed were accurate in terms of meaning, but they were boring and difficult to read. What Mr. Faridzadeh wanted was someone who would take these translations and use them as the basis for totally new translations that would be not only readable, but also as representative as possible of the literary quality of the original. I was intrigued, partially of course because of my wife and my personal engagement with Persian culture over the course of our marriage, but also because the political moment seemed ripe for a project like this. Iranian-US relations, in which a great deal for both nations is at stake, are once again in the news, and the ignorance of ordinary US citizens about Iran, outside of what they hear or read in news reports, is profound. The importance of Mr. Faridzadeh's project, in other words, was clear to me, so I submitted some sample material from the Gulistan, which were accepted, and I became the translator of Persian literature I never would have thought I'd be.
A word or two about the books I will be translating. My understanding is that Mr. Faridzadeh consulted a committee of scholars in Iran who identified not only which books should be translated, but also which selections from those books. After the Gulistan will come the Bustan, which I am working on now, and after that will be selections from the Shahnameh, by Ferdowsi, Haft Peykar, by Nezami and Elahi Nameh, by Attar.
P.A: Did you have any assistance in producing these translations or did you do it all by



R.J.N: In addition to my wife, who was my principle source when I needed to consult the original Persian of the Gulistan, I have relied on the knowledge and experience of friends of mine who are scholars and translators themselves, some of them Persian and some not.

P.A:  What other translations of the Golestan exist in English?


R.J.N: The Gulistan has been translated into English more often than into any other language in the world, but the last time the book was translated in its entirety for literary purposes was in 1888 by a man named Edward Rehatsek. Other English language translations date from before that time; Francis Gladwin, for example, did the first complete translation in 1806. The scholar A. J. Arberry produced a translation of the first two chapters of the Gulistan in 1945, along with an introduction that is invaluable to those who cannot read Persian in understanding the place Saadi's work occupies in Persian literature, and in world literature as a whole. There is also a translation into English of a French translation by Omar Ali Shah, but the purpose of this translation is primarily religious, to reveal the Sufi underpinnings of Saadi's work.
P.A :  What are the differences between your translations and these others translations ?


R.J.N : The most obvious difference, I think, is that my translation is more readable. The translations produced in the 1800s, whatever their merits, are written in the style of the time, which is difficult to read today (and I have been told by people who study 19th century English literature that these translations would have been difficult for the people of the time to read as well). My translation also focuses on maintaining the distinction between the prose and poetry in the Gulistan without resorting to the often sing-song verses you find in translations like Arberry's. I have tried to make Saadi sound that way he would sound if he spoke and wrote contemporary American English. Whether or not I have been successful is something my readers will have to decide.


P.A : Do you think your translation of the Golestan can be as successful in the West as translations of Rumi's poetry have been?


R.J.N: Certainly I think the answer to this question should be yes, not only because I want my book to be successful, but also because I think people should know Saadi. He has in his own way as much to teach them as Rumi does. At least in the short term, however, I think the answer is no. In the long term, I am more hopeful, but it will take a lot of hard work. There are several reasons for this. The first is a simple fact of the market. Coleman Barks, the best-known translator of Rumi in the US, has sold more than 500,000 books, and so anyone who tries to bring another Persian writer to market will have a formidable job generating a strong enough awareness of the new writer so that people know the difference between them, much less want to buy the works of the second writer. (More than a few times already, for example, people have assumed that the Persian writer I have translated is Rumi, not Saadi.) But there is another problem as well. Barks' vision of Rumi, which is as a result the default vision of Persian culture and literature that most people in the US have, is one that in many ways strips Rumi of his Persianness. Barks in fact states explicitly in the introduction to his The Essential Rumi that this is his goal. (I have a Persian friend who has produced an English translation of some of Rumi's ghazals who complains that he does not recognize any of Rumi's poetry in Barks' translation.) As a result, Barks' Rumi is highly westernized and therefore very comfortable for western readers to deal with. As a result, I think a translation such as mine, which insists on the Persianness of the original work while trying to make that work accessible in English, will have a hard time making room for itself in people's minds next to Barks' Rumi. My point here is neither to bash Barks, though I do think it is time someone turned a critical eye on the assumptions underlying his translations, nor to be overly pessimistic about my book's chances for success, but rather, simply, to be realistic about saying that Barks has cornered the market for translations of Persian literature into English in more ways than one and that breaking into this market will be difficult.
P.A :  The spelling common in Persia for the book you translated is "Golestan." You spell it "Gulistan." Similar differences can be seen with the names of other Persian poets, such Hafez, Nezami and Ferdowsi, whose names are often mistakenly spelled and pronounced Hafiz, Nizami and Firdowsi. Can you explain this?


R.J.N: There is, as far as I know, no standardized method of transliterating Persian into English. My own spellings come from the books I have used in my research. More contemporary writers in the West spell Saadi's name, as I have in my title, with two a's, and they spell the name of the book, Gulistan. One possible reason for the difference may be-but this is pure conjecture on my part-that some of these writers were first brought into English in the 19th by British translators either living or finding their sources in India, where Persian was the language of the Mogul courts. It may be, for example, that "Firdowsi" is closer to the way an Indian speaker of Persian would say that name and "Ferdowsi" is closer to the pronunciation in Persian. As I said, though, this pure conjecture. I have no evidence to back it up.


P.A :  Recently some of the American media have called the Persian language by its native name "Farsi" and not its English historical name "Persian".  What do you think about this?


R.J.N: I have no firm opinion about this, though I do not know of any other language name that has been treated in English in this way. A parallel example would be if people started referring in their everyday speech to Spanish as Espanol or Hebrew as Ivrit. It would sound very, very strange. In my own experience, though, the people who called Persian Farsi here in the US were Iranians [Persians]. Very, very few Iranians ever ask me if I speak Persian, but many ask me if I speak Farsi. What this means, I don't know.
P.A :  What is your opinion about present-day Persian literature?


R.J.N: Unfortunately, I know very little about contemporary Persian literature. In terms of my own reading, before I began this translation project, my own interest in literatures outside the US focused on east Asian literature, Japanese, Korean (where I lived and worked for a time), Chinese and Vietnamese. One of the challenges I have faced since taking on this work is adjusting myself to the fact that Persian Studies is a vast field that I now have a responsibility to familiarize myself with, and so I have been for the past year or so, slowly, changing my intellectual, professional and creative gears. I am very much looking forward to traveling in the direction in which that change will take me.

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