I Heard God Laughing, by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

God Laughing

I hadn’t read very much of Hafiz’s work when my poetry discussion group selected him for October. We meet once a month to read and discuss the work of a single poet. Taking turns reading the poems, we find that the discussion and the time that we take with each one helps us to appreciate them more deeply. Choosing a new poet each month introduces us to a range of authors, often ones we’ve never read before.

With Hafiz’s work, we found ourselves intrigued and moved by his humor and compassion. We talked less about craft than usual and more about our reactions. I often look at how authors invite the reader into their work, especially with poetry. Hafiz in particular throws open the doors with open arms and an open heart. Hafiz’s generous spirit is apparent in each poem.

Here is an example from I Heard God Laughing:

Awake Awhile

Awake awhile.

It does not have to be
Forever,

Right now.

One step upon the Sky’s soft skirt
Would be enough.

Hafiz,

Awake awhile.

Just one True moment of Love
Will last for days.

Rest all your elaborate plans and tactics
For Knowing Him,

For they are all just frozen spring buds
Far,
So far from Summer’s Divine Gold.

Awake, my dear.

Be kind to your sleeping heart.

Take it out into the vast fields of Light
And let it breathe.

Say,

“Love,

Give me back my wings.
Lift me,

Lift me nearer.”

Say to the sun and moon,
Say to our dear Friend,

“I will take You up now, Beloved,

On that wonderful Dance You promised!”

I found this collection of translations by Daniel Ladinsky especially welcoming. It lives up to its subtitle Poems of Hope and Joy.

Even the humorous lines contain a significant truth, such as this description of depression from “Cast All Your Votes for Dancing” as being dragged “Like a broken man / Behind a farting camel”. And every now and then a line would startle me with a new idea, such as this one from “All the Hemispheres”: “Change rooms in your mind for a day.”

In addition to these and other poems translated by Daniel Ladinsky, we read some that had been translated by others. One seemed to preserve the form of the original, but used archaic and high-flown language so that they were almost impossible to read. Another lacked the music and joy that we had begun to expect, but appeared to be a more literal translation. A third seemed nothing like any of the other work, but rather an anecdotal venture exploring a contradictory theme.

We did discuss translation, and how it translated poem is really the work of two people, a new work entirely. When I took a translation class once, I believed going into it that translators should try and stick as closely as possible to the original our of respect for the author. However, I quickly found that my desire to convey the sense of the original and to make a good poem overwhelmed my concern about fidelity to the original. Given the differences in sounds used by various languages, it’s extraordinarily difficult to retain both form and content while making a good poem.

So, while the translator we most appreciated was Daniel Ladinsky, I had noticed a comment on Goodreads criticizing the liberties he seems to take in his translations of Hafiz. However, these were the most interesting and moving poems that we read. I wished I could have heard them in the original Farsi, to hear the music of the words.

Though it’s hard to be sure, I think that most of the poems in this collection were originally ghazals. The ghazal form uses five or more couplets, each of which stands alone yet is related to the others in some way, perhaps an over-arching theme.

The two lines of the first couplet and the second line of each remaining couplet end with a refrain, a single word that is repeated. In all but the first couplet, Before the refrain there is usually a word that rhymes with it. I’m told that when ghazals are recited aloud the audience, hearing the rhyme, knows that the next word is going to be the refrain and joins in on it: a lovely thought.

The poems in this collection truly are about hope and joy. They are meant to comfort us and to invite us into the dance.

Have you read Hafiz’s poetry? Which poem is your favorite?

2 thoughts on “I Heard God Laughing, by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

  1. Nichael Cramer says:

    To go off on a brief tangent, can I recommend to folks who might be interested in the issues, problems, and techniques of translation David Bellos’ wonderful book “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything”.

    In addition to “literary” translation, ITaFiYE deals with many other aspects of translations: e.g. translations of legal documents, where not only terminology, but cultural understandings might be significantly different; the problems of doing “real-time” translation at, for example, the UN; the problems of doing subtitles for movies or TV shows (for example, consider packing all those rapidly-spoken words onto a screen in such a way that the reader can pick out the meaning, while still not obscuring the image, and all of that being finished before the shot changes); etc.

    Likewise, Bellos considers the effect that translation itself might have on the original work itself. Here Bellos cites an interesting example in the films of Ingmar Bergman. For example, in his native Scandinavia Bergman is well known for his many light, playful comedies (e.g. “Smiles of a Summer Night”, his retelling of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). This can typically be a surprise to most English-speaking viewers who know Bergman primarily through his “dreary slow-moving” films characterized by “dour, laconic Swedes”. This is due, in part, to Bergman’s conscious decision to pare dialogue down to a bare minimum in order to better assure than any translation into a foreign language would more easily reflect the actual content of the original dialogue).

    • barbara says:

      Thanks for this additional information, Nichael. Interesting choice for Bergman. Another privilege we have that we don’t think much about, at least I hadn’t before this.

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