Rumi, Hafez and A Lot of Information About Translation

Disclaimer: I do not read Persian, so I can only comment on the English translations and versions of this poetry. I hope to find some friends who can point me toward good videos and audio recordings of these poems in their original language.

Photo credits: The image above is the inside of Rumi’s shrine, in Koyna Turkey. The image further down is the outside.

By some accounts, Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, a great poet who lived in the 13th century, is currently the most popular poet in the United States. (BBC (2104). An Amazon search, admittedly not the most scientific approach, turned up – in descending order – Maya Angelou, Dr. Seuss, Mary Oliver, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Claudia Rankine, Rumi, Kahil Gibran, and Homer. While I find this a fascinating subject, it’s not the purpose of this post, so I must move on. If you really want the scoop on America’s relationship to poetry, you will enjoy Kate Angus’ post “Americans Love Poetry, But Not Poetry Books” at this link. Heaven help us.

My intention here is to point you toward different translations of Rumi’s poetry. The following is a goodly sample. I also include translations of Hafez, whom we will also read at our Persian New Year event, if we have the time and/or if he is requested.

Translations and Versions

Recommended translation by Franklin D. Lewis.

  • Rumi: Swallowing the Sun (poems). At Amazon.
  • Rumi – Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings, and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi (2007) — biography. At Amazon, on GoodReads. Reviewed on JSTOR.

Recommended Translation by A. J. Arberry (1968)

  • Mystical Poems of Rumi (new edition with forward by Franklin D. Lewis, 2008. At Amazon.
  • More about A. J. Arberry at Wikipedia, including a link to his translation of the Quran.

Robert Bly interviewed by Bill Moyers about Hafez and Rumi, reading his translations of their poems.

Translations by Robert Bly (including Hafez and Rumi )

  • The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door. Thirty Poems of Hafez. (2004) Amazon.
  • Poems of Rumi (Translated and Spoken By Robert Bly and Coleman Barks) – audio recording. On iTunes and at Amazon (1989).

Versions by Colman Barks (will be most familiar to anyone who reads Rumi in English)

  • The Essential Rumi, New Expanded Edition (2004) on Amazon, on GoodReads
  • Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing (2003) on Amazon, on GoodReads
  • Video of Barks and Bly reading Rumi with musical accompaniment on YouTube

Dick Davis translations of Hafez

  • Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (2013) at Amazon
  • Davis reading his translations of three poems by Jahan Malek Khatun, an Inju Princess, on the News Hour on YouTube.
  • NPR interview with Davis about his book (2013)
  • Davis’ translation of Hafez’ “For Years My Heart Inquired of Me” at the Poetry Foundation

Analysis and Commentary

If you want analysis on the different translations and versions, an excellent on-line source is the Dar-al-Masnavi, curated by the international Dar-al-Masnavi group.

“The Masnavi is the great masterpiece of Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi who lived in the 13th century. The Masnavi consists of mainly of sufi teaching stories with profound mystical interpretations. It contains thousands of rhyming couplets (a type of poetry called, in Arabic, “mathnawî”) and is a treasury of religious mysticism of a most sublime quality — which is why it has been so famous and well-loved for so many centuries.”

The site discuss the problems of translating Rumi.

  • After more than 700 years, Jalaluddin Rumi might be the most popular poet in the United States. Largely due to US authors, such as the poet Coleman Barks, who has rendered literal translations of Rumi into free verse “American spiritual poetry” in a manner which has reached so many different sectors of American society.
  • Unfortunately, this popularization has a real price: the frequent distortion of Rumi’s words and teachings which permeate these well-selling books. The English “creative versions” rarely sound like Rumi to someone who can read the poems in the original Persian, and they are often “shockingly altered.” Few American’s realize this however, believing instead that versions are faithful renderings into English of Rumi’s thoughts and teachings (when they are very often not).

For the original essay on this subject (which I have drastically summarized above) visit the site to read about the popularization in the United States of Rumi’s poetry, and more about the difference between versions and translations. Of special note to anyone interested in the idea of translating poetry (in any language) consider the author’s comments on Ezra Pound’s scholarly translations of Li Po’s Chinese poems and Japanese Noh plays.

shrine of rumi in turkey

Biographies and More Information

Rumi at The Academy of American Poets

Hafez at The Poetry Foundation (also sometimes spelled Hafiz in English)

Robert Bly at The Poetry Foundation

Coleman Barks at The Poetry Foundation

Rabi’a, female Sufi mystic saint and poet, at The Poetry Foundation, at Sufi Poetry (blog)

Persian New Year Poetry Background

As part of my International Poetry Cantos project in 2015, Canto Number 2 is Persian New Year Poetry. Persian New Year is celebrated on March 20, 2015 — the date of the Vernal Equinox.

On Wednesday, March 25, please join me in reading poems by Persian poets, in Farsi and in English. We’ll be meeting at Village Falafel, on Stevens Creek Blvd in Cupertino, at 6:30 pm to read poems together and to eat.

To prepare for this event, I want to introduce you to Persian poets of repute, but first a little background. Persian literature is one of the world’s most ancient literatures. You can read about it on Wikipedia for a fast overview, or at the Iran Chamber Society, or Encyclopedia Britannica.  Obviously a few websites can’t do justice to this rich tradition, but if you have no familiarity, I suggest spending a few moments to orient yourself.

When we speak of Persian poetry, we mean in general, poetry written in Farsi, also known as Parsi or Persian, or poetry written by people who live in the land currently known as Iran. An interesting source is Classical Persian Poetry: A Thousand Years of the Persian Book, a fascinating look at a Library of Congress exhibit.

The most famous (to Americans) Persian art form is the ghazal, described here by the Academy of American Poets. This link takes you to a lovely example of the form, in English, by poet Agha Shahid Ali on the Poetry Foundation website. Though a Kashmiri Muslim, Ali is well known for writing in this form for American audiences. While I am not an expert, I found this website, with literal and poetic translations of some of Rumi’s famous ghazals to be very enlightening and inspiring.

The most well know Persian poets in the U.S. are Rumi and Hafez. Here are some resources.

  • Poetry Foundation video, in collaboration with The News Hour, “Bringing Persian Poetry to Western Readers” about Hafez.
  • Hafez biography



There are many books, translations, essays, fantasies about these legendary and vital poets. I’ll be pulling together a bibliography in the next week, getting us ready to read on March 25.

Stay tuned!