The Gathering of The Conference of the Birds

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As a translator, I am very interested in the way a translated text becomes part of another culture’s literature. In recent decades, Farid ud-Din Attar’s 12th-century Persian masterpiece, Manṭeq al-ṭayr, has been the source for three new and revised translations, three illustrated adaptations (two for children), two expensive art books, and a number of theater and film adaptations. Excerpts of the poem are included in many collections, such as Norton Anthology of World Literature. The National Endowment for the Humanities selected the work as a free book for the public libraries as part of its Bridging Cultures project.

All the retranslations and adaptations point to the rising importance of Attar’s poem in the English language. Here, I will take a short survey of more recent translations and adaptations.[1] These works are in conversation with Attar’s poem, bringing fresh and multifarious interpretations while building new homes for it in English. Darbandi and Davis's Conference of the Birds Cover Along with Peter Avery, Dick Davis and his wife Afkham Darbandi have produced the first two complete and rather accurate translations. Dick Davis is an award-winning poet and a prominent Persian scholar and translator. The verse version of The Conference of the Birds was one of his first translations. Their popular book, which was also chosen for the NEH’s Bridging Cultures project, was published by Penguin Classics in 1984 and revised in 2011, when they added the Prologue and Epilogue. The added sections are based on Mohammad-Reza Shafiei-Kadkani’s Persian text, which is the latest authoritative source for the poem.[2] It would have been great if Darbandi and Davis had updated the whole book using this recent version, since the line numbers of the story don’t match Shafiei-Kadkani’s edition and his revisions are not reflected in the new Penguin edition. Avery's Speech of the Birds  Cover

The Speech of the Birds by Peter Avery, published by the Islamic Texts Society in 1998, is the other important new translation. Since his translation came before Shafiei-Kadkani’s edition, he also has not taken advantage of Shafiei-Kadkani’s work. Avery’s translation, like Darbandi and Davis’s translation of the actual story, is based on Sadiq Gawharin’s 1978 version of Manṭeq al-ṭayr.

The contrast between Avery’s translation and Darbandi and Davis’s can be seen as an example of one of the most discussed topics in translation studies — what Lawrence Venuti, advancing Friedrich Schleiermacher’s argument, calls domestication versus foreignization. Schleiermacher, in his seminal essay “On the Different Methods of Translating,” writes, “Either the translator leaves the author in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him” (49). The first method is foreignization and the second domestication.

While keeping close to the original Persian, Darbandi and Davis can be seen as domesticating. They add titles to the various stories and parables, making it easier to identify each section, something that, in adhering to the source, Avery does not do. (Avery puts his titles for stories in Appendix I.) The additional titles help in reading and understanding the story, while also imposing Darbandi and Davis’s interpretation and organization onto the work and the reader’s experience. On the other hand, Avery’s desire “to provide as literal a translation as the idiom of the English language will bear” (xi), as told in the preface, leads to a more accurate but awkward and foreign English text.

Darbandi and Davis’s translation loosely maps to the exact Persian lines, identifying only the range of the Persian lines in their pages. Avery’s poem numbers each line of his translation to align with the Persian. Avery has over 120 pages of notes, while Darbandi and Davis have around 6 pages. Footnotes are one way that the translator indirectly triggers the foreignness in the text. In summary, Darbandi and Davis’s successful translation, while still being faithful, tries to make a place for Attar in the English language, whereas Avery’s version tries to take the reader to Attar and his words in Persian.

I am not actually arguing for one form of translation over the other. I believe they both have an important place. The different retranslations expand the horizon of the source text, extending what Walter Benjamin called “the afterlife.” Darbandi and Davis focus more on the pleasure of reading, while Avery is more concerned with the scholarly accuracy. In my classes, I have used Darbandi and Davis’s translation a number of times, and I have also consulted Avery’s version.

Farah Behbehani and Michael Barry have produced two versions of Manṭeq al-ṭayr as art books, using Darbandi and Davis’s translation. Their works bring text and images together in a way that is collaborative and interpretive. The images and forms translate the selected text and its lyrical messages into visual symbols as well as figurative and illustrative renditions. Barry brings together historical miniatures to show, enhance, and retell the tale through compositions and images, while Behbehani employs a modern graphic use of calligraphy and Islamic patterns to present her unique interpretation of Attar’s story.

Images from Behbehani's book

Behbehani’s The Conference of the Birds (2009) uses Jali Diwani script to explore and illustrate the selections of Darbandi and Davis’s translation. While maintaining the Islamic connection, her book, which was funded by the King of Kuwait, removes the selected text from its Persian origin and turns it into an Arabic source. Although the title of Attar’s work is in Arabic, and the Persian language has many Arabic loanwords, the poem is in Persian. Jali Diwani, on the other hand, is an Arabic script from the Ottoman time, not something Attar and the Persians would have used. And for all the illustrations of the birds, which are a significant part of her text, she labels the birds by their Arabic names. Even the biography highlights the Arabic Sufi tradition. Thus, for her book, Attar’s text is translated and domesticated into not just English but also Arabic.

Images fro Canticle of the Birds

Barry’s The Canticle of the Birds (2014), published by Éditions Diane de Selliers, includes over 200 miniatures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Persio-Afghan manuscript from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries as well as additional illustrations from Persian, Turkish, Central Asia, and Indo-Pakistani sources. The result is an exquisite tapestry of illuminated manuscripts with commentaries by Barry and contributions by Leili Anvar that contextualize the art and the text in the history of eastern culture. The bountiful book also includes the complete and further revised translation by Darbandi and Davis. In contrast to the Penguin edition, this update follows more closely Shafiei-Kadkani’s Persian edition and matches its line numbers. The book won France’s Le Prix du Cercle Montherlant Prize for Literature on Art by the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the National Iran Academy’s Prize for Book of the Year on Persian Civilization.

In yet another reincarnation, we have two books of adaptations by Peter Sís and Alexis York Lumbard that continue to combine texts with pictures and illustrations. Sís and Lumbard rely on existing English sources to produce their own texts — what Roman Jakobson, the influential linguist, would have labeled as intralingual translations. Sís and Lumbard don’t list Attar as the author. As adaptations, they have a looser relationship with the source, using it as raw material. Unlike the expensive art books of Barry and Behbahani, these works are more affordable and accessible illustrated books, meant for a larger audience.

Cover of Sis' Book

Sís is an award-winning illustrator and children’s book author — a MacArthur Fellow and a winner of the Hans Christian Andersen and Newbery medals, he is a seven-time winner of The New York Times Book Review’s Best Illustrated Book of the Year award. His adaptation, though using very simple and few words, is meant for adults. It was published by Penguin Press in a beautiful hardcover edition (2011) and received positive reviews from NPR and Oprah Winfrey. Sís acknowledged that he was inspired by the translations of Darbandi and Davis and also consulted the Avery edition.

In his adaptation, Attar’s complex Sufi narrative with its chain of stories within stories is turned into a simple ancient allegorical tale that is found on old water-stained parchments. Sís removes any direct reference to religion or God from the tale. His version depicts “the pain, and the beauty, of the human journey,” as the dust jacket states. It is a universalist, humanist adaptation that incorporates different cultural imagery and symbols. For example, we can find influences from Buddhism and the Far East in his illustrations. Cover of Lumbard's book

Lumbard has lived in the Middle East and is described as “an American Muslim children’s book writer.” Her adaptation for children (grades 4-6), published by Wisdom Tales (2012), is illustrated by Demi and includes both prose and verse. It won a number of awards and was a finalist for both the ForeWord for “Picture Books” and USA Best Books Award for “Best New Children’s Picture Book.” Lumbard doesn’t identify her direct sources for the translation, but we can assume based on her background that she used existing English translations of Attar’s poem.

Although the book includes a preface by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a distinguished scholar of Islam and Sufism, the actual story has little that is especially Islamic. We get only one reference when she writes, “a sacred prayer inscribed upon her beak.” An informed reader can then identify in the painting on the page that “Bismillah Rahman Rahim” is written in Arabic on the beak of the leader hoopoe. Otherwise, we have mainly references to the “Lord.” And in the end, we read that the birds have “shed sin’s mighty hold” and are ready to meet the king that “is not an earthly thing” but “the king of all the heavens.” Poster for Folger Theater Performance

I would like to end this survey by mentioning two adaptations that the linguist Roman Jakobson would call intersemiotic translations between different sign systems. Jean-Claude Carrière and Peter Brooks produced a stage version of The Conference of the Birds, which was performed in many venues and by many companies, including a 2012 performance at the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C. More recently, the renowned Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat has also adapted the poem as Logic of the Birds in an interdisciplinary work that includes film, music, and live staging (2002).

All of these translations and adaptations have brought Manṭeq al-ṭayr more into the fold of the English language. And there are more forthcoming. Sholeh Wolpé is working on “a new and accessible modern translation,” for which she recently won a PEN translation funds award (2014). As Attar’s poem and its messages become familiar, new translations can take advantage of not just the existing translations but also the knowledge of the reader to extend the life of the poem in new ways. The many retranslations and adaptations of Manṭeq al-ṭayr confirm its powerful story and its growing presence in world literature in English. Just as with works like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Homer’s epics, one can imagine Attar’s poem being taught and read by many while it continues to evolve and transform with each new translation and interpretation in English.



1. I have skipped Raficq Abdulla’s The Conference of the Birds: The Selected Sufi Poetry of Farid Ud-Din Attar (2003) and Anne Baring’s children adaptation, The Birds Who Flew Beyond Time (1993)

2. The update may have been due to a commission by Diane de Selliers.

[Feature image is from The Canticle of the Birds. Schleiermacher’s quote is from his essay translated by Susan Bernofsky in The Translation Studies Reader.]

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