On September 2, 1863, English art critic John Ruskin wrote a letter to the then unknown translator of the poetry of Omar Khayyam (1048–1123) – an astronomer and mathematician from Persia, saying, “I do with all my soul pray you to find and translate some more of Omar Khayyam for us: I never did – till this day – read anything so glorious, to my mind as this poem.” He concluded the letter with the words “More – more – please more.”

The translator – Edward FitzGerald – did not read the letter until 1872. By the time FitzGerald read the letter, the third edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam (a collection of Rubái or quatrains) had been published, and Khayyam had taken the Western literary world by storm.

FitzGerald’s first translation of Khayyam’s poetry first appeared in 1859. However, the interest only started to build up when the book was discovered in the 1860s (when it was being sold at a princely sum of 1 penny a piece) by the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who popularised it amongst the pre-Raphaelites (a group of English painters, poets and critics).

Seventy-five years after its initial publication, in 1934, a copy of the Rubáiyát in original wrappers was sold for $9,000.

The wandering quatrains

In the book’s Introduction, FitzGerald says, “Omar [Khayyam]…has never been popular in his own country, and therefore has been but scantily transmitted abroad.” There could be some truth to this, as it took around 700 years for the first translation of his quatrains – in German, by German Orientalists – to appear. It was only after a few more attempts, in the 19th century, before the discovery of FitzGerald’s English translations transformed him from a relatively unknown figure in the world of poetry to a global phenomenon.

Today, Khayyam is known as one of the most prolific Persian poets and Rubáiyát is one of the most famous works of poetry. The Rubáiyát has over 2000 editions and reprints, had been translated into more than 70 languages (from Japanese to Swahili) by almost 800 publishers, and illustrated by over 220 artists, worldwide. While these are impressive numbers, many scholars – especially from Iran – have questioned the authenticity of FitzGerald’s translation, insisting that many quatrains were misattributed to Khayyam.

The Rubáiyát of Fitz-Omar

In his essay “The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald”, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote that “the two [Khayyam and FitzGerald] were quite different, and perhaps in life might not have been friends; death and vicissitudes and time led one to know the other and make them into a single poet,” shedding light on the birth of “Fitz-Omar”. Scholars and writers view FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát simply as English poetry with Persian allusions, and it is widely accepted his quatrains in English are loose translations based on the original verses. In fact, FitzGerald himself called the translation “very un-literal”, but “at all cost, a thing must live…Better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle”. He called his transcreation of Khayyam’s verses, “transmogrification”. In what is called the 67th Bodleian quatrain, Khayyam had written:

Roz-ast khush o hava nah garam ast na sard

Abr az rukh gulzar hami shawid garad

Bulbul ba-zaban pahalawi ba gul zard

Fariyad hameen zind kah mein baawad khurd

The quatrain was transcreated by FitzGerald as:

And David’s Lips are lock’t; but in divine

High piping Pehlevi, with “Wine! Wine! Wine!

“Red Wine!”—the Nightingale cries to the Rose

That yellow Cheek of her’s to incarnadine

While there have been many controversial cases of transcreation, FitzGerald’s work raised many questions primarily because he was accused of attributing verses to the Rubáiyát that Khayyam never wrote. Of the 1,400-and-odd quatrains attributed to Khayyam, some scholars estimate only 200 are his, while others such as Ali Dashti (author of In Search of Omar Khayyam and an authority on the works of the Khayyam) say that “only 36 quatrains have a likelihood of authenticity”.

In the introduction to Rubáiyát, Daniel Karlin notes that “the structure of the poem, in one sense, ‘translates’ nothing, because it has no counterpart in the original text”. Despite the contention, FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát not only gained immense recognition but also established Khayyam as a poet, who was freethinking and hedonistic.

Who was Omar Khayyam?

Khayyam died in 12th century CE as a Persian astronomer and mathematician, and was reborn as a poet in the 19th century to fulfil, in the words of Borges, “the literary destiny that had been suppressed by mathematics in Nishapur [in the Persian province of Khorasan]”. FitzGerald not only transformed his poetry through his translations, but also his identity; portraying Khayyam as an “anti-Sufi, a hedonist and atheist”. This was the image that went on to influence writers and poets such as the Irish poet Oscar Wilde, who described the Rubáiyát as “a masterpiece of art”.

However, rather than the “carpe diem philosophy” professed in FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát, the Khayyam Persian original offers a pessimistic view of the world and the Sisyphean situation humans are stuck in. In his quatrains the world is a “salt-desert, a nest of sorrow, a station on the road”, but in FitzGerald’s transcreation it becomes more about making “the most of what we yet may spend”.

To make amends, acclaimed English poet and critic Robert Graves and Sufi writer Omar Ali-Shah re-translated Khayyam’s verses. So much so that Graves heavily criticised FitzGerald’s translations in the preface of his collection titled “The Fitz-Omar cult”. However, he irony would hit hard when, after the publication of his collection, Graves eventually – and agonisingly – came to realise that his translation of Khayyam’s poetry was nothing but a translation of scholar Edward Heron-Allen’s Persian version of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat.

This episode not only sums up why Khayyam’s verses are one of the most controversial and debated translations in the West even today, but also, perhaps, lends some truth to the Italian saying traduttori traditori – translators [are] traitors.

Manan Kapoor is a writer with Sahapedia, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. This article is a part of Saha Sutra. Sahapedia offers encyclopaedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts – to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media.