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Look elsewhere for Rumi's essence.
on November 16, 1999
This pretty book of verse calls well-deserved attention to Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century mystic considered by many to be one of the greatest poets the world has ever seen. But while author Coleman Barks's intentions may be the best, it's doubtful that what he serves up here is the essential Rumi, if only because Barks speaks not a word of Persian, the language in which Rumi wrote. Barks freely admits that he relied entirely on academic translations to concoct his popularized renderings. This would be less of a handicap were Rumi merely trying to entertain or to convey feelings, moods and subjective impressions. But as Barks himself points out, Rumi was a Sufi; and Sufis maintain that, far from being the emotional outpourings appearance might suggest, their poems are actually precise and carefully constructed technical instruments designed to have very specific effects on the reader under the right circumstances. These effects, which depend heavily upon the language in which the poems were written (not to mention the specific audience they were written for, which is another matter entirely), are easily blunted by translation and other forms of tampering. Barks - in translating translations - would seem to be carrying this tampering a step further, despite his skill as a wordsmith. The result, however aesthetically pleasing and emotionally evocative, is unlikely to be what Rumi had in mind - any more than the miming of a surgeon's hand-movements, however gracefully executed, is likely to heal the sick. Those interested in Rumi's essential - and still relevant - message would do better to read THE SUFIS by Idries Shah, THE LIFE & WORK OF JALALUDDIN RUMI by Afzal Iqbal, or E.H. Whinfield's TEACHINGS OF RUMI.