The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master

Daniel Ladinsky, Translator
The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master
Penguin/Arkana, 1999, 326 pages, $13.95

Daniel Ladinsky's The Gift: Poems by Hafiz is an "original" poem masquerading as a "translation." These two readings are irreconcilable, and this fact profoundly mars the book.

As an "original" poem, the book belongs to the tradition of visionary, religious writing, as the following quote from its introduction makes clear: "I feel my relationship to Hafiz defies all reason and is really an attempt to do the impossible: to translate Light into words –to make the luminous resonance of God tangible to our finite senses. About six months into this work I had an astounding dream in which I saw Hafiz an an Infinite Fountaining Sun (I saw him as God), who sang hundreds of lines of his poetry to me in English, asking me to give that message to 'my artists and seekers'"

As God talked to Moses in Hebrew, to Mohammad in Arabic, Hafiz spoke to Daniel Ladinsky in English. Mr. Ladinsky is translating a dream, not a 14th century Persian text. His preparation towards it has the aura of the road to Damascus, "My work with Hafiz began in the fall of 1992, on a early morning walk in the countryside of western India, on a beautiful tree-lined road that leads to the former residence of Meher Baba...."

Incredible as it may seem, there is not a single poem (gazel) of Hafiz of which any one of the poems in The Gift: Poems by Hafiz The Great Sufi Master is a translation or adaptation or extrapolation or deconstruction; no poem in the book is in dialectic relation to a specific Persian text. Nada, besides the obvious fact that Mr. Ladinsky's poems ignore Hafiz's Gazel form. One parable in the book, "The Difference Between," belongs to Indian folklore. Hafiz did not write it; in fact, narrative is alien to Hafiz's elliptic, serialist lyric style. The book's most striking images are Mr. Ladinsky's inventions :


From the shoulder
of the
Who becomes

It may be thrilling to discover a touch of Zen in Hafiz, "the Sufi Master"; but Hafiz never said these lines, except in Mr. Ladinsky's dream. Elephants nor, I think, ants appear in his poetry. No "God" blooms from no "shoulder." Once the assumption of a classical 146h century text behind it, which gives it a radiance as the receiver of a prior light, is removed as fictional, one has a new age rip-off. The poem becomes unreadable.


Real love
I always keep a secret.

All my words
Are sung outside Her window,

For when She lets me in
I take a thousand oaths of silence.

Then She says,

O, then God says,

"What the hell, Hafiz,
Why not give the whole world

A witty, mildly shocking poem is putting curse words in Love/God's mouth and comparing "Her" to a courtesan. But, again, Hafiz never wrote these lines. The careful, self-conscious arrangement of words on a line suggesting a precise cadence being reproduced is a fiction. If the poem were by Hafiz, its Sufism would verge on heresy. As a 20th century poem, it is nothing. Its heretical aura is delicious (maybe that's what the author means by light) and virtual, devoid of danger.

In his renderings, Daniel Ladinsky alters Hafiz's text in two ways the combination of which, in my view, is fatal, creating the irreconcilable break between "originality" and "translation." The gazel is an intricate, serial, non-narrative form, often consisting of variations around a theme. Within a given rhyme scheme lines can be rearranged. Hafiz's elliptical and allusive style, reinforced by rhymes, create sound patterns similar to arabesques. Daniel Ladinsky may be forgiven for ignoring the intricate gazel form, particularly if he wants to focus on the clarity of Hafiz's vision –"translate his Light"- which is embodied in his images, his symbols.

Images, symbols are not metaphors, alluding to something outside themselves, in Hafiz; but autonomous. In her book on Sufism, Sufi, Expressions of the Mystic Quest, Laleh Bakhtiar describes this essence succinctly: "[symbols are] 'in suspense' in the place of their appearance... like an image suspended in a mirror. It is a perfectly real world, preserving all the diversity of the sensible world in a spiritual state." Symbols do not reflect or point to, but embody a vision. As spiritual essences, they are possessors of light. In other words, they can not be substituted or dispensed with. That's why Daniel Ladinsky's fictitious renderings are so profoundly wrong, even in the book's own pretended terms, making the poems unreadable as Hafiz translations. My Iranian friends are struck speechless by the clueless nerve of the author's assertions.

Why does the title of the book say, "Poems by Hafiz," and not "based on" or something in that vein? The charitable answer would be that Mr. Ladinsky did not know any better, that he truly believes he is translating Hafiz and The Gift is a visionary labor of love. –He told me as much in a telephone conversation, pointing to how well the book is doing, when I asked him to refer me to one or two specific Hafiz Gazels in the book, which he could not.- The second answer is that "Hafiz" is a marketable brand name. Would Arkana have published this book if its author was merely Daniel Ladinsky? I am also curious if Penguin has ever vetted the nature of these translations.

The Gift may give great delight as a new age religious/inspirational text, decidedly less so, in my view, as a 20th century poem; but one should have no illusion one is reading Hafiz, either his text or his spirit. As such, the book is worse than a failure; it is a deception, a marketing rip-off of his name.

The following are three couplets from two gazels from In Wineseller's Street, Renderings of Hafez by Thomas Rain Crowe. These translations may be imperfect, but the light emanating from them is authentic, revealing perhaps that Holderlin is the poet closest to Hafiz in spirit in the West:

As the Beloved passes by in a open boat, all He sees are strangers,
And this is why He always wears a veil

O lord, tell me how it is that wine sticks in the lip of a pitcher,
Like blood. And yet when it is poured a sweet glugging fills the air.

Help! The Hearstealer has gone away. Through my weeping eyes
The idea of a letter from Him, is like reading words floating on the
water of a rushing stream.

Murat Nemet-Nejat
The Poetry Project Newsletter, 1999


Anonymous said...

Wow what a coincidence, I just posted a blog with Rumi's poetry in my blog. Thanks for pointing out the book I love Sufi!

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

Shakespeare showed up in my dream last night, recited sonnets 155 to 308 (in about 15 minutes, accelerated dreamtime). I'll call Penguin pronto.

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


The internet permits this acceleration. You must have dreamt it on line. Maybe you can start a new version of flarf, flarflaf.



P.S. Once I dreamt of Gogol riding a bycicle. I thought it was fantastic. On the other hand Gogol was not God (perhaps to me at the time), but an absolute maniac.

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


Put in a good word to Penguin for me. I have the complete version of Gogol's unfinished novel.



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