Book Review–The Shahnameh

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 25, 2009

[tweetmeme]

I am ridiculously behind in my book reviews, so I want to make sure to complete them before the year is out. I’ll start with the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi’s epic poem, which serves as the national tale of Iran.

The Shahnameh’s overriding message is a humble and fatalistic one; however much wealth and power we enjoy in our lives, we are all going to die, and in death, we will be humbled despite whatever station we held in life. The only thing that we can do is to live a good life, so that even after our deaths, our names will be rememebred with fondness and glory. This message is reinforced by a number of the Shahnameh’s heroes–I am thinking mainly of Fereydoun and Rostam, here–whose works and legacy help ensure that they are remembered with respect and affection well after their deaths.

The Shahnameh is replete with heroes and villains, and stories of their monumental works, and its role in shaping Iran is a tremendous one. When it was written, Farsi was in danger of dying out as a language, so dominated had Persia become by the use of Arabic, thanks to the Muslim conquest. Ferdowsi endeavored to save Farsi, and he did so by writing a gigantic poetic tale, that relied almost exclusively on the use of Farsi to tell it. When necessary, Ferdowsi made up Farsi words, and only resorted to Arabic as a last, desperate resort. Because of the popularity of the Shahnameh, Farsi has not only survived, but thrived as a language. Knowing this, one can therefore get an inkling of just how important Ferdowsi is in Iran.

All of which makes it a shame that while the translation I read was a relatively good one, it was an abridged translation, and was told in prose, rather than in verse. I welcome suggestions for translation that are in verse, and are more complete, but to say that there is no substitute for reading the Shahnameh in Farsi, is to understate matters. The power and beauty of the language, the inventiveness of the rhyming couplets, the compelling nature of the tale–none of it can even remotely be replicated in a translation. I suppose that I will have to make up for not having been born and raised in Iran by augmenting my Farsi sufficiently so that I can get though an authentic rendition of the Shahnameh; doing so would avail me of the opportunity to get acquainted with one of the greatest achievements in the world of literature.

  • http://theshahnameh.com camerond

    Hi Pejman,

    In my opinion the best modern translation you can find is By Dick Davis. I am biased as I have been a student of his. In any case what he does in his translation is to mix prose with verse (so he translates key sections into verse, and prose for the parts in between). Check it out!

    http://www.theshahnameh.com

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    That's the one I reviewed. You are right in pointing out that there is some verse in the book–I should have noted that in my review–but frankly, the verse was so little that I hope I can be forgiven for having forgotten to point that out.

  • http://theshahnameh.com camerond

    As far as I know, there isn't any translation of the entire Shahnameh in Verse in existence. I know that Dick Davis worked 7 years just to complete the one you reviewed. If you want to read a major Persian Poem translated entirely in Verse, then I would suggest “Vis and Ramin” by Gorgani – which chronicles a great Parthian story in verse (written in the 11th century). Here is a link to wikipedia's analysis of the work: Cheers! :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vis_o_Ramin

  • http://theshahnameh.com camerond

    As far as I know, there isn't any translation of the entire Shahnameh in Verse in existence. I know that Dick Davis worked 7 years just to complete the one you reviewed. If you want to read a major Persian Poem translated entirely in Verse, then I would suggest “Vis and Ramin” by Gorgani – which chronicles a great Parthian story in verse (written in the 11th century). Here is a link to wikipedia's analysis of the work: Cheers! :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vis_o_Ramin

Previous post:

Next post: