In Love and Word Ensnared

UNESCO’s World Arabic Day is coming in less than a month, on December 18, and yet great Arabic poets — chief among them Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi — remain outside of the “world” literary canon. Michael Sells, meanwhile, continues to work at rebuilding a version of Ibn Arabi in English, with a strategy of returning to old translations, of multiple English versions that “develop organically over time, as a way to grasp the unutterable”:

By Kevin Blankinship

Ibn Arabi and Sadr al-Din
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
Sup Persan 1559 folio: 103v
Shiraz, c. 1575

Is it possible to translate what can’t be said, even in the original? If the old maxim is true, and all translators are indeed world-class turncoats, then shouldn’t we blame them doubly for pretending at meaning where there’s none? This question looms large for Islamic Sufi poetry, especially when its tendency is to escape clear sense. Here, some historical figures have been lucky. For a poet like Rumi, doubts over how to translate the unsayable seem frivolous, since his divine musings couldn’t have found a better evangelist than Coleman Barks. But where are the jazz séances for Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), that Andalusi sage about whom Robyn Creswell wrote that “ignorance of his works in the West is one of the great scandals of intellectual history”?

The fact that Ibn Arabi often resists entry into English is all the more reason to admire the work of Michael Sells, professor of Islamic History and Literature at the University of Chicago. A longtime translator, his first volume of Ibn Arabi’s verse was Stations of Desire in 2000, which presents selected poems from Tarjumaan al-ashwaaq (The Interpreter of Desires), a meditation on God painted in the hues of erotic love. In August 2018, Sells sent more English versions into the world in Bewildered: Love Poems from Translation of Desires. Expert yet unaffected, they capture the original Arabic even as they introduce a figure as eminent as Rumi who is little-known in the West. Furthermore, by revisiting past translations, Sells’s work confirms that literature is best rendered not in a single English version, but many.

In a Beshara Magazine interview with Simone Fattal, the artist and publisher who produced Bewildered, Sells says that “[Ibn ‘Arabi’s work] constantly confronts its own natural tendencies to turn into a dogma.” This goes as much for the language as the content. Written in deceptively simple Arabic, Ibn Arabi’s meanings soon multiply and overwhelm, as with the word `ayn, for example, which might mean “essence,” “eye,” “source,” a “divine instantiation” of God’s exquisite names (al-asmaa’ al-husnaa’), and so on. This bewildered wrestle — hence Sells’ title — of Ibn Arabi with his own words reflects the mystic’s dilemma that language can hardly say anything about Deity.

It’s no shock, then, that a full quarter of the poems in Bewildered revisit those from Stations of Desire, and that the majority of all the poems have appeared elsewhere. Add to this the common practice among working poets of brushing up and republishing one’s work, and we arrive at Sells’ strategy: multiple English versions that develop organically over time as a way to grasp the unutterable.

Sometimes the changes between Stations and Bewildered are slight, like switching the title from “Amid the Scent of Absinthe and Moringa” to simply “Absinthe and Moringa,” or shifting a line break from this call-and-response between subject and predicate in Stations:


The lords of love in love

                        are ensnared, bewildered


to this isolated, starkly declarative last word in Bewildered:


            The lords of love are in love ensnared



At other times, the adjustments run deeper. Here are two lines, appearing as English quatrains, from Ibn Arabi’s most famous poem, “Gentle Now Doves.” They compare a faithless woman circling the poet with kisses, to the prophet Muhammad circling the Ka`aba at Mecca. This is the version from Stations:


As the best of creation

circled the Ká`ba,

which reason with its proofs

called unworthy.


He kissed the stones there—

and he was entrusted with the word!

What is the house of stone

compared to a man or woman?


Here, the English is more verbose and farther away from the Arabic than the poem’s near-twin from Bewildered:


[As the prophet of prophets

 circled the Ká`ba,

which the proof of reason

called unworthy 


And kissed the stones there —

He, reason’s very voice!

And what is the abode

in measure to human being?]


In this second iteration, the missing period and the addition of “and” between quatrains better captures enjambment in Arabic. Square brackets denote apposition — this is an explanatory aside rather than the main thrust. Single phrases hew closer to the original, e.g. “proof of reason” (daliil al-`aql) instead of “reason with its proofs”; “reason’s very voice” (naatiq) instead of “entrusted with the word”; or “in measure to human being” (min qadr insaan) instead of “compared to a man or woman.” The overall shift is a better fit to the source text and more resonant in English.

In the case of five poems, Bewildered is their debut in Sells’ rendering. The shortest of these —  a total of eight lines — is called “In the Ruined Lodges of my Body is a Garden.” It fully blurs the line between erotic passion and divine union, in a picture of longing as a cosmic force that surpasses all boundaries:


Who stands by me with her — henna

on her fingers, honey on her tongue


A swell of the breasts — well-guarded

Tender, maiden, beauty


 Full moons on a bough flowering,

 those like her will never fade


In the ruins of my body is a garden

 with a dove high in a moringa


She dies longing and melts in desire from what

wrecked her, which was what wrecked me


Mourns a friend and blames time

that struck her down with what struck me


Those who were near are gone. Homelost

How time has changed its used-to-be


Who’s by me with her who pleasures in my

pain. I’ve no hand to hold before her


True to form, Sells’ English manages to be at once lean and sensual. Readers will count only two words in this poem — “flowering” and “moringa” — with more than two syllables; most have only one. Yet it lacks nothing of seduction, nostalgia, or drama for such paucity.

Besides the poetry itself, Sells’ most satisfying innovation in Bewildered is a simple yet concise way to show Arabic vowel quality. He puts an acute accent (á) to mark stress, circumflex accent (â) for “a” when pronounced like “llama,” and macron diacritics (ā, ī, ū) for the letters “a” when said like “badger,” “i” when said like “ea” in “release,” and “u” when said like “o” in “remove.” Although no substitute for the original, this scheme is an elegant solution compared to the byzantine protocols of scholars, which miss the vowel harmonies that make Arabic poetry so euphonic. Along with a glossary haunted by the ghosts of long-vanished desert topoi, Sells’ phonic markers show sensitivity to how readers “mentally hear” poetry, a phenomenon which he has studied in the Qur’an, too.

Sells is not alone in preferring multiple versions of each poem, meaning that he’s probably on to the right formula. Reiterative translation is the approach taken by two more writer-translators, Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger, who have teamed up — independently of Sells — to render the Tarjumaan. As they explain: “We each separately begin a translation of the same ode and then send the translations to one another. The second iteration of the ode is written as a response to this translation and sent in turn, and so on, until we are exhausted.” The whole dancelike process has borne spare yet richly suggestive lines like these, in Moger’s translation:

             See the fire
Fanned in my ribs,
My eyes, as we start,
Wept out at weeping to
Think on this parting moment.
Bring me dying down to lowlands,
To my friends by the waters, calling,
Who will take him, kindled then tossed
Burning then burning down, bush to brush
To dust?

While they have no immediate plans to publish the entire work, Seale and Moger do have a method that speaks to growing respect for what many still disparage as “translation by committee.” But in a time when knowledge is growing more specialized, scholarly and artistic teamwork seems less like a slick corporate slogan and more like an urgent need.

In fact, Sells himself humbly acknowledges the debt to others in Bewildered. He dedicates the book to “the gentle people of the Muhyiddin Ibn `Arabi Society who have for forty years fostered, with vision and dedication, the understanding of Ibn `Arabi’s life, times, writings, and legacy.” He thanks dozens of students and colleagues, tipping his hat to “all those who have translated or are now translating Ibn Arabi’s Tarjumaan al-Ashwaaq.” Maybe more than most, he knows what it’s like to struggle for meaning when meaning is scarce, just as he knows that it can be found more easily with the help of others. There are certainly worse ways than this to confront the chilling prospect that language has nothing say.

Kevin Blankinship is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, where he teaches Arabic language and literature, Islam, and the Qur’an. He is currently writing a book called Counted Among the Dead about the blind author al-Ma`arri and ascetic verse (zuhdiyyat). His original poetry is out or will appear in The Ekphrastic Review, Poetica Review, and Lighten Up Online. His critical essays are published or forthcoming at The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and elsewhere. He lives in Utah with his wife, their two children, and a menacing gang of fruit trees.

Also: Seale and Moger’s alternating translations of Ibn Arabi are set to appear in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of ArabLit Quarterly: The Eye.