Haleh Liza Gafori to Bring Authentic, Intimate Translations of Ancient Persian Poet Rumi to Cincinnati

Gafori will be performing in Cincinnati July 13 and 14 as part of a benefit for local nonprofit The Well.

click to enlarge Poet, translator and performer Haleh Liza Gafori. - Photo: Matt Kilmer
Photo: Matt Kilmer
Poet, translator and performer Haleh Liza Gafori.

Rumi, the ancient and revered Persian poet, has had his work translated, diluted and misattributed in equal measure over the centuries since writing them, but Gold, a new translation collection published in March by Haleh Liza Gafori, sets right many of those wrongs.

“My ear is tuned to the music of contemporary American poetry, and one of the jobs of the translator is to make new music in the language they’re translating into, because you cannot preserve the music of the original language,” Gafori says. “To be steeped in both cultures, I think, is what makes for a good translator.” 

Gafori, a New Yorker of Persian descent, is a translator, poet and performer who will be in Cincinnati July 13 and 14 as part of a benefit for local nonprofit The Well. Gold is a collection of 32 Rumi poems, some previously translated and some not. 

“He has over 3,200 poems in the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi [one of Rumi’s definitive works],” Gafori tells CityBeat. “It was about which poems I connected to, which I found interesting. I found the images evocative and the messages were sometimes speaking to me and speaking to our times.” 

One such poem is referenced in the book as “Whatever the Ways of the World.” It is translated from a ghazal, which is a form of poetry that features a string of five or more couplets. These couplets can often stand as distinct units themselves. 

“When I looked at the translations, there were clearly some errors made, and I thought the importance of the poem – a poem about an intense generosity – it was lost,” says Gafori. “He sets up these apocalyptic visions and asks us, ‘What are you going to do in the face of crisis? Who are you going to be? How much generosity are you going to show? Are you going to rise to the occasion?’ That’s an important question for us to ask at this point.” 

Before Gafori’s translation, the foremost translators of Rumi included a 19th century Englishman, Arthur John Arberry and Coleman Barks, an American who does not speak or read Persian. 

Arberry translates the opening line of “Whatever the Ways of the World” as, “Whatever comes of the world’s affairs, how does that affect your business?” Barks, whose translation is based on Arberry’s, is, “What happens in the world,  what business is that of yours?” 

Gafori’s translation is richer, more nuanced, taking into account common Persian expressions and colloquialisms. She also considers cultural shifts over the years since Rumi wrote his poetry while paying respect to his overall poetic vision. Gafori translates the opening line as, “Whatever the ways of the world, what fruits do you bring?” 

“I felt a responsibility,” Gafori says. “I feel a love for the poetry – that’s the first thing – and translation is the most intimate way to engage with a poem. I wanted to [translate], but also there were times when I felt like it was my duty.” 

Gafori’s appearance in the Greater Cincinnati area will include two days of readings and singing performances of the poetry in Gold as part of the Rumi Nights: Poetry, Song and Friendship event. On July 13, she will participate in an evening of yoga and mindfulness with Embra Studio. The following morning, she will join The Hive for an intimate conversation about Rumi and poetry. The culmination of Gafori’s time here will take place that evening in a special performance at the Woodward Theater benefitting Bellevue, Kentucky nonprofit The Well.  

“It really is a celebration of our community,” said Stacy Sims, founder of The Well.

The Well is home to different programs that put mindfulness front and center, including Mindful Music Moments, a program now in more than 300 schools that leads school children daily in a mindful response to a different musical selection. Incubated in partnership with The On Being Project, created initially in celebration of National Poetry Month, Mindful Poetry Moments similarly uses poetry as a mindfulness prompt. 

The program features invited guests who share poetry and offers space for attendees to write and read their responses. Gafori was an invited guest to the program when it moved into the virtual realm for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Sims learned of her newly-published book, she invited Gafori to Cincinnati. 

The ultimate goal is to share Rumi’s timeless work with an expanded audience, Gafori says.

“The more the merrier, in terms of translation,” says Gafori. “I’m not someone who’s going to sit here and judge, or tell someone not to translate. It’s an intimate experience, and when you’re dealing with a poet like Rumi or [Austrian poet Rainer Maria] Rilke, for instance, they grab you. Many people who read them feel a desire to translate. It’s in the plethora of translations, I think, that we might get very close to the poet.” 

Rumi Nights: Poetry, Song and Friendship will be held July 13 and 14. To learn about Gafori or to purchase Gold, visit halehliza.com. For event information, visit thewell.world.


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