A good translation is a good JOKE.
Reader, you are fooled.
Historically, the transformed words have no beginning,
and it is foolish to seek an original author,
an original tongue,
and first words.
And good or bad, beauty or trash, ancient or today,
a joke lurks under the text.
So the translator lacks the miracle of alchemy
serving Yahweh who, with the utterance of a few syllables,
translates chaos into light.
Only Yahweh transforming nothing into something
didn’t conceal the miracle of translation.
Whether wonderful or monstrous the version is always a version, another working and retelling.
Even a fresh reading of the source, before doing the
is one act of translation in an infinite series of prior acts
of word translation,
extending from childhood acquisition of the first signs and sounds
of words to the reading of the source.
Your cage of words is incessantly transforming itself,
slowly like rust, quickly like conquest,
and along the endless way of selftranslation
it never looks the same.
Instability—eternal transformation—may be uncomfortable,
but it’s best to live with it.
Since the dream of capturing and stilling words
is an allegory for death, a bad joke, it’s better to accept movement—translation—and live
with peppy Proteus and Heraclitus, the two Greek JOKERS.
A translation aspires to KABBALAH wherein the universe
is a system of permanent though fiery words,
yet it wakes down on earth in the knowledge
of its instability and impermanence.
Given the instability of words and texts, can we demand miracles from human translators who work today to grace us with a poem? Yes. The poet translator should compete with the Creator.
In our ignorance, we need her work of restoration
and need to be saved.
When we look at a poem in a language unknown to us,
we are looking helplessly into the formless void
that puzzled God until he found the right words to translate
chaos into form and light.
In that sequence of translation and retranslation
from the earliest original creation,
from God's selftranslation into being
and up to the text before us,
we depend on the secular powers of the translator
to turn the formless void into light.
In the Zohar, the Book of Radiance, the eyn sof
lies not in solidity but in two forms of undulatory movement:
darkness and light.
Within the most hidden recess, a dark flame issues
from the mystery of eyn sof
and then as a fog forming in the unformed
springs forth into a luminosity through which
Adam saw from one end to the other of the world.
Translation is a movement from darkness into light
and back into darkness.
Even for the Kabbalists the infinite or God's creation
or Adam's vision is only a single flash.
By contrast, translation is a kick.
Since its mediation is vagrant, provisional and never completed,
it goes on forever and often glows.
In 1207 Jalal al-Din Rumi is born at Balk near
the Afghan frontier. He will die in Konia in Byzantine Rum
after a life of seeking, like 30 pilgrims, the mystical bird.
Only with that bird will he have the power to translate the world.
His friend comes at night, telling him to eat with his mouth closed.
So he hungers.
He examines the cross, looks at a Hindu temple,
an ancient pagoda. He finds no trace of the bird.
He climbs the mountain of Kaf, and even in Mecca
the wings are not.
He asks the philosopher Avicena.
Rumi translates day to night, life to death, sun to rock,
and seeks any way of translating random love to a source
on meadows, in heaven, even under the desert.
As for human lovers, with whom he learns the science of
he feels empty and turns his back on them.
With no bird of light he is impotent
and the Sufi poet moves things in slow darkness.
He opens his eyes in darkness. Yet as a hermit
he can scarcely move himself. Since he has no light in himself,
he loses all hope of translating the world.
His hands hang lifeless in his long pockets.
And he and the world come to a halt.
Jalal al-Din Rumi seems dead, but memory has not ceased.
He recalls how as a child along the Afghan border with China
he witnessed great herds of herons filling the horizon
and suddenly swooping onto the sand
where, with literary alchemy,
they left the alphabet of their infinite whiteness of peace.
Landing on one foot, their claws turned into fire
melting the crystal sand into broken Chinese ink,
which became the undeciphered ecology of Asia.
As the Sufi poet remembers all those texts out in the fresh
cosmos, which he is in sore need of translating to his Persian verse,
of interior butcher shops and gardens,
there remains a single droplet of low fire in his eyes.
Through it, in that stillness, Rumi is staring, a disturbed creator,
and he deciphers light moving out of black clouds,
revealing camels with lakes under the humps,
heron tracks that gave Chinese their characters,
flooding Mesopotamia dotted with ravens and underworlds.
Yet still no way to transfer the cosmos to visible ink.
Lightless within, his ink is black on black.
And his eyes looking inward are totally blank.
Then he turns his head and he stares where
he has not before entered.
He stares at a bird of light dancing in his heart.
Religion is God’s bureaucracy.
As in translation, in the hierarchy of power
a fidelity to the word is essential.
Fidelity to the LETTER, preceding the word, is even better
and a higher form of faith.
Kabbalists like meaningful letters.
In old drawings we see a tree of life,
whose leaves are letters,
and a man whose body is covered at vital spots
by the ten letters of the sefirot.
Before God creates the earth and heaven,
he creates the book.
Torah is “written with black fire on white fire,
and is lying on the lap of God.”
Thereafter to create the world through his word,
he devises the twenty-two letters of the alphabet.
They “descended from the terrible and August crown
of God whereon they were engraved with a pen of flaming fire.”
Both Horace and Jerome drew back from LITERALISM
of the letter
and condemned the word to champion phrase and sense.
Yet any way—the way of Kabbalah’s letter, God’s word
or Jerome’s phrase and sense—is dandy
if the created poem is beautiful.
Foremost among fidelities is fidelity to beauty
through the poem floating upon the brook,
presumably a good one if worth translating,
or long ago it would have sunk.
And should the new poem not have beauty
or bloony stars and sex,
the translator has traduced our faith in sense, word, and letter.