The words of Bruce Cockburn’s song “Maybe the Poet” describe how we all need poets;
Maybe the poet is gay
but he’ll be heard anyway
maybe the poet is drugged
but he won’t stay under the rug
maybe the voice of the spirit
in which case you’d better hear it
maybe he’s a woman
who can touch you where you’re human
male, female, slave or free
peaceful or disorderly
maybe you and he will not agree
but you need him to show you new ways to see
don’t let the system fool you
all it wants to do is rule you
pay attention to the poet
you need him and you know it
(Bruce Cockburn, 1984)
Our dying world
Many systems clamor for our attention. We don’t know where to look. The thousands of signs that litter our road home, the demanding work, the annoying spam, the ever-evolving technologies and the unending busyness of our life and everyone else around us. Modern life can be so shallow.
It seems that the biggest problem facing modern society is not that there is too little progress, but rather too much of it. We are so busy with trying to keep up with the work around us, with external progress, that we have no time for internal progress. What we need is to first take care of our internal progress and then all the results of our external living will become much more meaningful and fruitful. Neglecting the garden of our soul for the sake of a soulless project will eventually kill us. Therefore, we need gardeners who can help us see the beauty of our souls and inner life. Gardeners who can help us rip out and burn the weeds that choke our life and nourish what is true and good. Inspired poets make excellent gardeners if we pay attention.
The need for poets like Navoi
Armed with lasting truth and beauty inspired poets are a wonderful ally in the development of meaning and activity in our personal lives and broader societies. For real meaning and beauty to take root in our lives we need; the affective as well as the cognitive, the artistic as well as the scientific. Religious people would also add the eternal as well as the temporal. Anything less cannot induce empowerment or development in human life. We must learn from those artists who have effectively brought meaning into their corners of the world and let them speak again. They know that the development of people must include every layer of a person. Let us not exclude the freeing glory of God that artists mystically express in their works. This is what I mean by ‘inspired poets’, those poets who have tasted of God’s glory and know that He is greater than anything in this world. When people acknowledge such divine glory, they have reason to work for betterment of society.
One of the best inspirational poets I have found is a Central Asian from the 15th century named Alisher Navoi. His name Navo’i literally means ‘the owner of singing’. He lived from 1441 to 1501 mostly in Herat, Afghanistan and is one of the greatest poets of the Great Silk Road. “World-class status was attained by the Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen literatures, in the works of ‘Abd ar-Rahman Jami, Alisher Navai, and Makhtumquli, respectively.” When his foster brother Husain Baykaro became the Emir, Navoi became the prime minister. He was also a good steward of his high position and helped establish many needed institutions. “Nawai is reputed to have founded, restored and endowed no fewer than 370 mosques, schools, libraries, hospitals and other pious and charitable institutions in Khurasan alone.”2
His numerous writings, endowments, and his life example have had lasting influence in Central Asia. Today, in the modern country of Uzbekistan, he is revered above all other poets. The name of Alisher Navoi is visible throughout the country. Major streets, theatres, museums, parks and even a province and city are named after him. His proverbs are on the tongues of Uzbeks, Turkmen and Tajiks. He is considered the father of the Uzbek language and one of the greatest poets of Central Asia. In his six epic poems and 100 000 plus lines of poetry he wrote passionately for truth and love and vehemently against oppression.
One of the greatest sources for all who seek the richness of human life and activity are those rare poets like Navoi who passionately live out what they so eloquently share with the rest of us in words. Navoi dedicated his whole life to finding and creatively revealing life’s meaning and beauty not only with words but with his life. A garden is pronounced good or bad by the fruit it produces. We can trust what Navoi tells us because he shares from the experience and learning of his own difficult godly life. He does not just say what sounds good, but what has been true and helpful for his own life. And where he is unsure, he tells his reader that he is still searching and begs God’s forgiveness for anything wrong he might have said. Such vulnerable humbleness in a great poet and leader is inspiring.
The art of poets like Navoi has a powerful way of working, especially in developing nations. Art transforms people’s hearts and minds. It is in art that people’s hearts and tongues are connected. Without the artist, society will not progress as it should. However, with one line from an artist positive changes can begin to take place. We need to stop separating the spiritual from the material, the heavenly from the earthly, the seen from the unseen. To address this sort of reductionism requires poets. We need artists to help transform our nations. Art influences how societies think of themselves from the inside out and how other societies perceive them. True progress is not in applying external forces, but about internally transforming hearts. We need to let poets like Navoi speak out and help people learn from him.
The need for ‘translator poets’
So how do I as an English literary translator help Navoi speak out so that people can learn from him? I want to do more than just provide texts of Navoi in English or other languages. I need to figure out how to translate in order that the cultural and content significance inherent in Navoi and the West’s understanding of Central Asia can be advanced. Many translators are not intimately cognizant of the source culture context that they translate from and do not think through how to best impact the target culture for good. They sit alone in their office, never actually seeing the world in which the book was originally created. They work hurriedly in front of their computer so they can finish one translation to start another. Fortunately, I’ve had the honour of being able to live in the distant land where my poet breathed 500 years earlier and have the assistance of many local experts who also breath and live Navoi. I love being a translator of inspired literature because it forces me to read small passages at a time and ponder the depths of their meanings.
One area where Navoi can be used to speak out is in the realm of Western misconception of Central Asia. Western perception of Central Asia, as with most of our perceptions of other nations and societies, is not nearly whole enough. For me to address this sort of reductionism requires that I be like my mentor Navoi, that I be a ‘translator poet’ who speaks against a categorized system and provide a translation that challenges the status quo for an audience that can hear it.
What often happens in my field of literary translation is that the ‘bestseller’ mentality guides the translation process. The text is illusively made as fluent as possible so it doesn’t come across as foreign at all.
This guarantees not only that the foreign text will reach the widest possible domestic audience, but that the text will undergo an extensive domestication, an inscription with cultural and political values that currently prevail in the domestic situation – including those values according to which the foreign culture is represented…often stereotypes that permit easy recognition.
These kind of translations of foreign literature keep alive the misconceptions that the reader’s domestic culture has against the culture and values of a different land. I want to be a ‘translator poet’ of Navoi who keeps what challenges the Western misconceptions of Central Asia, what will add to its worldview, and yet be sensitive to what differences of Navoi it can handle. I want to push the limits, but I don’t want to go so far that the Eastern Navoi cannot be understood by the Western mind.
For example, when translating my first Navoi book, my Uzbek co-translator and I took some liberties and made some changes in the English so that the story would make some sense to the average reader. We sought to make the Middle Ages story come alive in the English language in its own unique way. The native English person with some interest in Central Asian literature was our target culture. However, we made sure that the foreignism of our ancient text was there to compel the reader think in new ways. “We need the ancients precisely to the degree they are dissimilar to us, and translation should emphasize their exotic, distant character, making it intelligible as such”.4 We knew that unaccustomed foreign literature is needed to help the media-insulated Westerner break old stereotypes and see in new ways. This is just one example of how we need to let Navoi speak out.
The Western world needs to evolve their view of Central Asia as simply a hot spot for violence to that of a place of high culture and home to a well-respected poet who wrote beautifully about peace in the world. In the recently renewed interest in Central Asia I do believe that people need and even want to see a different side than the extreme side that the media has shown them. I want to honour the people of Central Asia, and elevate a good example for them and the Anglo American world by providing a resource from within Central Asia for the betterment of our world. This resource is the life and works of the inspirational poet Alisher Navoi.
The need for ‘reader poets’
However, to provide a text that is sensitive to both source culture and target culture is still not enough. The reader must learn how to read such inspirational texts. We must quiet the madness of our world and pay attention to those poets who sing out to us from the depths of their hearts. Unlike others who flash one-liners in our faces, poets dare us to come away from this world and enter theirs. Poetry is not a language that can be assimilated quickly. It must be pondered for more than just a fleeting moment. It asks us to touch and taste it, to caress it, to wrestle with it and eventually to become one with it. That we become ‘reader poets’ who internalize what we read, and overwrite a dry part of our life with poetry. Readers who are a living testament to the inspirational literature that we read.
When Navoi read Farrididun Attar’s The Conference of the Birds as a youth he immediately fell in love with it. He spent much time with the book, so much so that his parents were worried about his schooling and took away the book. What they did not know is that he had already committed the book to heart. As a youth he already knew how to grasp inspired poetry! Later, after a lifetime of meditation, Navoi wrote his own version called The Language of the Birds. In the introduction he shares how he made room for Attar’s book to change his own life. “I devoted myself to the wonderful stories within it, the metaphors and allegories told by the bird became dear to me. It preciousness has helped me into its world and be free from the senselessness of this world.”
When Navoi read Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, he did not read about the birds search for God, instead he sought God through them. He did not read about their hardships on the journey, instead he experienced their hardships for himself. When we approach inspired literature we must not just read what it says about truth, but we must experience its truth. We should not read about God, but we should read God.
The best kind of inspirational literature for ‘reader poets’ is the kind that is fairly simple and somewhat practical. It does not need to be deeply philosophical, but it should be practically mystical. Approach it quietly and humbly. You may read other literature quickly, perhaps seeking for the main point, but with inspired literature you must be careful. Take it in fully and gently. After having tasted it, make sure you digest it. Christian mystic Madame Guyon aptly taught her disciples to “not move from one passage to another, not until you have sensed the very heart of what you have read. You may then want to take that portion of Scripture that has touched you and turn it into prayer.”5 Something that is precious must be treated with care and given much consideration, and like Navoi its preciousness will help us become less entangled with the senselessness of this world. We need the poet and the poet needs you.