The Poetry of Táhirih

In the course of translating Anglo Saxon verse to modern English—long before poet Seamus Heaney came out with his extremely popular translation of Beowulf in 1999, I had learned about the skills and subtlety required to translate a poem from one language to another language when those two languages are extremely different grammatically and syntactically. And while the average person is quite unaware of it, Anglo Saxon bears only a slight resemblance to modern English, or even to Middle English for that matter. There are some cognates certainly, but a distinctly different grammar, syntax, orthography, and vocabulary.

It had thus become my desire to apply the skills and technique for translation I had honed over many a “quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” (particularly the pre-Christian folk verse of this amalgamated Scandinavian and Lowland Germanic tribal peoples that inhabited England) to the work in Persian and Arabic of Ṭáhirih, the renowned poetess and heroic martyr of the Bábí and Bahá’í Faith. After years of trying to find a scholar adept in both Persian and Arabic willing to allow me to take the lead in the final English product, I encountered fortuitously Amrollah Hemmat, a highly regard scholar of both Persian and Arabic.  

Together we worked tireless and joyfully at his kitchen table for about four years (from 1997 to 2001) translating the verses of Ṭáhirih, at least those that were then available and were generally accepted by most scholars as having been written by this remarkably talented woman—some forty-three poems in all. We then arranged these poems into seven distinct themes: The Day of Resurrection, The Ecstasy of Nearness, In Praise of the Abhá Beauty, Let Deeds Be Our Adorning, and The Voice of God’s Command.

The result was The Poetry of Ṭáhirih published by George Ronald in 2002. The volume was extremely well received, with blurbs on the back cover from Rumi scholar and translator Coleman Barks, Distinguished Professor and Islamacist Tamara Sonn, and equally distinguish professor and author Soheil Bushrui. We created informative end notes to inform the reader about historical context of the allusions, the derivation of particularly interesting words, and, perhaps most important for the works we would do in the future, the same poems in the original Persian and Arabic in the back of the book for those scholars who wished to examine our methodology in capturing both the meaning and the tone of these poems.   

Having completed this work and having enjoyed more than anything else our collaboration, Amrollah and I—joined later by his talented and academically trained brother Ehsan—proceeded apace to take on more work, even as we still continue to collaborate until this day.

A few poems from this book

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