“It is an astonishing fact that, after more than 700 years, Jalaluddin Rumi is the most popular poet in America. This is largely due to American authors, such as the poet Coleman Barks who has rendered literal translations of Rumi into free verse “American spiritual poetry” in a manner which has reached so many different sectors of American society. One finds Rumi quotes following the titles of newsletters, on the bottom lines of e-mails, and in many different kinds of published articles. Many people have memorized their favorite lines — usually those rendered by Coleman Barks, because his versions communicate far more successfully than literal translations. The reasons for such a response are unclear, but it likely has to do with a certain “spiritual hunger” in America (perhaps due to an absence of a mystical and ecstatic dimension in general American spirituality).
Yet this popularization has had a price, and the price is a frequent distortion of Rumi’s words and teachings which permeate such well-selling books. The English “creative versions” rarely sound like Rumi to someone who can read the poems in the original Persian, and they are often shockingly altered— but few know this, and the vast majority of readers cannot but believe that such versions are faithful renderings into English of Rumi’s thoughts and teachings when they are not.
The public has been deceived by the publishers of many of the popular books, who proclaim their authors as “translators” of Rumi— when, in fact, very few of them can read Persian. Coleman Barks, from the very beginning, called his renderings “versions.” And he has consistently clarified, in both his books and poetry readings, that he doesn’t know Persian and works from the literal translations of others […] And he has been (and allows himself to be) promoted as “widely regarded as the world’s premier translator of Rumi’s writings…” Where did the idea come from that poets could “translate” spiritual poetry into English without knowing the original language?”
“Corrections of Popular Versions of Poems from Rumi’s Divan,” author unknown, from the Dar Al-Masnavi website
”[…] the intent of giving examples of defective interpretations (which include some of their most glaring errors) is to show how badly Rumi’s verses have been mangled by well-meaning individuals who tried to make dry, academic, and old-fashioned-sounding literal translations more poetic and attractive.”
Click on the link to read the complete article, which includes examples of poorly “translated” versions of Rumi’s poetry.
On Coleman Barks’ “versions” of Rumi’s poetry, Majid Naficy has noted that “Barks not only ‘frees’ Rumi from the historical limitations of his time, but he also tries to disconnect Rumi from the Islamic society in which he lived and the Persian language in which he wrote his poetry.”