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  • Accident, Orientalism, and Edward FitzGerald as Translator
  • Annmarie Drury (bio)

In the mid 1850s, Edward FitzGerald wrote to Edward Byles Cowell, the friend who tutored him in Persian, about the two men's efforts to translate Persian poetry. FitzGerald had decided that Persian poetry in English should seem Persian still. "I am more & more convinced of the Necessity of keeping as much as possible to the Oriental Forms, & carefully avoiding any that bring one back to Europe and the 19th Century," he announces to Cowell, a scholar of Eastern languages who patiently redacted FitzGerald's translations, including many stanzas of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. "It is better to be orientally obscure than Europeanly clear."1 The remark suggests FitzGerald's investment in a stereotypical dichotomy: transparent and intelligible Europe versus the mysterious East. This thinking, unoriginal and not particularly attractive, reflects prejudices associated with Orientalism, and indeed scholars often assume FitzGerald's most esteemed translation from the Persian, his Rubáiyát, to be an Orientalist text.2 Edward Said identifies the poem as part of a secondary tier of Orientalist writing, a genre created by "Oriental enthusiasts." Such work involves "a kind of free-floating mythology of the Orient" that has foundations in "the conceit of nations and of scholars."3 Understood in these terms, the Rubáiyát reflects the hubris of imperial Britain, reinforcing imperialist prejudices and bolstering imperialist aims. Iran B. Hassani Jewett advances a similar view in her study of FitzGerald, positing that FitzGerald's British arrogance, his "belief of his inherent English superiority," allowed him to think that his very limited knowledge of Persian would suffice for his translation project. That misguided hubris, she contends, "enabled FitzGerald to compose his masterpiece in his own way, unhampered by any bothersome doubts."4 Barbara Black extends Said's argument in her discussion of the Rubáiyát as a fetishizing collection, explicitly connecting FitzGerald's Orientalism to his translation practice. "A member of what translation theorists label the hegemonic language and culture, FitzGerald assumes a paternalistic pose as the civilizer or improver of the dominated language and culture, Khayyám's Persian," Black writes.5 In this interpretation, translation becomes FitzGerald's means towards an Orientalist end. [End Page 37]

Such approaches to the Rubáiyát have valid elements, as remarks from FitzGerald's own pen attest. But I suggest that they fail fully to capture the character of the poem, because they misconstrue FitzGerald's translation ethos and its role in shaping the Rubáiyát. This ethos, deeply individual and individualistic, influences the thematics of the Rubáiyát and the attitude of the poem's lyric speaker. FitzGerald was attracted by the idea of genuine imitation being achieved by an accidental imitator, a writer who has not set imitation as a primary goal. Recognizing his own limits as a translator, and convinced of the severe limitations of translation as an enterprise, he nurtured a vision of good translation as imperfect re-creation that was governed largely by fortune.6 He sought to achieve such re-creation in the Rubáiyát, and the liberties he took in translation served this ideal.

FitzGerald translated many literary works besides the Rubáiyát, from Spanish and Greek as well as Persian, and he resorted essentially to the same approach in most of his translations, both Eastern and Western, preferring loose (or very loose) paraphrase to literal faithfulness. The approach is evident in his Six Dramas of Calderon (1853), published six years before the first edition of the Rubáiyát, and it is evident in his Agamemnon of Aeschylus (1876, privately printed 1865), which he translated loosely enough to drive the Greek scholar Swinburne to despair.7 In recognition of the great liberties he took with Aeschylus, FitzGerald attached to his Agamemnon a preface justifying his translation practice, in which he argues that an extraordinarily liberal approach offered the only hope he had of recreating the spirit of the Greek original. In the preface he refers to the scheme by which John Dryden classified translations according to degree of literal faithfulness: the categories of metaphrase (word-for-word translation), paraphrase...


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