Become a moth

20 May

Shajarian and a very young Homayoun perform the Molana-Rumi verse (with Alizadeh and Kalhor)

Perhaps the main reason I started my attempt to learn Farsi was pure spite (the other was to go to Afghanistan).  I had gotten tired of asking Iranians whether they liked this or that translation of Saadi or Hafez and being smugly told or categorically barked at: “NO! None of them; Persian poetry can’t be translated,” or reading some poor soul on You Tube gush: “My God, what beautiful music!  Can someone translate the lyrics, please?!!” only to be shot down by an Iranian: “you dont know all the metaphors references you won’t understand you cant translate poetry.”  Well, yes you can translate poetry, ‘cause if you can’t, you can’t translate anything else either.  Or you can create a set of reasonably analogous concepts that gives the other language-speaker a strongly analogous idea, at least, and just as strong a sensory feel.  In the end, the set of incommunicable ideas we’ve each got locked in our heads is pretty much as different as that between any two languages, so if you doubt translation you’re doubting the hope of any human communication really – which might, I understand, be a reasonable theory.  But we’ll forgive the Persians their snobbery because, as they say in Spanish in an expression I love: “tienen con que…” literally “they got what with…” meaning “they have reason to be” or “they a have a right to…”

But then there’s this sweet and very generous attempt of one You Tube reader to give an almost calque-like translation of this Rumi piece:

If you are going to the drunkards, become drunk

If you go towards the drunk, go drunkenly! Go drunkenly! (mastâne is a compound from mast (drunk) and the prefix -âne, which is_ a particularizer (pertaining to the qualities of X, in a X manner) e.g. from mard we have mardâne (men’s, for men; …

You should become all soul, until you are worthy of the spirits[?]

You should become all soul until you become deserving the sweetheart (beloved)

And then become the cup [?] that holds the wine of love

And then become a cup for the wine of love! Become a cup! (in English, if I’m not mistaken, one says “become a member of X” so I translated it as “become a cup…” rather than “become the cup”)

Make your heart like the [other] hearts [?], wash it seven times [till it is free] of grudges

Go and wash the chest of hatreds seven-water-ly like [real] chests (chest is the house of heart. I think, in English, one says “like a [real] chest”. Ancient people believed that washing something with water of seven seas makes it purely clean.)

And then come live with the lovers

And then, come [and] become homemate with lovers! Become homemate! (ham- = homo-, xâne = home -> homo-home like homo-phone but anyway: homemate)

Become a stranger to yourself, ruin your own home [destroy the_ nafs]

[both] make yourself alien (stranger) and make the house ruined (I think it means “desert your past and your belongings”)

And from the heart of the flame, come out, become a moth

And into fire, enter! Become a butterfly! Become a butterfly! (candle (šamë)

Abandon your deceit, O lover, become mad

O lover, abandon deceit! Become mad! Become mad! (hilat is Arabic_ form of hila -> hile. In Persian, we have sometimes taken an Arabic word as -at and sometimes as -a. Well, as for hilat, it’s not found in common Persian and we only say hila/e)


And a Farsi transliteration, not all included in the above performance:

Aan goushvaar-e shaahedaan, hamsohbat-eh aarez shodeh,

Aan goush-e aarez baayadat! dordaaneh sho, dordaaneh sho(2),

Chon Jaan-e to shod dar hava, zafsaneh-ye shiereen-eh ma,

Faany sho O chon aasheghaan! afsaaneh_ sho, afsaaneh sho(2),

Andiesheh-at Jaaie ravad, aangah to ra aanja barad

zaandisheh bogzar chon ghaza! pieshaaneh sho, pieshaaneh sho(2)

O Hielat Raha kon aashegha! divaneh sho, divaneh sho(2),

Vandar del-e aHam khiesh ra bigaaneh kon, ham khaaneh ra viraneh kon,

Vaangah bia ba aasheghaa! hamkhaaneh sho, hamshaaneh sho(2),atash dar a! parvaneh sho, parvaneh sho(2)

Ro sieneh ra chon sieneh ha, haft aab_ shoo az kieneh ha,

Vaangah sharaab-e eshgh ra! peymaaneh sho, peymaaneh sho(2),

The moth-and-flame is one of the most classic of those ‘untranslatable’ metaphors: the constant injunction to become a moth and throw yourself into the flame, surrender to the annihilation of love.  The crucial surrender here, of course, is to ignore the full spectrum of interpretations – from the religious pedant’s to the equally irritating contemporary gay ‘reads’ (those of what Joseph Massad calls “The Gay International”) – about whether the flame is God or your spiritual master or a hot kid and really surrender the urge to interpret entirely, forget about metaphor, stop the transference, which is what “metaphora” means in Greek, something that the ghazal’s connected/disconnected structure is so conducive to and which gives it so much of its power  — and which probably leads to the common assumption of untranslatability.  This is what Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry does so successfully in English.

That said, I’ve never seen a moth actually do this.  I’ve heard mosquitoes incessantly frying themselves on those machines on summer nights in the sweltering plains of northern Greece while I’m trying to enjoy a roast pig crackling, but not a moth actually burn itself in a candle or other flame — or maybe Persian moths are greater emotional risk-takers.  In my experience, whenever a moth runs into trouble around light it’s usually ended up like this guy who I found in my icon lamp.

And this is what I’ve found most contemporary humans’ experience of love to be too: stuck in a viscous mess, your wings oil-logged, pedaling frantically and unable to escape your slow suffocation till life picks you out with a paper-towel and squishes you.  Don’t we wish it were instant incineration; we’d save ourselves much pointless humiliation.  But our hearts just aren’t up to such sacrificial leaps into the abyss anymore.

“Whom the flame itself has gone looking for, that moth — just imagine!” – Bollywood song


One Response to “Become a moth”


  1. “The Liberal mind is oversexualized…” says تاریخ خراسان | Jadde-ye-Kabir - December 25, 2020

    […] Become a moth […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: