Section: Arts

Found in translation: Davis revives Persian poetic voices

Found in translation: Davis revives Persian poetic voices

“Kenyon tends to be a very Eurocentric place academically, and bringing intellectuals who are seriously studying parts of the world other than Europe is something that I think can push Kenyon students to think about the world in new ways,” Muhammed Hansrod ’17, a religious studies and Asian studies major, said. In order to make Eastern culture more accessible to a Western audience, topnotch Persian poetry translator Richard Davis was brought to Kenyon. The Middle Eastern Students Association (MESA) and the South Asian Society cosponsored the event. Davis presented the work of notable medieval female Persian poets in Peirce Lounge on the evening of Monday, Feb. 10.

Davis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern languages at The Ohio State University, has had a lifelong love affair with poetry. “All my life I’ve been interested in poetry — I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t,” Davis said. “Obviously, you start with nursery rhymes and work your way up.” Over the last 40 years, he has made a name for himself as the leading Persian poetry translator in the U.S. Although Davis has retired from being a professor, he is still active in the world of translation. His current project is a comprehensive anthology of female Persian poets from the Middle Ages to the present. His keen interest in female Persian poets arises partly from their absence in most literary discussions. “Their voices have been silenced … obliterated by time and by indifference,” Davis said during his lecture.

Throughout the evening, Davis resurrected the voices of two distinct female Persian poets: Mahsati, a 12th-century poet, and Jahan Khatun, a 14th-century poet. Davis read poems by both women while emphasizing the motifs common throughout most Persian poetry: loss and longing. Wendy Singer, professor of history and advisor for the South Asian Society, also played a key role in bringing Davis to Kenyon. “When I talk about Kenyon to prospectives [speakers], I say we are a place that [can pack] a poetry reading on a Sunday night,” Singer said. The large crowd gathered in Peirce Lounge on Monday night for Davis proved Singer’s comment to be true.

When one of Singer’s history majors, Shariq Khan ’15, came to her for advice about a Persian translation project for his senior comps, she put him in contact with Davis. Khan’s time abroad last year at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London sparked his interest in this project. Singer contacted Davis, hoping he would be able to recommend a mentor for Khan, but she did not expect Davis to volunteer his own services. A globalization grant from the Office of the Provost funded the collaboration between the two that allowed Khan to travel to and from Columbus once a week to meet with Davis.

The opportunity to work with Davis has been a rewarding experience for Khan, who has a great interest in Persian translations. “The project was originally to translate a 13th century poem in Persian by a poet named Amir Kushrow who lived in India,” Khan said. “I’ve been working on this with him for about six months now, it’s a long poem, about 4,000 verses … We are only translating a part of it.” During the weekly sessions, Khan and Davis discuss both the literal translation from Persian to English and the final translation of the poetic style. “I feel this was a sort of a masterapprentice relationship where he tried to give me his own craft which I could not learn from a book,” Khan said. Honoring the work Davis and Khan did together, Khan introduced the translator at the event.

Other translators, such as 17th-century translator and poet John Dryden, and Davis’s own work as a poet, have heavily influenced Davis’s perspective on the craft of translation. “Dryden said that only a poet can translate poetry, and I’m not sure that’s true,” Davis said. “But if you write your own poetry … translating the work of another poet [is like] you’re speaking to a mind that in some way works like yours … If you’re going to translate poetry, there must be a meeting of minds.” That meeting of minds is not always an exact art. According to Davis, “All translations are failures, but you get better at it.”


Comments for this article have closed. If you'd like to send a letter to the editor for publication, please email us at