The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferodwsi’s Shahnahmeh, Translated by Richard Jeffrey Newman
(Junction Press, 2011)
With The Teller of Tales, Richard Jeffrey Newman (who apparently speaks and understands Farsi at a high beginner or intermediate level) translates portions of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, a classic set of Iranian tales which he believes represents “Iran’s cultural imagination.” The original Shahnameh is quite large and its verses serve as a text of historical instruction as well “as one of cultural preservation,” which for his translation Newman places in alliterative verse. Newman believes that previous translations “rendering Ferdowsi’s verse into either blank verse or heroic couplets” fail and that these other English forms do not best represent “the rich sonic landscape of the poem that is so evident when it is recited in Persian.” Of course, as he explains, his choice suffers the price “that I lost entirely the regular rhythm that is so central a part of the music in the original.”
Newman’s book begins by way of presenting excerpts from what himself and others have called "The Poet's Preface" which has a feeling to it that’s similar to the tradition in the West of calling upon the muses----in which the poet takes the opportunity of declaring the worthiness of both the tale he is about to tell with his poem and also the tale itself.
In the name of the Lord of soul and of wisdom,
whose throne sits higher than thought can reach.
Set in the sky to light the night,
the moon. Use it to illuminate
a righteous, not an evil path.
Along with excerpts from the “Preface,” Newman presents the tales of the first five stories of Ferdowsi’s kings, closing with as he puts it "the Arabian Zahhak, the epic's first evil and only non-Iranian king. The Teller of Tales ends when Feraydun, Jamshid's descendant, defeats Zahhak and restores Iran to its former majesty."
Newman asserts that the focus of his selection "is the nature of the social order,” stating that “it's clear from the start that this order devolves not merely from the king, but also, and more importantly, from whether or not God has deemed the king worthy to rule. The sign of God's approval is called the farr, a word that is almost impossible to translate, but has at least a partial, visual analogy in the light that emanates from Jesus and the saints in medieval paintings.”
These stories all try to show the social order at the time of pre-Islamic history of Iranian people to the time that Jamshid loses the Farr and Arab culture starts to emerge in Iranian culture and the struggle the Iranian people went through afterward to “trace the rise and fall and rising again of the mythical Iran.”
As we see the fall of Jamshid’s kingdom:
Rank and Wealth; throne and crown;
The forces once at his command–
He grieved it all in a world gone black, hid himself for a hundred years,
And no one saw him or knew where he was.
Then, one day, the infidel Jamshid
Reappeared near the Sea of China.
And then the rise of Freydun takes place:
The wealthy men and the men of rank
Came to pay Freydun homage.
He received them gladly, and with grace, giving
Advice and offering God his gratitude
“This court is mine, and my star, shining,
Will spread prosperity and peace
across this land I’ve liberated. I am lord,
though, of all the earth, and so
I can’t remain in the same place for long.
If I could, I’d live here many years.
The Teller of Tales is the story of “the first act of cultural resistance, and assertion that the values and traditions of ancient Iran were still relevant despite three hundred years of Muslim Arab rule.” It is one significant piece of evidence bearing witness to the continuing pride of a people who number among the earliest of known civilizations.
Newman’s selection is accurate in presenting the tales he’s chosen to cover. There’s advantage in such a slim volume which slips easily into the coat pocket. Easily read while on the go, Newman presents his versions in such form that honors those whose stories he is representing. This is a tidy version of a classic and indispensible human story, full of lessons and observations which remain timeless, let’s have more translation of these tales from Mr. Newman published in the future.
Patrick James Dunagan and Ava Koohbor live and work in San Francisco. Patrick’s most recent book is There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn't Talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011). And Lew Gallery editions recently released Sinusoidal Forms co-translations of Ava's poems from Farsi.