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Unread 05-03-2019, 02:43 PM
Bill Carpenter Bill Carpenter is offline
Join Date: Oct 2010
Location: Minneapolis
Posts: 2,266
Default Dick Davis's Shahnameh

It’s been several years since we had a mention of Dick Davis’s translation of the Shahnameh, so I wanted to say a few words about it and possibly interest new readers. The Shahnameh, subtitled “The Persian Book of Kings,” tells the stories of legendary and historical kings and heroes from prehistory to the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century.

Musing on Prof. Davis’s mastery, I am extremely impressed by his decision to translate a poem of 50,000 22-syllable lines into a combination of lucid prose (90% of the bulk) and delightful IP couplets (the other 10%). How many poets would have the self-restraint and pragmatism required to refrain from producing an all-verse translation? The excellence of famous verse translations of other epics, and the flatness and mediocrity of prose translations of epics, would strongly counsel against undertaking a prose translation, not to mention the poet’s own love of craft. Yet in this case the choice was brilliant and a total success. My wife and I are reading the book aloud. We have reached page 471 of 854 in the Penguin edition. Much as I enjoy Prof. Davis’s couplets, I am sure we would not have kept up our momentum through a thousand pages of them. The prose/verse ratio of this translation is perfect for reading aloud.

(If you have had the good fortune to run across the condensed Mahabharata and condensed Ramayana of Prof. Puroshottama Lal, available from, you have encountered a similar strategic success in reducing gigantic verse classics to readable prose + verse renditions.)

The prose is excellent, but it would take a Persian scholar to fully appreciate the extent to which Prof. Davis has created a consistent English language lexicon and rhetoric to present Ferdowsi’s masterpiece. As an English reader, I can only say that I have not encountered any bumps or rough spots after 471 pages. With respect to the verse, I can give an example, this excerpt being Sekandar’s proclamation of mercy to Dara’s defeated Persians:

“Whoever seeks out God’s forgiveness for
The deeds that he’s committed in this war,
Or looks for my protection, will soon find
That I’ve a merciful and generous mind.
I’ll help the wounded, and I will not shed
The blood of enemies who were misled.
Since I’m aware the God of victory
Has given this imperial crown to me,
My hand won’t touch what isn’t mine; my soul
Has chosen light and wisdom as its goal.
But as for those who’d thwart my wishes, they
Will find a dragon standing in their way.”

This passage illustrates Prof. Davis’s congenial combination of precision and casualness, which he maintains consistently throughout the book – at least through the first 471 pages, which is a pretty good sampling. With respect to the content, Sekandar of course is Alexander the Great, who in Ferdowsi’s poem is actually the son of the Persian king Darab, and not of the Greek king “Filqus.”

This translation of the Shahnameh was first published as a trilogy by Mage Publishers in 1997, 2000, and 2004. A boxed set is available on for $334, comprising 1134 pages with 630 color illustrations! Hennepin County Library only has volume 2, but it is gorgeous with many full-page, and some facing-page, color plates, in a large format, 11" tall. Penguin published the translation in one volume with some ink drawings in 2006, which is what we're reading. Prof. Davis explains that he chose the prose-verse combination based on the continuing performances of traditional itinerant storytellers, who narrate the Shahnameh in prose and only use verse for passages of heightened drama. That is interesting. We do not have that tradition. When I set out to write my Alfred epic, I no more would have thought of writing it in 90% prose than in a series of limericks.

To muse for a moment on Ferdowsi’s mastery, there is no single character dominating the poem like an Achilles or an Odysseus or an Aeneas (or a Mr. Either/Or), so there is no permanent center of interest or affection for the reader in the form of a character. Some of the legendary figures live for hundreds of years, but the stories go on without them. So that is one difficulty the author had to overcome to sustain interest. In addition, there is an incredible sameness in the language of warfare and luxury and natural description, and an incredible sameness in recurring situations. Prof. Davis created a consistent language for these samenesses that is never dull. Ferdowsi, for his part, manages some astonishing surprises, and manages to tell fresh stories throughout even though the scenes and descriptions are so unvaried. Hence the “Arabian Nights” comparison frequently made. Despite the endless march of battles, intrigues, and feasts, the author’s joyful inventiveness reveals itself again and again. It is amazing that a poem that is in some ways so uniform over such long stretches could nonetheless surprise and delight so consistently.

Last edited by Bill Carpenter; 05-15-2019 at 01:10 PM.
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Unread 05-05-2019, 06:15 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 6,437

Thanks, Bill.

You might be interested in this shadow puppet show, based on (well, "inspired by," anyway) a snippet of the original (not a verse translation, though--a prose paraphrase).

[Edited to link to a better video of the project]

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 05-06-2019 at 11:00 AM.
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Unread 05-06-2019, 10:44 AM
Bill Carpenter Bill Carpenter is offline
Join Date: Oct 2010
Location: Minneapolis
Posts: 2,266

Thanks, Julie. It looks like the opportunities for broader exposure to the Shahnameh are unlimited--with Ferdowsi as the Persian Homer.

I saw in an interview where Prof. Davis said it would have taken him 30 years to translate the poem in verse, and he was not sure he had 30 years.
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