Rumi and Sultan Walad, Konya, mid-1200s

By: | Post date: 2009-04-22 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek
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I’ve just put online the various transcriptions available of the Greek verses written by Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) (yeah, *that* Rumi), and Rumi’s son, Sultan Walad (1226-1312). I’m going to comment on the editions and the linguistics in the next couple of postings.

Rumi and Walad wrote bits of Turkish and Greek among their Persian poems, as part of their ecumenical outlook. There is a reason Rumi was called “the Roman” after all. (See rant on “the Roman” below.) As a result, the macaronic poems are caught between two traditions, Turco-Persian and Greek, so they get treated poorly in both sides. There are several online queries by people reading Persian, asking what the hell the Greek means. Standard editions of the poems do apparently include translations of the Greek (and if anyone has access to them, please send them in so I can add them). But given how problematic the texts are—second language Greek, from the Middle Ages, mostly written without vowels, copied by scribes who didn’t know Greek—I can’t imagine those readings are unproblematic. On the other hand, the editions of the verses in Greek needed someone conversant with both mediaeval Greek and Persian literary convention; until the latest edition, we really didn’t have both. (I don’t know anything about Persian literature apart from a month of trying to learn Persian, one read-through of the Shahnameh, and some Rubaiyat via Esperanto—and all that 15 years ago; but I think I can catch some misconstruals already.)

But first, shout-outs to the people who actually edited these texts, and took the brunt of their difficulty. Or rather, the three of those people that I know something about.

  • Joseph von Hammer was one of the Original Gangsta orientalists, one of the guys Edward Said was supposed to have groused about but didn’t (because he didn’t really talk about German academia. Where, you know, Orientalism as an academic discipline actually happened first). Von Hammer published as much of Evliya Çelebi as there has been in a Western language for quite some time; I made use of his translation in the Quadrupeds, to make sense of some of the Quadrupeds’ references to wild cats via Çelebi’s descriptions of the Ottoman fur trader guilds. (Çelebi also transcribed the first words of Tsakonian we know of, but not in Hammer’s selection. His travel diaries are ginormous.) With the Rababname, Von Hammer was clearly not really trying, and his oddball spellings of Greek show that. But even so, I don’t know what the hell he was thinking by inserting the reading “Sant Augustin”…
  • Gustav Meyer‘s was the first halfway decent reading of the text. Meyer is a figure you notice on the margins of Modern Greek historical linguistics: he studied under Psichari, edited and commentaried Simon Portius’ Grammar of Greek (downloadable), and did pioneering work in Greek etymology (including being the first to point out several Balkan loanwords). He was also the first to recognise Albanian as an independent branch of Indo-European. Despite the confusion I’ve nourished for the past decade, he is not the same person as Wilhelm Meyer-Lübke.
  • And for the last, an anecdote. (I do this quite a bit, I know. I’ll blog about that one day, too.)

It was the winter of 1995 into 1996. I was in Greece for my doctoral research, which consisted of three months at the offices of the Historical Dictionary of Modern Greek in the Academy of Athens, home to every stray cat in Agios Sostis. (They’ve moved since. The dictionary, I mean; dunno about the cats.) I was there typing out every single index card on που on file, because I wasn’t allowed to photocopy them. I then spent another two months in Salonica, photocopying the entire Early Modern Greek holdings of the university library. And I made contact in Salonica with George Baloglou (no stranger to the comments thread here), with whom I’d already started working on translating the Quadrupeds. The latest editor of the Quadrupeds, Vasiliki Tsiouni(-Fatsi), was in Athens, we were told; so before leaving Athens, I rang her up to make contact, and talk about what we were doing. When I called her, and she enquired what I’d been up to, I told her about being at the Academy.

Funny thing that, because Tsiouni also worked at the Academy. In the Folklore Section. In the Agios Sostis offices. ONE FLOOR UP THE STAIRS from where I’d spent the last three months.

That was the first coincidink. The second coincidink was when George and I paid her a visit late February, at her place nudged up against Lycabettus Hill. Tsiouni’s cousin was in town visiting when we came over; a somewhat melancholy intellectual, who was now living in a village in Boeotia. It turned out he had tutored in Modern Greek at Melbourne University in the late ’80s, but we’d never overlapped, because I’d never had much to do with the Modern Greek department at Melbourne Uni, and I was never really going to get the chance to. (That was as a result of underlying trends I’ve sketched in a very depressing paper elsewhere.)

Oh, that’s not the coincidink. The melancholy intellectual left a calling card with us fellow intellectual when he left. The coincidink is, the melancholy intellectual was Dimitris Dedes, and the calling card was his recent edition of Rumi and Walad. Because I’d been assembling my mediaeval vernacular corpus for some time, I immediately knew what I’d just been handed.

Part of my concern with putting this online was, the journal looked quite local to Greece, and probably didn’t have much of a print run; it wouldn’t be anywhere near as accessible (particularly to Persianists or, dare I say, Orientalists) as the older editions in Byzantinische Zeitschrift or Byzantion, big Western journals. I certainly wouldn’t have found it had I not come to Greece. And this edition deserved exposure: Dedes clearly knew something about Persian literature, and his reconstructions were in several instances better informed than his predecessors’.

Oh, and here comes the rant. Every year or so, the BYZANS-L Byzantine Studies mailing list gets derailed from its placid inactivity by a flamewar between, erm, “interested outsiders” who take issue with Byzantinists’ non-construction of ethnic identities, and the few Byzantinists who can be bothered flaming back. (Most just hide and wait for it to pass.) I got involved in this year’s round, more fool I: I ended up with private email plastered on the mailing list and everything. (Oh, and Anna K? Linguolabial trill right back atcha.)

One of the sillier detours of the flamewar was when Rumi got dragged in. Not only should Byzantium be referred to as Eastern Roman, and how dare you hegemoniacal Westerners claim Romanity for yourselves, just because Rome is actually in Western Europe (Ooh, I can see the flames now. I reserve the right to doink comments, people; it’s my blog). But “Rumi” should also be translated as “Roman”; and when one of the academics pointed out that it is more useful to translate Perso-Arabic “Rumi” into English in a variety of ways, including just plain “Anatolian”, he got yelled at for subterfuge.

Well I’m sorry, but unless Mevlana wore a toga and went to the Colosseum, had a rosary and ate fish on Fridays, or used fijo instead of figlio in his Italian, then I dare say it’s not particularly useful to translate Rumi as “the Roman” without scare quotes and a lot of background explanation. We know why a 13th century Persian would call Rumi “the Roman” (because—background explanation—he lived in the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, which was land that used to belong to the [Eastern] Roman Empire, and where Romeic, now Modern Greek, was still widely spoken). But to insist that Rumi should be translated as “Roman”, when “Roman” doesn’t mean anything like what the target audience understands by “Roman”… well, you’re not doing translation into English any more; you’re doing something else.

Right. Philology coming up.


  • opoudjis says:

    > Nick, we actually visited Tsiouni in mid-late *January* 1996

    Oh? Well, I can only respond with the old saying: "A Klingon may be inaccurate. But he is NEVER approximate."

    (How would that go in Klingon? I guess chaq qarHa’ tlhIngan. ‘ach not Hon.)

    > Or had Tsiouni actually encouraged Dedes to show up

    You always did have a keener eye for that kind of thing than me! Maybe, maybe…

    > I thought chances were that we wouldn't see each other again

    No, you wouldn't get away from me that easily. I'm not that mobile any more, which means next time I'm in Europe, I'll make a more determined effort…

  • George says:

    Nick, we actually visited Tsiouni in mid-late *January* 1996 — if nothing else, I remember that because I was going to fly back to the U.S.A. the morning after 🙂 [And when I bid you farewell in the taxi on the way back from Tsiouni’s place … I thought chances were that we wouldn’t see each other again … which turned out to be so wrong … largely thanks to your professional mobility!]

    What a great description, “melancholy intellectual” — and we couldn’t believe our good luck to have met Dedes that evening! (Was it just luck, though? Or had Tsiouni actually encouraged Dedes to show up in order to meet and enlighten two unusual gentlemen?)

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