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The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam

Omar Khayyam
(Trans.: Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs)

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Title: The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam
Author: Omar Khayyam
Genre: Poetry
Written: ca. 1100 (this translation 1979)
Length: 114 pages
Original in: Persian
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  • Translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs

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Our Assessment:

B- : while perhaps truer to Khayyam, this translation is uneven and not entirely satisfactory.

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam is generally known in the translation(s) created by Edward FitzGerald in the nineteenth century. It is generally acknowledged that, for all their capturing the spirit of Khayyam's originals and so on, they are not truly faithful to the Persian verses. In addition, FitzGerald worked from a specific manuscript, which included verses that are now considered certainly not to have been by Khayyam.
       In an attempt to offer a truer picture of Khayyam's poetry Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs presented this version in 1979 (now available as a Penguin Classics paperback). It differs from FitzGerald's in that it contains considerably more verses (235 quatrains, as opposed to less than half as many in Fitz's versions), that the order differs (making comparison difficult), and that they try to be more faithful to the original Persian. This book also offers a thirty page introduction by Peter Avery, addressing many of the questions about the ruba'i form, Omar Khayyam, and his times, though many questions we had remained unanswered there. In particular, there is little explanation of their differences with FitzGerald, which we would have found useful.
       The translation itself seems fairly uneven. While some of Khayyam's fine and clever thoughts are expressed well the language -- consciously modern, especially in comparison to FitzGerald's version -- is often ineffective. Indeed, some of the phrasing and some of the words give an oddly dated feel to this 1979 translation. The language of the day disappears too quickly, apparently. Avery and Heath-Stubbs make no effort to rhyme the poem (as FitzGerald gamely does), which is certainly acceptable. However, they do not manage much lyricism in their poetry, and that is already a failing. The inconsistency in any sort of metre or style also proves to be irritating. With lines varying in length between six and twenty syllables much of the collection simply does not read well.
       Khayyam's fine poetry, and many of his clever thoughts do shine through this less than ideal translation. It is an interesting complement to FitzGerald's version, giving a fuller picture of Khayyam's work, though it pales poetically beside that far greater rendering. There is enough in here to satisfy the curious, but it is not a necessary collection.

       We must point out that there are curious editorial omissions, most notably the absence of any acknowledgement of the translators on the cover (problematic, given how closely this specific title is associated with a different translator, Edward FitzGerald), as well as the annoying absence of any means of determining which translations correspond to which translations by FitzGerald (though we understand why the translators wanted to avoid the comparison). Shoddy editorial work is also in evidence on the page "About the Authors", where the reader is informed that Khayyam "is thought to have died in approximately 1122". How odd then to find Peter Avery assure the reader in his introduction that "Modern investigators have also agreed that the formerly disputed year of Khayyam's death was 1131". We guess that the people at Penguin have not yet heard the good news.

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The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyám: Omar Khayyám: Other translations of the Rubáiyát under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       The Persian poet Omar Khayyám was born in Nishapur 18 May 1048 (according to this book) and died in 1131. Renowned in his times as a mathematician and philosopher he is now best known for his collection of Ruba'i verses.

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About the Translators:

       Peter Avery is a Lecturer at King's College, Cambridge, and a Lecturer in Persian Emeritus at the University of Cambridge.

       John Heath-Stubbs, born in 1918, studied at Oxford. He was the Gregory Fellow of Poetry at Leeds University from 1952 to 1955. He has translated Hafiz and Leopardi, written several collections of poetry, and edited numerous works. He received the OBE in 1989 for services to literature.

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