A Poetic Odyssey: Dick Davis translates Hafez in “Faces of Love,” his new installment in a life dedicated to medieval Persian literature

Dick Davis spoke to PBS NewsHour chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown about his new book “Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz.”

According to Dick Davis, Hafez is the poetry world’s version of Bach.

“People say that Bach sort of gathered together everything that had gone before him in music and brought it into a new kind of stage. Hafez did the same with the conventions of lyric poetry,” Davis said.

In fact, Davis, who is a leading scholar of medieval Persian literature in the Western world, explains that Hafez is basically “canonic” in Iranian culture. “There are very few literate Iranians who can’t quote off by heart poems or at least many lines of Hafez.”

Hafez is featured in Davis’ new book, “Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz.” Davis translated poems by Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani, all poets from 14th century Shiraz.

This book continues in a line of Persian translations by Davis. A poet himself, Davis first went to Iran as a young man. He intended to stay for only two years, but fell in love and ended up staying for eight. While there, he met his wife, who is Iranian.

“When I got back to England, I realized that I had had this extraordinary privilege of getting to know this culture which is almost unknown in the West.” He began to study medieval Persian seriously, becoming a Ph.D. from the University of Manchester, in order to be bring pieces of Iran to the West.

“And so that’s what I’ve done with the past 30 years of my life really and I’m very happy to have done it. It’s been a wonderful odyssey, going from poet to poet.”

Davis has won awards for his translations over the years, but converting Hafez’s poetry to English is not as simple. Here is where Davis’s own poetic sensibilities come in handy.

“One of the great things in Hafez’s poetry is that it’s extremely ambiguous often and that it can be read in different ways. His poetry can read in a secular way or in a religious … that’s the great problem with translating Hafez that you have this constant ambiguity and ambiguity is very difficult to transfer from one language to another.”

Davis’ “Faces of Love” shows a side of Iran that we don’t often hear about, especially from news headlines. For him, it’s an important side of Iran that he thinks more people should understand. After all, poetry is integral to Iranian culture.

“Different cultures put their energies into different arts at different times … For example, you can think, painting in Italy or music in Germany, that kind of thing, but in the medieval period, the artistic energies of Iran went largely into poetry. And poetry has become part of the Persian cultural identity in a way that is true of very few other cultures.”

During his visit, Davis read three poems by Jahan Malek Khatun. The text of the poems is listed below.

Last night, my love, my life, you lay with me,
I grasped your pretty chin, I fondled it,
And then I bit, and bit, your sweet lips
I woke … It was my fingertip I bit.

My love’s an ache no ointments can allay now;
My soul’s on fire — how long you’ve been away now!
I said, “I will be patient while he’s gone.”
(But that’s impossible … it’s one whole day now …)

Always, whatever else you do, my heart,
Try to be kind, try to be true, my heart:
And if he’s faithless, all may yet be well —
Who knows what he might do? Not you, my heart.

You can also hear Davis read a poem by Hafez, part of our Weekly Poem series.