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Translator of Desires – Michael Sells
The Translator of Desires: Poems, by Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, translated by Michael Sells; Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2021. Paperback and hardback, 368 pp.
The Tarjumān al-Ashwāq, a collection of sixty-one love poems, is one of Ibn ‘Arabi’s best-known works. Having left Andalusia for the pilgrimage in 1200, he reached Mecca in 1202, and began to experience visions that would inspire much of his vast literary production over the next four decades. In a preface to the Tarjumān he describes an experience he had while circling the Ka’ba, reciting the verses of this poem (Translator of Desires, p. 3)
I wish I knew if they knew
whose heart they’ve taken
Or my heart knew which
high-ridge track they follow
Do you see them safe
The lords of love are in love
“No sooner had he begun reciting, Ibn ‘Arabi tells us, than he felt a jolt between his shoulders ‘from a hand softer than undyed silk’.”(p. xxiii) Turning round he found before him a “maiden”, who quoted back to him his poem, verse by verse, with critical comments, who told him that what he said did not become one like him. The story became well known through R.A. Nicholson’s 1911 English translation of the Tarjumān and Henry Corbin’s Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi (1969) .
During a subsequent stay in Mecca, Ibn ‘Arabi composed sixty more poems, and collected these together with the (criticized) poem, under the title Tarjumān al-Ashwāq.
Ibn ‘Arabi subsequently defended the Tarjumān against charges that it was nothing more than mundane erotic poetry. He did this by means of a verse-by-verse commentary, which illustrated how the poems related to Sufi pschology and cosmology. What Michael Sells’ translations bring out is that the poems are not “versified philosophy”; they are poems of longing, and joining and being far from what one loves, and their meaning will be entered into by taste, not by intellectual correlation.
Quoted on the back cover of the book, James Montgomery writes: “Accurate yet not overawed by the Arabic texts, this authoritative translation renders Ibn ‘Arabi’s Translator of Desires into a nuanced, flexible, and accessible modern idiom that enables English readers to enjoy the delights of these poetic gems.”
In The Translator of Desires, Michael Sells presents the first complete English translation of the Tarjumān since the groundbreaking translation by R.A. Nicholson. It includes a facing-page critical text of the original Arabic.
The introduction puts the poems in the context of the Arabic love poetry tradition, Ibn ‘Arabi’s life and times, his mystical thought, and how we might understand Niẓām, the young woman whom he presents as the inspiration for the volume — a relationship that has long fascinated readers.
Following the introduction and main text, there are
- detailed notes and commentaries on each poem,
- translations of Ibn ‘Arabi’s important prefaces to the Tarjumān,
- a discussion of the manuscript sources used for the Arabic text,
- notes on previous Tarjumān translations in several languages,
- and a glossary, chiefly of place and plant names that have been left in Arabic in the translation.
Like the introduction, the appendices are written in non-technical language, but are very informative, as may be seen in this passage from the Translator’s introduction:
No aspect of religious teachings and practice is more central to the Tarjumān than the hajj pilgrimage, which for those who are able to perform it marks the culmination of devotional life. At the center of the hajj experience are three rituals that carry the pilgrim back in time to the origins of Islam and of the world itself and forward to meeting the creator on the day of judgment. Pilgrims ritually circle the Ka’ba shrine that, according to Islamic tradition, was constructed by Abraham. At ‘Arafa, a plain and adjacent mount about twelve miles from Mecca from which the prophet Muhammad delivered his farewell address, pilgrims stand throughout the day and chant the words “here I am for you” that all souls will recite as they meet their creator. At Minā, pilgrims cast pebbles at three stone pillars and, on the holiest day of the Muslim year, reenact Abraham’s sacrifice. The Tarjumān returns time and again to these rites as it articulates the experiential dimensions of shawq. At the same time, it mixes the stations of the hajj and the stations of the beloved’s journey, tying together the poetic and religious solemnities of place, and establishing an implicit homology between the poet’s wandering from site to site in pursuit of the beloved and a pilgrim’s station-by-station movement during the pilgrimage. (pp xviii – xix)
Michael Sells is the Barrows Professor Emeritus of the History and Literature of Islam and professor emeritus of comparative literature at the University of Chicago. He is the author of many translations and studies of classical Arabic poetry. He has spoken at many symposia of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society in the UK and the USA, contributed to its Journal, and is a long standing friend of the Society and Honorary Fellow.
Michael Sells is a professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago. He is an authority on Ibn al-'Arabi as well as one of the most distinguished contemporary translators of classical Arabic poetry. His books include: Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes (Wesleyan); Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago); Early Islamic Mysticism (Paulist Press); The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (California); Approaching the Quran (White Cloud); and The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Andalus (Cambridge) as two full translations of Ibn 'Arabi’s Tarjuman al-ashwaq, Stations of Desire (2000) and Bewildered (2018).
Articles by Michael Sells
Ibn Arabi’s Poem 18 (Qif bi l-Manazil) from the Translation of Desires
Ibn Arabi’s “Gentle Now, Doves of the Thornberry and Moringa Thicket” (ala ya hamamati l-arakati wa l-bani), Poem 11 from the Translation of Desires
Selections from Ibn Arabi’s Tarjuman al-ashwaq (Translation of Desires)
Podcasts and Videos by Michael Sells
Bewildered – A New Translation of Ibn Arabi’s Tarjuman Poems
Selected Readings from the Poetry of Ibn Arabi
Life in Ibn Arabi’s “Ringsetting of Prophecy in the Word of Jesus”
Ibn Arabi's Lyric Mysticism and the Persian-Arabic Love Affair
The Poetry of Ibn Arabi – Recitations from the Tarjuman al-ashwaq