Review of translation of Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther Skin

By Lyn Coffin

The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg

By Mary Childs

Found in Translation: Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther Skin

Lyn Coffin’s new translation of the Medieval Georgian epic, Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther Skin, is a welcome, timely offering to world literature.  Coffin, collaborating with Georgian-born scholar, Dodona Kiziria, and many other Georgians, has rendered an updated translation of a great work of literature that is eminently readable, even pleasurable. This epic, from a country located at the crosshairs of the crossroads of East and West, one that boasts the peaceful existence of Christian churches, Muslim mosques, and Jewish synagogues within blocks of each other in the old center of its capital, Tbilisi, has much to offer.  Coming at a time when Georgia is making headlines for global cultural contributions – witness the rising star of Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia with Vetements in Paris; and yet also, when the world is in a state of crisis about so many issues – numbing, spiraling violence, massive migrations, renewed conflict between great powers, and those great powers themselves fraught with political, domestic tensions – this new edition of Rustaveli’s work is a reminder that human civilization has always been global, cultural influences multiple and complex, and yet that it is possible to blend different influences in a whole that can encourage humans to uphold values that may help us work towards some sense of harmony.

Translation involves, in part, the tricky business of finding a balance between accurately conveying the meaning, tone, and sound of the original, and rendering that all in a different linguistic medium.   This is particularly true of translating from Georgian, a non-Indo-European language with a grammatical structure and lexicon perhaps more complex than Homer’s or Plato’s Ancient Greek.  What I particularly appreciate in Coffin’s work is the balance she attains:  she translates a difficult text with a remarkable clarity of diction, and yet her straightforward syntax holds within it flourishes to remind its readers that yes, we are experiencing a text that was written some time in the first half of the 13th century, BCE. Her translation does a particularly sound job of conveying the original’s complex cultural influences, including Neoplatonic thought, Orthodox Christianity, references to the Koran, as well as to the Persian poets Ferdowsi (c. 940-1030) and Asad Gorgani (d. c. 1058), with possible overtones of both Sufism and Zoroastrianism; and it brings alive the Arthurian code of chivalric love, loyalty, devotion, as well as more earthly, passionate love, as lived by the two leading couples, Avtandil and Tinatin, Tariel and Nestan-Daredjan.   It is remarkable too, that Coffin accomplishes all of this in rhymed verse, using the 16-syllable line of the original Georgian.  If at times the strict rhyming scheme causes her English expression to sound a bit strained, especially to an audience more accustomed to free, unrhymed verse, we are to read with an open, generous heart, for Coffin has constructed a translation that captures the flavor of the original, and is readable and accessible to a modern audience.  This is not to belittle translators who have come before her; and it is perhaps instructive to see examples of the different styles, and how they flow from literal prose, to freer adaptation, and then to more literal poetic expression.  Marjory Wardrop, sister of the British diplomat, Sir Oliver Wardrop, worked for a decade on the first English translation, which she called a “close rendering,” and which was published after her death (1909), in 1912.  First, her attempt at a famous passage:

"I know that in the end thou wilt not blame this my resolve. A wise man cannot abandon his beloved friend. I venture to remind thee of the teaching of a certain discourse made by Plato: 'Falsehood and two-facedness injure the body and then the soul." (770) [1]

In a more recent rendition of this passage, from a translation of the entire text, Venera Urushadze, in non-rhymed verse, varies the syllable count of the lines between 15 and 17:

"You will not blame me for ever, you will perceive my dilemma.
Sages of old have taught us to honour the claims of friendship.
Permit me, O King, to recall to your mind the teaching of Plato:
'Falseness and double-dealing are destroyers of body and soul.'"(780) [2]

A curious addendum to Urushadze's 1986 translation is an excerpt of Rustaveli's poem, from 2004, which is both 16-syllable, and rhymed:

"Yet, in the end thou wilt not blame this act of mine, O king, I know;
A man who loves his friend will never leave the loved one to the foe.
Let me remind thee of the wisdom taught by Plato long ago:
'The man is injured by deceit; his soul is flung to hell below." (794-797) [3]

And finally, Coffin’s version, which embraces the 16-syllabic rhymed original, includes a respectful nod to the literal meaning, and is rendered in blend of modern and older English idiom:

"I know that in the end you will bless the course that I have taken.
A wise man cannot stand the thought his good friend will be forsaken.
Let me remind you of what Plato said to help us awaken:
'By lies and two-facedness, the body's hurt, the soul is shaken.'(794-797) [4]

Although this comparison may be a seem a bit academic, it is as instructive and fascinating as reading different translations of Homer and Plato: whether a translator chooses prose or poetry, rhymed or blank verse, close meaning or free adaptation, ultimately affects the reader, and what he or she finds in a given text. Coffin has, in this masterful work, offered a 21st century English speaking audience the opportunity to find, in translation, the complex, multi-cultural, morally probing thought of one of the world's great poets.

1 The Man in the Panther's Skin: A Romantic Epic by Shot'ha Rust'haveli, a Close Rendering from the Georgian, Attempted by Marjory Scott Wardrop. Reprinted from the Original English Edition, London, 1912. Tbilisi: Literatura da khelovneba, 1966.
2 Rustaveli, Shota, The Knight in the Panther Skin, translated Venera Urushadze. Tbilisi, Sabchoa Sakartvelo, 1986.
3 Georgian Poetry, translated from Georgian by Venera Urushadze, Donald Rayfield, Walter May & Diana Russell; compiled and edited by Badri Ambrose Sharvadze. Tbilisi: Akolzsia, 2004. This volume includes an excerpt of about 64 quatrains, from different sections of Rustaveli's epic; some of the quatrains are translated in 14-syllable lines, some in 16; all are rhymed.
4 Rustaveli, Shota, The Knight in the Panther Skin, translated by Lyn Coffin. Tbilisi, Poezia Press, 2015.