Translating Hafez Ghazal 101

1. Using the dictionary {1} for a simple word-for-word rendering.

2. Discerning an underlying order in the ghazal.

3. Features of Persian poetry.

4. Limits of translation.

Word For Word Rendering

Armed with our previous introduction to Hâfez, we plunge straight into a word for word translation of a longish ghazal, that listed as 101 by Behrouz Homayoun Far (website not now available), who provides the Persian text and a fairly literal translation. It's a typical piece: opening with a rhyming couplet, and that rhyme reappearing in the second line of the succeeding nine couplets, i.e. the rhyme scheme is aa ba ca da ea fa ga ha ia ja (though there's also a weak rhyme at ea, i.e. aa)

khusrau text

1a. sharâbuaishtahâchîstkârbibunyad
wine eye of belovedandliving food pleasureemptywhat is that what is the matteraffair action profession artwithoutfoundation basis wall
1b. zidim bârsaffrandânwaharjahbâdâbâd
fromface countenance burden weight etc.order row words sayings andeverylittle what sincelet it be so be itlet it be as God wills
2a. girihzedilbugashâazsipihrmakkn
knot joint difficultyfromheart mind soulturn become from of for heaven sky spherehidden
2b. kefakrhechmuhandischanîngirihnigashâd
whatthought counsel trifle nothing annihilatedgeometricianthusknot joint difficultypainted
3a. zeinqilâbzemâ'nnatajibmadârkecharkh
fromrevolution vicissitude fromsure sign indicationwonderful strange centre motion axiswhat while whereaswheel globe fortune
3b. azinfasanahazârânhazârdârdyâd
from of thisstory fable historythousandsthousandholdsrecollection memory remembrance
4a. qadahabashartâdangîrzânketarrkibash 
cup goblet condition of civilitytakefrom thatwhat whoyour composition
4b. zekâsasarjamshedubahmanâstuqubâd
ofcup goblet head great summitJamshed Solomon and Bahmanis and Qubâd
5a. keâgahastkekâwwasukaikujâfantad
who what conscious intelligent iswho what Kâwusand Kaiin what manner? where? is it possible?end pass away
5b. keuaqfadastkechûnrafttakhtjambar bad
who what andruined desolate desertedis who what when if because howpassed wentroyal throne Jamshed Solomon to the winds
6a. z hasratâbshîrînhanûînmîbînam
fromsigh for grief or passion water splendour Shîrînstill further this is being seen
6b. kelâlahmîdamadazkhundidafarhâd
what who tulipwas breathingfrom blood life souleye seen Farhâd
7a. magarkelâlabadânashtbîwafa î dahr
but unless perchancewho what tulipfor that purpose is fickleness ingratiated time eternity fortune
7b. ketâ bzâdubashadjâmmaiazkaf/ffnanihâd
who what for struck dashedand bechalice coloured bowlwine rose-water gobletfrom froth abstaining prohibited not concealed
8a. biyâbiyâkeazmânîazmaikhirânshûym
comecomewhofromthou remainest fromwineobedientmy spouse
8b. magarrasîmbâhganjîdarîkharâbâbâd
but unless perchanc(we) arrive be it sotreasureinthisruin desolation overcome by drinkflourishing
9a. namîdandjâzatmarâbasairusafr
(they) do not givepermission leave departing passing throughwandering sally excursionandtravel journey
9b. nasîmbâdmusallâuânroknâbâd
breeze breath let it be /wind air breathoratory prayer-place mosqueandthat Roknâbâd
10a. qadahmagîrchûHâfezmagarbahnâlachang
cup goblet me takethus in the same mannerHâfezunless but perhapsfor from insound voice complaintlute harp
10b. kebastaandbarâbar yasham tarabdilashâd
who what bound obliged (they) are on silkjoyheart glad


1. Steingass (dictionary or online) gives most of the words, and the rest can be found by working backwards, i.e. checking likely words in an English-Farsi dictionary. Some are difficult, however, and my translations of nigashâd (painted) shartâdan (conditional), mîdamad (breathed) and tâbizâd (twisted) may not be correct.

2. We have to experiment with couplet translations to find the best rhyme, here stone, etc.

3. The many word-plays contribute to the meaning. Thus lâla means both inflamed (i.e. referring lips of Shîrîn) and tulip. And kharâb means a ruin and to be overcome by drink. An extended analysis is needed by someone with more Farsi.

4. Many couplets are straightforward, and I have added notes only as necessary.

Couplet One

Themes: 1. we are under God, 2. art is a discovery of what already exists.


wine and living empty what is that art without foundation
from face burden order words every little let it be as God wills

Suggested translation:

Wine and breath are empty: our art on stone
is built with countenance of words foreknown.

Couplet Two

Theme: Trust in God and not man's formulations.


knot from heart become from heaven hidden
what thought nothing geometrician thus knot painted

Suggested translation:

If the heart's difficulties are from heaven hidden,
what hurt has any wise man's knot unsewn?
Couplet Three

Theme: The world is more marvellous even than our recollections show it.


from revolution from sure indication wonderful axis what globe
of this story thousands thousand holds recollection

Suggested translation:

The world in wonder on its axis turned
is in a thousand recollections strown.

Couplet Four

Theme: Men are mortal, however far we look.


cup condition of civility take from that who your composition
of cup head Jamshed and Bahman is and Qubad

Suggested translation:

Now brood on Solomon and take his bowl:
your skull, in this, is also Bahman's bone.

Notes: References are to Persian kings. Bahman was the father of the legendary founder of the Sasanians, and appears in Ferdowsi's Shahnama. Qubad was a Seljuk ruler (1219-36), and Jamshed is a mythical Persian king loosely identified with Solomon. By popular mythology, everything in the world was revealed to the gazer into Jamshed's bowl.

Couplet Five

Theme: All passes, even the great splendours of the world.


who conscious is what Kâwus and Kai is it possible pass away
what and ruined is who how went throne Jamshed to the winds

Suggested translation:

Kai and Kawus to the winds are gone:
And where is Solomon's high-splendoured throne?

Notes: More references to Persian kings. Kai and Kawus were Seljuk rulers (1210-43).

Couplet Six

Theme: Deep affections give us truth.


for sigh for grief water Shîrîn this further this is being seen
what tulip was breathing blood eye Farhâd

Suggested translation:

What breathes in tulip and the sighs of Shirin
will be as Farhâd's blooded tears have shown.

Notes: Farhâd and his lover Shîrîn are characters in a long poem by the Persian poet Nizâmî (1140-1203), which was loosely modelled on the adventures of the Sasanian ruler Khusru, the successful rival of Farhâd. 'Shedding tears of blood' is an expression of extreme grief.

Couplet Seven

Theme: Time and beauty pass regardless.


Unless what tulip for that purpose is fickleness time
what for dashed and be bowl of wine from abstaining not concealed

Suggested translation:

Can men or tulips from their coloured bowl abstain,
though in it time's unfaithfulness be thrown?

Couplet Eight

Theme: In wine and deep reflection we shall find a greater treasure.


come come what of thou remainest wine obedient my spouse
perhaps we arrive be it so treasure this ruin flourishing

Suggested translation:

Remain with me and, if the place be ruined,
in that arrival is our treasure sown.

Couplet Nine

Themes: 1. Stay in familiar places, and 2. what we love is not at odds with orthodox prayer.


do not give permission parting wandering and travel
breeze let it be Oratoy and that Roknâbâd

Suggested translation:

No breeze from Oratory gave me permission
in journeying my Roknâbâd disown.

Notes: Oratory (which now exists as a flower-garden) was an open space for prayers. Roknâbâd is the stream near Shiraz so loved by Hâfez.

Couplet Ten

Theme: In obedience to things of beauty we find our happiness.


cup do not turn Hâfez unless for sound harp
who bound (they) are on silk joy heart glad

Suggested translation

Hear the harp, Hafiz, its silken strain
in wine's deep happiness to you is known.

Persian Poetry

Persian or Farsi is a quantitative language, and metres are not based on stress or syllable count but on various patterns of long and short vowels woven into hemistichs (misrâ) or half lines of equal metrical length. Two misrâ are joined into a full line (bayt), and each bayt usually ends in a rhyme, one rhyme often serving for the whole ghazal. What we call a couplet is in fact a bayt printed as two lines for reasons of space. Some bayts also have internal rhyme: the first bayt of a ghazal, for example, will commonly have end rhymes on each misrâ, so that it will indeed appear as a rhyming couplet.

Persian is also an Indo-European language that uses the script of a Semitic language, Arabic (plus a few extra letters). Three letters are pressed into service for vowels: alef, wa and ya. These three 'vowels' are intrinsically long. But short vowels also exist, necessary to separate consonants, though often not shown. The first word in the ghazel above is sharâb, but is written as shrâb. We have to know the word, or look it up in a dictionary, to be sure of spelling and pronunciation. When shown in 'full writing' a Farsi text is easier to read, of course, as there are marks above and below the line to indicate the nature or absence of vowels, and the implied consonant or hamza needed to separate constants, this hamza needing a letter to hold it, an alef when the word starts with a long vowel. . . Apart from the prepositions, and the noun-ending , which indicates the objective, relationships between nouns is indicated by the izâfat or short i — which is again not shown but appears in the transliteration of our first example.

A vowel is regarded as long when: 1. it is intrinsically long or 2. when it is a short vowel followed by two consonants, either immediately following in the same word, or ending one word and starting the next — all consonants, that is, except 'n', which is nasal and doesn't count. Additionally in case two, as a peculiarity of Persian poetry, a hypothetical short vowel (nimfatha) is read after the second consonant. The two words bád búd (the willow was) are separated by such a nimfatha ( x - x ) where the words jahán búd (the world was) are not because jahán ends in n (x x). The monosyllable yi (of) can be treated as long or short, and the word for 'and' can be a long ú or short u, or a consonant followed by a short vowel (wa in Arabic, va or o in Persian). {8}

The upshot is that Persian metres are not readily transferred to English verse, any more than are Sanskrit, Greek or Latin metres. Modern translations do sometimes try, but the results don't generally come over as acceptable verse, even 'free verse'. I have therefore gone back to earlier practice of using iambic pentameters, which allows for some subtlety of expression.

Even more difficult to convey is the nature of Persian poetry, which does not make a feature of alliteration or assonance, but employs parallelism, punning and literary allusion, sometime borrowing whole lines at a stretch. Hâfez pushes these features to extremes, employing a very free word order. Older commentaries generally gave the Persian and a pleasing if somewhat loose English verse rendering. Modern commentaries tend to give the transliterated Farsi, {4} and a literal translation. In neither case, however, the pleasing verse or the literal translation, is the rendering very close because 1. Hâfez uses a free word order that makes the meaning fluid or ambiguous, 2. many of the individual words have extended plays of meaning, sometimes on the associated Arabic and 3. the words and phrases are extraordinarily allusive — to other poets, stock meanings in Arab and Persian poetry, contemporary events and to the tacit understandings of the Muslim medieval world.

What can we do, given mindsets and concepts of poetry so different from our own? Scholars and students need a plain rendering, with the meanings, wordplays and references drawn out. For the general reader, however, we might aim for something that steers a middle course, between a bald prose summary that isn't poetry, and an 'English poetization' of the underlying themes. Hâfez cannot be fully translated, as many commentators have noted, but a evocative rendering that resonates with some of Hâfez's themes and meanings may encourage readers to try their own hand at translation.


Henry Wilberforce Clarke, on whose renderings Behrouz Homayoun Far's translations are based, aimed for a literal translation and his version rhymes only as a couplet in the fifth. We have tried to do a little better, building up the translation from our understanding of individual words and their allusions. The result:

1. Wine and breath are empty: our art on stone
          is built with countenance of words foreknown.

2. If the heart's difficulties are from heaven hidden,
          what hurt has any wise man's knot unsewn?

3. The world in wonder on its axis turned
          is in a thousand recollections strown.

4. Now brood on Solomon and take his bowl:
          your skull, in this, is also Bahman's bone.

5. Kai and Kawus to the winds are gone:
          and where is Solomon's high-splendoured throne?

6. What breathes in tulip and the sighs of Shirin
         will be by blooded tears of Farhâd shown.

7. Can men or tulips from their coloured bowl abstain,
          though in it time's unfaithfulness be thrown?

8. Remain with me and, if the place be ruined,
          in that arrival is our treasure sown.

9. No breeze from Oratory gave me permission
          in journeying my Roknâbâd disown.

10. Hear the harp, Hafiz, its silken strain
          in wine's deep happiness to you is known.

Concluding Remarks

The original is enigmatic in places. Have we rendered it 'correctly', and is this really poetry and not mindless riddling?

To answer the first we can look at Reza Saberi's translation that aims at a faithful and, where possible, literal rendering. {2} Three verses are rather different:

1. CJH: Wine and breath are empty: our art on stone
           is built with countenance of words foreknown.
    RS: What is the secret drinking and pleasure but a baseless act?
          I took to the rank of rends. Whatever will be, let be.

6. CJH: What breathes in tulip and the sighs of Shirin
          will be by blooded tears of Farhâd shown.
   RS: Because of Farhâd's unfulfilled desire for Shirin's lip,
         I can see the tulips blossoming from the blood of his eye.

8. CJH: Remain with me and, if the place be ruined,
           in that arrival is our treasure sown.
   RS: Come! Come! Let us be wasted by wine for a while,
         So perhaps we find a treasure in this wasteland.

Reza Saberi has read kharâb as 'overcome by drink' in couplet 8 (see above), and there is no 'blossoming' in the original Persian of 6. But our version of couplet 1 is seriously in error, having missed the important 'let it be as God wills' phrase, and misread kâr bi bunyad as 'art on stone' rather than 'art without foundation'. A better rendering would be:

1. Vain are wine and art, not built on stone
    unless the words are God's own will foreknown.

For the second question, mindless riddling, consider a similar process at work in Hart Crane. {7} Such lines as It was a kind and northern face (Praise for an Urn), a steady, winking beat between (Paraphrase), We make our meek adjustments / Contented with such random consolations (Chaplinesque), I have known myself a nephew to confusions (The Fernery) are difficult to encompass with rational explanations. They call on vague understandings, and on relationships between words that are far from obvious, but seem nonetheless to 'work'. So it is with Hâfez. He did not create things from the depths of the unconscious but drew on and elaborated matters important to his contemporaries, which is the advantage of working within a long tradition.



1. F. Steingass, A Comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary: Being Johnson and Richardson's Persian, Arabic and English dictionary. Revised, enlarged and entirely reconstructed by F. Steingass (Asian Educational Services, 2003 ) Also Digital Dictionaries of South Asia. Steingass online: includes literary Persian and common Arabic words: fascinating but more cumbersome to use.
2. Reza Saberi, The Divan of Hafez: A Bilingual Text Persian-English (Univ. Press of America, 2002), 121.
3. A.K.S. Lambton, Persian Grammar Including Key (CUP, 1953, 1979). A solid textbook, though a summary vocabulary and verb etc. tables would be helpful.
4. Meisami, Julie Scott, Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Poetry: Orient Pearls (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
5. Wheeler M. Thackston, A Millenium of Classical Persian Poetry (Iranbooks, 1994), 67.
6. E.G. Browne, Literary History of Persia (Munshiram Manoharlal, 1902-24/1997), II, xii-xiii.
7. Preminger, A. and Brogan, T.V.F, (eds) The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), 897.