Translating Idols of Azar

Amîr Khusraw (1253-1325) was born in the village of Patyali (Uttar Pradesh) to an Indian mother and a Turkish military nobleman. {1} His father had fled Transoxiana before the Mongol advance to serve the Delhi Sultans, but he died in 1262, leaving the son in the care of a rich maternal grandfather. The boy studied Persian at Maktab and produced his first collection of poetry "Tuhfatus-Sighr" in 1272. Thereafter Khusraw served as court poet to a succession of Delhi Sultans, from Balban to Mohammad bin Tughlaq, creating five divans and much occasional writing. He was also a soldier (captured by and escaping from the Mongols in 1285) and a gifted musician (laying the foundations for Indo-Muslim music and inventing several new instruments). {1}

Called the "parrot of India", Amîr Khusraw was an extraordinarily fluent and voluminous writer, producing nearly half a million verses that included re-interpreted Persian classics and exquisite lyrics of his own. The Timurids of Herat and the Mughal Emperors especially prized his work, and his children's riddles are still popular in India.

khusrau text

Amîr Khusraw is not much translated, but there was a pleasing rendering by Hadi Hasan: the first five lines run:

O you whose beautiful face is the envy of the idols of Azar
You remain superior to my praise.
All over the world have I traveled;
many a maiden’s love have I tasted;
Many a beauty-star have I seen;
but you are something unique.

Word-For-Word Rendering

We undertake a word-for-word translation, using dictionaries and grammars as necessary. Thackston's book provides the Farsi text, {3} which I have taken as correct ( Hasan's seems a shortened version.)

1. facebeautyyoujealousyidolsazar
everyhow muchdescriptionsI makeinbeautyfrom thatmuch more adorning
2. hargazniyâyid darnazarnaqshizru'yatkhûbatar
ever? you blessedinsight picture fromvisionmore beautiful
houriI not knowOboy sonchild sonAdam unlessfairy
3. âfaqragardîdahammihrbutanvarzîdaham
horizon(obj)ifI seelove affectionidolsI experience try out
bisyârkhubandîdahamâmâchîz dîgari 
manybeautiesI seebutyouthingother
4. Ayrâhatuâramjânqaddchûnsarviravân
Oease comfortandrest reposelife soulnot with-standingtall-how-and elegant (cypress)flowing /soul
zînsânmarv/ ma ravdâmankashânkâramjânammîburî
from this manner go notskirt -pull in (avoid)deed taskwith my life you escape
5. azmtamâshâ -kardahâhang sabrâ kardah
jân udilînastrusamdâbarî
life souland heartwhich whilst as long asthis iscustom pomp
6. âlamhameyaghmâikhâliqî hameshayaday
world universeall/ assaultvery plunderyouvery creatorall/assaultperhaps/fittingOyou
that the former, momentnarcisusfreshness lovelinessyouprofessed a religioninfidelity
7. Khusraugharîb astugadââftâdahdarshehrshomâ
Khusrauhumble, strangerisandbeggarbefallenincityyou
Would that it were/ ought to havewhoforsake oflord, Godtowards/ directionpoor humblefor another

Verse Structure

We now need to look at the verse structure. Why, when it's so complicated, should we bother with Persian prosody? Well, apart from the aesthetics, the pleasure of reading the poem properly, the sense often cannot be safely established without the scansion. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the normal word order is often inverted. Secondly, the possesive  izâfa, the unwritten i syllable is counted in the scansion, which  tells us what refers to what. And thirdly, because the short vowels are not commonly shown, the same word as written can have different pronunciations and meanings, most particularly with verbs. In short, the word-for-word approach of the previous tables breaks down, and we can imagine ambiguities or meanings that do not exist.

A very brief summary of prosody follows, I hope sufficient to explain the table below. Readers who want more are referred to Wheeler Thackston's excellent treatment, from which these notes are taken. {2}

1. The sh ch kh etc. consonants count as one consonant. Likewise w and y in the diphthongs aw and ay. The n plus another consonant is counted as one consonant.

2. The a i and u vowels are short. The â î ê ô and û vowels are long.

3. The word-ending a and the final u in tu or chu etc. can be long or short as the metre demands. The same flexibility applies to the izâfa, and to the unemphasized a and u following words (enclictics).

4. The initial glottal stop ('a) may be elided or attach itself to the last consonant of the proceeding word and be counted as a full syllable. Glottal stops within words, or between vowels, are not elided.

5. Several syllables may be contracted, eg. vâv to v, vagar to var, dîegar to digar, buguzarîn to bugzarîn, ki to k, ki-at to kat, pidar-ash to pidar'sh, a-a to a, the final âh to ah, and khvâst to khâst. Rhyme can cause the last to be 'heard' as a double syllable when the st is followed by a short vowel.

6. Persian metres are patterns of long and short elements. The short element is a consonant followed by a short vowel: Cv. The long elements may be a consonant followed by a long vowel (CV) or consonant followed by short vowel followed by consonant CvC.

7. Anomalous elements not conforming to CV, CV or Cvc have to 'resolved' or treated in the following ways.

a. With CVC or CvCC, the last C is attached the vowel of the following word, or (where the following word starts with a consonant) an extra syllable is intoduced (nîm-fatha, ë, unpronounced but sensed in the reading). Dast becomes das-të and dâd becomes dâ-dë.

b. With CVCC, the last C is attached to the initial vowel of the following word: CVCC v becomes CVC CV, and the penultimate C becomes Cë with a nîm-fatha. The CVCC word then reads CV Cë CV If no vowel follows, however, the nîm-fatha is added and the anomalous CVC simply treated as a long element: CVCC becomes CVC Cë.

c. An overlong syllable at the end of a hemistich is not resolved (but simply indicated as ±).

8. Some 70 metres exist, all patterns of the three elements CV, CV and Cvc

Two final points. Lines are stand-alone independent entities in the ghazal or qasida. Poems therefore seem somewhat artificial, a series of short statements held together by form, meter and rhyme rather than by clauses or binding emotion. Secondly, Persian poetry was intensely conservative, even stereotyped, seeking refinement of existing convention more than innovation. Craftsmanship was emphasized, and its poets read and memorized thousands of lines before venturing to write their own. Our rendering has to reflect these matters.

Persian Poetry Scansion

Wheeler Thackston gives us the scansion for this poem. The first line runs:

--x   /-x-x   /x--x   /-x-

A decent grammar book tells us which syllables are intrinsically stressed in Persian (the italics in the line above shows where these syllables may be both stressed or unstressed).

The name of the metre ( in fact muzâri' akhrab sâlim makfûf sâlim) doesn't matter, but we can use it to correct any uncertainty or missed izâfa because a. the metre has to be kept to, and b. pairs of hemistichs must have the same number of syllables. So:

1. 'aychihrayiyiturashkibuni'aza
2. hargaznyâdiddarnazarnaqshiazru'atkhûbatar
3. âfaqragaridahammihributanwardaham
bisyârkhubandahachîz chîzidî gari
4. ayrâhatuâramjânqadichûnisarviravân
5. azmtashâ shâ kardahâh angsab kardah
6. âlamhameyaghmâikhâliqhameshayaday
7. Khusraugha bastugaâfdahshehrisho

We have found a few izâfas, and see that marv in line 4b is not the city Merv but the negative imperative of raftan: do not go. We start with a word-for-word rendering:

1. O face of beauty you jealousy of idols of Azar
every many descriptions I make in beauty from that much more adorning

2. Ever you blessed in sight picture from vision more beautiful
houri I do not know O youth son of Adam unless a fairy

3. Horizon if I see love of idols I experience
many beauties I see but you thing other

4. O ease and rest life notwithstanding tall and how elegant flowing
from this manner go not avoid task of my life you escape with

5. Determination spectacle made outset waited have
life and heart as long as this is custom of pomp

6. Universe all very plunder you very creator fitting O you
that narcissus of freshness you professed a religion of infidelity

7. Khusraw humble is and beggar befallen in city of you
ought to have who for the sake of God towards humble for another

A literal, semi-prose rendering might be:

1. You whose face makes jealous the idols of Azar
Whatever description I make your beauty exceeds.
2. You are a picture from a vision, unreal
and beautiful to sons of Adam as are the houris.
3. If I scour the horizon I see many beauties
and have known them: you are something different.
4. Continue in this manner, be my life-task, moving gracefully,
my ease and rest that you escape with notwithstanding.
5. From the outset my heart and life have been set,
a spectacle but as the custom is to splendour
6. You create the very universe you plunder, make
of narcissus freshness a faith in infidelity.
7. Khusraw is humble, fallen a beggar in your city:
for the sake of God you should be humble to another.

If we want to keep the 'singing' quality, and the aa ba ca da ea fa ga rhyme scheme, then Azar, Abraham's father and famous crafter of idols, suggests one possibility.

How envious of you are the idols of Azar
          whose face of loveliness my words will mar.
To Adam's son above him as the houris
          repaint your looks in each particular.   
Lost in mirages I ranged horizons,
          but in all there looked on nothing similar.
You are my life and life task, though your moving
            take me from contentment, rest and far.
From the outset patient, ever faithful,
          your splendour following as evening star.
Why does the fresh flower of the world you plunder
          stay not faithful to me, singular?
A stranger in your city, Khusraw pleads
        for God and pity, as his poor words are.

But that's a little contrived, and not close to the literal meaning. We'd do better with the 'face' rhyme:

Envious are Azar's idols of a face
          beyond all artistry of mine to trace.
You are a picture from a vision, real
          to men of Adam as our houri race.
For idols I have travelled wide horizons,
          but met, in much encountered, no such case.
From me go peace and comfort: you continue
          the more in elegance and moving grace.
From your high splendour my life is set, falling
          and following, as is the custom, you apace.
Let not the flower's white freshness you depict
          by faithlessness be pillaged, or disgrace.


1. The Great Turk Genius Amir Khusraw and his Accomplishments in Music. N.A. Baloch. Jul. 2005. Muslim Heritage.com. Extended article.

2. Wheeler M. Thackston, A Millenium of Classical Persian Poetry: A Guide to the Reading and Understanding of Persian Poetry from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century (Iranbooks, 1994).

3. Persian and Indo-Persian background material for Urdu literature. Frances Pritchett. Oct. 2005. Short but useful listing of resources.

4. 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).

5. A.K.S. Lambton. Persian Grammar (C.U.P. 1953).

6. Amir Khusrau: Bibliography. References (not online).