Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



The advancement of translation as a literary science assists nations in learning from each other, particularly through scripture, FABLE, STORYTELLING, and WISDOM LITERATURE. For example, the Persian and Syriac versions of the Sanskrit PANCHATANTRA (The Fables of Bidpai, ca. 200 B.C.) allowed the Sassanian and Umayyad dynasties to profit from a classic anthology of fool tales, beast fables, exem- pla, dialogues, aphorisms, allegories, admonitions, and jataka tales. As the Crusades ended in 1272, returning European warriors carried home Indian legends and cautionary tales like souvenirs of Asian treasure. Similarly, the KOANS that the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma collected in A.D. 520 passed through translation into the Chinese Pi-yen lu (Blue Cliff Record, 1125) and the Japanese Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate or The Gateless Barrier, 1228) as models of mind-stretching logic and solutions to dilemmas. In 1717, the French translator and orientalist Antoine Galland of Rollot introduced to Europe a French version of the Arabic folk collection The THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (ca. A.D. 942), which amasses works by storykeepers from centuries of the lore of Arabia, Egypt, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Syria.

A touchstone of literary excellence, the King James Bible marks a significant accomplishment of British literature. In 1611, 750 reformers of the Church of England asked James I of England to issue an authorized scripture. He appointed 54 scholars to translate the Hebraic Old Testament and the Aramaic and Greek of the New Testament into a version carrying the king's imprimatur. At Cambridge, Oxford, and Westminster, the nine committees translated both sections of the canon bible plus the Apocrypha or noncanonical writings. As the height of Jacobean English, the finished King James Bible, or KJB, won regard for poesy and textual uniformity. The text glimmers with unique phrasing: “all things to all men,” “at their wit's end,” “the blind lead the blind,” “fight the good fight,” “filthy lucre,” “in the twinkling of an eye,” “a lamb to slaughter,” “a man after his own heart,” “my brother's keeper,” “my name is legion,” “the patience of Job,” “pearls before swine,” “the prodigal son,” “suffer fools gladly,” “thorn in the flesh,” “tongues of men and angels.” In the Apocrypha, the HERO tales in Maccabees (ca. 125 B.c.), written in Judea during a revolt against the Seleucid dynasty, resonate with the majesty of Israelite piety in Mattathias's evaluation of godliness and earthly sovereignty: “Though all the nations that are under the king's dominion obey him and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments: yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers” (Maccabees 1:19-22). Biblical phraseology and cadence influenced subsequent works in English for more than 300 years including those of John Milton, John Dryden, and RUDYARD KIPLING.

One work to undergo a series of poetic restatements, the Rubdiydt (Quatrains, ca. 1130) of the mystic, astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Omar Khayyam (1048-1122) dates to the rise of the Seljuk dynasty in the Turco-Persian Empire in 1037. The intrusion of secular Turks into the strict Muslim theocracy of Persia introduced themes of agnosticism, hedonism, and sexual delight. Omar Khayyam, a native of Nishapur, Khorasan (present- day Iran), allowed his imagination full play, counter to Conventional Islamic interpretations of the KORAN. Like the Mesopotamian god king Gilgamesh (see GILGAMESH), he developed a fatalism based on his fears of mortality and earthly impermanence; like the DAODEJING (Tao-Te Ching; Classic of the way of power, 300 B.c.) of Laozi, Omar reduced life to a series of questions, a perpetual puzzle. Not an adherent to religious fundamentalism, he came into conflict with fanatics who scorned his enjoyment of life as defiance of Islamic hierarchy, prophecy, and taboos against alcohol. In 1957, a Hollywood biopic, The Life, Loves and Adventures of Omar Khayyam, featured Cornel Wilde as the poet, Debra Paget as his love interest, and Yma Sumac performing Persian songs. A new version of the poet's life, The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam (2005), displays the work of director Kayvan Mashayekh and Bruno Lastra as the poet.

In 1859, Edward FitzGerald (1809-83) of Suffolk, England, published the first of five editions of The Rubdiydt of Omar Khayydm, which spans three decades of work on the Persian original. In the second edition, he arranges stanzas in an implied chronological order that opens on early morning worship and presses the reader to “Oh make haste” (Omar 1888, 67), an injunction to wrest joy from mortal existence. By the seventh quatrain, the speaker renounces repentance and demands wine and an immersion in human delights. In rejecting blind allegiance to the sultan, he demands, “Ah, take the Cash, and let the Promise go / Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum!” (58). Of the powerful, the speaker reminds the reader of the temporal nature of empires—“How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp / Abode his destin'd Hour, and went his way” (59). He comments on the fate of “some buried Caesar” and laments his own inability to unravel “the Master-knot of Human Fate,” a death image (60, 63). Literary historians question FitzGerald's stress on the futility of life and his redirection from Omar's heterosexuality to the translator's admiration for young males. Infringing on the ancient manuscript are fusions of individual quatrains and some original verses by FitzGerald written in Persian style.

A notable later translator of Eastern works transferred to the West, Lafcadio Hearn (Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, 1850-1904) stressed the GOTHIC conventions of Japanese ghost tales. Born in Greece, he grew up in Dublin and attended Ushaw Roman Catholic College in Durham, England, where a sports accident blinded his left eye. He worked as a crime reporter for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer and, in 1877, for Harper’s New Monthly and the New Orleans Times Democrat. In 1889, at age 39, he grew restless and migrated to the West Indies. A year later, he traveled to Matsue, Japan, to teach at Shimane Prefectural Middle School while also publishing mystery stories in Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s. Feeling himself at home in the country, he obtained Japanese citizenship, wed Setsu Koizumi, and adopted the name Koizumi Yakumo. He subsequently taught English literature at the Imperial University of Tokyo, studied haiku, and translated into English the stories of the French authors Theophile Gautier and Guy de Maupassant.

Hearn's skillful interpretation gave the European and American reading public access to Japanese literature. His nonfiction work Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894) introduces concepts of home shrines, emperor worship, gardening, educational systems, and funeral ritual. With Setsu's help, he translated the macabre tales “The Goblin Spider” and “The Old Woman Who Lost Her Dumpling” for Japanese Fairy Tales (1898) plus 14 stories and vignettes about superstitions and Buddhism for the anthology In Ghostly Japan (1899). He assembled 17 naturalistic Asian ghost cameos in Kwaidan (Ghost stories, 1904), the subject of a 1965 film. His collection opens on “Mimi- Nashi-Hoichi,” the story of a blind court musician who plucks a lute while recounting the events of a Samurai battle. He recalls the destruction of the Heike clan, who “perished utterly, with their women and children, and their infant emperor like- wise—now remembered as Antoku Tenno” (Hearn 1904, 3). The drowning of the royal household results in seven centuries of haunting by imperial ghosts. The story “Butterflies” narrates how butterflies choose Emperor Genso's concubines.


The Apocrypha of the Old Testament. King James. New

York: American Bible Society, 1972.

Hearn, Lafcadio. Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan Boston:

Houghton, Mifflin, 1894.

----- . In Ghostly Japan. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1899.

------- . Kwaidan. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904.

Omar Khayyam. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Translated by Edward FitzGerald. 1888. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.