Sholeh Wolpé is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for The Conference of the Birds (Man-tiq ut-tayr) by Farid ud-Din Attar. Read an excerpt of the translation here.

In Western thought there is a sharp separation between day-to-day human experience and the official provinces of religion and spirituality. Sufi poets, such as Rumi and Attar, offer a path to a sense of the divine, reminding us that the human emotions such as love, grief, longing, separation, etc, especially in their intense state, can be ways of experiencing the divine.

Farid ud-Din Attar is one of the greatest Sufi mystic poets of Iran, and The Conference of the Birds (Man-tiq ut-tayr) is one of the definitive masterpieces of Persian literature. This 213-page poem is a symbolic story of the soul’s search for truth. The poem begins with the birds of the world gathering together to seek a king. The wisest of them, the hoopoe, suggests they undertake a journey to the court of the great Simorgh (a mythical Persian bird roughly equivalent to the Western phoenix), where they can achieve enlightenment. The birds elect the hoopoe as their leader for the quest. Each bird has specific faults, the sort of shortcomings that generally prevent humans from attaining enlightenment. The hawk, for example, says that he would not wish to continue his journey because working for the great earthly king he serves is good enough for him; the nightingale suddenly decides that he cannot leave his lover, and so on. The hoopoe answers each bird with allegorical stories and great wisdom. The birds eventually decide to continue and throughout the journey ask questions, which the hoopoe answers with wise anecdotes. The last question concerns the length of the journey, to which the hoopoe describes seven valleys that must be crossed before reaching the abode of the great Simorgh. In Persian, si means thirty, and morgh means bird. Hence, Simorgh can be read as “thirty birds”, and in the end only thirty birds make it to their destination. There they find that they themselves, collectively, have become the great Simorgh.

Rumi looked to Attar as a literary and spiritual influence. Indeed, Attar’s spiritual focus on Sufi practices and ideas has made him one of the most important Sufi poets in the East, comparable in stature and influence to John Milton in the West. Yet most people in the West know Rumi but not Attar, the poet whom Rumi revered, the poet Rumi referred to as “the spirit” and to himself as “its shadow.” In a poem so famous most Iranians recite it by heart, Rumi wrote:

“Attar traveled all seven cities of love.
While I’m still at the bend of its first valley.”

I am drawn to Attar’s work not only because of its depth, wisdom, and beauty, but also because of my belief in the power of translation to bridge the gap between people and cultures. Sufism is a spiritual philosophy and all human beings, regardless of their faith and religion, can come to feel its ecstatic influence on their soul. As a poet, I believe that the act of translation is that of recreation. A translator of poetry can become the unwitting destroyer of poems, or alternatively, a creator of new ones. I would like to introduce Attar to the English-speaking world through a new and accessible modern translation of this significant work.

This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.