The Gulistan (Rose Garden) of Sa‘di
The Gulistan (Rose Garden) of Sa‘di: Bilingual English and Persian Edition with Vocabulary
by Shaykh Mushrifuddin Sa‘di of Shiraz
trans. by Wheeler M. Thackston
Ibex Publishers, 2008, reprinted 2017. 448 pp.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
If you are one of the many who have been moaning for years about the lack of classical Persian literature available in English, get out your credit card. As you know only too well, it’s not that there are no translations; the problem is they’re not done by serious people. The stuff out there that passes for Hafez and Rumi… let’s not even go there. You want something reliable, right? Something where, say, the humor in the English really is present in the Persian, and is not being plucked with a pop! from the translator’s ass. Good—the book under review is what you’ve been waiting for.
This W.M. Thackston, the translator, is a chaste and responsible writer, a Harvard supremo who’s been at it for decades. His Introduction to Persian is in its fourth edition. Also, he’s translated miles of imaginative literature and royal memoir, notably the Baburnama (if you know what that is), Khoshraw’s Book of Travels, the Jahangirnama, and the new History of Akbar that’s coming out in I-don’t-know-how-many volumes in the Murty Library. Point being: Sa‘di was not his first rodeo. Just a glance at the apparatus of this book (vast glossary of proper names; 3600-word Persian–English and Arabic–English glossary) tells you you’re in good hands.
—And what about the thing itself? It’s a book for everybody. As much as an axe helve is fitted to the grasp of the human hand, this text is fitted for the human mind. Which is to say it’s 100% homely anecdotes, parables, witty comebacks, all of ’em numbered, crystal clear, ramjam with images. Every metaphor is spot-on and memorable. Listen: it wouldn’t have been continuously quoted by every Persian-speaker for 760 years unless it was something special.
You heard right: the book was completed in 1258. It’s older than Rumi, older than Chaucer, older than Dante. If Chaucer had got a hold of it, he would have translated it, bang, just like that, and then everybody would know it. But even without Chaucer’s helping hand, Voltaire, Goethe, Thoreau—they all read it. Emerson, Melville… it’s a belovèd book. As Ghalib might’ve said: “Two zillion Persians can’t be wrong.”
Not that it’s perfect. You’ll want to strike out a few bits here and there. Racism, sexism… at least there’s no homophobia. Just the opposite, in fact. I would urge reading the whole thing with pen uncapped. Keeps you on track, helps you find the best stuff later.
Anyhow, get the book. Go to the Ibex website.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).