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Abstract:
Two letters on the mystical/symbolic content of Tablet of the Maiden, with comments on the translation by Juan Cole

Tablet of the Maiden:
Commentary on its translation

by / on behalf of Universal House of Justice

1997/1998
These two letters were each in response to questions put to the Universal House of Justice regarding this translation of Lawh-i-Huriyyih. As they are very similar, and the second refers to the first, they have been posted here in parallel. The one on the left has been circulating the internet with no identification attached. I do not know the identity of the original recipient, nor how the letter was entered into electronic text. The one on the right was sent to Ms. Gilbert in response to a question she asked the House regarding this translation of this Tablet. Gilbert handtyped the letter and submitted it for posting here, with permission to retain her name.

In light of the opinion of the Universal House of Justice that this translation is inadequate, it may be wondered why I have retained the translation in the Resource Library. Had the House forbidden the use of this translation, I would have removed it. Instead, however, the House cautions Bahá'ís about its use but in the end leaves the decision up to them: "In light of these considerations, you should decide whether to use the provisional translation in group study with other believers, or to share this material with others."

A response from the translator follows the letters from the Universal House of Justice, below. -J.W.

Anonymous letter


COPY

11 May 1997          

Dear Bahá'í Friend,

The Universal House of Justice has received through one of the Bahá'ís serving at the Bahá'í World Centre, an email message in which you raise questions about a provisional translation of the "Tablet of the Maiden" revealed by Bahá'u'lláh. It has also received your subsequent email of 18 April 1997 on this subject. We have been asked to provide the following response to you.

The translation of the Tablet which you have is far from adequate, to the point that it is quite misleading and could easily convey a wrong impression to those who study it. Unfortunately, the task of making the necessary improvements to the provisional translation would require far too much study and effort by the Research Department at the World Centre to achieve a wholly acceptable rendering of the original at the present time, when other needs of the Faith must necessarily be accorded a higher priority.

The subject matter of this Tablet is that of the relationship between the Divine Youth and the Maiden. In the past, as you are well aware, it has not been uncommon to use human love, passion and longing as an allegory of the divine love between God and His creatures. One has only to think of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, the writings of some of the Christian saints and much of Persian mystical poetry. The tradition represented by such literature was used by Bahá'u'lláh in aspects of His Revelation; but in this Tablet He employs a complexity of expression that makes it extremely challenging for any translator unfamiliar with this tradition in the Persian context to render an English version without giving an entirely false impression of what Bahá'u'lláh is trying to convey. In the polluted climate of much current Western discourse on matters of this kind, an inadequate translation would no doubt increase the probability of inappropriate and irreverent reactions.

You may well find that a deeper understanding of this term can be acquired through study of the enclosed article entitled "The Maid of Heaven, the Image of Sophia, and the Logos: Personification of the Spirit of God in Scripture and Sacred Literature" by Michael W. Sours, published in The Journal of Bahá'í Studies in 1991.

In light of these considerations, you should decide whether to use the provisional translation in group study with other believers, or to share this material with others.

With loving Bahá'í greetings,
Department of the Secretariat

Letter sent to Kathy Gilbert

27 August 1998

Ms. Kathy Gilbert
New Zealand

Dear Bahá'í Friend,

The Universal House of Justice has received your email of 9 August 1998 in which you raise questions about a provisional translation of the "Tablet of the Maiden" (Lawh-i-Huriyyih) revealed by Bahá'u'lláh.

The House of Justice, in response to a similar enquiry in the past, has advised that the translation of the Tablet which you have is far from adequate, to the point that it is quite misleading and could easily convey a wrong impression to those who study it. Unfortunately, the task of making the necessary improvements to the provisional translation would require far too much study and effort by the Research Department at the World Centre to achieve a wholly acceptable rendering of the original at the present time, when other needs of the Faith must necessarily be accorded a higher priority.

The subject matter of this Tablet is that of the relationship between the Divine Youth and the Maiden. In the past, as you are well aware, it has not been uncommon to use human love, passion and longing as an allegory of the divine love between God and His creatures. One has only to think of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, the writings of some of the Christian saints and much of Persian mystical poetry. The tradition represented by such literature was used by Bahá'u'lláh in aspects of His Revelation; but in this Tablet He employs a complexity of expression that makes it extremely challenging for any translator unfamiliar with this tradition in the Persian context to render an English version without giving an entirely false impression of what Bahá'u'lláh is trying to convey. In the polluted climate of much current Western discourse on matters of this kind, an inadequate translation would no doubt increase the probability of inappropriate and irreverent reactions.

You may well find that a deeper understanding of this term can be acquired through study of the enclosed article entitled "The Maid of Heaven, the Image of Sophia, and the Logos: Personification of the Spirit of God in Scripture and Sacred Literature" by Michael W. Sours, published in The Journal of Bahá'í Studies in 1991.

With loving Bahá'í greetings,

Department of the Secretariat




Response from translator

As translator of Bahá'u'lláh's "Tablet of the Houri" (Lawh al-Huriyyah), I would like briefly to respond to the letters issued by the Universal House of Justice concerning this translation.

When I first read those letters, they gave me the impression of implying that the translation was erroneous, and such an allegation alarmed me. I make my living as a professor of Modern Middle Eastern history, and as an authority on things Arabic. I have been studying Arabic intensively for over 25 years, lived six years in the Arab world, and hold an MA from Cairo in Arabic Studies as well as a Ph.D. from UCLA in Islamic Studies, one of the fields for which was Arabic Literature. I have published several books that involved reading difficult and complex Arabic documents of the nineteenth century, whether manuscripts or archival. I have translated and published a number of books from Arabic that have been well reviewed in academic journals. In fact, the positive review of my translation of Mirza Abu'l-Fadl's Miracles and Metaphors that appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies elicited a letter of praise from the Universal House of Justice in the 1980s. And, of course, the Universal House of Justice actually asked me to undertake translations for them in that decade, at least one of which was published. For that body now to issue letters calling my work misleading seemed to me a stark about-face and also an attempt to bring into question my professionalism in my own field. This step struck me as petty and unworthy of them, the moreso since it is not backed up by any *specific* criticism such as could be effectively answered. It is true that I have become occasionally a critic of some of their policies; but I still count some of the members as friends, and I have great respect for their Peace Statement. Such considerations should not, in any case, affect in any obvious way my expertise in things Arabic.

As I reread the letters from the Universal House of Justice, however, I gradually realized that they do not in fact specifically say that the translation is technically inaccurate. They say that in the view of that body the translation is 'inadequate' and 'gives a misleading impression' of the original. It appears to me upon reflection that the sentiment they are expressing has more to do with concerns about the style of the translation than with rendering the Arabic accurately. In turn, I began to realize that what they are almost certainly objecting to is the *transparency* of my translation, the way in which it is perhaps *too* faithful to the original.

Such passages as the following are probably what provoked their concern:

"I raised my hand another time, and bared one of Her breasts that had been hidden beneath Her gown. Then the firmament was illumined by the radiance of its light, contingent beings were made resplendent by its appearance and effulgence, and by its rays infinite numbers of suns dawned forth, as though they trekked through heavens that were without beginning or end. I became bewildered at the pen of God's handiwork, and at what it had inscribed upon Her temple."

This passage is from pp. 383-384 of the printed text. The original says "wa kashaftu thadiyan min thadayha 'lladhi kana masturan khalfa qamisiha." Thady (or thadan) is the Arabic word for a woman's breast; it can also mean 'udder.' Now, it would be possible to tone the sentence down, and no doubt any official translation that is ultimately issued will find some set of euphemisms to hide what is going on here. But the fact is that the phrase in Arabic is explicitly erotic and my translation faithfully reflects that almost Tantric mood.

As the Universal House of Justice notes, Bahá'u'lláh is here writing in a Sufi tradition of mystical eroticism that includes Ibn al-Farid's "Poem of the Way," Ibn al-`Arabi's "Translator of Desires," and much of the work of Rumi and other Persian mystical poets (they are wrong that the tradition is purely Persian). Some of these works could be quite explicit with regard to sexuality, about which some medieval Muslims were far less puritanical than contemporary Western Bahá'ís. Indeed, the Victorian R.A. Nicholson felt constrained to translate some passages of Jalalu'd-Din Rumi's Mathnavi into Latin rather than English, because he felt them too racy for a polite audience of his day.

The statements of the Universal House of Justice must be understood against a background of twentieth-century Bahá'í translation practice, in which it has been the custom to limit the amount of material translated, to suppress large parts of the scriptural corpus by simply not making them available or by ensuring they stay out of print, and by translating in such a way as to build bridges to Western converts and potential converts. The purpose of such translation is not academic accuracy, but building up a seemingly seamless scriptural corpus in English that smooths over internal contradictions and supports the contemporary 'party line;' and making the scriptural corpus bland enough and 'naturalized' enough in English to ensure it does not pose a Public Relations problem inside or outside the community.

If translating and making available the writings of Bahá'u'lláh were in fact any sort of priority of the Universal House of Justice, they have enormous resources with which to do so. (Anyone who can spend $250 million on building works has the money for other projects, as well). They have simply decided to expend their resources on other things. I once saw in a library a big set of books, The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo in Bengali with English translations. Aurobindo was a 20th century Indian holy man. But his followers managed to get his *complete* collected works not only published but also translated, not long after his death. Aurobindo's following is tiny and poor compared to that of the Bahá'ís. That only about 5% of Bahá'u'lláh's works have been translated is not an unfortunate side effect of lack of resources in the Bahá'í community. It is a deliberate decision to invest the money in things like monumental architecture instead.

Moreover, the Universal House of Justice's own translations, as represented in Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh and some of the compilations, are riddled with errors and mistranslations that give an extremely misleading impression of the intent of the original on a number of occasions. So it is not as if the UHJ's own record in translation work is spotless. Unfortunately, it is precisely the attitude of suspicion toward qualified academics and the rigidity of their preconceived opinions, evident in their letter on the Tablet of the Houri, that has caused them to so discount solid expertise and resulted in these many errors in their publications.

My own purpose in translating this Tablet has nothing to do with public relations or converting people or making Bahá'ís happy. It is to present, as accurately and in as fitting a language as I know how, one of Bahá'u'lláh's most profound, beautiful and mystical Tablets, to the English-speaking public. It is, to be sure, a challenging work in its erotic mysticism, so reminiscent, as the Universal House of Justice rightly says, of the Song of Songs and the ecstatic ghazals of the Sufis. But it is all the more important for its challenging aspect. This work belongs to world literature and to the general literature of mysticism, not just to the Bahá'ís or (even more narrowly) to the Universal House of Justice.

Even once a (no doubt sanitized and toned down) official version of this Tablet is released, I believe there will continue to be a place for and a need for more objective, academic renderings such as the present one. English speakers benefit from a profusion of versions, insofar as they are thus better able to triangulate and get a sense of the original. To all those who are interested in the magnificent mystical writings of Bahá'u'lláh, whether Bahá'í or not, I dedicate this translation, which I am glad to acknowledge is 'inadequate' in the sense that no translation can fully convey the electric potency of the original Arabic, with its powerful mixture of sex, worship, death and transcendence.

Sincerely,
Juan Cole
Professor, Department of History, University of Michigan

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