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"Omar Khayyam kwa Kiswahili": Re-Imagining a Travelling Text in an East African Context

"Omar Khayyam kwa Kiswahili": Re-Imagining a Travelling Text in an East African Context

by Prof. Dr. Annmarie Drury (City University of New York, Queens College, USA)

Tue, June 29, 14:15-15:45, Zoom 652 9201 5965, Passcode: 724178 (RS Arts & Aesthetics)


In 1952, the Swahili poet Shaaban Robert published his translation of Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám,” itself FitzGerald’s free rendering of quatrains by the Persian poet of the 10th and 11th centuries. As scholars in Victorian Studies have shown, the circulation of FitzGerald’s popular translation, and of permutations of it created by admirers and imitators, was long-lasting and global. It encompassed locations where British readers travelled as emigres, adventurers, soldiers, or colonists, with the poem accruing emotional significance for many readers. Robert’s receipt of FitzGerald’s text in 1944, from a colonial administrator to whose late wife the copy had belonged, forms part of this pattern.

This presentation is best outlined by a series of questions. What does it mean that Robert’s effort to familiarize Swahili readers with Persian literature was mediated by FitzGerald’s Victorian English adaptation of Khayyám? Where in Robert’s translation is that influence detectable, and where does Robert’s translation do things not necessarily anticipated by FitzGerald? How and where does Robert’s transformation of the poem grant it what might be called a Swahili quality? In what ways can Robert’s introduction to Khayyám’s poem and the circulation of the volume he created be understood as an extension of the Victorian culture of the book, and how did Robert’s translation change or overwrite that culture? What meanings did Robert’s translation have for poets and translators, including the future Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, and for other readers, and what methods can be used to trace that significance?

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