Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther Skin is a 12th-century epic poem from the country of Georgia. It has been largely unknown to English-speaking audiences because few translations have been produced. Those translations that have appeared over the years have opted for free verse or prose re-tellings rather than the much-more-difficult poetic translation in meter faithful to the original. Some scholars familiar with the poem have even gone so far as to say a translation that preserved the rhymes, the metaphors, the poetry and the scope of the orginal was impossible.
Now Seattle poet/author/playwright Lyn Coffin has achieved that impossible goal with her newly released translation from Poezia Press in Tbilisi. Coffin, who lives and works in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, is the author of twenty-one books of poetry, fiction, drama, nonfiction, and translation (many of which are available on Amazon); she has taught writing at the University of Michigan, the University of Washington and elsewhere; and her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories anthology which, annually, highlights the best writing in the country.
Nevertheless, Coffin may be the most accomplished writer most Americans have never heard of. That is not the case in the country of Georgia, however, where, due in part to her overt appreciation for The Knight in the Panther Skin and her faithful translations of more modern Georgian works, she is regarded as a bit of a literary celebrity. She has visited the country several times, and is celebrated when she arrives–she’s done poetry readings on Georgian television–including on her most recent visit where she was an honored guest of the Georgian government at a reception for the country’s president.
Iron Twine Press recently spoke with Lyn about her achievement with The Knight in the Panther Skin.
Iron Twine Press: How would you describe the importance of The Knight in the Panther Skin to Georgian literature and history? Is it accurate to compare its importance to Beowulf or the Iliad?
Lyn Coffin: Absolutely! This is the founding piece of literature for Georgia. This Is their national
epic, their rightful entry on the world stage. You can’t exaggerate the importance of
The Knight in Georgia. School kids have to learn it- some every year. Most people
can quote sections of it. The proverbs in it are, well, proverbial. It is key. It is bigger
than Beowulf is for English speakers because Beowulf is almost never taught (at least
not in America, not until grad school, maybe a small section in high school). The language
of Beowulf makes it inaccessible to “normal” speakers. Georgian, being an autolect
(self-standing language), has remained remarkably the same for centuries—very little borrowing or change. As for The Iliad: it has to compete with The Odyssey. People argue about which is more important and why, and the author, “Homer” may well be a compilation. But Shota Rustaveli wrote The Knight.
ITP: We see this in the Amazon description of your book: “this is the first-ever rendering of the 12th century Georgian epic ‘The Knight in the Panther Skin’ in the same poetic style as it was written.” Can you describe what that means, specifically, and help us understand why it is significant?
LC: I translated the epic in shairi, a Persian verse form. It was written in shairi, and I wanted to keep
the form. Shairi means 16 syllable lines rhymed AAAA, BBBB, etc. for 1661 quatrains. There is
high shairi and low shairi. High shairi means the same pattern on both sides of a central caesura.
High Shairi is four four (syllables) /caesura/ four four and Low Shairi is five three (syllables) /caesura/ five three after. Yes, it was difficult sometimes. English has more words than Georgian, but fewer rhymes. And there are amazing metaphors that needed translation.
ITP: Tell us about your process in producing this translation.
LC: The difficult language part was not so difficult for me because I worked with a team of Georgian
native speakers. I would read the original and try to sound it out. I would have a native recite the original wherever possible. I would read Dodona’s word for word translation and her notes. If I didn’t understand, I would refer to earlier English translations. And then afterward, Nato Alhazashvili, an excellent English speaker herself, would read and comment where she thought the lines went “off.” And she showed it to Nodar Natadze, made corrections and added whole quatrains. Levan Gigneinishvili (who wrote the afterword) had his say about some passages. The man I originally worked with, Gia Jokhadze, weighed in during the early stages. And so it went. I would revise, send to Dodona and Nato, and they would either say, okay, or now this is wrong…. It took a long time. I have some facility with rhyming, and I have a feel for English poetry. I was driven by a voice that sometimes seemed to be Rustaveli’s. Some quatrains took days to do the first time. I translated chapter by chapter, never allowing myself to read ahead of the chapter I was translating. So I was in suspense for most of the book, wondering what would happen next. The Knight is a heck of a great yarn, as well as great poetry. I loved it from the first time I heard/read it/puzzled it out, and I had a discoverer’s joy—Keat’s “On First Reading Homer.”
My translation is significant because the English reader for the first time, really, is able to hear the story in a rhythmic, metaphoric, Poetic translation. I translated as a poet, informed by scholars. Previous translators were not themselves poets, and did not have the advantage of the Georgian scholars I did.
ITP: P.D Rayfield, in his comments about the book, says “The Impossible Achieved. I read Georgian and have, for 40 years, thought a poetic translation of Rustaveli was impossible, given the original’s elaborate rhyme scheme, the metaphors and the difficult language: up until now the prose translations have been the only tolerable access for English-speaking readers. Lyn Coffin has achieved a miracle…” Was it as difficult a challenge as he makes it out to be? What did you find the greatest challenge to be?
LC: Yes, Rayfield is a great translator from Georgia himself, so his praise is wonderful. We met in London at the London Georgian Film Festival. I was afraid he would scoff at me for my lack of scholarship. And he liked it from the get go. I was very relieved.
The greatest challenge? To keep going through the really long chapters. To stay interested in some of the “catalog” sections, where the items at a wedding are described at length—He got this, She got that. Or the lines where the epithets come again and again. Homer had “rosy-fingered dawn.” Rustaveli has “an aloe tree”—tall and slender as an aloe tree. Or translating the features on a face— ivory and rose—He opened the twin petals of his rose lips, that kind of thing. On the other hand, there were some sections that were so suspenseful, I was literally on the edge of my seat.
Rustaveli himself speaks in the Prologue about needing poetic skill to carry on through a really long work. It was hard to keep going for two and a half years. I am not sure I would have been able to if Nato Alhazashvili and Dodona Kiziria hadn’t been there, encouraging me. Dodona and I worked together seemlessly. Her comments and support were invaluable.
ITP: What inspired you to take on “the impossible”?
LC: I took on the challenge because of my love for the Georgian people and my love of The Knight in the Panther Skin. From the beginning, I felt a calling—that this was something I was meant to do and could do.