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Beyond Geographical Boundaries: A Study of Gulistan of Saadi and its translations

Dr. Md. Arshadul Quadri

Assistant Professor
Dept. Of Persian
University of Lucknow

“Of what use shall be a dish of flower …to thee

Take only one leaf from this garden … of me

A flower endures … but for five or six days

The delight from my garden… always stays”

The above mentioned couplets rightly signify the valuable importance of the Gulistan of Saadi. The garden that Saadi had planted about 1000 years ago in the realm of Persian literature is still fresh in our minds. His tales are, undoubtedly, as sweet as sugar and as valuable as gold. The popularity of Gulistan can be gauged from the fact that it has been translated into almost all the major languages of the world. So far, as the present researcher could gather, more than a dozen English translations of Gulistan have seen the light of the day.

The first English translation of Gulistan appeared in the late 18th century by Stephen Sullivan (1774, selections), and later by other scholars, notably, James Dumoulin (1807), James Ross (1823), S. Lee (1827), Edward B. Eastwick (1852), Francis Gladwin (1865), Major R.P. Anderson (1867), John T. Platts (1867), E.H.Whinefield (1880), Edward Rahetsak (1888), Edwin Arnold (1899, the first four chapters) and A.J. Arbery (1945, the first two chapters) etc.

Now it has to be seen how far these translations have been successful in rendering the true sentiments of Saadi Shirazi. The present researcher has largely taken the translations of Francis Gladwin, James Ross, Edward B. Eastwick and R.P. Anderson for discussion.

Rendering the Gulistan of Saadi into any language and matching Saadi’s inimitable style remains a tough ask for his translators. Before we move on, it is essential to throw some lights on the art of translation. Woodhouselee in his book “Essays on the principles of translation, discusses three basic principles regarding the art of translation:

  1. A translation should give a complete transcript of the ideas of the original work.
  2. The style and manner of writing should be of the same character as that of original.
  3. A translation should have all the ease of the original composition.[i]

What is known from the above facts is that a translation should be as close to the original and must have all the ease and fluency of the original text. Major R. P. Anderson, one of the translators of the Gulistan of Saadi, has similar opinion regarding the art of translation. According to him a translator must adhere to the original—he must be accurate. He says that it is the business of the translator to express the full sense, briefly, simply, forcibly—to add nothing, omit nothing—never to amplify or exaggerate.[ii]

One of the chief characteristics of the Gulistan of Saadi is its rhymed sentences. For example, the famous line of Saadi in tale first of the chapter first on truth and falsehood that saysدروغ مصلحت آمیز به از راستی فتنه انگیز has been translated differently by each of its translators mentioned below:

 ‘That falsehood mixed with good advice, is preferable to truth tending to excite strife.[iii] (Gladwin)

‘A peace-mingling falsehood is preferable to a mischief stirring truth’.[iv] (James Ross)

  ‘Well-intentioned falsehood is better than mischief exciting truth’.[v] (Eastwick)

As discussed above, for a good translation, the style and manner should be of same character as that of original. E.G. Browne in his monumental work, A literary History of Persia, while discussing on Saadi and his Gulistan seems to be giving probably the most suitable equivalent of the above mentioned sentence which runs like this, ‘an expedient falsehood is preferable to a mischievous truth.’8 All the English equivalents of the particular sentence convey the same idea but with stylistic differences. What makes Browne’s equivalent closer to the original text is its brief, simple and forcible rendering.

Tale-III of the chapter-I of Gulistan narrates the story of a prince of short height who was disliked by his father and this is the reason he was made to convince his father that it is not that everything bigger in stature is of the best value as he says:

ای پدر کوتاہ خردمند بہ کہ نادان بلند۔ نه هرچه بقامت مهتر به قیمت بهتر۔[vi]

The translation done by various translators of Gulistan is given below:

“O father! A short wise man is preferable to a tall blockhead; it is not everything that is mightier in stature that is superior in value.” [vii] (Ross)

O my father! An intelligent dwarf is superior to an ignorant giant; not everything that is higher in stature is more valuable.’[viii] (Eastwick)

O father! A short man, who is wise, is preferable to a tall man who is ignorant; not everything is valued according to its height.’[ix] (Gladwin)

Of the many translations of the above mentioned line, the translation of James Ross seems more impressive as he has tried to be as close to the original one. Eastwick in his translation uses the word ‘dwarf’ and its antonym ‘giant’ to differentiate between ‘an intelligent dwarf’ and ‘an ignorant giant’. Moreover, the translation of Francis Gladwin is more of explanatory in nature than the rendering of the text in target language. He also renders the second line of the source language into a sweeping comment that everything is valued according to its height. Saadi, who spent thirty years of his life in travelling, it is not expected of him to make a sweeping remark that a thing of larger volume or size is more valuable or vice versa. In fact, by narrating this tale Saadi means to say that mere outer appearance is not enough for being great; it is the quality that makes a person or thing great. To substantiate his claim Saadi cites the example of a goat and an elephant saying that a goat despite being inferior in size is permissible for consumption while an elephant having a huge body is not fit for eating. By this example Saadi does not mean to term elephant less important than the goat or vice versa. He just wanted to prove his point that every person or thing is valuable in its own right.

Some words used in the oriental literatures have a particular meaning associated with it. Besides giving its equivalent in target language, it is the duty of the translator to briefly give origin and context of that particular word. For example, the word Muhtasab has a very strong connotation and needs to be understood in its oriental context. Gladwin (P-136) and Rahetsak (P-34) have kept the word intact in their translations leaving the readers of non-oriental background in bewilderment. While the word ‘censor’ is the appropriate equivalent of the same word for James Ross (P-24), Eastwick (p-45) gives ‘superintendent of police’ as the English equivalent of the word muhtasab.

Muhtasab was a strong position in Islamic structure of the government. In the beginning the Muhtasabs were deputed in markets to control rogue elements. However, during the Abbasid period their activities were extended to all the affairs relating to smooth conduct of life. Other than Saadi celebrated Persian poets like Hafiz, Rumi and Khayyam etc. have frequently used the word muhtasab in their poetry.

Like Muhtasib another word that Saadi frequently uses in the Gulistan and needs to be understood in its oriental meaning is Halqa ba goosh (حلقہ بگوش). Some of the translators of Saadi have given a literal translation of the aforesaid which affects the flow of translation. In story number six of chapter first of Gulistan, Saadi describes a story of one of the kings of Persia who ruled with iron hand and caused misery to his subjects. Consequently, his resources were lost and treasury got exhausted. It gave an opportunity to the enemies to take advantage of the situation. Saadi quotes a fragment (Qita) on the virtues of good conduct as he says:

بندۂ حلقہ بگوش ار ننوازی برود                       لطف کن لطف کہ بیگانہ شود حلقہ بگوش[x]

Francis Gladwin, one of the translators of the Gulistan in English, could not comprehend the very essence of the term Halqa ba goosh and gave a literal translation of the aforesaid word as ‘a person with ring in his ear’. The translation of the above couplet runs as follows:

“If you do not treat kindly the servant with the ring in his ear he will depart; show kindness in such a manner that the stranger may become a willing servant.”[xi]

Sir Richard Francis Burton also gives a literal translation of the particular word as his translation runs as follows:

The slave with a ring in his ear, if not cherished

will depart.

Be kind because then a stranger will become thy


Halqa ba goosh (حلقہ بگوش) needs to be understood in its oriental context. It means a devoted servant or slave. There was a custom in olden days to put a circled ring in the ear of the slave who was bought by his master. Therefore, from those days circled ring in the ear was considered as a sign of servitude. James Ross gives a perfect translation of Halqa ba goosh (حلقہ بگوش) as he renders the couplet in English in the following way:

“If not treated cordially thy devoted servant will forsake thee; show him kindness and affection, and the stranger may become the slave of thy devotion.”[xiii]

Another word rhyming with Halqa ba goosh (حلقہ بگوش) in the Gulistan is Siyah Goosh which is once again not fully comprehensible in the target language. While translators like Ross and Gladwin have avoided rendering this word in English, Eastwick seems to be giving a suitable rendering of the word as lynx and quoting D’ Herbelot he explains that it is a sort of eagle which feeds on bones, and is therefore called by the Persians Ustakhwan Khu’r, the Ossifrage.[xiv]

One of the remarkable features of Saadi’s Gulistan is the fine use of poetry in prose. His simple but elegant prose interspersed with eloquent poetry makes Gulistan such a popular book in the annals of Persian literature. From the translator’s perspective, to render poetry in another language is hardly possible. Ross in his Introductory Essay, asserts, in the words of Cowper, that “it is impossible to give, in rhyme, a just translation of any ancient poetry of Greece or Rome and still less (here he means still “more impossible” of Arabic and Persian).

However, of the many English translators of the Gulistan, Edward B. Eastwick seems to be giving a rhyming translation of the Gulistan as he himself says: “it will be for the oriental scholar to judge how far I have departed from the true meaning of the original in putting it into English verse…I have also endeavoured to make the metre correspond in some degree to that of the Persian, and I have uniformly done my best to preserve the play upon words which occur so often, and which is accounted such a beauty in the East”[xv].

These are some of the examples to show that the translation of the Gulistan of Saadi in any language would be challenging for its translators.  Saadi’s inimitable style  and choice of words interspersed with fine use of poetry makes Gulistan one of the most readable books in Persian literature. It will always be challenging for the translators of Gulistan to preserve the same wit and humor of Saadi to the translated text. As it has been widely said that every word of Saadi has seventy two meanings (ھر لفظ سعدی ھفتاد و دو معنی) so, the translators of Gulistan need to be more careful while rendering it in a particular language.


[i] Woodhouslee, The Art of Translation, London, 1968, p-43

[ii] Anderson, Major R.P., Translation of the Gulistan of Saadi, Islamabad, 1985, p-vii

[iii] Gladwin, Francis, The Gulistan or Rose Garden (Translation), University Press, Welch, Bigelow and Company, Cambridge, 1865

[iv] Ross, James, The Rose Garden of Saadi or the Gulistan, OMPHALOSKEPSIS, Ames, Iowa, p-4

[v] Eastwick, Edward B, The Gulistan or the Rose Garden of Shekh Saadi of Shiraz, Routledge, London (Reprint), 2000, p-23


[vii] Ross, James, The Rose Garden of Saadi or the Gulistan, OMPHALOSKEPSIS, Ames, Iowa, p-5

[viii] Eastwick, Edward B, The Gulistan or the Rose Garden of Shekh Saadi of Shiraz, Routledge, London (Reprint), 2000, p-25

[ix] Gladwin, Francis, The Gulistan or Rose Garden (Translation), University Press, Welch, Bigelow and Company, Cambridge, 1865, p-114

[x] Husain, Qazi Sajjad, Gulistan-e-Saadi (Translation), Sabrang Kitab Ghar, Delhi, 1960, p-36

[xi] Gladwin, Francis, The Gulistan or Rose Garden (Translation), University Press, Welch, Bigelow and Company, Cambridge, 1865, p-122


[xiii] Ross, James, The Rose Garden of Saadi or the Gulistan, OMPHALOSKEPSIS, Ames, Iowa, p-15

[xiv] Eastwick, Edward B, The Gulistan or the Rose Garden of Shekh Saadi of Shiraz, Routledge, London (Reprint), 2000, p-43

[xv] Ibid, p-xvii