By Dr James White, BIPS Grant recipient and postdoctoral Fellow in the Seminar für Arabistik at Freie Universität Berlin.

On 25th October 2019, I am convening a workshop at Wadham College, Oxford, called ‘Migration, Circulation and Translation: Pre-Modern Persian Literature in Motion. Thanks to funding from a BIPS research grant, the day will bring together eleven scholars who work on Iran and the broader region to investigate how texts and people have moved throughout history. Exploring how people moved between languages, moved between places, or moved between genres or social environments all the while adapting and re-inventing themselves.  

The idea for the workshop comes from a simple problem: today, we are used to thinking that it is natural for every nation to have its own language and its own borders. But in the past, things were often quite different. Borders were not always controlled, and the most impermeable boundaries could be natural – oceans or deserts – rather than man-made. The linguistic situation was generally fluid, as it was normal for people to grow up speaking several different languages, switching from one to the other depending on the social situations in which they found themselves. Movement between places and languages was an integral part of daily life.  

(c) Metropolitan Museum of Art, 30.95.174.27. Image in the public domain.

These factors mean that when we come to study texts composed five hundred or a thousand years ago, it can be helpful to think about them in the round, and to ask questions like: ‘did this writer only draw inspiration from others active in Persian? What about from other writers who composed in different languages?’; ‘how did this author adapt his style of writing when he started work at a new court?’; ‘how have the value and the meaning of this text been changed through translation?; ‘which kinds of network linked poets who composed for princes with poets who composed popular songs?’ By attempting to answer questions such as these, we can gain a better understanding of what the materials being studied are actually about, and what pre-modern authors were trying to achieve in their writings.  

The workshop promises to be very exciting, as the different presentations will touch on a broad cross-section of historical periods and geographical areas, from Turkey, through Iran, to Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, and from the medieval period to the end of the seventeenth century. The texts that we will be investigating are also diverse, and they include historical accounts, poetry, prose, biography and the Qurʾān. The aim of the day is to collect a series of case studies, which will allow us to assess whether there were common historical approaches to the translation, adaption and reception of texts.  

In arranging the workshop, I hope to get scholars of Persian and interested members of the public in the U.K. to think more about how writers and historical actors went about their lives, and to investigate the dynamism that created many works of literature. By putting the idea of ‘motion’ front and centre, the workshop aims to highlight the varied ways in which texts can be connected to one another. 

Attendance is free and open to all. We ask that anyone who would like to join the audience register by visiting the workshop’s website and filling in the ‘Get in Touch’ form at the bottom of the page.  


James White is an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation postdoctoral fellow in the Seminar für Arabistik at Freie Universität Berlin. His current research project is concerned with the movement of poetry and poets between the Arabian Peninsula, Iran and India during the long seventeenth century. He earned his doctorate, which was devoted to Arabic and Persian literary anthologies of the medieval period, from Oxford University in 2018.  


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