22 Jan

Top Ten Translations from Persian in 2016


The year just past brought no drastic change in the slow pace of translation from Persian literature, resulting in no more than a handful of slender volumes. The titles chosen, however, compensate for quantity. These recent translations cover an exciting range of genres and subjects that together form a polyphonic list of Persian literary practices available for enthusiastic readers.


I. Kalat Claimed (Drama)

  • Writer: Bahram Bayzai
  • Translator: Manouchehr Anvar
  • Publisher: Roshangaran
  • ISBN: 978-964-194-117-0

In the history of modern Iranian literature, Bahram Bayzai (b. 1938) is a towering figure who has single-handedly untertaken a wide range of activities from playwriting to directing, screenwriting, and research, to name only a few. His Kalat Claimed (فتح‌نامه‌ی کلات) was originally composed in 1982 as a play in Bayzai’s uniquely archaistic style of dramatization. An account of two generals’ dispute over the claim of a region named Kalat in time of Mongol conquest of Khwarezmia, the play enjoys Bayzai’s emblematic idealization of feminine spirit. It was first published by Damavand Books in 1984, and then reprinted by Roshangaran. In November 2016, Manouchehr Anvar’s endeavor to translate the text finally fructified after two decades, and the English version was released in 227 pages by Roshangaran, the exclusive publisher of Bayzai’s oeuvres. Although the play was never staged in Iran, fingers are now crossed for an English premiere of the piece in the U.S. where he has been living for years.

II. Rituals of Restlessness (Novel)

  • Writer: Yaghoub Yadali
  • Translator: Sara Khalili
  • Publisher: Phoneme Media
  • ISBN-13: 978-1939419828

An alluring release by Phoneme Media this year is a novel by the Iranian writer and filmmaker Yaghoub Yadali. Rituals of Restlessness won two national Iranian awards in 2004. The novel, however, put the writer in trouble in 2007 when Yadali was sentenced to one year in prison for depicting certain scenes challenging social and sexual taboos. However, with the change of the political season during the cultural ministry of Ali Jannati, the book reappeared on bookshelves. The opening of the novel promises a fun read: Engineer Kamran Khosravi is planning death in a car accident and his wife no longer stands him. Kamran’s twisted life awaits an unprecedented dark ending.

III. The Rapture: Or the Book of Sleep (Dissident Fiction)

  • Writer: I’timad-al-Saltanah
  • Translator: James D. Clark
  • Publisher: Mazda Publishers
  • ISBN: 978-1568593401

The history of English literature is replete with lettered courtiers who have gained historic fame with the might of their pens. Persian courtiers of the “Naseri Era” of Qajar Dynasty were also accomplished in pen-craft, although their works have been neglected by the literary canon for a long time. Courtiers like Mohammad Tahir Mirza Qajar and Naser-ol-Mulk Qaragozlu were among the first translators of early modern masterpieces of western civilization: Tahir Mirza translated Dumas’s Three Musketeers and Naser-ul-Mulk made a Persian version of The Merchant of Venice. Another important courtier and writer during much of Naser-al-Din Shah’s reign was I’timad-al-Saltanah, author of an outstanding dissident fiction titled The Rapture. The book opens with the narrator’s fall into sleep in a mosque at the ancient town of Saveh only to find himself among heavenly beings who are awaiting trial: the imaginary trial of the prime ministers of Qajar dynasty. The Rapture is now available in English, thanks to James D. Clark’s translation, and is published in 278 pages by Mazda Publishers. If you are interested in political parables from the Middle East, the book is meant for you.

IV. After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems

  • Poet: Hasan Sijzi
  • Translator: Rebecca Gould
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • ISBN-13: 978-0810132306

“Lacking the ruby of your lips, my eyes filled with secret pearls./ Pupil of the eye, cast your glance again/”

Some classic Persian poetry was on the shelf last year: the ‘classic’ poetry of Hasan Sijzi, also known as Amir Hasan Sijzi Dehlavi, who is considered the originator of the Indo-Persian ghazal. Perhaps a Persian equivalent of the Metaphysical sonnet with its overemphasis on far-fetched conceits, the form of ghazal has influenced a large body of poets from Hafez and Jalaleddin Rumi to contemporary Anglophone poets like John Hollander, Maxine Kumin, Agha Shahid Ali, and W.S. Merwin. The qhazals are translated by Rebecca Gould and published in 144 pages by Northwestern University Press.

V. I Hid My Voice (Bestselling Novel)

  • Writer: Parinoush Saniei
  • Translator: Sanam Kalantari
  • Publisher: House of Anansi
  • ISBN: 978-1487000837

Literature about children is a blooming genre in contemporary Iran, and Parinoush Saniei, a sociologist and psychologist, is one of the highly recommended writers in this field. Her first novel, The Book of Fate, won the Boccaccio Prize in Italy, Euskadi de Plata Prize in the Basque Country, and was selected as one of World Literature Today’s 75 Notable Translations of 2013.

In August 2016, House of Anansi Press released the English translation of her second novel, I Hid My Voice, which soon drew attentions and received positive reviews in media like Guardian and Minneapolis Star Tribune. The novel is about four-year-old Shahaab who has not started talking. Although it is regarded as normal by physicians, the ridicule the little son received is beyond his patience. To cope with the humiliating conditions, he develops an idea that all normal kids are their fathers’ sons whereas the “dumb” are their mothers’. The book has been lauded for its digging into social texture of Iran as well as its insightful portrait of the world of innocence.

VI. Eagles of Hill 60 (Novel for Young Adults)

ISBN-13: 978-1568593098

Since its establishment in 1980, Mazda Publishers has published a number of works from Persian literature under the supervision of M. R. Ghanoonparvar. Eagles of Hill 60 is the second novel by contemporary writer Mohammad-Reza Bayrami that Mazda releases after The Tales of Sabalan. Eagles of Hill 60 is both a bildungsroman and a war novel, taking as its setting the frontline in the longest and one of the most devastating wars of the twentieth century during the Iran-Iraq War. The protagonist of the story, Ahmad, is concerned with his natural environment, particularly the eagles dwelling in the nearby hill, in contrast to the reality of war that is going on around them.

The next to last but not the least positions on this year’s list are taken by a young publisher based in London, which concentrates solely on ‘Persian literature in translation.’ There are particularly three titles in Candle and Fog’s 2016 catalog that seem to respond to plurality of taste and choice. The struggle, however, as with many other small presses, is to reach global readers as quickly and easily as possible; in spite of their charm, the books are not yet in stock anywhere on Amazon or similar global book distributors.


VII. Haunted in Milak (Sort Stories)

  • Writer: Yousef Alikhani
  • Publisher: Candle & Fog

Originally published in Persian as “Ghadam-be-kheir Was My Grandmother” (قدم به خیر مادربزرگ من بود), the short story collection goes against the grain to tell the superstitious tales of the villagers of Milak located in Alamut region of Qazvin Province. At a time when bookshelves are jam-packed with monotonously similar urban narratives, writer and ethnic researcher Yousef Alikhani’s endeavor to document Alamouti dialect and traditions has resulted in a number of novels and short story collections whose phantasmagoric world of Persian fairies and genies is not going to stop surprising the reader.

VIII. Your’re No Stranger Here (Novel)

  • Writer: Houshang Moradi Kermani
  • Translator: Caroline Croskery
  • Publisher: Candle & Fog

Houshang Moradi Kermani’s body of work is a nostalgic resonance in the collective memory of Iranian readers for his popular Tales of Majid series. Moradi Kermani regards the book You’re No Stranger Here (شما که غریبه نیستید) as his autobiography: the lonely life of a single child in Kerman whose father is fired for lunacy and the family has to migrate to a small village behind Kerman Mountains. Its frank and lucid portrait of life-as-is with a touch of humor and tantalizing prose are probably the main reasons behind its wide reception. Caroline Croskery has recently translated this autobiographic novel by Moradi Kermani, and published it with Candle & Fog.

IX. Year of the Tree (Novel)

  • Writer: Zoha Kazemi
  • Translator: Caroline Croskery
  • Publisher: Candle & Fog

A novel by young writer Zoha Kazemi, Year of the Tree is an account of the decline of a traditional Iranian family as the female protagonist struggles to migrate to Canada. To do so, she has to abandon her brother with Down Syndrome in a sanitarium. Another translation by Caroline Croskery, the novel offers a fresh perspective of modern life in Iran.


X. Standing on Earth (poetry)

  • Poet: Mohsen Emadi
  • Translator: Lyn Coffin
  • Publisher: Phoneme Media
  • ISBN: 978-1944700003

Persian poetry is sugar, so says Hafez. Why not put some Persian sugar on the 2016 list? Of course not the classic rock candy that Hafez took pride in sending it off to Bengal, rather some industrial (modernist) sugar cubes dispatched to Latin America: Standing on Earth is a 120-page collection of poems by Mohsen Emadi, an Iranian poet, translator and editor based in Mexico City. The poems in this collection are themed on an autobiographic sketch of exile, memory and displacement presented through the poet’s defamiliarized perspective. The collection was translated by the American poet Lyn Coffin and published by Phoneme Media in November 2016.


07 Mar

The Memories of Taj-al-Saltaneh: A History of Wonder and Anguish

5193AQ30B4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Title: Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity 1884-1914
  • Persian Classics

Taj Al Saltana, Anna Vanzan, Abbas Amanat

Mage Publishers

Long before Iranian diaspora women’s memoirs became popular in the West, an Iranian princess of the Qajar dynasty, Taj-al-Saltaneh, ventured into this genre. Despite being raised in Naser-al-Din Shah’s harem, where the Shah’s ardor and egotism had gathered hundreds of women constantly competing with each other for his attention, Taj-al-Saltaneh managed to grow beyond the shallowness and materialism of her surroundings, and became one of the first enlightened and progressive Iranian women of her time. She has been called a feminist and a socialist. In her memoir, Taj-al-Saltaneh is very outspoken in criticizing patriarchy and the backwardness of her father, and her brother, Mozaffar-al-Din Shah. When she talks about her pain after her father’s assassination, she reminds the reader of her greater suffering about Iran’s present and future:

Every daughter is entitled to her pain and suffering after her father’s death. But I am sorry for my father’s assassination, just as much as any daughter would be after her father’s passing. But, I suffer more and my heart bleeds at the thought of this water, this soil, this land which is my home, and in which I was raised. At this moment that I am writing these words it feels like a curtain of ignorance has been shifted from in front of my eyes; the events of the past are fast-forwarding in my mind.

Alas! A country and a nation have been the victim’s of one person’s greed! (79)

The Memories of Taj-al-Saltaneh shows how, from the very beginning, Iranian women’s life writing was socially and politically charged.

Although a manuscript of the Memories of Taj-al-Saltaneh was written in 1924, it did not appear in print until 1983, as part of the “Publication of Iran’s History” project. This first version, which included a foreword by prominent scholar Mansoureh Ettehadieh and Sirous Sa’advandian, was based on a manuscript by Rahmat-ollah Da’ee Taleqani—attendant to the Embassy of Afghanistan in Iran—who apparently had Taj-al-Saltaneh’s original manuscript. However, the original manuscript was never found.

Taj-al-Saltaneh’s memories show that she was familiar with the arts of music and painting, and with French history and literature. With detailed descriptions of events, places and people’s physical and behavioral traits, Taj-al-Saltaneh’s writing style is reminiscent of 19th century French writers. Stylistically, The Memories of Taj-al Saltaneh is a good example of the Persian life writing subgenre of “khaterat,” where there is a mixture of the personal and the public world, and a mixture of individual and collective memory. Taj-al-Saltaneh revisits her memories from her childhood in the harem, to the assasination of her father, to her marriage, and her subsequent divorce from her husband. She investigates and reviews her life on the backdrop of historical events. The thirty-year period in her life, which she has covered in The Memories, also happen to be the period in Iran’s history where the society is moving from the old and traditional order of things to the new and modern order. It is a time of rapid change and confusion. Women in the U.S., France and Britain had gained the right to vote, but despite their involvement in the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1907), Iranian women were still deprived of basic citizenship rights. Regardless of her royal lineage, Princess Taj-al-Saltaneh, avidly defends the Constitutional revolution:

Constitutional monarchy means that a nation gains the right to freedom and advancement; there is no prejudice and treason. It is every nation’s duty to look for advancement and justice. But when do people gain their rights and see justice in place? When monarchy is constitutional, and the country is run under a regulated and righteous system. How does a country advance? Through law. When is law enforced? When this despotic system is removed. Then of course, constitutional monarchy is better than autocracy. (161-162)

The Memories of Taj-al-Saltaneh is translated to English by Anna Vanzan, and published by Mage Publishers, under the title Crowning Anguish.

Taj-al-Saltaneh. Khaterat -E Tak-Al-Saltaneh. Bokarthus, 2011. Print.

09 Oct

Let Us Steal a Lease of Life

Raised in Post-War plenty, I could hear the chains of concentration camps rattling somewhere close by; but we children of the earnest fifties were soon etched by the permissions of 1965-1975; when these unwelcome hallucinations faded, so did many other false values; but patiently, like grass growing under a still-burning city, a Christian Taoist existentialism came to redeem an otherwise trite life.

This is how Martin V. Turner, translator of superb pieces from contemporary Persian poetry recalled his childhood memories. Born on February 9th, 1948, in London, Martin pursued humanities in college.

After a psychology degree at Exeter University, he trained as a teacher and, in Scotland, as an educational psychologist. In psychology he edited, authored and co-authored four books, including Psychological Assessment of Dyslexia (Whurr,1997) and Dyslexia Guidance (with Philippa Bodien: nferNelson,2007) , as well as numerous chapters and articles.

As regards poetry – always a longer purpose – in 1992 I published Trespasses with Faber and Faber and in 2006 The Deer of Tamniès with PublishAmerica. My wife, a friend and I published translations from the modern Persian during the 1980s. Both poetry and translations have won prizes.

I came to know Martin Turner during a research funded by Sohrab Sepehri Foundation about  Sohrab Sepehri translators around the world. Back then in 2003 I had found plenty of translations by Iranians and non-Persian translators alike, but Martin’s work stood higher above the others in delicacy, poetic diction and spirit. The following interview took place on August 28, 2003 for a Persian magazine called Water Footfalls. In the past decade I was fortunate enough to co-translate some pieces of Persian Poetry with him and learn a lot about the mysteries of translation, but perhaps his best lesson was this: never translate to the language that is not your mother tongue – the language of the Other, unless you make sure you know it better than a native speaker.

“And when I am in my health, thou upholdest me: and shall set me before thy face forever.” Ps.41: 12, BCP.

The news came late, and brief, through a short email by his mourning wife, Farah. She had found my email among piles of other mails to let us know that finally Martin was defeated by cancer and departed for a better place. I could never pay him due respect for all the things he taught me, but I am sure he is well remembered by all the dyslexic children he helped improve as well as all readers of his exquisite words and thoughts. May he rest in peace.


Interview with Martin Turner,

English psychologist, poet and translator

28th August 2003

  • Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?

I am a fifty-five year old English man, an educational psychologist and a poet. I work with children who have difficulty with learning and have been head of psychology at the Dyslexia Institute, a national charity, for the past twelve years. In 1992, Faber published a collection of my poems, Trespasses, which includes three shorter poems of Sohrab, translated with my Persian wife, Farah. A second collection, Where The Waves Come From, is being prepared for publication.

  • Is poetry and literary translation a profession or just a hobby for you?

It is a passion. I wrote my first poem – an elegy to a dead sheepdog – at the age of eight.

  • How did you get familiar with Iran and Persian language?

I know little Farsi. Though married to an Iranian, I have acquired an advanced knowledge of about six words! All my translations have been done in collaboration with others, first, Abbas Faiz, an Iranian journalist friend resident in Britain, then my wife. The best translations are done not by linguists but by poets. Even if I mastered the Farsi language, the childhood experiences that poems refer to would be forever denied me.

  • Tell us more about your translations and publications. How long did it take to accomplish the translations?

I worked on Persian poetry throughout the 1980s and only stopped when the pile of unpublished works began to mount up. Then I concentrated on getting them published, which, eventually, they all were. We still translate bits and pieces now and then, but nothing very systematically.

  • Your wife, Farah, seems to be a good translator as well; what was the role of her in accomplishing this task?

Though not herself a writer, Farah is well-educated and has lots of specialist knowledge – of plants, herbs, textures – useful for Sohrab. She also knows some Arabic language and much classical Persian literature.

  • Why did you choose Modern Persian Poetry and why Sohrab in particular? Why not Nima or any other contemporary poets?

By chance, really. Sohrab was the particular passion of my friend, Abbas. I quickly got to like Sohrab’s character – quiet, humorous, imaginative – and felt an affinity with his spiritual intelligence.

  • Tell us more about Sohrab, the ‘Sohrab’ you discovered through words and lines of poetry. How do you see him?

His paintings are quite a good guide to his poems; both achieve a large effect through colour and being in tune with nature. Sohrab writes about direct, everyday experience – he is not ‘difficult’ in the sense of metaphysical, at all – and all ingenuities can be matched, sooner or later, with something in one’s own experience. I made it a point never to translate something I did not understand … through some haphazard approximation – but always to build in the desired interpretation, so that the English reader would not need intrusive footnotes.

  • Which sources have you made use of?

There is Hasht Ketab [Eight Books], which is a well-edited, reliable text. There are few good written commentaries or critical writings in English about Sohrab, and there were even fewer in the 1980s. Instead I sought out people who actually knew Sohrab and got them to talk about him.

  • How do you see Nature in Sohrab’s works compared with other poets, especially English? Any line or poem from Sohrab you like best?

One of the main attractions in translating Sohrab is the sense of something new, something absent from English and American literature. My favourite (I think) is Mosafehr [The Traveller] but the whole slow movement of Seday-e pay-e ab [Water’s Footfall] is very compelling also. Long poems in English do not feed one quite as these poems do. The same can be said of Forugh’s Iman beyavarim [Let us rejoice at the coming of winter]. In Sohrab’s art, nature is almost – not quite – God; but the eye in the midst of everything does not quite close.

  • I have noticed a distinct diction and a deliberate choice of words in your translations, some really good and new, that shows lots of contemplations on each. How did you find the words you wanted?

This is the case with the writing of poetry, perhaps, not just the special case of translation. Cliché and formula are to be avoided. And the spirit of the age – journalism! A bigger challenge that lies behind the choosing of words is that of providing a transition from one culture to another. This provoked much the most thought!

  • Have you seen the UNESCO translations of Sohrab’s poems, if yes, what are your comments on that?

I have seen a UNESCO cultural heritage series of translations – of different works by different hands. These represent a laudable and ambitious attempt to bring these excellent works before a wider, international audience. People are always somewhat ethnocentric – content with their own national ways – and many will never take an interest in ‘foreign’ literature. But there is also an important minority of more adventurous and courageous readers, willing to make friends with the new.

  • Let’s turn to Forough, what was interesting for you, as a translator, in Forugh’s poetry? Do you believe she has been a Feminist poet?

Forugh was more difficult for me, as a man, to approach, especially as she writes about her torn marriage and the loss of her son. She is certainly an important figure for the history of her times from a feminist point of view, but perhaps this ‘pigeon-hole’ is ultimately too limiting for her, as she herself eloquently said. Pigeon-holes are for pigeons.

  • Some say Sohrab is difficult for common readers, mainly because of his farfetched metaphors, but Forugh is simpler, and more favoured; what is your idea?

They much respected each other, as I’m sure you know. I hope this comment is not true, because if Forugh is ‘easier’ now, then she may have less to offer in the future. I like to think of both these colourful boats sailing down the centuries.

  • Any line from Forough you like best?

She is hard to excerpt from, since the sense carries on from sentence to sentence like prose, leaving thoughts unfinished, but I always like:

Ah those dark pupils of mine,

Sufis settled to solitude,

Were lost in the chanting of his eyes,

And closed

from ‘Connection’.

  • Let us talk about the audience. How much is modern Persian poetry, especially poetry of Sohrab, known among English readers and literature fans? How much do they know about it?

Next to nothing, I’m afraid. But as with Omar’s Ruba’iyat in the Edward Fitzgerald translation, which surfaced quite by accident in a Suffolk bookshop, it could have a very large appeal because of its simplicity, immediacy and ‘otherness’.

  • Regarding your own books, how do you see the reaction of English audience toward your books? Was it a success?

There is such a small audience for poetry here; it’s hard to tell. Publishing Trespasses certainly didn’t change my life, as Wendy Cope told me it would, but the book sold its thousand copies, is consulted over the internet (for which I receive fees) and studied by school children – older ones.

  • What are your plans for future? Any other poet or book to translate?

It’s bad luck to talk about one’s plans. I would have to give away secrets (children’s fiction? a novel?).

  • By the way, have you ever been in Iran? Do you have any plan of visiting here?

I’ve actually never visited Iran, though I have family there, and would love to come to Kashan as well as Shiraz, Tabriz, Isfahan and Tehran – such romantic names. I’ve often made plans but so far they have never materialised. Perhaps soon!

  • In your opinion, how could we introduce our poets, particularly Sohrab, to the world? What are the necessary steps toward making a universal picture of a poet and at the same time remaining loyal to his message?

I shouldn’t worry too much about the “entire world”, but a film about his life, made for television, would certainly help. Then readily available, good quality translations.

  • The last question, what is your definition of ART?

I suppose for me all art has to do with what lifts us out of ourselves. Great art is a glimpse of the permanent, hence is a form of worship, relieving us of the confining cage of our petty, selfish concerns and fixed points of view. Art breathes the air of freedom, the air that greets the chick as it steps out of the egg.

  • At the end, do you have any words for Iranian readers? Say whatever you like, any quote, and anything?

I greet you, Iranian readers! Your imagined youth fills me with dangerous optimism. Let my last words be about your literary tradition. A tradition that cannot accommodate the new is in a bad way. Equally, the idea of revolution – as in ‘modernism’ – is a short-term excitement. Nothing looks more old-fashioned, now, than such literary modernism. The aims and achievements of poetry, of all literature, are forever the same, always concerned with nature and history, with the world and the human predicament. In art creation and innovation occur as renewals in the tradition, which is essential for their existence. So let me enjoin you to study your enormously rich tradition with sure love, while expanding and encountering new tracts of experience and new modes of voicing. Your confidence will grow from combining the past with the present.

  • Thanks for participating in the interview ■
15 Sep

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons


Goli Taraghi (b. 1939 in Tehran) is an exilic Iranian writer living and working in France. Although her writings are frequently censored in her home country, they are widely circulated there and receive much attention from the public. The stories of this collection, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons translated from Persian to English by Sara Khalili, are chosen from a number of short story collections originally published in Persian.

In the ten short stories of this collection, Taraghi writes about the absurdities of life; she writes of love and loss, and about feelings of alienation and belonging. Her stories depict lonely individuals carrying the weight of their hopelessness from one day to another. They also show how Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution affected the lives of people from all walks of life: from sophisticated aristocrats (“Gentleman Thief”) to an old woman from a remote rural area in the deserts of Iran (“The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons”). This review looks briefly at four of these short stories.

The first story, “Gentleman Thief,” is narrated by a young woman of privileged social background. She is witnessing the emotional and physical demise of her mother and grandmother in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Revolution makes her family’s property public domain; just in the same way that it turns their memories of a lavish past into national history. In the narrator’s eyes the Revolution also turns a respectable math teacher into a thief and later, ironically, to the guardian of the objects he wanted to steal and the man from whom he wanted to steal them.

Despite Iran being the setting of another significant short story, “In Another Place,” this story presents an exilic mood. It mixes two geographical and emotional/mental loci. Amir-Ali, the protagonist, has long suffered from chaining his true self both at home and outside. At home, he wears the mask of a proper gentleman to meet the standards of his aristocratic wife; outside, he is forced to put on a different mask and pretend he is religious to maintain his lucrative business in a post-revolutionary Iran. His physical and emotional freedom comes in a place outside of the city where the political ideology has hardly had a chance to touch.

Many, including Taraghi herself, consider another story, “The Great Lady of my Soul,” to be her best short story. The story, written in the peak of the revolution, is about a protagonist distancing herself from the loud cries of the city and reaching inner peace through taking a mystical mental journey. The setting of the story and its mood is reminiscent of the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri, the notable modernist Iranian poet and painter, in its depiction of nature’s tranquility and healing quality.

The final story, which also lends its name to this collection, is “The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons.” This story is the epitome of Taraghi’s style and subject matter. “The Pomegranate Lady” is realistically magical, and incredibly de-familiarizing. In this story an old woman from a remote village in Iran is travelling to Europe. In the plane, she is seated next to a sophisticated expatriate who is sick of everything in post-revolutionary Iran. The expatriate, also the narrator of the story, acts aloof and uninterested in whatever Pomegranate Lady has to offer: her life-story, her children’s stories, the reason she is taking on this journey so far away from her home, and even the squeezed juicy pomegranates she has to offer her. To the narrator, her own reasons for expatriation are valid, important justifiable, but the reasons of an old, simple, illiterate, rural woman’s journey to the free world, is insignificant. The Pomegranate Lady asks the expatriate lady for help in order to get to Sweden where her sons are, but the narrator’s carelessness misleads the old woman even more.

I find Goli Taraghi’s short stories in this collection to be representative, and critical of the relationship between the Iranian upper class elite, and regular middle to lower class Iranians. Although everybody’s life is drastically changed and influenced by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the upper class are out of touch with the reality of post revolutionary Iran. In the stories they are shown as having little interest in connecting with people outside their social class, and in understanding how this major life changing revolution came about.

28 Jul

A Translator’s Note: Hedayat, Translated / Hedayat, the Translator

Bombay Rain” is from a collection of interrelated short stories whose protagonist and/or narrator is an Iranian living in India, bringing together elements of both cultures, places, languages, etc. The story is about the narrator and his friend wanting to make a film about the late Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat. Hedayat (1903-1951) is known by many, friend and foe, as one of the pillars of the contemporary Persian literature. His most famous work is a novella entitled بوف کور , The Blind Owl, which was written in Iran but primarily published in India in fifty copies (as mentioned in “Bombay Rain”). The Blind Owl was first translated into French in 1953 and then into English in 1957 (by D. P. Costello. Another translation in English is by Iraj Bashiri, 1984).
The Blind Owl is about a man’s obsession with a mysterious woman and her eyes but this is an awful way to introduce the work. It cannot really be summarized and any attempt to do so fails the narration, the style, the several layers at work, the complex spiritual and philosophical context, the madness, the mysteriousness, and the haunting aura. And that is not what this note aims at. It rather wants to look at how Hedayat and The Blind Owl have informed Yazdanjoo’s “Bombay Rain” and been in turn in a way translated/resurrected by it.
Hedayat and The Blind Owl are resurrected in two ways in “Bombay Rain”:
1) The first is the more direct one, through the explicit references to Hedayat and his masterpiece in the story. The story begins and forms around Hedayat, whom the narrator and his friend aim to bring back to life in a film about The Blind Owl: forming “an Iranian/Indian/French triangle” to make “a feature film, including recreations of parts of The Blind Owl, with the supposed author as a ‘shadow’ and Marcel and I as interpreters.” The film never materializes in the story world (neither the talks about making another film about the failure of the project get anywhere in the story), but the characters’ obsession with Hedayat is the driving force of the story and thus Hedayat actually does get brought back to life in world of the story.
2) The second and to my belief more interesting way is the more complicated subtle translation/resurrection, which happens in the deeper layers of the story, through the translation/transformation of Hedayat, his character and his life details, into Yazdanjoo’s story. For example, the fact that Hedayat committed suicides translates into one of the story’s characters Krishna’s father’s committing suicide. Moreover, many of the threading elements of Hedayat’s novella are transferred to modern times and places, finding their way, in new, but still visibly recognizable, context and form into “Bombay Rain.” The shadow; the weird laughter; death and the decapitated head; the mysterious appearance, reappearance, and disappearance of some of the characters; their merging vague identities; the division of the landscape into the interior of the house and the strange outside, with a strong presence of threshold spaces; and the constant translation of dreams, illusions, and realities into one another and then into art forms in “Bombay Rain” all come from The Blind Owl. For example, the narrator of The Blind Owl translates the gaze of the mysterious woman into an image he draws on a pencil case and later on finds on an antique jar discovered while digging a grave for the woman. In “Bombay Rain” the characters wish to transform Hedayat’s gaze into moving images/film and fail, a gaze that has already overshadowed Persian literature and arts for many decades. The artist of the old story is a painter of pencil cases. The artists of the new story are filmmakers. The old story is local and involves mainly family members. The new story goes beyond borders and brings together friends from different countries.
Yazdanjoo’s work relies heavily on intertextual games, of which Hedayat himself was a master, games whose decoding have been an important key for scholars into the world of The Blind Owl. There is no way that “Bombay Rain” could have come into existence without it being preceded by The Blind Owl. But it would not have been the engaging story it is now if Yazdanjoo had simply used Hedayat for name-dropping, without weaving Hedayat’s concerns with narrative into the present story. The fact that the movie production fails in “Bombay Rain” could be read as Yazdanjoo’s commentary on how any art form that wants to keep alive an author’s heritage by lazily using his/her figure, or his/her shadow, is doomed to failure. The continuance of life can only happen in the author and his work becoming the soul of new works, translated for the time and place the new works are set in.

Bombay RainThe translation project at hand moreover brings forth the significance of living and breathing as translator writers / writer translators, in various cultures and languages, with a lineage of translators and translations to learn from and be inspired by.
Hedayat was born on 14 Farvardin 1330 in Tehran. He was born in the motherland, into an Iranian calendar, into the mother language. He grew to become one of the most important modern Persian writers and a translator. Hedayat committed suicide on 04 Avril 1951 in Paris. His tomb is in Père Lachaise Cemetery. He died in a foreign land, into a Gregorian calendar, into a second language.
Yazdanjoo and I were both born and grew up and become who we are in Iran, but now live in two different corners of the world: he in India, I in the US, and we work together on the translation project of the book through emails and Skype.
Hedayat read extensively in French (French and non-French translated authors), books that were sent to him by friends through the postal mail and/or brought back by travelers. Authors such as: Celine, Camus, Sartre, Cezanne, Joyce, Miller, Joseph Breitbach, Julien Green, Jean Schlumberger, Maurice Wargnier, El Hakim, Robert Rochefort, Stuart Engstrand, Ann Vickers, M. A. Charignon, Stanislaviski, A. Adamov, H. Calet, and the list goes on and on. And Hedayat was not the only one interested in and involved with foreign books and literary magazines. This was the prevalent atmosphere among Iranian intellectuals of the day.
Today foreign books and authors still play an important role in forming the literary tastes and careers of Iranian authors. Many Iranian authors constantly read foreign works either in their Persian translations or in English (sometimes it is the original language of the work and sometimes the translation language). Translated books constitute a large percentage of the published works in Iran, despite the complex labyrinth of permissions and censorship issues one has to constantly navigate. Access to original foreign works can be a challenge, for many reasons (from government restrictions to sanctions), but today because of the internet it is much easier to keep in touch with what is going on outside the borders, compared to the time of Hedayat, and avid readers always find ways to go around limitations. Many readers in Iran who don’t have easy access to foreign books have their friends traveling from abroad to Tehran buy and carry books in their suitcases or have them buy their e-books for them. Hedayat was a translator himself. He translated from French works by Sartre, Kafka, Chekhov, Kielland, Schnitzler, and works from Persian Pahlavi language into modern Persian. Payam Yazdanjoo too is a translator and writer. His published works (which amount to some thirty titles) include translations of books (from English) by Roland Barthes, Richard Brautigan, Christopher Norris, Graham Allen, Richard Rorty, and many others. I read in, translate to/from, and write in English. And we are not the exceptions. Many other Iranian authors translate (or aspire to) alongside writing.
Hedayat has moreover woven translation, in the broader sense of the word, into the writing of The Blind Owl. On one of his last meetings with M. Farzaneh, who later wrote an important book on Hedayat, Hedayat gave Farzaneh examples of real events in his life that he had translated or “transposed” into events in the story world of the book and named foreign books/movies that to understand his story one needed to check: to read Le Double et le Don Juan by Otto Rank and Lady Macbeth au village by Nicolas Leskov, and to watch The Student of Prague. But these were not the only influences on his work. Perhaps if he were talking to a French reader of his, he would then point out to elements of his Iranianness and examples of Persian literature (both classical and more contemporary of his time) that had informed the work.
The same holds true for Yazdanjoo’s current collection from which the story “Bombay Rain” has been translated here. One can of course read Yazdanjoo’s work (as well as Hedayat’s) and get much out of them without the knowledge of or research into the larger literary context around them (Persian or other), but much is also lost if one does merely that. These works challenge their readers to further engage with the text and to reach out to other literary and cultural sensitivities that have shaped them, thus pushing them to broaden their literariness beyond the experience of the present text.
On the second day that Hedayat met with Farzaneh, then a young inexperienced translator and writer, Hedayat told Farazaneh, “To write, one should read, translate, and write” (58). For Hedayat, translating was as important as the other two activities. So it is for Yazdanjoo, me, and many other Iranian authors. Our writers’ writer beings are inseparable from our translator beings. And so are our stories from those of a lineage of Iranian and Other writers and translators.