Let Us Steal a Lease of Life

Let Us Steal a Lease of Life: interview with Martin Turner
English psychologist, poet and translator
28th August 2003

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, 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.

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.

  • 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 ■
About Farzaneh Doosti 33 Articles

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