Author’s note: In the original version of this post, I referred at the end of the first section to the fact that my wife is from Iran. Someone pointed out to me in a private email that the way I had done so made it sound like I was using my wife’s national origin to validate my own authority in the situation I describe. The writer of that email was right. I wrote carelessly, using what has become for me a conversational shorthand for how I came to learn Persian without realizing it would not work that way in print. I have edited that paragraph to reflect more accurately what I was trying to say.
There is another, deeper problem with this post, one that cannot be fixed with a simple edit and that I became aware of both through participating in the comment thread here on Alas and from the private email correspondence I mentioned above. I was commissioned by an Iranian cultural organization to do the translation work I discuss in the piece. I allude to this fact briefly in the last section of the post, but my at first very hesitant decision to accept the commission and the politics of deciding to accept it are, in fact, things that I should have unpacked a good deal more carefully and thoroughly. Because I did not, the piece makes it sound like I woke up one day and, out of the blue, even though I had no previous qualifications to do so, just decided that I would become a literary translator of classical Iranian poetry and, what’s more, that I am so arrogant as to resent the fact that people find this lack of qualifications troubling at best, if not evidence of outright racism on my part. Indeed, having read the piece again, I can see how someone who does not know me, does not know the full context I have alluded to here, and who is therefore not willing to insert into my text everything that I left out (or give me, for whatever reason, the benefit of the doubt), might conclude that I am, as Alexis put in on Alas, one of those white people who just decide they can translate non-Western literature because that literature is of secondary value at best.
The fact is, however, that I have done quite a lot of thinking, and I am in the process of writing in more detail about why I accepted the commission despite my initial hesitation, how I understand my position in relation to this work, to the history of western colonialism and imperialism in Iran, and to how I can do this work in a responsible and accountable way. That I left so much of that information and thinking out of this piece means that I did justice neither to myself nor to the issues raised by both the scholar I talk about in the first section and Aria Fani in his post on Ajam. The lack of that context is also why the narrative in the first section took on the “gotcha” shape that it did. I will not deny the satisfaction that I took in writing it, but I regret it nonetheless, since by focusing on what I continue to believe was that scholar’s arrogant condescension, and by making him look foolish at the end, the “gotcha” element of that section actually serves to short-circuit rather than make room for discussion of the issues I realize now that this piece should be exploring.
I stand by what I have to say about Coleman Barks, Daniel Ladinsky, and A. Hart Edwards in the second section, and I stand by what I say in the third section as well. My mistake was in thinking I could present them in this abbreviated form and that they would nonetheless mean what I wanted them to mean.
In 2005, not long after the publication of my first book of translations, Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan, I was invited to be on a conference panel called “Scheherazade on the Verge of a Makeover? Creating Contemporary Translations of Iranian Poetry.” I may have been the only non-Iranian on the panel, I’m not sure, but I know I was the only panelist who did not read Persian. (I make my literary translations using previously published, but decidedly non-literary and mostly out-of-date English-language versions.) When the most senior member of the panel found this out, he—a well-known and well-respected Iranian scholar and translator of Iranian poetry—sent an email to the group asking whether I should even be called a translator. He wasn’t, he wrote, suggesting I shouldn’t be on the panel, but since I made my “translations” the same way Coleman Barks did (about which more below)—and my copanelist did not actually use quotation marks, but you could hear them betweent the lines of his email—he wondered what purpose my presence on the panel actually served. He was probably less blunt than I have made him sound here, but there was no mistaking his implication that since I did not translate directly from Persian, I most probably had very little to offer. Nor did he stop there. On the day of our presentation, at a breakfast we’d all agreed to have together, he asked his question again, “Can we really call Richard’s work translation?”
“What exactly do you mean?” I asked him. “Are you talking about something inherent to the texts I produce that disqualifies them from being called translations? Or are you talking about the difference between what happens in my mind and the mind of a bilingual translator?”
I don’t think he’d expected a response, much less one that challenged him. “It’s the latter, of course,” he said, dismissing me by barely looking at me, “but that’s a discussion we can have later.”
This man’s role on our panel was to act as discussant, meaning that he would speak last, raising questions about what each presenter had to say, pointing out interesting patterns, perhaps indicating avenues of further inquiry and discussion. His comments were, in general, acerbic and antagonistic, more about finding fault in what people had said than furthering a conversation. So I did not think he was singling me out when my turn came, but the only comment he made about my presentation was a question that, once again, signaled his doubts about the validity of my work. “Does Professor Newman even know,” he asked, “that Golestan [the title of the book I’d translated] means Rose Garden?”
If the point of that question was not to make me look small and foolish and clearly out of my league, I can’t imagine what else it could have been, and so I was, to say the least, suspicious and confused when he approached me as we walked to the restaurant where the panel members had decided to go for lunch. “Richard,” he said, his voice not at all sharpened by the dismissiveness I’d heard at breakfast and at our presentation, “I’m curious. What methods do you use when you translate?” After everything he’d already said, the fact that he used the verb translate in his question made him sound disingenuous at best, and since I wasn’t about to give him one more opportunity to dismiss or belittle my work, I answered with something non-commital and found a reason as quickly as possible to start talking to someone else.
When we sat down for lunch, I more or less ignored him, talking instead to the friend who’d invited me to be on the panel and to a couple of the panelists whom I was meeting for the first time. Eventually, though, the Iranians in the group—I and a friend who’d been in the audience were the only two non-Iranians present—started to talk about things Iranian: who had been to Iran recently, what political developments were worth talking about, which writers, Iranian and Iranian-American, were worth reading, and so on. To this point, the discussion had been entirely in English, but then this man announced that he had a joke to share. “I’m sorry, Richard,” he turned to me and my friend, “but I need to tell the joke in Persian. Otherwise it won’t make sense. I’ll try to translate it when I’m through.”
I don’t remember the joke itself, just that it was off-color and that the punchline turned on the Persian word kir, which means penis. I laughed along with everyone else when he was through telling it and then turned to explain it to my non-Iranian friend. There was no way our discussant could have known, because he never bothered to ask, that even though I did not read Persian, and while I was certainly not a fluent speaker of the language, I did understand it well enough to get the joke and the cultural references it contained. He listened with a level of surprise I found quite satisfying as I retold the joke to my friend in English. “Wow!” our discussant exclaimed, a small hint of what I hoped was embarrassment creeping into his voice. “Your Persian is much better than I expected. Congratulations!” I don’t remember if I did anything other than smile in response, but I was not sorry to say goodbye to him when the lunch was over, and I have not been sorry that our paths have not crossed again.