From antisemitism to condoms to….classical Iranian poetry. I was all set to finish the third part of my Thinking About Condoms series (here and here), which I do still plan to complete, when I realized that giving time to that piece would take time away from a writing project for which I have an actual contract. Not that I am getting paid–and that statement is not a complaint; such is the world of small press literary publishing–but Junction Press agreed in January to publish the book-length section I have translated from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, which is Iran’s national epic. Since then, I have been mostly doing some necessary additional research and rereading both the draft of the translation I submitted and the trots from which I worked to produce it. (A trot is a more or less literal rendering, in the target language of the translation, of the passages from the source that are to be translated.) It is time, however, to start the work of revision in earnest, and given the other demands my life makes on my time, I had no choice but to put something aside, and the blogging I’ve been doing recently is what I have decided I have to give up, at least for now.
I feel badly about this because, while my translation work is important to me on many levels–and I obviously think it should be important to you on some level as well, or I would not be posting about it–my heart as a poet and writer is much more fully committed to the kinds of issues with which my recent blog posts and almost all of my poetry are concerned. Not that translation is not important; it is, deeply, and I will have more to say about that over the next couple of posts. Doing translations, however, became a part of my writing life only recently, and to the degree that I have had to embrace an two disciplines that were entirely new to me–translation studies and Persian studies–it has meant a sea change in how I think of myself as a writer and, not incidentally, as an academic. The content of what I am translating, for example, almost always takes me farther afield than I would like from what the central concerns of my own writing usually are. First, I have had to learn about the poets I am translating, about the historical periods in which they wrote, about the history of the translation of their works into English–which is a much more fascinating topic than I would ever have thought; I have learned, for example, that Benjamin Franklin was involved in a huge plagiarism scandal involving his use of a poem by the 13th century poet Sa’di–and about the Persian language, its poetics and its literary canon. Not that these are not interesting and worthwhile topics in their own right, and not that they do not involve issues of gender, sex, class, antisemitism, racism, and power and oppression in all their myriad forms, but, because I am not a scholar of Persian studies and am learning as I go about the works I translate and their authors, it is hard for me to do much more than acknowledge that the issues are there. I simply do not know enough, yet, to say anything much more substantial than that.
My first book of translations from classical Iranian poetry, Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan was published in 2004, and the commission which initiated my work as a translator came to me only in 2002. Before that, I had only dabbled in translation. I did an independent study in my senior year of college translating poetry from Hebrew; and when I lived in South Korea, I worked briefly with a woman who was studying Korean literature on translating some poems by Hwang Jini, whom I have sometimes heard referred to as Korea’s Emily Dickinson, an analogy that only works if you consider nothing more than the status each woman’s work occupies in her respective canon. Hwang Jini was a kisaeng and so, in many, many significant ways, lived as Emily Dickinson’s precise antithesis. Since 2004, I have published two more books, Selections from Saadi’s Bustan and, as Professor John Moyne’s co-translator, A Bird In The Garden Of Angels.
When I got married in 1993, I suggested to my wife that an exciting thing for us to do would be to translate some contemporary Iranian literature into English. It seemed to me a good way to get to know her language and her culture–and for us to get to know each other on a different, deeper level–but she was ever as interested in the idea as I was. So I let it drop, though the idea never really left my head, and once I began to learn from some Iranian friends about the impoverished and paltry state of the literary translation of Iranian literature into English–a subject that will probably merit a post all its own–I would allow myself to fantasize about producing such a work. It was always very clear to me, however, that this would remain a fantasy. Not only, as I mentioned above, was Iranian literature a field about which I was truly ignorant, but I neither spoke fluently nor read nor wrote Persian, skills that seemed to me central to any translation project I might decide to take on.
Life, though, has a way–if I can bastardize an old cliche a little bit–of making itself “interesting,” and so when I received a phone call from a friend of mine, a translator of Rumi who is pretty well known on the Iranian arts and culture scene, asking if I would be interested in joining an Iranian-literature project that a friend of a friend of his, Mehdi Faridzadeh, the executive director of the International Society for Iranian Culture (ISIC), was starting, I immediately said yes. (ISIC’s website is in need of work, but you can still find out about the organization if you poke around.) As it was first explained to me, the project would involve my reading existing translations of five major works of classical Iranian literature and then writing summaries that English-language readers could use to familiarize themselves with those texts. The end product would be either a website or a book, and the purpose was to provide readers in the US access to an important body of literature that most of us know nothing about, the masterworks of which are actually well-known throughout much of the rest of the world, and that was, during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries acknowledged in England and the US as a major world literature that educated people ought to know.
When I spoke to my friend’s friend, however, the description of the project changed. He told me that what ISIC wanted was for someone actually to retell the stories contained in the works that had been selected for the project. This idea intrigued me even more, since there would be more room for creative expression, but when I finally met Mr. Faridzadeh, and he explained that each of my first two contacts had been wrong, that what he wanted was to publish new literary translations of these works, ones that would both stand on their own as works of contemporary American poetry and come to replace the outdated and scholarly translations that are currently the only venue for studying classical Iranian literature in English, I said no. I neither read nor wrote Persian, and while I understood a fair amount of the language–enough, the joke among my wife’s relatives has been for a while now, that they can’t so easily talk about me in front of me anymore–my comprehension was (and still is) limited largely to ordinary conversation, including some of the more common, and colorful, obscenities. I did not see how I could possibly do justice to the project. Mr. Faridzadeh persevered, however, explaining that, precisely because they wanted the final product to be a work of contemporary American poetry, it was more important that the translator they chose be a native-English speaking poet than a Persian bilingual. He would provide me with accurate English-language renderings of each of the texts he was asking me to translate; my task was to reimagine them–retranslate is not quite the right word, since I would be working from English to English–as contemporary American literature.
ISIC’s goal, Mr. Faridzadeh explained, was for these translations to provide a window into Iranian culture and history separate from the highly politicized ones represented by our mainstream media and the inflammatory rhetoric of the Bush administration. (I will have more to say in my next post about President Obama’s Norooz video message to Iran and the Iranian people.) The existing translations of classical Iranian literature, almost all of it poetry, were either too scholarly and/or too old to appeal to contemporary readers. One of the books, Sa’di’s Gulistan, had not been translated in its entirety since the 1800s, while another, Attar’s Ilahi-Nama, had only been translated into English once, in the 1970s. The other books, with the exception of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (of which more in another post), had been similarly neglected. All he asked was that I give it a try and produce a couple of samples. He, of course, wanted to evaluate my work before making a final decision, but doing the samples would also give me a chance to experience whether or not the project was for me.
Obviously, I took the project on, and I did so for three primary reasons. First, I think the role of literary translation in educating people about other cultures is enormously under appreciated, and it made a great deal of sense to me that, given the political situation between the US and Iran, we here in the United States needed more, much more, information about Iranian culture and history. The translations Mr. Faridzadeh was asking me to produce would, at the very least, provide for those who read them a more rounded picture of Iran than was being disseminated through the highly politicized rhetoric of our media and our political leaders. Second, I started to think about my son, who will most likely never be sufficiently literate in Persian to read the works I was being asked to translate in the original, and of my wife’s cousins, and all the second and third generation Iranian-Americans, and the fourth and fifth generations still to come, who are or will be in the same position; and I thought about how the lack of contemporary translations that would speak to them in the English of their times would effectively cut them off from large swathes of their cultural heritage; and suddenly I did not see how I could refuse at least Mr. Faridzadeh’s invitation to try my hand at what he had in mind. And, finally, as a poet, I felt very deeply the value of making the kind of contribution to contemporary American letters that these translations could become, assuming they found the right kind of readership; indeed, the one enduring disappointment I have suffered as part of this project has been the inability and/or failure of the publisher of my first two books even to attempt to connect to that readership.
I would be lying if I denied that some of that disappointment is about my own ego. I am, after all, a writer and a poet. A book of my own work was published in 2006 and, like most people I know who have written for publication, I like to think that my words are important enough to demand the attention of a large and enthusiastic public. If I had my way, lots of people would be reading my books and reviewing them and even teaching them in their classrooms, because I do think I have something to say that it would be worth your while and a few dollars our of your pocket to read. The reality is, though, that what I think is important about what I have to say might, in the long run, turn out to be profoundly insignificant. The writers I have translated, however, and the ones I am translating now, are people who ought to command your attention. Their stories and wisdom, and the poetry in which they have couched them, have withstood the test of time. They have a lot to teach us, and I am going to share some of what I have learned and am learning about them in the next series of blog posts that I write.
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