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The Art (and Politics) of Translation

23 Jan 2009 17:153 Comments

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By NILOUFAR TALEBI in New York

In 2002, a poet friend of mine, Sally Lee Christian, was recruited by a few Uzbeks to help them translate the poet Delshod into English, a collaborative act she found so riveting that she set upon a campaign to recruit me to translate Iranian poetry with her. At that time, I had not so much as thought about translation, despite the fact that I had studied Comparative Literature in college, which meant I had read a good chunk of the classics in translation, and even though as an immigrant I was translating, on some level, all the time.

Her persistence prevailed on me. I eventually agreed -- albeit casually -- to try my hand at it. For our project, I naturally gravitated toward Forough Farrokhzad from my parents' abundantly stocked library, which they had brought over from Iran. But my Persian was rusty. I had not really read Persian since 1984, when I left Iran as a schoolgirl. I picked "Tavallodi Digar" or "Another Birth," which is one of Farrokhzad's iconic poems, to start. With help, I began to understand each verse, stanza, and eventually the whole poem. Sally would drive 45 minutes to our sessions in my studio and after reading my drafts and notes about the original poem, we would discuss for hours Farrokhzad's possible intentions, each defending our interpretations, sometimes tearfully as to whether to opt for 'pool' over 'pond' in a certain line, for example. It was in this process of understanding, interpreting and creating the translation of a poem that I began to understand the work, as well as the responsibility and pleasure of translation. In short, I fell in love, found myself in this activity that seemed to bring it altogether for me, and devoted myself to the art of translation.

In this pursuit, as I heard more and more of my friends refer to Rumi as the only Persian poet they knew in translation, I was overcome with the desire to introduce them to the many 20th century writers unknown to them. But I scarcely found literary translations of Shamlou, Sepehri, Al-Ahmad, Nima, Sepehri, Farrokhzad, Behbahani and others that had captured a wide readership. Rilke, Akhmatova, Goethe, Neruda, Rimbaud, Szymborska, Pushkin had all been widely translated, studied and enjoyed in English. So, I thought, why not contemporary Iranian writers?

I had a personal connection to the poet Ahmad Shamlou, who I had the great fortune of knowing in Iran. In the years between 1980 and 1984, he often visited my parent's home, so finding a way to introduce contemporary writers in translation became not only a matter of principal, but a personal quest for me. As a result, in 2003, I founded The Translation Project, an organization dedicated to bringing contemporary Iranian literature to worldwide audiences. Since then, each time I am interviewed by the media, I receive hundreds of unsolicited submissions from Iranians asking to have their writings translated and published in the United States. Because the number of such emails are far beyond what I can reasonably reply to, and also becauase of the similarity of requests, I will respond here. By doing so, I hope to make Iranian writers aware of the challenges we face in bringing translated works to readers in the United States.

Let me start off by giving some basic facts about the state of translation in the United States, gleaned from information I've gathered from attending the American Literary Translators Association and The Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conferences, in addition to consulting sources such as the PEN/IRL Report on the International Situation of Literary Translation, To Be Translated Or Not To Be, by Esther Allen (Ed)., and from experience accumulated by working in the trenches as a literary translator of contemporary Iranian literature.

The current reality is that very few works of literature written in languages other than English ever find their way into the U.S. market. Statistics suggest that of all books published annually in the United States, less than 3% are works of translation, a number which includes retranslations, reissues and non-literary works. The number of literary fiction, non-fiction and poetry is closer to 0.3-0.7%, a number mainly comprised of works of European literature, since countries such as France, Germany, Greece, Italy, etc., provide support for the translation of their national literature into English and other languages. Recently, China has partnered with large publishers such as HarperCollins and Penguin to bring several Chinese titles into the English language and distribute them in the U.S. and U.K. markets. The Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest trade fair for the book publishing industry, held annually in mid-October in Germany, plans to feature China as its guest nation in 2009; and the Man Group investment company, the sponsor of the annual Booker Prize, has announced the creation of a new literary prize for Asian writers. These are all examples of large-scale, organized efforts on behalf of these countries to introduce their literature in translation. Apart from the small startup nonprofit that I run, and the limited way in which it can compete for attention in translating and publishing Iranian literature, there is no other organized, translation-focused effort to advance Iranian literature in English that I know of.

The 0.3-3% stands in stark contrast to the much higher rates of translation available in countries like Germany and Iran. We all know that one can (and I did) read the Western canon translated into Persian (Greek tragedies, Homer, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, Chaucer, Dante, Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac, Eliot, Cervantes, Kafka, Emile Zola, among others); but the treasures of Iranian literature -- save for the handful of classical works -- are scarcely available in translation in the United States.

The good news is that awareness of this general scarcity of translated works has spawned a trend in the United States since I started following these issues closely in 2003: The National Endowment for the Arts increased the funding -- small as it is to begin with -- it allocates to works of translation; PEN American Center's PEN Translation Fund was established in the summer of 2003 by a gift from an anonymous donor in response to the disarmingly low number of literary translations current
ly appearing in English; websites like wordswithoutborders.org, and new publishers of literary translations such as Archipelago, and Open Letter have sprung up; veteran publishers of literary translation such as Dalkey Archive Press, New Directions, and Graywolf Press continue their dedication to publishing translations; literary magazines such as Circumference, and Two Lines publish translations only, and several blogs about translation, like Three Percent now exist.

Something else we have working in our favor is the mass Iranian migration after the 1979 revolution, which has produced a new generation of truly bilingual Iranian-Americans whose dominant language is English and who can provide a unique service in bringing this literature into English. (This does not implicate that being Iranian or bilingual is necessary for rendering successful translations, but this is a topic for another blog entry!). Now, slowly but surely, literary translations of Iranian literature, especially contemporary Iranian literature, are on the rise. Here is a brief list of publication in the past 5 years:

Women Without Men, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Tr. Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet (The Feminist Press at CUNY, March 2004)

Selections from Saadi's Gulistan, Tr. Richard Jeffrey Newman (Global Scholarly Publications, 2004)

The Love Poems Of Ahmad Shamlu, Tr. Firoozeh Papan-Matin (Ibex Publishers, December 2005)

My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad, Tr. Dick Davis (Modern Library, April 2006)

Selections from Saadi's Bustan
, Tr. Richard jeffrey Newman (Global Scholarly Publications, 2006)

Strange Times My Dear, The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, Ed. by Nahid Mozaffari (Arcade Publishing, April 2006)

Sin: Selected Poems of Forough Farrokhzad, Tr. Sholeh Wolpe' (University of Askansas Press, October 2007)

The Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, by Ferdowsi, Tr. Dick Davis (Panguin Classics, February 2007)

Touba and the Meaning of Night, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Tr. Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof (The Feminist Press at CUNY, Jan 2008)

Missing Soluch, by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Tr. by Kamran Rastegar (Melville House Press, June 2007)

BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, Edited and Translated by Niloufar Talebi (North Atlantic Books, August 2008)

Though all of these new efforts have somewhat strengthened the presence of translated literature in the United States, comparatively speaking, translations of Iranian literature are still not prevalent in America. With the tremendous shift in book reading and buying trends, causing the decline of the U.S. (and world) book market, in addition to the lack of any systematic support (the likes of which exist for countries like Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, etc.) for Iranian literature in translation, we might only hope for a slim representation.

Considering these factors, one fundamental question arises: How can we systematically plan and support the translation and publication of Iranian literature?

The answer to this question is simple: With proper funding from the many (Iranian) individuals who are in the position to contribute an endowment, we can establish a fully functioning International Institute of Iranian Letters capable of commissioning translations through the recommendations of rotating editorial committees, paying translators, and placing proposals with publishers to get the works published. Until there is support for such an organization, these efforts cannot be systematically fulfilled. And until then, I ask people who email me to consider that without proper support and staff, we simply cannot focus resources on every unsolicited manuscript we receive. Currently, our focus can only be on writers who have left an imprint on Iranian literature already -- writers such as Shamloo. However, in order to address the numerous requests we receive, we are now offering professional translation, editing and proposal-writing services to authors at standard global rates in order to prepare them to pursue these efforts on their own. See our Translation Services Web page for information on this.

We welcome partnerships with larger art organizations, universities or other groups to realize our goal of launching Iran's first International Institute of Iranian Letters. With proper partnerships, strategy, funding and leadership, we can make anything happen.

Niloufar Talebi is founder of The Translation Project, the editor/translator of BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World (North Atlantic Books, August 2008), and creator of ICARUS/RISE, new Iranian poetry in multimedia Naghali.

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3 Comments

Niloufar,My best wishes for your endeavors! Your vision is so clear, I can see the future coming to fruition already. Each translated verse is a brick in the foundation of a marvelous legacy.-Peter Corless.

Peter Corless / January 23, 2009 9:07 PM

Very interesting article.

Maybe the problem has also to do with poetry itself, which as a literary genre is not so marketable as other genres. I think that the market is very interested in the memoir genre, especially the memoirs written by Iranians in exile are very popular these days, because there is a new interest in "true-life" stories about everyday life in Muslim countries targeted by the Western "war on terror" such as Iran or Afghanistan or Pakistan, with a political scent and an exotic touch, but on the contrary the modern poetry and modern literature produced inside those countries for their internal market is not deemed interesting, because it lacks this "exotic" touch.

alis / June 11, 2009 3:14 AM

Very interesting article. Thanks.

Sayeed Abubakar / December 10, 2009 9:43 PM