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Society | Howl in Farsi


22 Apr 2012 22:32Comments
Houman Harouni has written for Iranian Studies, Connect, and Harvard Educational Review, among other publications. His "Bīstoon Chronicles" appear regularly on Tehran Bureau. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
[ Bīstoon ] The first draft of my translation of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" into Farsi was written over three bed-ridden days in a village in India, in the summer of 2005. The date is important to this account for a few reasons -- none of them entirely personal.

To begin, I was 23 at the time, younger than Ginsberg when he wrote the poem but in the same developmental ballpark. It also matters that all this predates the events that came on the heel of the Iranian elections in 2009. I am not sure if I would have picked up the poem for translation in the years that have followed -- and if I would, the result would have been very different. Finally, I was as surprised as anyone to see that at least four translations of "Howl" appeared in Farsi around the same time I put the finishing touches on mine. All these translators, as far as I know, also belong to my generation, the generation of people who grew up after the '79 Revolution.

Here I want to make some sense of the appeal of "Howl" in that particular period in Iran. In the process, I think I will manage to say something about the intersection of the poem, the times, the generation of translators, and the act of translation.

"Howl" is the seminal poem of the Beat Generation. Seminal not in the sense that it was present at the inception of the Generation, but that in hindsight it appears to have brought the Beats into existence. I say in hindsight, because Jack Kerouac had already named the small, underground clique of individuals around him by 1948, eight years before the first reading of the poem. But it's that first reading that continues to generate the impression that something more than a clique or an attitude had coalesced in the arteries of the great American metropolis.

Generations that have a name usually earn it by being the subject of a disaster: war, famine, exile. Their name refers to a common seal of calamity on the minds of a people born close enough, in time and space, to the impact zone of the disaster. A good translation of Beat into Farsi, koofteh, which connotes both the tired ("I'm beat") and the rhythmic feelings Kerouac intended, is eerily close to the name often used to refer to my generation in Iran. We are known as nasl-e sookhteh, the Burnt Generation. It's a name with a collective origin, as much to do with the fires of the eight-year war against Iraq as with the feeling of being burnt out, of being irredeemably damaged before reaching a promised potential. As it stands, it's a passive name, a given one.

The tremendous social force of "Howl," unprecedented in American poetry since Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and so far unreplicated, springs from its ambition to actively create a generation. The calamities described in the poem are never passive, received ones. They are the result of the individuals' chosen journeys. The descriptions are chock-full of failure, but failure that is accepted from the onset and embraced at the closing of an act.

a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon...

who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks of the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion

The reality is that the Beats existed more cohesively and tangibly on paper than they ever did on the street. Their union is of a literary nature, and the grammar of this union was conjured by Ginsberg. Most of the lines in "Howl" begin with the relative pronoun "who." The greater part of the poem is really one elongated sentence -- 2,000 words long. Beyond the impact of its (untranslatable) moaning/howling sound, "who" serves as a connector. The disparate experiences, aspects of the lives of many individuals, come together as if belonging to and acting on the same body.

I had not articulated these thoughts by the time I set out to translate the poem. I began the process with the energy of a sudden-found courage, the result of an epiphany regarding the rhythm of the translation. "Howl" is written in a grand, epic style, going back to Whitman, further back to the visions of William Blake, and still further to the liturgical and prophetical Jewish texts written during the First and Second Exiles -- the great defeats -- of the Israelites. I imagine "Unetanneh Tokef," a liturgy sung on the Jewish New Year, must have had a singular influence on Ginsberg:

...it shall be sealed who will pass and who will be created...

who by water, and who by fire,

who by beast, who by hunger,

who by thirst, who in commotion...

The impossibility of translating this historic tempo (which also includes a sense of jazz improvisation) suddenly became possible when in my mind the first line of the poem composed itself in a rhythm borrowed from a millennium-old Iranian epic: Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. Ferdowsi wrote his stories in rhyming couplets. From these I extracted the rise and fall of tone, the capacity for rapid action and moments of deep quiet, and applied them to the prose-style of Ginsberg. It turned out to be an apt choice not only for euphonic reasons. Ferdowsi, too, was a liturgist of great failures. His style corresponded with his intentions.

A few lines into the poem, I had a clear notion of my own purpose. I think I was trying, rather mutely, to respond to what I had gone through in Iran just a few months before -- my encounter with my childhood friends after a few years of my absence from the country. If my friends were searching for meaning in a world that had lost its traditional centers of meaning (religion, nationalism, family, profession), their search at the time took many destructive turns. Addiction, isolation, reckless sexual experiments, and a willingness to enter through any door with a seductive signboard. Before even finishing the work, I dedicated the translation to P. Y., one of the most talented young writers of Iran, the image of whose wracked and ruined eyes would not leave me alone. He would show up at our apartments half-incoherent, describing experiences that seemed to belong to a dozen reckless poets at the same time. The original "Howl," of course, is dedicated to Carl Solomon -- another such rare creature of his time.

This is the temptation of "Howl" for a generation such as mine -- the temptation to join experiences, no matter how solitary and fragmented their sources, and through this union to arrive at a new communal meaning that is not imposed by the outside, but self-generated. The possibility of becoming a generation, I believe, is the aspect of "Howl" that attracted such widespread and concentrated vigor from young Iranian translators. This is the promise of the poem's form.

But the content of "Howl" gives a distinct direction to the promise delivered by the form. In 2005, this direction loosely aligned the Burnt Generation with the Beats. After the events of 2009, the paths -- real or imaginary -- have diverged. Ginsberg had not counted at the time on collective political action. His poem, in fact, barely mentions World War II or the socialist movement. His characters are "real holy laughter" embodied, but they are laughter in Moloch, the invincible dominant spirit of the time, industrial and capitalistic. At best, men of Ginsberg's Generation ("Howl" is a heavily masculine poem, yet another reason that it is out of step with the post-2009 experience) are lifters of this spirit.

Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!

They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!

The content of "Howl" is a declaration of human rights of sorts, but it describes the benighted rights of man, those that are internal and uncertain, possibly destructive to the self: the right to the fluctuations of one's own rebellious heart; the right to belong to an assembly, a generation, a nation that does not yet exist; the right to dignity within and after defeat, and to the fruits of one's own failure.

This perspective, so closely bound to time and place, impacted the regeneration of the poem into Farsi. One example stands out most clearly to me, because it has invited the most criticism in my readings (for now, I have chosen to read my translation aloud, instead of adding another written version to the available web-based mix.)

The last section of "Howl" is a direct address to Carl Solomon. Each line begins with the declaration "I'm with you in Rockland," referring to Rockland Mental Hospital, where Solomon was an inmate. The difficulty is in the preposition "with." In English, it carries a variety of meanings: "I am with you," as in "I am beside you" or "I am undergoing the same ordeal"; or indicating an address, as in "I am talking with you"; or indicating an active solidarity. For me, this last meaning overpowered the others, and it became too muted in the literal Farsi translation of the word. My version translates the word as doosh-a-doosh -- literally, "shoulder-to-shoulder."

It may very well be the wrong choice, but I am reluctant to change it, in honor of the poetic licensure that life required from us in the summer of 2005 -- which it still requires, but in different forms.

In 2005 it was important for some of us to declare, by any means available to us, that whatever was to come of the Burnt Generation, it would not become the generation dreamed up by the right -- that is to say, the right wing in its many manifestations. The generation described in "Howl" is not orderly and accepting -- it is not a productive member of the business world; it is not composed of young patriarchs of nuclear families. It is not religious, it is not royalist, it is not pro-America. It is rebellious, spiritual, sexual, unhealthy, disturbed, and uncompromising. By declaring its right to existence, it also heralds the possibility of democracy.

Photos: With Carl Solomon (homepage), and Bob Dylan above.

Bīstoon Chronicles | A King Alone | Possibilities, Paradoxes, and Our Moment of Painting | Tehran and the Dream

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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