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Dancing With Chains: Notes on Iranian Translation

by Leigh Shulman Jan 15, 2010
Matador Life Editor Leigh Shulman has just completed the translation of a novella by Alimorad Fadaienia, a Persian author in exile in Iran. These notes on her translation are published in conjunction with an excerpt available at Guernica Magazine.

THIS TRANSLATION began five years ago over a coffee with my friend Alimorad Fadaienia. I’ve known the man for years. We’re good friends. He’s read and commented on much of my work, but I’d never read anything of Ali’s because his work is predominantly in Farsi. That day, we began translating The Book of Shapur.

What an opportunity! Not only would I have a chance to work with one of my best friends, also a respected Persian author, but we also bring this unique piece of Persian literature into the English language

What is The Book of Shapur?

The Book of Shapur describes what it’s like to be an Iranian exile. You feel the confusion, loss and pain of the main character as he navigates his way through an unknown city trying to complete an unknown mission. Reading this piece of writing is probably the closest you’ll ever come to knowing what it’s like to be in exile without actually experiencing it for yourself.

Read an excerpt from The Book of Shapur at Guernica Magazine. Or download and read the entire novella by going to my website The Future Is Red.

The suggested price is 10USD, but you can pay what you wish. Anything above the suggested donation price goes directly to support the International Rescue Committee, an international organization dedicated to feeding, educating, finding freedom and healing people and places around the world.

Do you speak Farsi?

This is the first question people ask when I tell them I’ve been working on a Farsi translation. The answer is no. I’ve learned a lot of Farsi over the years, but speak it? Not even close.

First rule of translation, though, is the translator does not need the same level of fluency in the original language as the target language. We take the language, culture, ideology and thought process and pour it into the mold of the language we know best.

How Closely Does the Translation Represent the Original?

Some say a translation must adhere to the original as closely as possible. Other translators believe the goal is not simply to shift words and phrases from one language to the next. You are instead transposing the soul of a piece from one place and time to another. I tend toward the second view.

“Translation is like dancing with chains,” says Ali, echoing the words of a famous Persian translator. “You must stick to the original, but at the same time you must also be free to create something new.” It would be impossible to create the exact same experience in two languages, but you can capture the essence of a piece of writing.

What was our process?

The first step was to create a very raw and literal word-for-word translation of the piece. I sat in front of the computer typing out exactly what Ali told me. The product of that first step was completely incomprehensible, impossible to read.

Then step two. We smoothed the rough English into a real working English. Again, Ali and I sat side by side in his apartment in New York City. As we went through the sentences, I used my western United States view of the world to ask for specifics and clarification.

What changed? What remains the same?

Language takes its culture along with it, so where ever possible we remain faithful to the original. Punctuation and sentence structure – which you’ll notice are often incorrect and misleading — follow the exact pattern of the Farsi. Alimorad designed the text this way intentionally to confuse and distract you as a reader, mimicking the way an exile feels while navigating a new land.

Idioms do not translate well.

“It is like flies and the wind. They run away from each other,” Ali uses to describe two people in the novella. But flies and wind carry a significance in Farsi they don’t seem to have in English. No matter how we rearranged the words, the meaning would not carry through. We finally decided on the following: People these days are like oil and water. They run away from each other.

Sometimes a minor change changes everything.

The original text is completely in past tense to show how the narrator lives in his memory. He is constantly tied to the past. And again, it is meant to confuse. You are meant to question and wonder if you understand correctly. Past tense in English, though, left us with a piece of writing so painfully tedious and boring we almost gave up.

One day, though, I picked up the text and started fiddling with it. Just to see what would happen, I changed a few sentences from past to present tense. When I made the change, I didn’t really expect much, yet it made all the difference in making this translation publishable.

Where is the politics?

This is what makes Ali’s story so different from almost everything else I hear related to Iran. Everything else is politics. Ali says, no, this is not just politics. This is real people. People have died, been put in jail, families destroyed. This is not just something you take and plaster on the radio or TV or Twitter.

This is the truth of being in exile.

Many of us know what it’s like to move to a new country as an expat. It’s not easy. You feel misplaced. Everything is just a little bit off. Food, language, clothing. It’s all just a bit different and often difference presents itself as discomfort.

But while an expat can go home, an exile cannot ever. An exile has no choice.

The Book of Shapur leads us to a conversation between the main character and an old acquaintance. I call this other man an acquaintance, not a friend, because the exile has no friends. People from the past belong to an old world that no longer exists. Time, experience and loss has remolded them into people who no longer recognize each other. Their conversation is in a kind of code where everything seems normal, but it is not.

And when I go to pay, he gets the check.

I say, It’s not good to argue about money, even if for the sake of my age, you shouldn’t pay.

He says, you are a guest here.

I say, when we go out tonight, I’ll be your guest, let me pay this cheap one.

The same smile comes. It is beatific.

He says, when we moved the books, we found tons of money in them with the God-ble’.

I didn’t want to hear the rest.

Those of us not in exile understand the words, but we’ll never fully understand. For that reason, I thank Ali, my good friend and mentor, for giving me just this small look into this strange and unknown world.

Community Connection

To read The Book of Shapur for yourself, download it directly from The Future Is Red. The suggested cost is 10USD and half goes to support the International Rescue Committee. Any amount you wish to pay beyond the 10USD goes directly to the IRC.

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