Aria Fani has published on Tehran Bureau a review of my book, The Teller of Tales, which is a translation of the first five stories of Shahnameh, The Book of Kings, also known as the Persian (or Iranian) national epic. Fani calls my translation “delightful to read,” but what I like most about the review is that he places the book in the context of how the Shahnameh has “dominated and shaped the national psyche of Iranian;” and he gets the through-line of the stories I chose to translate, pointing out that “the nature of the social order is the central theme” of the book.
I didn’t do much to promote the book when it came out in April because my life simply did not permit it, but I will be starting to get the word out little by little. You can order the book from the publisher, Junction Press, and if you’re interested in my giving a reading/talk on my translation, you can contact me here. The Shahnameh is a book that would be of interest in the context of a wide range of artistic, scholarly, intellectual and even political concerns.
I was sorting through some old papers and came across a photocopy of this clipping from what I am pretty sure was The New York Times. I have not, however, been able to confirm that. If anyone can tell me the source, I’d appreciate it. Nonetheless, I think it’s a fitting follow up to my last post about translation:
David Tuckerman, who lives near the United Nations, is accustomed to hearing many languages. Recently, he heard a man speaking to his daughter, who appeared to be about 5 years old, in a language he couldn’t identify. He asked what it was and was told that it was Serbian and that naturally the little girl, living in New York, also spoke English.
Mr. Tuckerman complimented the girl on being bilingual and she corrected him. “I’m trilingual,” she said. “My mother is Greek, so I speak Greek to her.” He complimented her again, for knowing the definitions of bi– and trilingual, and then asked what people who spoke only one language were called.
“Americans,” she replied without hesitation.
ETA: There’s some interesting discussion of this post over at Alas.
So I found out yesterday that I was not elected secretary of my union. I ran not because I was eager to get into union work per se, but because there is serious work that needs to be done on my campus – we are facing a real budget crisis and an administration that has been unambiguously hostile – and I thought the executive committee needed the skills I would have brought to the job. Clearly, my colleagues thought otherwise, since I lost by a margin that could comfortably be described as a land slide. While I’m disappointed not to have won, of course, I don’t begrudge my opponent the win; she is eminently qualified, and, to be honest, I am also a little bit relieved, since winning would have meant I’d have even less time than I do now to devote to writing, and writing is what I really want to be doing when I am not teaching, grading papers, having an intellectual life, a family life, a marriage, a social life – not to mention being co-chair of the union’s Crisis Committee and manager of the Google Group we set up so faculty could communicate with each other away from the college email servers. (See, I am still pretty heavily involved in union work even though I did not get elected.)
My life, in other words, is already plenty crowded enough. The problem is that my writing life is also crowded. There are at least five projects scattered in files around my office and on my hard drive, each of which deserves my attention. I am, for one, finally writing poems again; there are drafts of essays on writing that I’d like to complete; drafts of the essays I’ve been building from the Fragments of Evolving Manhood series I started posting a while back; the beginnings of a one man show based on my book of poems The Silence of Men that a director is interested in working on with me (I would perform the show, which would be very cool); there is the next book of translations, Ilahi Nama, by Farid al-Din Attar, which I have written about here, here and here; and there is the recent email I received from someone interested in turning my Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan, which is out of print, into an ebook. (This last project is not as simple as it sounds, since I do not own the copyright to the book and I would need to jump through a couple of hoops in order to make sure that the rights to the version that gets turned into an ebook are entirely mine.) The one thing that simplifies choosing which project to work on is the fact that I am eligible to apply for a sabbatical in the 2012 – 2013 academic year, and the most obviously sabbatical-worthy project among those I just mentioned is Ilahi Nama, primarily because a university press has expressed interest in seeing the manuscript once I am finished.
Because I would not have been able to take a sabbatical if I’d won the election, and the first draft of the application was due before the election results would be in, I handed in to the committee in my department which reviews and approves (or does not approve) sabbatical applications a very rough draft, comprised mostly of passages from both the last sabbatical application I submitted, which was for a different book of translations, and unsuccessful grant applications I submitted last year for funding my work on Ilahi Nama. Now that I’ve lost the election, I’ve gone back to look at my draft application to start figuring out how to revise it, and I’ve been pondering whether or not to follow a specific piece of my committee’s advice. They want me to cut entirely, or scale back significantly, the section I had to write the last time I applied explaining that the literary translation of poetry is often done by poets who are neither fluent nor literate in the source language – Ezra Pound, W. S. Merwin, and Adrienne Rich are three very well known examples. I wrote this section because the first time I submitted my previous sabbatical application it was rejected; the members of the college-wide Sabbatical Committee simply did not believe that I could produce the translations I said I was going to produce without being fluent and/or literate in Persian. (Interestingly, there were people from my own department on that committee who teach some of Ezra Pound’s translations from the Chinese in their literature classes and they did not know he made them based on someone else’s literal translations and notes.)
Reading over again the section I wrote to respond to that doubt and disbelief started me thinking about the reactions I’ve received from people in the Iranian community, literary and otherwise, and how they reveal the politics that are at stake in the work I’ve done – in terms both specific to the translation of classical Iranian poetry and to the project of translation in general. I’m going to list some of those reactions here, without comment, but there are a couple of things you should know before you read them. First, my wife is from Iran; second, while I am not literate in Persian, I understand the spoken language at what I would call an intermediate level and I can speak it as well, though not quite as well as I understand it.
- “Really,” she says after finding out that I’ve just published Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan, “you monolingual Westerners ought finally to get out of the way and let us bilingual Persians translate our own literature. Haven’t you done enough damage?”
- “Why do you call it Iranian literature?” he lectures me accusingly. “It’s written in Persian, and Persian literature was written in countries other than Iran, like India.”
- “Calling it Persian literature,” he wrote, “only perpetuates both British imperialism and its Orientalist perspective. The name of the country was and is Iran, and the Persian ethnic group in Iran is not the only one to produce Iranian literature. So Iranian literature is what you should call it.”
- For two years, every time she introduced me to her friends at a conference or a reading, she would say, “…and this is Richard Jeffrey Newman, who translates Persian literature even though he does not speak Persian.”
- I am not suggesting he doesn’t belong on our panel,” he writes in a pre-conference email exchange, “but if he doesn’t know Persian is he really a translator? I mean, can we call translation what people like Richard and Coleman Barks do?”
- “Let me tell you why I trust your translations and why I use them in my class,” she says. “Because you’re honest about what you’re doing, that you’re not fluent in Persian, that this limits the kind of research you can do. Neither Coleman Barks nor a Daniel Ladinsky are up front like that.
- “I know Golestan-e Saadi by heart,” he says after a reading, referring to my Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan. “I learned it from my father and I’ve been studying it my whole life. It’s remarkable how close your translations are [to the original], and you’re not Iranian and you’re not fluent in Persian. How did you do that?”
- “You’ve done important work. No one will dispute that,” he says after I’ve given a talk about Saadi, “but if you’re not Iranian, you can’t really understand Saadi.”
- “I used to be suspicious,” she wrote in an email, “of your love of all things Persian [referring in part to the fact that my wife is Iranian], but now that I’ve read what you’ve done [as editor of an Iranian literature special issue of Arte East Quarterly Magazine], I see there’s nothing to be suspicious about.”
- He is reading the list of the literary organization’s advisory board members. My name is on it. He asks the executive director who I am, and when she reminds him that we’ve met, that I have translated Saadi, he says, “Him? He’s on your board? The one who gets translation help from his wife?”
Norouz Pirouz! Eid Moborak! Happy Iranian New Year 2011 — An Auspicious Day to Announce My New Book, “The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh”
I was, actually, hoping to post this yesterday, before the changing of the year, which happened some time between 6 and 7 PM, but I was very busy and didn’t get a chance to do it. So let me take this opportunity to wish all the Iranians I know, family and friends, and even those I don’t know, soleh noh moborak (Happy New Year!).
And just like the title says: It is, truly, an auspicious day officially to announce my new book of translations, The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, which has been published by Junction Press. I will be launching the book on Saturday, March 26th at Persian Arts Festival’s 5th Annual Arts Festival. The book is not yet up on the publisher’s website or Amazon, but you can order it from Small Press Distribution.
If you’d like to read a sample from the book, Ekleksographia published Zahhak: We’d Need to Hear his Mother’s Story; you can read an early version of the story of Kayumars and Hushang in the Iranian literature issue of Arte East Quarterly that I edited a few years ago; and you can read the story of Jamshid, which includes the origins of Norouz in the Norouz post I wrote last year.
We celebrated last night at my wife’s aunt’s house, which was lovely, and I actually thought I might be celebrating tonight at the United Nations. Last Friday, I actually received a personal invitation from the Iranian mission to the UN to attend an event that the woman to whom I spoke, Zahra, said would be taking place this evening. In 2009, the UN declared Norouz part of humanity’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the event to which Zahra called to invite me, she said, would include representatives from all the countries that celebrate it. (The ones listed on the UN site are Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan, though there might be more.) The invitation never arrived, and I have been wondering all week if perhaps Zahra changed her mind and decided not to invite me, though it’s also possible, since I cannot find the event on the UN’s calendar for today, that it was canceled. I am disappointed mostly for my son, for whom it would have been a very cool experience to celebrate Norouz at the UN.
Written in the 10th century by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (NPR did a feature on him not too long ago), the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) is the national epic of Iran, telling the nation’s story by recounting the tales of its kings, from the first, mythical king Kayumars to Yazdegerd III, who ruled Iran just before the Muslim Arab conquest in the 7th century. One of the best loved stories in the Shahnameh was given the title The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam by Jerome W. Clinton when he published his translation of it in 1987. Rostam is a Hercules-like character whose role throughout the epic is to defend Iran and its kings; Sohrab is Rostam’s son, conceived with Tahmine, a princess from one of Iran’s vassal kingdoms. When Sohrab reaches puberty and discovers who his father is, he decides that Rostam, the greatest warrior in the world, should be the ruler of Iran, not Kay Kavus, the king who rightfully sat on the throne at the time. Sohrab sets off with a dual mission, to find his father and to depose Kay Kavus.
Despite his youth, Sohrab is, like his father, a peerless warrior and when the Persians realize that none among them will be able to defeat him, they summon Rostam. Rostam does not know he has a son and, in what is the most puzzling aspect of the story, refuses to identify himself each of the several times that Sohrab asks who he is. The two warriors fight three times and, in the end, Rostam is victorious. As Sohrab lies dying, the true identities of the fighters are revealed and the story ends on a note of bitter sadness.
Matthew Arnold was so moved by this story, that he wrote his own version, “Sohrab and Rustum,” that is recognized by scholars to be an important turning point in his career as a poet. There are significant differences between Arnold’s version and the original, though, due largely to the fact that Arnold’s source was most like an inaccurate summary of the tale than an actual translation.
The prologue with which Ferdowsi frames the story of Sohrab and Rostam is a meditation on fate. The idea of the just nature of death comes from a form of Zoroastrianism which saw death as part of a realm that exists outside this world, that people do not have access to, and that contains all events that are inherent in time and cannot be avoided. Thus, since death comes to everyone, it always comes at the proper time and is, by definition, fair and just. This version of the prologue is from Clinton’s translation, which I mentioned above:
What if a wind springs up quite suddenly,
And casts a green unripened fruit to earth.
Shall we call this a tyrant’s act, or just?
Shall we consider it as right, or wrong?
If death is just, how can this not be so?
Why then lament and wail at what is just?
Your soul knows nothing of this mystery;
You cannot see what lies beyond this veil.
Though all descend to face that greedy door,
For none has it revealed its secrets twice.
Perhaps he’ll like the place he goes to better,
And in that other house he may find peace.
Death’s breath is like a fiercely raging fire
That has no fear of either young or old.
Here in this place of passing, not delay,
Should death cinch tight the saddle on its steed,
Know this, that it is just, and not unjust.
There’s no disputing justice when it comes.
Destruction knows both youth and age as one,
For nothing that exists will long endure.
If you can fill your heart with faith’s pure light,
Silence befits you best, since you’re His slave.
You do not understand God’s mysteries,
Unless your soul is partners with some div.
Strive here within the world as you pass through,
And in the end bear virtue in your heart.
Now I’ll relate the story of Sohrab,
And how he came to battle with his father.
From a post by Olivia Snaije, Arabic and Hebrew: The Politics of Literary Translation, on the blog called Publishing Perspectives, and it is a shameful statistic if I ever saw one, almost as bad as the fact that less than 3% of the literary works published in the United States are translations from other languages. If ever two cultures needed the kind of cultural exchange and understanding that literary translation makes possible, they are the cultures in which Hebrew (Israel) and Arabic (most of the rest of the so-called Middle East) are the languages of daily life, and yet, tellingly, most of the translation that does take place happens from Hebrew to Arabic, not the other way around.
Not that publishing Arabic translations of literature written in Hebrew is without difficulty. Snaije refers to a Ha’aretz article about a Tunisian publisher who is “in negotiations with Palestinian Israeli translator Tayeb Ghanayem for his translations of Israeli works into Arabic” and who refused to be named because of concerns about his personal safety; and she also mentions a Lebanese publisher who will be bringing out in Arabic translations the work of Palestinian Israeli Sayed Kashua (who writes in Hebrew) but who (the publisher) declined to be quoted for the article.
Politics gets in the way of translating from Arabic into Hebrew as well. When Yael Lerer, founder of Andalus, an Israeli publishing house focusing on translation and named for the often romanticized historical period of the same name, went looking for titles to translate, most of the Egyptian authors she approached refused on principle to give her the rights to translate their work because it would represent “normalizing” relations with “the enemy.” (Other Arab authors granted her translation rights free of charge.) At the same time, the Egyptian writer Nael Eltoukhy (sorry, the site is in Arabic, but this is the one Snaije links to) translates Israeli books from Hebrew into Arabic, often without permission.
“Translating Israeli literature and writings in itself is not a taboo. The taboo is any dealing with Israeli publishing houses, since this is considered “normalization with the enemy”. But you always have your options. One of them is illegal translation, which is the best of a bad solution. I am sorry for this but I (and others), don’t have any other options.” Said Eltoukhy.
Illegal translation, too, happens on both sides of the divide. The Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information, for example, published an online Hebrew translation of Alaa al Aswany’s book The Yacoubian Building; but the fact, dictated by regional politics more than anything else, that people sometimes have to resort to what is essentially intellectual piracy in order to get works from one language translated into the other paled for me next to the fact that Andalus had to stop pubilshing because it was not selling enough books to stay afloat. Lerner says there is simply a “lack of interest” on the part of Israeli readers, which to me sounds more like the complacent arrogance – or is it the arrogant complacency? – of the powerful.
Israelis are not interested, I would wager, because they don’t think they need to be interested, because the lens through which they are given to view the Arab world around them – be it a lens of the right, left or center – is enough for them to feel engaged with that world. Of course I have no proof of this, but the phrase “lack of interest” recalls for me the reactions of many of the students from the introduction to literature classes I have taught over the years when they found out they would be reading works in translation from the MIddle East. “Why do I need to read this?” they would ask. “What does it have to with me?”
Inevitably, some of the students would come away from the semester feeling they had learned something worthwhile, but getting students to look past their resistance to what they perceived as “too foreign” was always a struggle. I’d try to make a game out of it, teaching them, for example, to pronounce the names of characters that contained sounds we don’t have in English. We’d all laugh at how hard it was, which would lead to a discussion about language and the body and how we become so conditioned, physically, culturally and psychologically, to making the sounds of our own language that making the sounds of another can feel like a kind of trespass. So, for example, people who speak English who have never had to make the guttural kh sound (which in English is usually transliterated as the Ch in Chanuka) will almost always talk about how it feels like they are hawking up phlegm in order to spit it out; the sound, in US culture, is just so damned impolite.
That discussion would often lead to a consideration of how different languages deal with different kinds of subjects – obscenities provide a really fun and useful example here, but so do things like levels of formality (tu vs. Usted in Spanish, or panmal and chondenmal in Korean) – and that would often become a conversation about how literature can be a window into another culture. Almost always, however, the majority of my students would react to these conversations with something that amounted to, “Gee, that’s nice and interesting and all, but what does it have to do with me?”
Now, my students are, most of them, not much older that 20 or 21 and so some of their self-centeredness may just be their youth speaking, but it’s hard not to see their lack of interest reflected in the fact, as I said above, that less than 3% of the books published in the United States are translations from another culture. By contrast, in some South American countries, by way of contrast, and in some Western European nations, the percentage is closer to 30 – 40%. If enough people in the US felt it was important enough to read books translated from other languages, publishers would respond by producing such books. If publishers believed they could make money by cultivating an interest in the literatures of other languages, they would find a way to create the market for those books. No matter which way you look at it, it’s hard not to see a serious case of cultural myopia at work here.
Quill Translation Award: If You Know a Translator with a Current Poetry or Novella Project who Lives in Queens, NYC
As promised, here are the guidelines for the Quill Translation award. Please note that submissions do not open until February 28 and that the online submission process will not be in place on the QCA website until then.
I am very late in posting this spot on NPR featuring the QUILL reading I was part of last week. I don’t appear in the spot, but there is mention of the QUILL Translation Award, a $500 award to a Queens-based translator in support of a work in progress. I will post the full details soon, but if you know a translator who lives in Queens, NYC and who is working on either a book-length translation of poetry or a novella, tell them to keep their eyes open, either on this website or the website of the Queens Council on the Arts.
…took to the streets again, and the irony is not lost on me that while they were doing so I was proofreading the manuscript of The Teller of Tales, my translation of the first five stories in their national epic, the Shahnameh. Nothing about literary translation, at least as I am practicing it here, in the comfort and safety of my home in the United States, even remotely approaches the courage and determination and commitment shown by the people who presented their bodies in Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and elsewhere in protest of a régime that sees those bodies as not much more than dust that can be swept away if necessary; and yet it’s hard not also to be aware that the text I was correcting is inextricably connected to the aspirations of the Iranian protesters, not in the sense of cause-and-effect inspiration, but because the Shahnameh, as Dick Davis put it in Epic & Sedition, has been for centuries “one of the chief means by which both Persian rulers and the [Iranian] people have sought to define their identity to themselves and to the world at large.”
When Abolqasem Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh in the 10th century, Iran had been under Muslim Arab rule for around 300 years. Arabic, not Persian, was the language of the court, of literature, of philosophy; and the Muslim belief that everything before the coming of Islam was historically, culturally, politically and of course theologically irrelevant had resulted over time in a growing acceptance among Muslim Iranians that it might be possible to redefine Iran’s history and culture in Islamic terms. A man named Tabari wrote a revisionist history along these lines, identifying specific characters in Iran’s culture with characters who inhabit the world of the Quran. Jamshid, for example, the fourth king in the Shahnameh, who is responsible for the emergence of what we would recognize as civilized society, is equated in Tabari’s book with King Solomon, while Kayumars, the Shahnameh’s first monarch, is said to be the same as Adam.
Not everyone accepted this assimilationist approach, especially Iran’s landed gentry, the dehqan, who saw themselves as responsible for preserving Iran’s history and culture. Ferdowsi was a dehqan and it was precisely to preserve Iran’s pre-Islamic history and culture that he wrote the Shahnameh. Yet Ferdowsi’s goal was neither revolutionary nor heretical. He was a devout Muslim who accepted completely the monarchy under which he lived. Rather, his goal was, as Sandra Mackey puts it in The Iranians, to express “the separate identity within Islam that Iranians [have always] felt.” For many, including some of his fellow poets, this goal was heretical. The poet Farrokhi, for example, a contemporary of Ferdowi’s, declared the Shahnameh “untruth from the beginning to the end.” Abd-al-Jalil Qazvini accused Ferdowsi of “reciting myths on the bravery and magnificance of Rostam and Kavus [two characters from the Shahnameh] in order [sinfully] to counter the heroism and splendour of [Imam] Ali.” Still another poet, Mo’ezzi, suggested that Ferdowsi would be punished in the next world because of the untruths he told in the Shahnameh. (These quotes are taken from A. Shapur Shahbazi’s Ferdowsi: A Critical Biography.)
The Islamic Republic of Iran was, from its very beginning, also threatened by the Shahnameh and its celebration of pre-Islamic Iranian history and culture. According to Sandra Mackey, for example, Ayatollah Khomeini “tried to eradicate vestiges of Iran’s pre-Islamic culture [by attacking] Ferdowsi, discourag[ing] the use of Persian first names, and hint[ing] at an end to the observance of No Ruz [the Persian New Year] by expressing the hope that in the future the only holiday celebrated would be the Prophet’s birthday.” Even as recently as 2009, the Islamic Republic’s behavior towards Ferdowsi would seem to indicate that it still feels this threat very keenly. According to an article posted on the website of the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS), all programs in Iran planned by the Ferdowsi Foundation to celebrate Ferdowsi’s millenium in 2009 had to be canceled because of a lack of coöperation from the relevant agencies of the Islamic Republic. The same article reports that on June 14, 2009 – which is Ferdowsi’s commemoration day in Iran – the government of the Islamic Republic demolished, without providing any reason, the Foundation’s unfinished building in Iran. Also in 2009, the blogger Pedestrian reported that the Iranian journalist Bahman Ahmadi was sentenced to eight years in prison for publishing part of the Shahnameh during the protests against the contested elections that kept Mahmoud Ahmanidejad in power.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression, though. It’s not that the Shahnameh is banned in Iran, or that people can only talk about Ferdowsi or quote from his epic in whispers because the government would otherwise throw them in jail. The Shahnameh, however, clearly seems to resonate with the people of Iran in a way that their government finds threatening and so bringing into American English poetry the parts of the Shahnameh that I have translated resonates within me as a small declaration of solidarity, as I hope it will resonate with the people who read my translation when it comes out next month – or with those who read any of the translations that are available, from Dick Davis’ prose translation of the entire epic to Jerome Clinton’s verse translations of two of Rostam’s stories.
The story I am up to in my proofreading is the story of Tahmures, the third king of the Shahnameh, also known as “Demon Binder” because he bound Ahriman, the devil figure” and rode him around the earth like a horse. When the Black Demon led a force of demons and sorcerers against Tahmures for this insult to their leader, Tahmures so thoroughly defeated them that they only way he would agree to spare their lives was if they promised to teach him knowledge no one else possessed. What they taught him was how to write:
They taught Tahmures to shape each letter
and pronounce the sound it stood for,
and this new and profitable knowledge
lit a light in him like the sun.
Writing so often plays such an important role in the toppling of tyrants that I will leave you, simply, with the irony that, in the Shahnameh at least, it was the tyrants themselves who taught humanity how to do it.