S.K. and his wife are at the party. It is late in the evening and as the last of the host's supply of homemade araq is being relentlessly attacked we listen to the tribulations of S.K., the famous translator, in his most recent project: translating T.S. Eliot for publication in an unforeseeable future.
“And what is it that you — daughter of a translator, come from America — want to do?” he suddenly asks, turning to me.
I say that I want to write: “I grew up on translation and have been living in translation since I left Iran. I'm tired of translations.”
He asks what it is that I am working on, and I explain that I hope to make an article out of the notes I have been taking on my trip.
“If you want to communicate with English speakers you have to use the language they understand, right?” he asks.
“I will help you,” he says. “Try this on Iran” — and he quotes in English from T.S. Eliot:
“The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms…”
He takes a sip then asks again: “Will you write about someone like me?”
I say that perhaps I should.
“Then write that this is my message — the message of a drunk old Iranian translator, clawing, to the best of his ability, the insides of the belly of the Islamic Republic” — and he quoted from T.S. Eliot again:
“Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer
Not for me the ultimate vision.”
As the sour-cherry vishnovka is brought in, he stops to pour himself another drink. “Go forth, daughter, and translate,” his son mocks him. S.K. tastes the vishnofva with great concentration, compliments the hostess on the liqueur's perfect degree of sweetness, ignores his son, and continues on a more sober note:
“Translation is too humble a practice for most people. The work itself, when it is successful, becomes obsolete the moment it is read. The reader, having taken one step toward foreign writing is immediately ready for the next step — and this frustrates the sophisticated reader. In the west, he blames translation for coming between himself and the original work, and given the inevitability of this mediation he is likely to give up with a huff. He is impatient to go directly, somehow magically, to the heart of the material — as Goethe thought he did with Hafiz. Or, in a rare case, he may indeed recognize a kindred wit and run with it — as Voltaire did with Sa'di.
“But for the most part the western reader does not, will not, accept the idea of translation. It is inconceivable to him that things — especially if they come from the east — can only become accessible to him in degrees. No, he wants all or nothing. It's quite imperialistic really… Add to it the fact that the east is only recognized when it is exotic — which means inaccessible and implicitly erotic — and we can guess at the violence that this inspires: take things by force, violate, conquer… But then God forbid if our words ring familiar — then we surely must be westernized.”
“Westernization…,” someone barges in. “The only thing that really means is that we speak their language and they don’t speak ours.”
“I think there are two solutions to the problem — at least as far as the literary world is concerned,” S.K. goes on. “First, do let us forget about texts. My generation of translators did not translate texts. In our innocence we merely translated life and death and all that comes in between — as expressed in foreign words. You may want to call it writing but this is what needs to be translated from our language now. Second — and forgive me for saying so myself — the translator must be reckoned with. We are neither native-informants nor proselytes of any sort. Readers, interpreters, mediators, we are the problems of translation.”
Then he addressed me: “And you had better not get tired of translation so soon. You still have less choice than you think.”
S.K.'s wife has been fidgeting for a while. At her own house, once she has cleared the dinner table, she might be persuaded to bring out her notebook and read from her own poetry. But now she has decided that her husband has had enough to drink and is worried about the alcohol on his breath in the event of being stopped at a Revolutionary Guard checkpoint on their way home.
“It is not necessary to give the situation such epic dimensions,” she says by way of wrapping up the conversation. “I think there is an invisible little difference at work here. There is that fundamental incongruity in aesthetics… Forget about genuinely foreign things; western art likes to make even familiar things strange. This is no secret — it’s all over their literary theory. And we are — Iranians are — just the opposite. We go to any length to make foreign things our own. We even name our sons after Alexander, Tamerlane and Genghiz Khan — those most brutal conquerors of our country. For us, nothing is sweeter than setting eyes on the familiar: bashad ke baz binim didar-e ashena ra. This is how in our poetry the Great Unknown is beckoned near… But we must be going now.”
She, M.M., perhaps one of the best Iranian poets writing at present, does not publish. S.K. recites her poetry and she edits his translations, but she refuses to publish. Earlier, poring over someone's new Robert Frost acquisition I thought I saw a smile flicker across her face when she caught sight of the lines: “Love at the lips was touch/As sweet as I could bear…”
S.K., of course, has his own interpretation.
“It is as if there is a sleep from which she doesn't want to be awakened” — then he can't help himself paraphrasing T.S.Eliot: “She fears that human voices will wake her and she will drown.”
In preparation for leaving, M.M. disappears inside her Islamic garb and produces a few cardamom pods from her purse. I learn that cardamom seeds work well for camouflaging the smell of alcohol on the breath.
“Don't be deceived by her lyric spirit,” says S.K. as he stumbles to the door, popping the seeds in his mouth. “She is so resourceful she would make an excellent double agent.” >>> Images
Later, lying in bed at dawn and watching the outline of the Alborz range emerging from the dark, I have the vision that we have collected our belongings, sleepwalking out of our old family house when the dormant volcano, our majestic mount Damavand, erupts. The explosion floods us with light as we freeze in mid-flight. Dazed and awakened in various degrees, we retrace our steps, set our things down, and settle once more >>> To be continued
[Part (15) ]
Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.