Flowing with Forugh

Interview with translator of Farrokhzad's poetry, Sholeh Wolpe


Flowing with Forugh
by Persis Karim

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the acclaimed Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad’s death. Around the world, people are marking the passage of this remarkable women’s life and her more magnificent oeuvre of poetry. Although a number of English translations of her work have been published, many fail to capture the nuances of the Persian language, the incisive and edgy aspects of her mind, and her unique and powerful experience as a woman living through the turbulence of Iran’s 20th century modern history.

I had the opportunity to interview Iranian-American poet-translator, Sholeh Wolpe and asked her about her role as the translator of the most recent collection of Forugh’s poetry, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (University of Arkansas Press, 2007) and the way Forugh’s life and legacy has personally touched her.

To hear some of the wonderful translations of Forugh’s poetry, you can attend one several Bay Area readings at which Sholeh will be reading.

* Wednesday, April 9, 5 pm UC Berkeley, 254 Barrows Hall (sponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies)
* Thursday, April 10, San Jose, Poetry Center, San Jose, Martin Luther King Jr. Library, 2nd floor meeting rooms, (with Poet-translator Gary Gach) 7:00 pm
* Friday, April 11, Persian Center, Berkeley, 7:30 pm
* Saturday, April 12, Poetry Center San Jose Workshop for Writers and Poets, 9:30 am-12 noon, A“Poetry and Political Change” (MLK Jr. Library)

You can also find out more about Sholeh’s work as a translator of Forugh’s poetry and about her own recent second collection of poetry, Rooftops of Tehran, by going to her website at: www.sholehwolpe.com.

Below is the interview I conducted with Sholeh Wolpe via email earlier this year.

PERSIS KARIM: As a poet, can you tell me what your approach to translating the poetry of other poets is? In what ways are Forugh's poems more or less "translatable"?

SHOLEH WOLPE: When I set out to translate a poem I listen to how it breathes, to the poem's cadence, its rises and falls, its flow. There is music even in a poem's silences, in the white spaces on the page. So every good poem has its unique music. Strip that away and it is no longer a poem. It melts away into prose. In my Translator's Note in Sin, I mention the String theory in quantum mechanics, how it is proposed that the universe is made up of tiny vibrating strands that oscillate at various frequencies. In other words, the universe is a cosmic symphony.

Perhaps that is why we each respond to music because we ourselves are made up of it. So I suppose in translating a poem, what is most important to me as a poet-translator is this: can I translate this poem's music. After all, what challenge is there in translating anything word for word? Only the meaning or the interpretation. Forugh's poems have their own unique melodic signature, and when I first began contemplating translating them, I realized that the music of her language, her poems, resonates with me and I'm somehow able to translate much of what I hear, or at least think I hear, into something that may sound somewhat similar in English. I'm talking about the musical relationship between the words.

When did you begin translating the work of other poets?

Many years ago I met Galway Kinnell at a conference in Idyllwild, California, and in his talk to the participants he spoke briefly about Forugh Farrokhzad. I was the only Iranian in the audience and was astonished to hear that he had spent a year in Iran and had actually befriended Forugh. So I briefly spoke to him about her and he said to me, "why don't you translate Forugh's poems? No poet has translated her yet." Truthfully, it had never even occurred to me to translate anyone. But why not? Translating is one of the best ways to learn to become a better poet. It teaches one about language, its possibilities and sounds. So I translated one of Forugh's poems and found the experience profoundly gratifying. I felt even more connected with her work.

I sent one of my translations to Dr. Nahid Mozaffari, an Iranian Scholar living in New York. She recommended it for publication in Words Without Borders and asked me to translate and help edit a few other translations for Strange Times My Dear - The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature which she was co-editing with Dr. Ahmad Karimi Hakkak. The publication of that anthology was soon met with unbelievable impediments. I say unbelievable because it had to do with censorship in a country that holds freedom of speech as an inalienable right. The US government had banned the publication of the anthology unless a permit could be obtained from the Office of foreign Assets Control of the Department of the Treasury. Iran had been virtually off-limits to Americans for the past twenty-five years and without that permit Arcade Publishing editors and publishers could have been subjected to a million dollar fine and ten years in prison.

As I said, this was a blatant violation of freedom of speech and the press. So PEN American Center along with Arcade publishing and several other organizations sued the American government. At the same time, Shirin Ebadi, the first Iranian woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, was subjected to the same law. She could not publish her memoir in this country without that permit. Later, the Treasury Department issued a "general License" allowing these two publishers print work from a country that was on the US's enemy list. After that, I realized the importance of literary translation and how I could be a part of this important work in these dark times. Literature casts light on the humanity of us all and if we don't translate literature, and do it well, in a way we deprive the world of the little light we can contribute to dissipate the darkness of prejudice that is a direct result of ignorance and lack of empathy.

How has your work as a poet made you a more thoughtful, gifted, exacting translator and vice versa? I've heard you say that poetry should be translated by poets. Why?

Well, I've never said that translating poetry is only for the poets. I think scholars can and do contribute a great deal to the translation of poetry. But these translations are valuable in a different way. Most of the time these translations are no longer poems in the translated language, rather they can be categorized as interpretations or literal translations. Earlier I spoke about the music I hear in a good poem and I think that is the difference between a poet and a scholar. Not that the scholar cannot hear the music but that he is not in the habit of translating music from one language to the other. As a poet, I pay meticulous attention to every word.

I'm not only concerned with the accuracy of the translation but also with its spirit, its melody, its playfulness, and of course its range of colors and emotions. Forugh's poems, if translated carelessly, can be filled with clichés in English. The language and the images she used at the time, in the 1960s of Iran, were fresh, daring and exhilarating. It wouldn't be fair to translate them into poems that come across as overused and tired. Therefore I paid great attention to the words I chose to convey not only her words but also the spirit of her words. And so hopefully the end result was creating poetry in English rather than presenting the dead corpse of a poem in another language.

As a native speaker of Persian you're in a different position than many of the current translators of Persian poetry -- such as Coleman Barks' and Robert Bly (translators of Rumi) -- and Daniel Ladinsky, the man who has recently undertaken the task of translating Hafez? What are you doing differently that you think might be missing from those translations?

There was a time when a poet/scholar fluent in two or more languages and cultures could not easily be found. Many American and English poets such as Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, both of whom I hold in great esteem, do not know Persian and have relied on literal translations of poems to create translated poems in English. However, that time has passed. While I am grateful to those poets and scholars who brought poetry of other countries and cultures to life in English, there is a new generation of poets and scholars who are not only bi-lingual but also bi-cultural. They understand not only the words but also all the song and dance behind those words. It is now their turn, and indeed responsibility, to roll up their sleeves and translate the works of old masters as well as the contemporary poetry of their countries. Since there is no money in this, they should do it in the spirit of service and love.

You seem as interested in the poet, Forugh as her work? What do you think her own biography adds for readers of her work?

I started Sin, with a brief biography of Forugh. I wrote it like a story. Most books of translations begin with a brief scholarly biography of the poet. But I wanted something different. I wanted her story to be accessible and informative to everyone. I hope that in reading my account of Forugh's life, the high school student will be just as fascinated with and touched by this remarkable woman as will be the professor contemplating teaching Forugh's poems at his or her university. Forugh's work is multi-layered and to understand her life helps the reader to understand her poems. Something interesting to note is how even in our written material we refer to Forugh Farrokhzad as Forugh, not Farrokhzad. Even some scholars refer to her by her first name. To this day she evokes a charming intimacy between herself and the reader. Her poems are intimate at many levels and one cannot help but feel a kind of familiarity with her. After reading her work it is difficult to refer to her as Farrokhzad. She becomes one's own Forugh.

What made you select Forugh as a poet to translate?

When I first read Forugh's poems I was no older than eleven or twelve. I fell in love with her poems, and now looking back I see that I really had no clue what she was talking about, but somehow the music of her work along with the multi-layered language she employed, as opposed to the traditionally rhymed and sophisticated language used by Iranian poets for centuries, made it possible for the young and the old to feel connected to her poems as well as the poet herself. In a way, Forugh lived the way most women secretly longed to live but lacked the daring or know-how.

Forugh in her own way secured a kind of devil-may-care freedom many women at the time would have loved to snatched from the male dominated Iranian society. However she did this at great cost to her family life. She lost the custody of her only biological son, had to spend some time in a sanitarium where she was subjected to shock therapy, and until late in her brief career endured great abuse by the media who referred to her as a "poetess" rather than a poet, featured her poetry in disrespectful waus such as with the silhouette of a naked woman, and generally refused her the seriousness and respect granted to her male contemporaries. Forugh is a poet who must be translated and translated well. She must be respected and known as we respect and know other Iranian poets such as Rumi, Hafiz, and Omar Khayyam.

How has reading her work or the work of other prominent Persian poets contributed to your own poetic journey?

I am proud to come from a very rich poetic heritage. There are two books commonly found in every household in Iran: the Quran and Poems of Hafiz. Poetry runs in the blood of most Iranians, young and old. When I was twelve I had at least fifty poems memorized and used to play a game with poetry lovers my own age where one of us recited a stanza of a poem, another would have to take the last letter of that stanza and recite another stanza of any other poem that began with that same letter. It sounds pretty difficult, but we used to keep it up for to an hour.

I used to love that game and I believe it was a common game played among kids my age and older. As far as my own poetic journey is concerned, I think I have been influenced by everything I have ever read, seen and experienced. How could it be otherwise? Still, if you look at my own poems and stories closely you'll find that I'm always questioning, examining, and searching in an arena bigger than myself. Even when I write a poem that appears to be about me, it really isn't. I may be a part of it but that's all.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Forugh's death. How do you think a good translation of her work can elevate her to the stage of good "world" poetry such as that of Neruda, Zymborska, Milosz, etc.?

I think it's time for the world to become better acquainted with this remarkable woman and poet who won the heart of a nation through her poetic talent, her perseverance and courage. She was years ahead of her time, both stylistically in her poetic language and in what she had to say. For the first time in the history of Iranian poetry, she dared to be a woman and write as one. She wrote about love from the perspective of a woman. She wrote about the world from the perspective of a woman. But always she was a poet first. Forugh and several of her contemporaries revolutionized the poetic language of a culture steeped in formal poetic style, and difficult vocabulary. She employed language that was simple yet multi-layered. With each reading of her poems you find yourself holding something new, yet you feel compelled to go back to each poem not because you didn't understand it the first time through, but because you know there is more, always more. And you are never disappointed.


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Hi Wolpe

by upal deb (not verified) on

Wolpe and others should come forward more frequently to
highlight major poets and writers of Iran and the Arab world.This literary universe is relatively unknown to the west-drunk poetry lovers.I have read the PEN Anthology of Iranian Literature.I felt that the world would do well to transact with the imaginative world constructed by those who fought against all odds to to create a world for the entire humanity,not for those forming a caucus based on caste,creed,religion or ideology.Poets and writers are the greatest bridge between communities and nations.And,I think,translators are no less.

Lalé Shahparaki Welsh

good interview

by Lalé Shahparaki Welsh on

Interesting to hear about the Treasury Department's requirement for a "permit" and contrived censorship, but upon reflection not really surprizing.

Also great to hear the emphasis on bi-cultural (in addition to linguistic) fluency as a pre-requisite to good translation.  So few people get that.  I believe, ours is the first generation to have the luxury of that option.

Because of this interview, I will go out and buy a copy of SIN.

Thanks to you both.

Ari Siletz

Double appreciation

by Ari Siletz on


I'm looking forward to reading Wolpe's translation. Knowing the original makes things twice as intereting; we can see the translator's art as much as the original poet's.


Thanks for this

by Abarmard on

This is great. I am happy that I don't need a translation. Come to think of it, it would be a nice present to my wife.

I happily will buy a copy:)


Bravo to both of you

by salim on


As a person who poorly attempted to translate few of Sohrab's
poems once, I know how difficult it is to translate poetry.

Aside from imagining how people will criticize your every
word, you feel the world of responsibility to the poet. And you can't help but
to feel that you may unintentionally betray your beloved subject.

Poetry and literature has a level of subjective
interpretation. How we decipher the author's words and give meaning to it, is
to an extant based on our own take. Unless you take into account the most
commonly held analysis of the poem by the literary experts, you’ll never know
if that's what the poet meant for sure. And even then, you can't help but to be
suspect of the experts themselves.

Poetry has an additional level of difficulty because the of
the "content of the form" concept. The form and style augment the
words to enhance the poem's language and meaning. It's very language specific
and it can not be translated easily, if at all.

Lastly, to further complicate the task of translating, you
have to be aware of the evolutionary nature of language itself and how words
and idiom change usage and meaning with time. For example, the world "peruse"
in English has come to mean the opposite of its initial meaning.

With that said, I have an enormous respect for anyone
translating poetry in general. But I am very happy to have an Iranian speaker
translate Forugh.

I remember being disappointed by the translation of The
Blind Owl by D.P. Costello, for its literal use of "hail" for "tagarg" and how I wished it
was translated by a native speaker. I've never read any of Forugh's English
translations, so I can't speak for those, but I can imagine the new refinements
a native speaker can bring.

As an Iranian I am very grateful to Sholeh Wolpe for
dedicating herself to such an important task. I wish her and her book the best
of luck. I hope Forugh finds the kind of posthumous recognition and readership
in US that now follow Sylvia Plath.


Salim Madjd

Founder/CEO //www.Crazymenu.com

Nazy Kaviani

Bold and Beautiful

by Nazy Kaviani on

Salam Persis Jan:

Nice piece. It is great to read you again.

Ms. Wolpe is indeed very brave for having attempted to deliver a well-loved poet's poetry in English. She has done a very good job of this, and Forough's poetry runs through smoothly, maintaining the feelings and depths every Iranian knows and cherishes in Forough's words. I really appreciated her word choices in the translation, which stayed true to the original while delivering the poetry with the elegance which is Forough's trademark. I particularly loved this poem, my personal favorite, and how gorgeously it reads:

The Sun Rises

Look how sorrow in my eyes
melts to water drop by drop,
how my rebellious shadowfalls
captive to the sun.
Look, Sparks ignite me,
flames engulf me,
carry me high,
trap me in the sky.
Look how my universe
now streams with shooting stars.


Look how night along our path
melts like wax in drops, in drops,
my dark eyes drink sleep's wine
from your cup of lullabies.
Upon the cradles of my poetry
you waft our breath and look,
the sunrise floods us with light.

I will see you at the readings in Berkeley this week. Thank you.

Darius Kadivar

Great To See you back Persis

by Darius Kadivar on

Great to read you again as well as this insightful interview.

Warm Regards From France,