illustrations by Jade Fusco (DMZL)
Mainstream English language publishers are notoriously myopic when it comes to reading and printing literature in translation. For the most part, our canonical translations are centuries old, and not taken directly from the original text, but are rewritings of rewritings of rewritings, a sort of intergenerational game of telephone. I was interested in taking a look at this process of translation and retranslation by working with Roja, a friend of a friend who just happened to be a fantastic poet in her own right, to co-translate the work of Farooq Farokhzad, a writer whose work had been important in Roja’s life and development as a poet. Together, we hoped to examine the structures of thought and meaning that lay beneath the surface of translation work. What values do we (intentionally or unintentionally) impose on translated language? How does a line, a whole poem, shift to accommodate the systems of meaning hidden in the language it is translated into? How does it preserve the values or responses of the language it is translated from? As we worked, in a series of meetings in a series of libraries, where we lent our heads together and whispered about word choice, we talked about language, culture, and identity, the magic that the process of translation can have, and the way that words delineate the spaces our thoughts fill, creating different interior selves in each of our different tongues. Those conversations gradually grew into Suspended Whispers, a book of Roja’s poems that the two of us worked together to translate from Persian to French (our shared language) and then into English, and, in time, the email conversation excerpted here:
You’re multilingual, but choose to primarily write in your mother tongue, Persian. Have you ever attempted to write in either French or, now, English? If so, how were those experiences different from writing in Persian?
This is not a choice that I have intentionally made. Persian is my native language. I love it because it is the language I’ve grown up with, I’ve gone to school with, I’ve talked in, I’ve dreamed in, and I’ve lived in. French and English are the languages that I have been learning intentionally, because of my interests.
I have decided to write in French and English but the problem is exactly that: I do not decide to write in Persian. Writing in Persian is a natural part of me and my life. But I’d love to write one day in French or English without intention or decision. On the other hand, poetry is not just a string of words in a language. Each word in a poem carries with itself a history and a culture, and so the poet must deeply live in that history.
Sometimes I wish I was a musician or a painter to be free from the barriers of language. Especially I feel like this when I am working on a poem in which I know its language-games and techniques might not be conveyed in any language other than Persian.
The poems that you and I translated together into French have such a distinct voice. While we were working on them, were you thinking of them more as translations or as new poems that you were creating, inspired by the original iterations?
Well, we chose short poems that were visual and imaginal, not linguistic poems, but during our work you tried to find some equivalent in English. So, we tried to re-create them in English. While we were working on them, I was thinking of them as translations, to reach a new form for the poems. For me, going from Persian to French is a very intellectual, structured process. But it’s not just about finding the equivalent words. For each poem it’s different, sometimes it’s a process of transposition, and sometimes it feels like a new poem.
I know that in the past we’ve spoken about the difficulties of translation, that we both feel there is no true translation but transformation, in which poems undergo a sort of alchemical process to become a new poem in each language they are translated into. Were you aware of this transformation process in our work together, particularly in the Persian to French translations?
Each language has its own structure and culture. For example in the first poem I used the adjective “Gel-Aalud” [muddy] for water, because in Persian “getting a fish from muddy water” is an idiom that means “to find an advantage in a sad situation.” But we decided to select “des eaux troubles” in French or “troubled waters” in English because it has an equivalent meaning. Idioms like these are particularly difficult to translate because they depend on cultural context. You need to find a contextually appropriate equivalent. Or another example, in the fourth poem I have written, “Take care of the sole of your feet because there is a broken sentence here.” Literally translated from Persian the line would be “care of the soul of your feet” with the understanding that those feet are bare. But we have no equivalent to that phrase in English or French, so we created another concept, adding the lines “pieds nus” or “barefoot” to make it more clear while preserving the image.
Do you think that your academic interest in language and film has had any impact on the way you approach language in your own work?
Sure. Because the language of my poems is a visual language and I use a lot of cinematic tendencies in my poems. For example, in cinema we have the editing technique of jump cut. A critic once said that I extensively use this technique in my poems. Maybe this comes from cinema.
As a poet who has worked with a number of different translators over your career, how would you say your understanding of the translator-writer relationship has altered over the years? How have those experiences differed from translator to translator? Have there been any constants?
I have had very different experiences with different translators. Basically, I always see translation as re-creation, or as a new reading of a poem. It is an interpretation of what the poem can be. So, every new translation of a poem of mine excites me as a new poem that is simultaneously far from and close to me. For example, the great experience that we had together was like this. And sometimes, while reading my poem in another language, I feel like I am participating again in the process of creating it anew.
interior page from Suspended Whispers
Roja Chamankar’s next volume of poems, Dying in a Mother Tongue, is out this November from University of Texas Press.
Emily Beyda is a translator, fiction writer, food advice columnist, and mail artist based in Austin, Texas, where she is at work on her first novel.
Born in Borazjan in southern Iran in 1981, Roja Chamankar is a poet-filmmaker currently residing in Austin, Texas. She has an MA in Dramatic Literature from the University of Art in Tehran, and another MA in Cinema from the University of Strasbourg. She has published nine books of poetry in Persian, co-written two books for children, and translated a collection of poems by Henri Meschonic from French into Persian. Her works have been translated into half a dozen languages and she has won a number of national and international awards for her poetry.
Jade Fusco paints, performs, philosophizes, sings, and makes art video. Her pseudonym as creatrix is DMZL, as in “damsel;” yet she is not in distress but rather, in delight; her practice is inspired by a vision of community and collaboration, of theatre and celebratory expression, of taking one’s freedom in hand and not waiting to be saved. In January of 2016, she chose to migrate south to Austin, TX to explore a new home base, and hone in on her vision as a multi-sensory artist.