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Behrooz Azabdaftari a a Islamic Azad University, Tabriz, Iran Online Publication Date: 13 October 2005

To cite this Article Azabdaftari, Behrooz(2005)'PERSIAN LITERATURE IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION',Perspectives,13:2,91 — 98 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/09076760508668977 URL:

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PERSIAN LITERATURE IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION Behrooz Azabda�ari, Islamic Azad University, Tabriz, Iran Dr_azabda� Abstract
This article grew out of a class I taught, in 2003, for graduate students of Persian Literature. In the course, I used classical and modern Persian texts and their English translations. This approach revealed many semantic subtleties, structural oddities, and cultural differences between the Farsi source texts and the English target texts, which pinpointed issues about translations in relation to national literature. In the first part of this article, I discuss some general points in translation with special reference to contrasting literary works and their English renditions. I then illustrate how source messages, especially literary works, when passing through another linguistic prism, will reveal some new, unwonted aspects of meaning and form that captivate readers and help them find new facets in their interpretation of the text. By means of examples in Farsi and English, it is shown how a juxtaposition of source texts with target texts is an invaluable source of linguistic information and cultural illumination not only to target-language audiences, but to source-language readers as well. Key words: Farsi-English; ‘nativization’ (familiarisation), foreignization; contrasting source text and translation; literary translation; form; content.

Introduction First, I shall address some considerations on translation that have a bearing on the topic, and then illustrate them by citing specimens of Persian literature in English translation. The main point is that when a literary text is rendered into another language, the process and the product o�en reveal semantic subtleties that would have remained unnoticed if it had it not been translated. The target language, in the case at hand, English, serves as a mirror by showing different images of source texts that, in this case, have been composed by Persian authors. Essentially, this is not surprising because, having reciprocal effects, language and thought reveal different realisations of their mutual interrelationships. Ideas concerning linguistic relativity posit that the lexicon and structures of a particular language tend to classify world realities along the lines it provides. Passing through different linguistic prisms, verbal messages o�en reveal different semantic colours and shapes. Farsi literature a�ired in English is no exception. Reading classical versified Farsi texts, interspersed with obsolete words, and contrasting them with English translations, untangles many knots. Words from one grammatical category in the source text are rendered by different grammatical functions; homonyms with different meanings in Farsi are rendered into English, each with a relevant lexis; Arabic words and expressions that abound in Farsi, when translated into English, spare readers the problem of a�empting to understand Arabic phrases; obsolete words are rendered into current English words; and idiomatic Farsi expressions, with historical, cultural, and mystical overtones, crystalise into definite images and concepts in the minds of readers when they are rendered in English.

0907-676X/05/02/091-8 $20.00 Perspectives: Studies in Translatology

© 2005 B. Azabda�ari Vol. 13, No. 2, 2005


2005. Perspectives: Studies in Translatology. Volume 13: 2

General considerations We are here concerned with literary translation, and in very general terms, one might suggest that the ‘technical’ translator (for industry, science, law, politics) most o�en has to deal with words and phenomena that represent one-to-one relationships between form and meaning, i.e., an image-mirror relationship. The meaning is not generally subject to the vagaries of the translator. In literary texts, however, this tends to be different. The original author’s message - especially so if removed in time from the translation - may give rise to various interpretations by translators. It is true that preferably there should be a personal affinity between authors and translators; otherwise, translators are likely to go astray in the translation process if they fail to identify with the author’s world view. Nevertheless, the personal interpretation cannot be entirely disregarded, since few authors will be given complete control of the translation. Another pair of opposing strategies in Translation Studies is familiarisation versus foreignisation (or nativisation versus denativisation) of a translation, either of which may be deliberately or unconsciously applied by translators. To use the example cited by Chukovsky, (1980: 245) French nineteenth century translators considered themselves to be paragons of perfect and refined taste, so when, for example, Pushkin’s The Fountain at Backhchisaray (1824) was translated into French, the translator was free to adjust and render the work so that it suited his ideal of perfection. Thus, Jean-Marie Chopin entitled his translation The Fountain of Tears (1852) and brought the Russian author to the French readership by removing all alien elements. Conversely, Russian translators from the period regarded their literary heritage as inferior to French literary tradition and were thus totally dependent on source texts. In Batyushkov’s words, “the translator obviously sought words and expressions by copying the French original literally instead of finding his own words,” (as quoted in Chukovsky (1980: 250)). With this approach, the Russian readership was taken to the French author, while Russian translators with their self-effacing a�itude never ventured to overstep the bounds set by French source text.1 The argument is relevant because no ma�er whether translators distance themselves socially or culturally from – or identify with – the writer of the source text, the translation will resound with subtle, yet audible, voices of beliefs and values that may be different. Many Persian works of literature, such as, Ferdowsi’s The Shahnameh (epic poetry), Sa’adi’s The Gulistan and The Bustan, The Odes of Hafez, and The Rubayyat of Khayyam, have been translated in different epochs by different translators and each translation has had its own particular impact – and appeal. The relationship is complex: through form, a poet defines a precise nuance of feeling, but that which is thus made precise is something that comes to pervade the whole poem ‘from beneath’ as it were. A poem, or any literary artefact, therefore, cannot be both good in form and bad in content or viceversa: a weakness in one is bound to weaken the other. Translators cannot be faithful to the content in the source language and ignore the form in the target language. Indeed, most approaches in practical translation (not to mention most publishers and readers) require that translations should sound more or less as if the source text had been wri�en in the target language and that the translator

Azabda�ari. Persian Literature in English Translation.


is a stylistically invisible mediator. Another relevant notion in principles of translation is that of centrifugal and centripetal forces of language. Introduced in the context of translation by Michael Bakhtin, the centrifugal force is the ability of the speaker-writer to create semiotic systems, to invent new languages, and to express new feelings and ideas. This creative force makes it possible for language to meet the developing and changing needs of its users. But if it were unchecked, language would change so rapidly that it would lose its social utility and people would be incapable of communicating. When the centrifugal force of language is at work, language functions prevail over conventional linguistic rules mainly because a writer may say one thing but imply something else, especially when he cannot voice his feelings about, say, human dignity in a traditional, closed society. Much depends, therefore, on the negotiation of meaning between the text producer and the translator as a reader. The centripetal force of language provides the counterbalance, contributing to the stability of language. Language users in their social transactions need to invent a new language, yet there is a centripetal force that balances the outward thrust of personal meaning. To say it differently, in non-literary texts, which generally represent oneto-one relationships between form and content, the directionality of the reference is from the text to the outside, but with literature that relies heavily on historical, cultural, and social factors, the progression of meaning is from the outside into the text. The translator, therefore, has to infer what is le� untold intentionally by the author of the source text, whatever the reasons. The main contrast between the translation of literary texts vs non-literary texts is that, due to the centrifugal force of language in literary texts, reaching out for the original writer’s meaning is harder for translators of literary texts; sometimes such meaning is, metaphorically speaking, like an iceberg with the larger part of it lying beneath the writer’s systems of beliefs and values. Farsi literary texts in English This article was inspired by my personal experience of teaching English to a class of graduate Iranian students at Islamic Azad University, Tabriz, in the autumn semester of 2003. The course syllabus comprised Iranian literary poetry and fiction, both classical and modern, by Iranian writers and translated by foreign experts of Persian literature. Among the texts were: • Bozorg Alavi. 1947. The Prison Articles: A Literary Odyssey. Translated by Donna Raffat. 1985. • Behrooz Azabda�ari. 2002. Western Fables in Persian Literature. • Forough Farrokhzad. 1955. Another Birth: Selected Poems. Translated by H. Javadi and Susan Sallee.1981. • Tales from Sa’adi’s The Gulistan. 656 A.H.; A.D. 1651. Translated by Richard Burton. 1956. • Morals Pointed and Tales Adorned. Poems from Sa’adi’s The Bustan. Translated by G. M. Wickens. 1988.


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The course involved both Farsi and English versions. In studying these, I noticed the numerous means that the translators used to convey the authors’ meaning, such as metaphors, similes, and metonymy. In the English translations, I sometimes marvelled at seeing the reflection of messages in foreign a�ire; sometimes I was taken aback at the oddity of the English expressions; sometimes I would see the meaning of the Farsi text quite distinctly in English and enjoy that much more the beauty. On few occasions, I would arrive at a different interpretation from the one I had cherished in my own language, Farsi. To the students, seeing the ‘same’ message in two different languages shed light on socio-historical and cultural contrasts and provided them with insights into the background of literary creation. On the following pages, I illustrate some of these aspects, not in order to discuss them exhaustively in theoretical terms, but in order to pass on to my readers some of the illuminating insights my class and I gained from juxtaposing source texts with translations. ‘Idioms’ As such, there is nothing surprising about differences in ‘idioms’ (which is an ill-defined category), but here we are concerned with them as proverbial expressions, which are given below in English. These translated idioms evoke cultural overtones, which are appreciated all the more when compared with their equivalents in Farsi: Example 1: English translation: The cowl does not make the monk. Farsi source: ‫يرالاس يازس يهالك هب يرس ره هن/ونابدك تسا هعنقم زگ ود هب ينز ره هن‬ ‫تسا‬ [Literally: Not every woman with a two-metre veil becomes a housewife. Or Not every head with a hat deserves seniority.] Example 2: English translation: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Farsi source: ‫وا رس نم و تسكش مخ بستحم‬ [Literally: The constable broke my jug (of wine) and I broke his head.] Example 3: English translation: You cannot serve God and Mammon. Farsi source: ‫نتساوخ ار امرخ و ادخ‬ [Literally: To seek both the god and the date.] Example 4: English translation: Good wine needs no bush. Farsi source: ‫ديوگب راّطع هكنآ هن ،ديوبب دوخ هك تسا نآ كشم‬ [Literally: It is the musk that smells, not what the apothecary claims.] Example 5: English translation: Homer sometimes nods. Farsi source: ‫دروخيم يردنكس مه ردنكسا بسا‬ [Literally: The horse of Alexander also stumbles.]

Azabda�ari. Persian Literature in English Translation.


Example 6: English translation: Any port in a storm. Farsi source: ‫تسا باتفآ هريت بش رد هم‬ [Literally: The moon on a dark night is the sun.] Structural peculiarities The English translations of Persian also exhibited structural peculiarities of interest, notably for contrastive studies:
A B C English He knocked his head against the door He sprained his ankle He has outgrown his suits a b c Farsi His head knocked against the door His ankle sprained His suits have become small for him

To Farsi speakers, the grammatical structures of (A) and (B) imply that the subject intentionally knocked his head against the door, or sprained his ankle, which are grammatically unacceptable in Farsi (a & b). In (C), the subject is central, in that he is too big for his suit; in Farsi (c), the reverse order of the cognitive process is invoked, namely that the suit is small for the subject. In English, the subject is highlighted, whereas it is the object that demands the reader’s a�ention in Farsi. Anecdotes in translation In order to clarify, I shall comment on some anecdotes in Gulistan, a Persian classic by Sa’adi, an author who lived in the seventh century, A.D. The work consists of eight sections; the first section is entitled ‘On the manners of kings’ and consists of 44 anecdotes. The seventh anecdote tells the story of a Persian king and one of his slaves on a voyage. Never having been to sea before, the slave was afraid of drowning and protested wildly.The king was displeased with this and sought a solution. A philosopher who happened to be aboard offered to help. He ordered that the slave should be thrown into the sea. The slave went down several times; the people on board the ship caught him by his hair and pulled him towards the ship; the man clung to the rudder with both hands. When he was back on the ship, the slave calmed down. Amazed with this successful outcome, the king asked the wise man for an explanation. The philosopher replied, “Before he had tasted the calamity of being drowned, he knew not the safety of the boat.” (Burton 1956: 22) The slave’s experience is described as follows in the translation:
“The philosopher ordered the slave to be thrown into the water, so that he swallowed some of it whereon he was caught and pulled by his hair to the boat, to the stern of which he clung with both his hands.” ( Burton 1956: 22)

In Farsi it reads: ‫و دوب هديدن ار ايرد رگيد مالغ و تسشن يتشك رد يمجع يمالغ اب يهاشداپ‬ ‫هكنادنچ .داتفوا شمادنا رب هزرل و داهن رد يراز و هيرگ .هدومزاين يتشك تنحم‬ ‫.دنتسنادن هراچ ،دوب صغنم وا زا كلم شيع و تفرگيمن مارآ ،دندرك تفطالم‬ ‫شماخ يقيرطب ار وا نم يهد نامرف رگا تفگ ار كلم ،دوب يتشك نآ رد يميكح‬


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‫دنچ يراب .دنتخادنا ايردب مالغ ات دومرفب .دشاب مرك و فطل تياغ تفگ ،منادرگ‬ ‫يتشك ناكس رد تسد ودب ،دندروآ يتشك شيپ و دنتفرگ شيوم ،دروخ هطوغ‬ ‫هدمآ بجع ار كلم .تفاي رارق و تسشنب يا هشوگب ،دمآرب نوچ .تخيوآ‬ ‫و دوب هديشچان ندش هقرغ تنحم لوا زا تفگ هدوب تمكح هچ نيرد ديسرپ‬ ‫يتبيصمب هك دناد يسك تيفاع ردق نينچمه .تسناد يمن يتشك تمالس ردق‬ ‫.ديآ راتفرگ‬ Readers of the Farsi text have a problem with comprehending the episode, because the Farsi words pish and sokan each have more than one meaning: pish means ‘front’ and ‘near’, and sokan refers to both ‘the rudder’ and ‘the helm’ of the ship. The English translation enables readers to visualise that the slave in the water is dragged to the stern of the ship, where he clutches the rudder (and not the helm) of the ship. The final words – or the point – of this anecdote, according to the Farsi source, suggest that: ‫.تسناد يمن يتشك تمالس ردق و دوب هديشچان ندش هقرغ تنحم لوا زا‬ [Literally: “Already he (the slave) had not tasted the calamity of being drowned and knew not the safety of the boat.”] The verb in this sentence in Farsi is given in the negative. The English translation cited, however, is more difficult to understand since ‘before’ can be either an adverb or a conjunction. It is only easily understood provided that the word ‘before’ is considered a conjunction. The 9th anecdote tells about a sickly Arab king. At the end of the story in Farsi, we read the following concluding lines: ‫لجا تسد تفوكب تلحر سوك‬ ‫وزاب و دعاس و تسد فك يا‬ The English translation: The hand of fate has struck the drum of departure; O my two eyes bid farewell to the head; O palm, forearm of my hand, All take leave from each other. (Burton 1956: 23) In this case, it requires that the Farsi source text is juxtposed to the English translation for readers to appreciate the beauty of expression. The English translation makes the image vivid and crystal clear in one’s mind. I believe that the reason why the English translation raises audience consciousness is that the form is so alien to readers that it triggers cognitive processes whereby the content, carried through by means of the form, stands out. This perhaps can be expanded upon as follows: the human mind tends to skip familiar phenomena and pause over unfamiliar ones. Poetic language, for example, appeals to our literary palate because in it we find deviant structures ‫دينكب رس عادو ممشچ ود يا‬ ‫دينكب رگدكي عيدوت همه‬

Azabda�ari. Persian Literature in English Translation.


and unwonted language that capture our a�ention and enthrall us with new images and meanings. This implies that efficient readers respond selectively to textual information, focusing on content words and skipping function words. Therefore, it is natural for Iranian readers to be sensitive to the semantic subtleties revealed through English translation, especially those that are unnoticed when expressed by means of familiar Farsi words and sentence structures. Another interesting point surfaces in a comparison of the Farsi and English versions of the tenth anecdote. In Farsi, the following distich (here rendered in its literal translation into English) does not make sense unless it is interpreted as a question: ‫دياشخبن ناگ داتفا رب هكنآ دسرتن‬ ‫دريگن شسك ديآ رد ياپ ز رگ هك‬ ‫تسد‬

[Won’t he who spares not the fallen panic when no one, should he fall, will hold his hand] The English translation goes as follows: Let him be afraid who spares not the fallen because if he falls no one will take hold of his hand (Burton 1956: 23) In the Farsi source, there is no question mark at the end of the verse. The English translation presents the verse in the affirmative, which means that readers are in no doubt about what the poet meant. The English verbal mirror holds up a clear and transparent image to the readers’ eyes. The image in Farsi seems reflected in ruffled waters, disfigured beyond recognition. In yet another anecdote, the combination of words in the expression ‘silvery arm’ in a Farsi verse sounds odd, yet when read in English, it is naturally interpreted as “a powerless arm”. The expression ‘silvery arm’ is poetic in Farsi; it lends itself to various interpretations, such as a beautiful, or shapely, or white arm. It is in the English translation that readers appreciate that the Farsi author was referring to the malleability of silver and meant ‘a weak arm’. In short, when a language is observed through the linguistic prism of another, this reveals novel aspects of meaning, just like the beautiful colours of the spectrum are seen in a rainbow. Literary transaction by means of translation deconstructs linguistic barriers, strips messages of their structural veil, highlights common ideas and feelings, and thus brings together the hearts and minds of humans from different cultural and religious backgrounds, all of them joining in the chorus of the Sa’adi refrain: The sons of Adam are limbs of each other, Having been created of one essence. When the calamity of time affects some limb, The other limbs cannot remain at rest. If thou has no sympathy for the troubles of others, Thou are unworthy to be called by the name of the man. (Burton 1956: 23)


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Conclusion From a traditional Translation Studies point of view, I have only shown that translators impose their own readings and interpretations on the texts that they render into a target language (and that they may ‘correct’ features in the process). Or, to put it in other words, the context and the situation of verbal interactions undergo discoursal modification, structural reshaping, and semantic elaboration as the message is transposed from one language into another, hence giving rise to a new understanding of the source text. However, this only applies in so far as we compare the target-language product with the source-language product and, furthermore, argue that the source text can only be interpreted in a limited number of ways, which can, furthermore, be described in full detail by ‘competent scholars’ or whatever they are termed. My argument in this article is that when juxtaposed to the source text a translation may add to and indeed enrich the literary response of nativelanguage readers of the source text who can understand the target language. This is a facet of translation that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been pointed out before. Literature is a form of discourse, and to impose regulation standards on it is to destroy its character. The beauty of literary expression is to a large extent ascribable to hidden meaning and references that lie outside specific texts. In order for readers (or translators) to appreciate these, they must be familiar with historical, social, and cultural factors bearing on the intended meanings of the original writers. Poetry in particular has a way of exploiting resources in a language not codified as correct usage. Literature is creative rather than expository discourse. This entails a dynamic process in which notions of preordained meanings cannot be sustained. This process, I argue, may go well beyond the point of the translation process and become part of the response to the source text when the new dimensions of a translation are accessible to source-text audiences.
Note 1. I do not presume to speak Russian, but I quote Chukovsky because he drew a�ention to the a�itude so early on and exemplified it. Works cited and used Alavi, Bozorg, 1985. The Prison Articles: A Literary Odyssey. Translated by Donna Raffat. Syracuse University Press. Azabda�ari, Behrooz. 2002. Western Fables in Persian Literature. Ketab-e Mah: Literature and Philosophy # 49. 38-51. Burton, Richard. 1956. From Sa’adi’s The Gulistan, 1651 (656 A.H.). In: Yohannan, John D. 1956. A Treasury of Asian Literature. New York: Mentor Books. 21-29. Chukovsky, Kornei. 1980. The Art of Translation: A High Art. Translated and edited by Lauren G. Leighton. Tennesee: University of Tennessee Press. Farrokhzad, Forough. 1981. Another Birth: Selected Poems. Translated by H. Javadi and Susan Sallee. Emeryville (California): Albany Press. Wickens, G.M. 1988. Morals Pointed and Tales Adorned. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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