By Roger Sedarat
The ghost of American Romanticism still haunts western verse translation. Even before Ezra Pound, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s appropriation began to define English renderings of eastern verse. Sure, the field of translation studies has done much to reassert the integrity of the source text. But if you think the problem has been solved, you haven’t been reading Persian poetry in English that closely.
Loose imitations by imposters like Daniel Ladinsky have no connection to the original poems of Hafez. Coleman Barks has admitted to “taking the Islam out” of Rumi, improving the poet’s (and his own) marketability. To get a quick sense of how egregious the problem can become, consider this review of Ladinsky’s best-selling Hafez collection, The Gift (which has been advertised in The New Yorker).
While I adhere to an ethical commitment to equivalence in my Persian renderings, my recent work with a fellow translator and scholar has shown me the added benefits of collaboration. Together we’ve solved especially difficult to render phrases as we’ve further challenged our own previous biases toward independent translation, where in the past we’ve each taken all the credit.
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I met my co-translator and fellow Iranian Rouhollah Zarei several years ago at a translation conference in Stirling, Scotland. We both were making presentations on the difficulty of achieving a faithful Hafez rendering. The esteemed Persianist Dick Davis has famously called this 14th century poet untranslatable (before going on to translate him).
Rouhollah and I each addressed the puns and allusions that won’t carry over into English. When it came to Islamic influence upon the source text, impossible to capture in English, I mentioned a little facetiously that the poet’s Divan or Collected Works should perhaps be approached like the King James Bible. Maybe a host of scholars and poets could offer both a more accurate and literary English version?
When Rouhollah suggested we try to join our respective skill sets on a project, I realized maybe this idea wasn’t so silly after all. With a PhD in English literature and now in pursuit of a second doctorate in Persian, Rouhollah has an ideal scholarly background for translation. When I’ve encountered especially esoteric questions about Classical Persian verse that none of my fellow educated Iranians can answer, he frequently emails an informed reply within minutes of my reaching out to him.
As an Iranian-American poet who started to learn Persian on my own in graduate school, I’ve published my own collection of ghazals in English and also translated poems of Hafez in the form. While I continue to translate much easier contemporary free verse poetry on my own, with more difficult literature I often have to consult those with more expertise, like Rouhollah.
We soon decided to work on the modern poet Nader Naderpour, a transitionally modern figure between the old and the new. With Rouhollah in Iran and me in America, except for one in-person visit in America, we worked over a few years by email. Our work has finally been rewarded with the just published collection: Nature and Nostalgia in the Poetry of Nader Naderopour. (You can read sample poems in World Literature Today.)
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While we in no way insist that others opt for our approach, we do want to advocate for collaborative translation as a viable option. The many benefits include:
- Deadlines. We create and hold each other to them.
- Built in workshop. Constantly in process, we learn as we draft, revise, and edit together.
- Creative approaches. We’ve had so many “aha” moments as we strategize translation problems that I’ve started to design collaborative exercises in my MFA translation workshops at Queens College.
- Ego-deflation. Challenging the romantic idea of a translator going at it alone, at times collaboration better takes the ego out it, helping us both get of our own ways and become more invisible agents.
- Equivalence. We both are committed to thoroughly researching the source text, constantly interrogating each other’s choices.
- Division of labor. From tracking down sources in America and Iran to sharing the drudge work of editing, we’ve worked much more efficiently as a team and divided painful chores in half.
- Company. Getting to check in with a partner throughout the arduous process of translation avoids the typical isolation of going at it alone.
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Of course, we certainly believe in the merits of individual translation. Since our publication, we are each back at work on our own respective projects. Even so, we learned so much from our collaboration that we’re already talking about possibilities for future endeavors. Needless to say, we’ve become good friends. They say translation is the closest reading possible of a text. Yet another benefit of working together (#8 and counting) is that often it brings you that much closer to another with a shared language, culture, and sensibility.
What benefits have you derived from collaborative translation?
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