How did you come to this poet and poem?
I first discovered Roya's work while researching and gathering contemporary Iranian poetry in 2008. I really liked her book I Want to Swallow My Children, so I decided to get in touch with her. When we met, she was visiting Tehran from Lorestan province, where she lived in her former husband's house to be near her children. I saw her again last year in Tehran. She still lives in Lorestan, but now is on her own.
How would you describe the poet you are translating?
Roya is always exploring and growing. Her life story forms a powerful tale of struggle, courage, and survival. She grew up with family fights during the Iran-Iraq war. Her mother was a political prisoner while she was a teenager. When we talked, she spoke of crossing a no man's land to understand the impact of the Iran-Iraq war. Roya married when she was sixteen and had her first child at eighteen. At age twenty, she entered the university to study French literature. She also has an interest in mystic and eastern thought. In 2008, she traveled to India in order to study yoga. She now teaches yoga in Lorestan.
Roya is the author of seven books of poetry, two of which were banned and never published. Her first book, The Earth Needs the Lover's Incantation, was a finalist for the Karnameh prize. Her third book, I Want to Swallow My Children (translated into Swedish), won the 2008 Khorshid prize, an annual award for the best poetry book written by a female author. A selection from a later unpublished book was a co-winner of the prestigious Nima prize. Her latest book, For a New World, was published in 2012.
Roya is not afraid of difficult and risky subjects. Her poetry is powerful, lyrical, rigorous, and complex. I Want to Swallow My Children, the source of my translations, has a vast scope, combining personal narrative with mythology and history. While using religious texts as inspiration and evoking Old Testament prophets, she writes about love, failed relationships, and being a mother as well as such socio-political subjects as war, oppression, and women's rights.
What is the role of the translator?
This is a difficult question to address, and I don't know if I can ever have a right response for it. To begin with, I have to consider whether I am talking about my role as a translator or the role of translators in general. I also have to consider what kind of work is being translated. If you were talking about literary works that we come to, like I do, because we admire their great literary qualities, then I imagine you would want to produce a text that conveys the same effect as the original had on you. Yet how much can the work retain its foreignness, to surprise and challenge the expectations of the target audience, to make them see in new ways? And thus begins the impossible challenge for the translator, to carry the light across from one culture to another.
Considering the theory of equivalence in translation, as Schleimemacher says, we either lean more toward the source language in order to take the reader closer to the original text or lean more toward the target language in order to bring the original text closer to the reader's expectation or experience. Often the translator has to decide whether his loyalty leans to the text and the source culture or to the target language and audience. We can see these different tendencies, for example, in translations of the Bible and Qur'an. Ultimately both options have their place and are important, yet it usually seems hard to do both at the same time. I have this concern often with my own translation and teaching. I want Persian poems to become strong English poems that even American poets find fresh and compelling. But when I teach Persian texts in translation, the students write about the works as if they are reading them in the original, and I often have to correct them by pointing to the source. We are never free of the mythic origin.
The more translations there are the better. Let us travel to another culture and society with the translated text. Let us have translated text become part of the canon of the target language. Let us put literary caravanserai on the road between the cultures. Let us dissect and learn a language through the instruments of another. Let us be ambassadors and messengers. To have more translations gives us more of the other, the elusive origin, and of ourselves. Some may complain that we have too many translations of Rumi, for example. Yet I look forward to the day when the translations of Rumi's Masnavi books arrive the way translations of Homer or Dante seem to come to us on a regular bases.
What was the most difficult word to translate? Why?
There are many words that are difficult to translate. I can't identify one in particular. Sometimes the words seemed clear, like for "سریال" in "[Speak with your eyes]", but when I considered it again I realized people would not recognize it as a TV series, so I added the word "TV." Some words like "ها ترکیب" from "[Write]" have a number of different meanings, and it is hard to register all of them in the translation. I also had a difficult time deciding on "Miss," "Madam," or "Ma'am," all having a little different connotation.
What probably was more of an issue for me were the punctuations, line breaks, and caesuras, as well as the fact that the poems were in a series without titles. Persian poetry includes many run- on sentences and repetitions that may not work well in English. Roya also uses punctuations and line breaks loosely, focusing more on the way the poem is read. I struggled with how much punctuation I should add and whether I should change the spacing or the format of the stanzas and lines. Regarding the titles, I had to decide whether I should call them untitled or give them my own titles? In the end, I decided to keep the first line or part of the first line as the title and put it in brackets. Depending on the publisher, my translations of her work have been published with titles as well as untitled.
What is your favorite expression of ta'arof? What is its translation?
I think ta'arof is part of etiquette and social behavior, less about expressions. Still, as part of ta'arof, there are a number of wonderfully exaggerated ways in which we Iranians complement each other. I like phrases such as "your footstep on my eyes" that are very funny in English. In translating these expressions, unless I am planning to convey their hyperbolic meaning, I would just use a similar expression for the context in English, one that would hopefully imply a little of the overplay but not the literal meaning of the words. After all, they don't carry the same hyperbolic connotations for Iranians. I also should note that exaggerated phrases do exist in English. In olden times, people would sign letters with "your most humble servant" or greet others with "hail fellow well met." In letters we address strangers as "Dear."