How did you come to this poet and poem?
Ahmad Shamlu is one of the most famous and celebrated Persian poets of the last one hundred years, if not of all time, so it is difficult to say where or how I first heard of his work. But I have been thinking and writing about Shamlu for several years as part of my PhD work so the translation project extends from there. This particular poem, as I hope the translation will reflect, serves as a sort of manifesto of modernist poetics. It was published in 1957, in a collection titled Fresh Air, which I think itself gives a sense of the kind of new life that Shamlu thought he was breathing into the poetic scene. And the particular political mood for left-leaning Iranian intellectuals like Shamlu at this time, which is to say shortly after the 1953 coup d'état, also comes out powerfully as we hear the poet celebrating the lives and heroic deaths of two of the coup's victims at the end of the poem. So this struck me as a great representation of Shamlu's poetics and politics, at least early in his career.
How would you describe the poet you are translating?
I would describe Shamlu as an unabashed modernist in his poetics and a staunch humanist in his general worldview. In terms of his poetics, Shamlu is often credited with having popularized free verse in Persian. This particular poem includes some rhymes and some deeply rhythmic structures but Shamlu pushed further and further away from predetermined poetic forms over the course of his career. As for the humanist part, Shamlu's poetry imagines the human being at the center of its universe. We encounter the human as the highest form of existence and human liberation as the ultimate universal ideal. Of course, the modernist poetics and the humanist disposition here can't be separated from one another. In both cases, Shamlu seems to defend a world where people are not limited by any preexisting structures, be they poetic, social, political, economic, etc.
What is the role of the translator?
The translator allows the reader to experience the poetry in his/her own language. So the translator has to decide what makes a given piece of writing poetry and then figure out how to capture those elements in the new language. I don't really accept the idea of "literal" translations, at least when it comes to poetry, because that assumes that the meaning and the form can be neatly separated from one another. But the "meaning" of a given word in a poem, it seems to me, is often altered or transformed by the way it functions in that poem's music. Anyway, I am not going to resolve the philosophical question of how form and content interact but I think that is what the translator ultimately grapples with. In my case, I'd like an English reader to experience some of the rhymes and rhythms of the Persian, even if I can't recreate them exactly. Or, with a poet like Shamlu, who generally breaks from meter and rhyme, I'd like the reader to experience the way that the language channels elements of classical Persian prose, particularly with certain word choices and grammatical constructions.
What was the most difficult word to translate? Why?
Certain words in any language carry special cultural and historical weight with them. One example in this poem for me was the verb "tafsir kardan." Of course, I could have simply translated it as "to explain" or "to interpret" but I can't hear the word "tafsir" in Persian without also thinking about the long and rich tradition of interpreting religious texts which is also denoted by the same word. The proper translation for "tafsir" in that case should be exegesis, which is what I ended up going with. I have a feeling that not every reader will be familiar the English term. But as a general rule, if I have to spend a long time figuring out what is going on with certain words in the Persian, then I think it's probably okay if I use words in the translation that also send some readers to the dictionary. In this case, the verb "tafsir kardan" is not unusual in Persian, but the stanza as a whole was quite difficult for me. So I chose to translate "eftekhar nameh" as "encomium" along with the aforementioned "exegesis" with the awareness that the translation may not be immediately accessible and the hope that one wants to feel challenged by poetic language, regardless of whether reading a translation or the original.
What is your favorite expression of ta'arof? What is its translation?
I was born in the US and raised in a pretty informal family so I've always felt lacking in ta'arof skills. It's not exactly a ta'arof but I love the expression "zendeh bashid," which means literally "be alive" but, like so many everyday Persian expressions, probably requires some kind of antiquated sounding English rendering like "may you live a long life." But then of course I am thinking of the interaction where someone says "khasteh nabashid" ("may you not be tired") to which another responds "zendeh bashid" (may you be alive) instead of the more common "salamat bashid" ("may you be healthy"). And how do you translate any of that into English? I'm pretty sure we just say "thank you," to which the person being thanked responds "you're welcome" or "no problem" and we leave it at that.