Modern Iranian Poetry in Translation

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Classical Persian poetry has held an important place in English-language literature: Khayyam is a central figure of the Victorian era; Rumi remains a best-selling poet in America; and Hafez has been one of the most frequently translated poets. But modern Persian poetry is absent from contemporary surveys. No modern Persian writer appears in the Norton Anthology of World Literature or in the Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English.

There are many reasons for this lack of recognition. After all, only a very limited number of foreign authors are translated into English, and aside from considering the quality of the writing, editors and translators are also influenced by political and social factors. Yet, given the constant presence of Iran in the American media over the past 35 years, one would think that modern Iranian literature would provide a popular alternative narrative, similar to the way the recent wave of Iranian-American memoirs offer Americans a different understanding of Iran. Here, I would like to introduce four post-WWII Iranian poets available in English. All of these writers are much loved by Iranians. Their poems are often memorized, recited, and even turned into songs. In conclusion, I’ll consider possible reasons for why their work has been neglected.

Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967)

Usually remembered intimately by her first name, Forugh Farrokhzad is the most frequently studied and translated modern Iranian poet. Farrokhzad was a vivacious and maverick writer who became an icon of the modern Iranian woman — not just for her writing but for her defiant rejection of traditional social expectations in her personal life. She wrote freely about her experiences and desires while introducing a new representation of Iranian male and female personas in Persian poetry. Farrkhzad also produced one of the most influential Iranian films, The House Is Black, which the important critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called “the most powerful Iranian film” (Chicago Reader). She died in an unfortunate accident when she was only 32, at the peak of her creative writing.

Farrokhzad’s earlier poems were written in looser formal quatrains (Char Pareh), but as she grew more confident she also began experimenting and writing more complex and profound poems. In Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers, Farzaneh Milani writes, “Her poetry reveals the problems of a modern Iranian women with all her conflicts, painful oscillations, and contradictions.” Hamid Dabashi, in Masters & Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema, argues, “Farrokhzad became the prophetic voice and vision of the dark side of her culture, the return of its repressed. Farrokhzad was no mere ‘woman poet.’ She was the poetic voice of a millennial denial at the heart of her culture.”

Cover of Farrkhozad's books

There have been many translations of her poetry. Another Birth and Other Poems (2010), translated by Hasan Javadi and Susan Sallée, is a revised edition that includes a good deal of supplementary material, such as letters and interviews. Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpé produced the latest book of translation, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (2010). Though not as literal, Wolpé’s translation offers the best poetic versions of the poems in English.

Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980)

Sepehri is among the most loved and influential Iranian poets. His major collection, Eight Books (Hasht Ketab), published in 1976 and comprised of poems from all his previous works, has been a steady bestseller in Iran. There are more than forty books written about him and his work.

He also was a well-known painter, and his work was shown in various galleries and exhibitions, including in the Venice and San Paolo Biennales. He won the Grand Prize at the second Tehran Biennale and a “Special Prize” at 1969 International Painting Festival in Paris.

Like Farrokhzad, Sepehri began as a more formal poet and only later wrote his more influential free verse poems that expanded the personal lyric in Persian poetry. Sepheri’s writing is vibrant and gentle like his brush, often engaging with abstraction, the natural world, and solitude. He was influenced not just by the rich Sufi tradition of Iranian poetry but also by eastern thought (Taoism and Buddhism). He even translated some Chinese and Japanese verses. His work embodies a modern mystical understanding, and he uses rich metaphorical language to capture the physical, sensual, and concrete with the metaphysical, spiritual, and abstract.

Sepehri book covers

Sepehri has been translated a number of times into English by translators in Iran who want to promote and celebrate his writing. The best example of such a translation is the bilingual selection by his friend and scholar Karim Emami, The Lover is Always Alone (2004). In 2013, with the help of Mohammad Jafar Mahallari, writer Kazim Ali produced the first selection of Sepheri‘s poetry published in America, The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems. Though Ali doesn’t know Persian, his skill as an American poet, has enabled him to produce compelling translations that capture the unique spirit and tone of Sepehri’s poetry.

Simin Behbahani (1927-2014)

Unlike Farrokhzad and Sepehri, whose works are from before the Islamic Revolution, Simin Behbahani and H.E. Sayeh continued to write into the 21st century. Behbahani and Sayeh compose mainly in form (primarily ghazals), which makes the translation of their poems more challenging. Translators have avoided producing their versions in verse. No translation has been able to capture the rich musicality and diction–a necessity to appreciate their work. Behbahani’s and Sayeh’s imagery is more traditional. Their innovations require the Persian poetic tradition, something that is hard to reproduce in another culture. They also do not have the metaphoric imagery that makes Farrokhzad and Sepehri language so rich in translation.

Behbahani has been called “the lioness of Iran” and is the most frequently cited modern Iranian poet in America. She was the mtvU poet laureate. President Obama quoted her poetry in his message of Nowruz (Persian New Year) in 2011. Different media, from The New York Times and the Washington Post to the PBS NewsHour and The Economist, published articles in remembrance of her recent death.

Behbahani was not only a bold activist but a poetic innovator. She won numerous awards and recognitions for both, including the 1998 Human Rights Watch Hellman-Hammet and two nominations for the Nobel Prize for literature. As an activist, she became the voice of Iranians championing for human rights and civil liberties. Her later poetry is especially suffused with sociopolitical concerns of the time. While the West highlights her outspoken stance against oppression and in support of the disenfranchised, it is with her transformation of the traditional poetic form that she has had her greater impact on Persian poetry. She reinvigorated the familiar and ancient form of ghazal by making it strange and new again. Her poems combine the formal and classical with the modern and colloquial.

Ghazal has been primarily a lyrical form for love and spiritual longing. With Behbahani, it became a voice for gender discrimination, domestic violence, prostitution, poverty, oppression, war, and theft. She also added new meters based on the rhythm of everyday speech.

Cover of Behbahani's bookss

There have been two books of translation of her poems, one published in Iran and the other in America. As with the work of Sepehri, the publisher Sokhan brought out a bilingual collection of her poems. My Country, I Shall Build You Again (2009) is translated by Sara Khalili and edited by Michael Beard. Syracuse University Press published selected translations by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa under the title A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems (1999). In that book, Safa includes a long essay providing a helpful analysis of many of features of Behbahani’s poetry. Milani has also written about Behbehani’s work in her scholarly texts, such as Words Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement. (Milani will be representing Behbahani and Iranian poetry this year at AWP.)

H.E. Sayeh (b. 1928)

Sayeh's book coverOur final poet, Hushang Ebtehaj, is still alive and is better known by his penname, (H.E.) Sayeh. He is mostly admired for his ghazals, though he also has written free-verse poetry. His body of work is small. The poems aren’t complicated or dense. He writes wonderfully crafted poems following in the traditional of the great master Hafez, whose work Sayeh has studied for years. Sayeh’s work is in conversation with the earlier poets, and he often references known metaphors, images, and phrases. He puts the form and images into a modern context with contemporary concerns. Although he is not typically portrayed as a major political poet in Iran, he has written important political poems and has even been imprisoned a year for his work. His poetry is often romantic and melancholic. There has not been much translation of his work. Art of Stepping Through Time (2011), translated by Mojdeh Marashi and the American poet Chad Sweeney, is the first book of his poetry in English. He lives between Cologne, Germany, and Tehran.

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As I mentioned earlier, there can be many factors for the limited translations of modern Persian poetry. We could question whether modern Iranian poets have written important works of world literature or wonder about the quality of the translations.

I believe a good sign of important translations are how well the poets of the target language respond to them. Can the works speak to American poets and readers? There are many obstacles here. One factor is whether the work’s innovation is relevant and new for the target language. This might be a difficulty that the works of Behbahani can experience in translation. Her innovations cannot easily be appreciated by a culture that has not had the same relationship with ghazals. Some may even be commonplace in the tradition of modern English poetry.

Sometimes the problem is the unique language, meter, and diction that take advantage of a well known intertextual discourse of poetics. Hafez is a good example of such a poet, and his translations have never been able to convey the power of the original work. Dick Davis, for example, wrote an essay, “On Not Translating Hafez,” in which he argued why Hafez is untranslatable. (Though he later succumbed to the challenge and translated Hafez as part of Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz.) Some of Sayeh’s poems share the same difficulty of translation.

There is also a problem in the politicization and exoticism of poetry from Iran that regulates the way the poems are packaged and received. An example can be found in the titles of the most popular translations of modern Iranian women poets, Farrokhzad and Behbahani. Both Milani’s and Safa’s as well as Wolpé’s books, which have also won the Lois Roth Persian Translation Prize, reference “sin”–highlighting the Iranian female poets as transgressors of social norms and conducts. It is as if these poets were writing as part of the memoir trend by Iranian-American women, who often invite readers to participate in the unveiling and liberation of oppressed women caught behind the black veil that has dominated the western ideological discourse on Iran in recent decades. Do Iranian women writers need to resort to “sin” in order to validate their work and be seen as progressive modern agents?

The problem is even greater if we consider that poets such as Farrokhzad hope to write beyond their sex and sexuality. In a 1964 radio interview, Farrokhzad argued that it is only natural if her poetry shows concern with being a woman, however, her sex is not the measure of her artistic merit–the essential thing is being a human. Issues of sin and transgression have an even more limited role in the sociopolitical or personal poetry of Behbahani. Highlighting such attributes are even more incongruous for her work.

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