A Lover Alone in Prison: A Conversation between Ilan Stavans and Sara Khalili – Michigan Quarterly Review

A Lover Alone in Prison: A Conversation between Ilan Stavans and Sara Khalili

Not only what we read in these global times but how depends on a number of forces. Writers, translators, editors, and publishers, consciously and otherwise, respond to these forces, offering a diet that in part responds to their individual taste while also adjusting to the larger laws of the market. In other words, all literary traditions are curated by higher, uncontrolled powers. Readers, even in capitalist societies, aren’t really free. They read only what is possible.

World literature, a concept promoted by Goethe in the 18th century, has undergone a series of transformations. Arguably one of the most significant is the role translators play in catering to the international diet. They at times not only render a work but also bring it to the attention of publishers. In that sense, they are conduits. Are they also censors, though?  

These are the topics of this dialogue between Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the publisher of Restless Books, and Sara Khalili, a celebrated editor and translator of contemporary Iranian literature. Having worked together on the English version of Shahriar Mandanipour’s Moon Brow (2018), and after an initial encounter at Brookline Booksmith, in Boston, Massachusetts, in November 2018, they engaged in this electronic exchange.

A native of Mexico, Stavans has translated Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop into Spanish, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz into English, Isaac Bashevis Singer from the Yiddish, Yehuda Halevi from the Hebrew, and Shakespeare and Cervantes into Spanglish. Born in Tehran, Khalili has also translated Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story (2009), The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons (2013) by Goli Taraghi, The Book of Fate (2013) by Parinoush Saniee, Kissing the Sword, A Prison Memoir (2013) by Shahrnush Parsipur, and Rituals of Restlessness (2016) by Yaghoub Yadali, along with several volumes of poetry.




Ilan Stavans: I came serendipitously to translation. It was frustration with the coming-and-going of my own languages, the sense that something was always lost, that kept me imagining an entire poem, a whole novel in the other language. Then came love and after that marriage: the love for the craft and the marriage that comes to an endeavor out of which comes enormous joy. Yet the frustration remains. Robert Frost was both right and wrong in suggesting that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” It is also what gets found—poetry and much more. Did you become a translator out of love?


Sara Khalili: I was coaxed into becoming a translator, but it didn’t take long for me to find myself wanting to do nothing else.  I am, or I should say, I was, a financial journalist and worked in my field for many years. I only thought about translation when the late Karim Emami would tell me, yet again, that I was wasting my time, that I should instead dedicate myself to translating Persian literature. He believed I had a talent for it.


IS: Emami translated from Persian to English and back again. He rendered Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) for Iranian readers, as well as four volumes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1993-1998). And he also translated into English seventy-two quatrains of poetry by Omar Khayyam in the The Wine of Nishapur (1997).


SK: Karim was one of Iran’s most celebrated literary translators, as well as a renowned editor and literary critic. To me, he was also a dear friend and close relative.


IS: I know he was a lexicographer, too. I wished I had met him.


SK: Karim’s arguments for, and my arguments against what he was urging me to do, went on for several years, until in 2004, when he suggested I work with him on the translation of a short story for an anthology of Iranian literature that PEN was publishing. I agreed, thinking it would be an interesting exercise. As we worked together, Karim in Tehran and me in New York, he patiently educated me on the art of translation. I was captivated. Needless to say, I finally did what he had hoped I would do.  


IS: Karim Emami’s effort was visionary, not only because of the beauty of your translations but, needless to say, because of the unforgivably limited diet of Iranian literature English-language readers have access to. Two titanic cultures, with astonishingly rich literary traditions, at odds with one another. Why is it that, in spite of a number of astonishing books, Iranian literature is almost totally unknown in the United States?


SK:  The greatest challenge is the scarcity of skilled literary translators. Unlike countries where governments and cultural organizations fund and support the translation of their writers’ works into other languages and actively promote them overseas, no such mechanisms and resources exist in Iran.


IS: A culture without translation is like a lover alone in prison.


SK: Languishing and forlorn. The absence of any meaningful backing has meant that translating Iranian literature has remained mostly as an avocation or an academic exercise, instead of being a profession in literary arts undertaken by talented translators who can dedicate themselves to cultivating and refining their skill and introducing the works of Iranian writers to an English reading audience.


IS: It isn’t only Tehran’s nearsightedness. The American market show little interest too.


SK: Yes, the problem is compounded by the difficulty of finding interested publishers in the United States. As you well know, in general a very small percentage of books published in English are works of literature in translation. And a majority of these are works by established European and Latin American writers. This leaves very little room for as-yet-unknown writers from countries such as Iran.


IS: In spite of the geographical closeness, and of the comparative abundance, at times misguided (even forgettable exercises Roberto Bolaño rightfully never dreamed of publishing are now available in English), we in Latin America complain of a lack of interest as well. Well-balanced, representative interest, I mean.


SK: The situation would have been far worse were it not for small, independent publishers, such as Restless Books, that dedicate themselves to literature in translation.

As someone who is a prolific writer, translator, and publisher, you have a multifaceted view of the market. How would you explain this lack of interest?


IS: Americans have little appetite for foreign cultures. Their interests are parochial: the most powerful nation in the world, shallow at its core. Other empires have displayed voracious interest, even in their neighbors. The United States, in contrast, is marked by a complacency that is linked to its professed individualism. They can do it all alone, without anyone’s help. Ah, such spiritual poverty!


SK: In some cases, the problem is more complex. In much of the world, foreign literature is a window into distant lands, a different manner of traveling, seeing, and experiencing other cultures. Literature from some of those distant cultures not only seems to inspire little curiosity here, but it also falls prey to geopolitics. The little interest there is for Persian literature peaks when heated politics land Iran on the front pages of newspapers. And then, the interest is not entirely in the literature itself, but in amplifying the voice of the dissident, the exiled whose work in one way or another spotlights the ills of that country’s government and its politics.


IS: An old adage: literature as ideological artifact.


SK: In the years I have worked as a translator, only once has an editor approached me specifically interested in what is actually being written and published today inside Iran. In 2013, Susan Harris, editor of Words Without Borders, decided to dedicate an issue of that magazine to short stories by the post-revolution generation of Iranian writers living and working in that country. Shahriar and I curated the stories and I translated them. Other than that collection, the majority of my published translations are works by writers in exile or books that have been banned in Iran. We hardly ever see the vibrant and exciting works of talented writers in Iran who are changing the face and fiber of Persian literature.


IS: It is how capital moves around in the literary marketplace. At Restless Books, I recently received as a submission a novel by a Chinese dissident, for which Ai Weiwei had done some cover art. The work itself wasn’t particularly enthralling yet the package did nothing but emphasize dissidence as a marketing tool. Quality was secondary.


SK: In 1990, Edward Said published in The Nation an article titled “Embargoed Literature.” His argument was that Arab literature is “embargoed” in the West despite the fact that in 1988 the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He wrote, “[…] of all the major world literatures, Arabic remains relatively unknown and unread in the West for reasons that are unique, and I think remarkable at a time when tastes here for the non-Western are more developed than before and, even more compelling, contemporary Arabic literature is at a particularly interesting juncture.” The same holds true for Persian literature.


IS: How do you choose what you translate? Is your personal taste the defining factor? With such few translators from Persian into English active in the marketplace, is what you like the type of literature readers end up associating with Iran today?


SK: Translation is an intimate relationship between a translator and a work of literature that could last for months or years. Better that it be a happy union than a hesitant one. Beyond personally liking a work, I look for a literary value and quality in it that deserves a wider readership and the time I would need to dedicate to it. Then I ask myself, Is it a book I might find a publisher for? And in the end, I hope readers consider my choices only as a small sampling of the wealth and variety of Iran’s literary arts.

IS: You have translated the poetry of Siavash Kasrai, Fereydoun Moshiri, and Simin Behbahani. How did you come to them?


SK: One of the largest publishing houses in Iran, Sokhan Publishers, set out on a wonderful mission to produce a series of bi-lingual editions of works by contemporary Iranian poets. They commissioned me to curate and translate a collection by Simin Behbahani. It was the first time I was translating poetry, and I was enormously lucky that Michael Beard, a specialist in Middle Eastern literature and a translator from Persian and Arabic, agreed to work with me as editor. I was then asked to work on three other volumes.

The ones you mentioned survived the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which must approve and issue publishing permits for all books printed in Iran. The manuscript of the fourth volume, the selected works of Forough Farrokhzad, was submitted to the Ministry almost a decade ago. We never even received the usual notice advising us of edits to the text that would be required for it to receive a permit. I imagine it is in some over-populated manuscript morgue, and in good company.


IS: The bureaucratic ordeal, not only of the Farrokhzad volume but the set you translated, makes me think of the administrative procedures Cervantes had to go through to get the two volumes of the manuscript of Don Quixote of La Mancha through the Holy Inquisition censors. Some of the sections in the novel are quite daring. Did the censors truly read them? If so, they must have been amused by Volume One, Chapter VI, in which the barber, the priest, and Alonso Quijana’s niece go through Quijana’s personal library while Don Quixote is ill. It’s a hilarious scene that results in many volumes ending up in a bonfire. What was accepted and what rejected by the actual censors, not by Cervantes’ characters, is less humorous but just as capricious.

By the way, I am of the view—and I have stated it in Knowledge and Censorship (2008)—that censorship is useful in literature. Likewise, I believe in its cleansing power in terms of translation.


SK: What do you mean by cleansing?


IS: Purifying. We cannot live without censorship. Dictatorships regulate the flow of information. But so does an open-market economy, though under a different pretense. A self-translation, which is the most ubiquitous, defines everything we do, even this exchange.


SK: Translators consciously sift, rewrite, reword, compromise, and to some extent filter while rendering a book into another language. We all do the same in our daily lives, but we do it far less consciously and less deliberately.

Translation, by its very nature, shares these functions with censorship. Where the two differ is in their intentions. The translator strives to convey, whereas the censor aims to purge.


IS: Going back to Don Quixote, the reader is told numerous times that the original narrative about the deranged knight was written by an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengueli, and that what we are reading is a poor, impromptu translation delivered by “un morisco aljamiado,” which, loosely translated, is a Spanish-born Arab speaker with a lousy knowledge of his ancestral tongue.


SK:Traduttore, traditore!”


IS: How does one transpose the gorgeous rhythms of Persian into modern English?


SK: It is near impossible to perfectly carry over from Persian into another language the unique qualities of a poem—what its composer felt and thought, their particular voice and tone, the weight given to each carefully chosen word, the meter and structure of their composition. Added to this are the linguistic and cultural elements that cannot be mirrored. This is especially true of classical Persian poetry. Dick Davis even wrote a famous essay titled “On Not Translating Hafez” – though he did eventually take on the challenge.  


IS: I remember reading Davis’ essay, published in the New England Review (vol. 25, nums. 1-2, 2004), and dreaming for days about what is and isn’t untranslatable. One of his paragraphs was emblematic of the entire argument:


Certain poets are held to be untranslatable, or virtually so, and often they are thought of as those that most intimately express the poetic soul of their people: in Russian there is Pushkin; in German, Goethe; in Persian, Hafez. The fact that it is often precisely the poets who seem to sum up a poetry’s idiosyncratic potential and identity who are those whose works are most resistant to translation can give rise to a kind of romantic, quasi-racial canonization of such poets, an implication that they cannot be translated because what they express draws so deeply on the culture’s specific ethnic soul that it is not communicable in any other terms. This is a variant of the sentimental “To understand, my friend, you have to be Persian/Jewish/Russian…” ploy. (Against this ethnic self-indulgence there is a lovely story of Franco Corelli asking Richard Tucker for tips on how to sing Puccini: “Well,” began Tucker, “You have to be Jewish…”)


No, you don’t have to be Jewish to understand say Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934). That’s what literature is about: the opportunity to have out-of-body experiences.

Nabokov translated Pushkin—poorly, I might add. (Edmund Wilson famously shared this opinion.) And Goethe, who championed Weltliteratur was a continental project, doesn’t sound in English the way he does in German. But should we care. Of the 14th-century Hafez (Borges would have loved his full name, Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muammad āfe-e Shīrāzī), I only know Davis’ Penguin Classics edition (2012), which, of course, he ended up doing. Yes, these, and other poets, resist translation. Yet it is crucial that we try anyhow, otherwise we are doomed. For without translation there is no dialogue across civilizations.


SK: Among the greatest works of world literature is the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), written by Ferdowsi in the 10th century. It is the longest epic poem ever composed by a single poet, narrating the history of the ancient kings of Persia from mythical beginnings to the Arab conquest in the 7th century. Written in 60,000 rhyming couplets, the book defies translation. But how much poorer we would have been were it not for the efforts of those who have tried. There are several partial and abridged English translations of the epic, but the only complete version went out of print more than 80 years ago. It took Ferdowsi thirty years to write the Shahnameh and it took the brothers Arthur and Edmond Warner twenty years to translate it in nine volumes of verse, the first of which was published in London in 1905. More recently, Davis’s 2006 translation, which excludes some segments, is a blend of poetry and prose. Having done away with a lot of the antiquated flourishes and interspersed the text with occasional explanations, it is one of the most accessible English renditions of the Shahnameh.  


IS: The classics inspire awe whereas contemporary works appear less obtuse. I’m not sure this is true. Still, as in life, appearance is everything in literature.


SK: Unlike classical Persian poetry, contemporary works lend themselves often surprisingly well to translation. The poets’ use of looser forms of quatrains, free verse, the personal lyric, and metaphoric imagery has made it more possible to retain the aesthetic value of their work in English. Of the poets I have translated, the one leaning most toward classical structures was Simin Behbahani. She composed often in ghazals, which could lose a lot of their musicality and expression in translation. But, even in her case, she took the classical form of the ghazal and infused it with the modern and colloquial that better survive the journey into English.


IS: Personally, I find translating poetry far more challenging, but also more rewarding, than prose. What one is after isn’t only meaning but rhythm. Needless to say, translating rhythm is a maddening task because music isn’t translatable.


SK: Perhaps almost as challenging are the very elusive and convoluted metaphors, which Persian poetry is riddled with.  

IS: I want to hear about the process of translating Moon Brow, by Shahriar Mandanipour.

SK: Shahriar and I worked in tandem on Moon Brow. As he wrote, I translated. It was not the conventional way of going about it, but seeing a novel take shape in two languages at the same time was quite a unique experience.

Shahriar’s intricate prose is always a challenge, but Moon Brow proved to be even more so than his other works that I had translated. The inner reflections of the main character (Amir) were particularly difficult. Shahriar has written the chaotic thoughts and fragmented recollections storming through the mind of a shellshock victim often as poetry in prose or complicated plays on language. To capture their essence while staying true to the structure and meter of his compositions, I needed to first unravel the Persian text, translate it, and then weave the English back into the same construct as the original.

Also, the novel has two narrators—the scribes on Amir’s right and left shoulders who have very different personalities. One is gentle and refined, the other is crude and brash. It is their tone and language that sets them apart, and this had to come across clearly in the translation. The narrative also shifts constantly in time and place. The rapid transitions had to be as smooth as, and as seamless as possible, for the reader to drift through them effortlessly.

IS: Seamlessness in translation is a challenging objective. It reminds me of Flaubert’s obsession “to disappear” as an author in order for the narrative to flourish. Also, collaborating with an author might be a double-edge sword. Yet it seems that in this case it was a joyful opportunity.

SK: What I enjoyed most about the actual process was the sense of collaboration between us. The exchanges of ideas, the back-and-forth about what works and what doesn’t work in English, the discussions of what to do with a metaphor or a colloquialism that wouldn’t survive translation… The most difficult aspect of it was simply trying to keep track of each other’s work. As writers always do, Shahriar would revisit earlier segments to revise, rewrite, add or delete. For me to know what he had done, Shahriar came up with a color-coding system. Deletions highlighted in red, additions in yellow, rewrites in blue, etc. And invariably, one of us would confuse the colors or lose track of the various versions of the original or the translation. It wasn’t uncommon for us to spend a few frustrating hours trying to figure it all out, only to have the same confusion a few weeks later.


IS: In what way was the work you did on Moon Brow different from translating Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Story?


SK: The actual process of Shahriar writing Censoring as I translated it was similar to that of Moon Brow, albeit even less organized. The difference was rooted elsewhere.  Censoring was a first for both Shahriar and me. It was his first novel being translated and published in English. It was my first time translating a full-length novel, and a very difficult one at that. I was not as confident in my understanding and interpretation of his style, his language, and his complicated prose. And he wasn’t as confident in me being able to recreate his work in English. The trust that exists between us today had not yet been earned. But trust was imperative.

We barely had the first hundred pages of Censoring in English when the rights for the novel to be published in several other languages were bought. Given that the book was not going to be published in its original language, all other translations were to be based on the English edition. This made the stakes much higher for Shahriar as the writer, and the weight of the responsibility much greater and far more daunting for me as the translator.

By the time we started working on Moon Brow, Shahriar wrote more freely, trusting that I could—and would be—faithful to his prose. And I translated less anxious and more confident that I could—and would—do justice to his art.


IS: As an editor, I love the result. At the same, just as with seamlessness, I’m skeptical of those who say they are faithful in translation. You might imagine why: as in love, a faithful lover is not always truthful and vice versa.


SK: The question is faithful to who, when, and why. There are times when my loyalty shifts from the writer to the translation itself. In instances where being faithful to a writer’s original work would be to the detriment of its English rendition, I will be unfaithful. But always with the writer’s knowledge, and hopefully his blessing. In other words, I always confess before I stray.


IS: Do you trust a translation might be better than the original? I think of this question often, not only when I read a text in translation but when I translate myself. I’m in no way tempted to supersede the author, since better isn’t really, at least not for me, about quality, but about connection. Can the translation connect with its audience better than the original did?


SK:  It is not outside the realm of possibility that a translation supersedes the original, or that its readers better relate to it. However, there are more instances not of translations that are better than their original versions but of translations that are noteworthy works of literature in their own right. To me, most successful translations are in fact a recreation of the original work in a different language, with the translator making every effort to remain true to the original without sacrificing literariness.


IS: There are indeed a few cases in which a translation becomes better known—as I mentioned, “more fine-tunely connected” with its readership—than the original. Or at least it acquires a certain autonomy. The King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611, is an example. Another is Edward William Lane’s rendition of the Arabian Nights (1838-40).


SK: The best example of this in Persian literature is Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which stands on its own as a highly celebrated classic and one of the most frequently quoted. But it is important to note that Khayyam’s more than seven hundred fifty quatrains did not comprise one very long poem. Fitzgerald’s version is an intuitive, interpretive translation of the original, with much omitted and invented, many of quatrains paraphrased, and some pulped together.


IS: How do you define recreation?


SK: To me, it is taking a work of literature and almost rewriting it in another language while trying to strike a delicate balance between the aesthetics and sensibilities of the work, the voice and intent of the writer, and the vagaries of language and culture.

If a bilingual reader were to compare the original version of Moon Brow with my English translation of it, they will find many instances where the two diverge. These are often occasions where Shahriar and I have realized that staying true to the original and his particular plays on form and language simply would not work in English. As the translator, I have come up with alternatives, with different constructs of Shahriar’s words. The effort there has been to remain true to his voice and intent, but not necessarily to his precise words and composition.


IS: A sharp distinction.


SK: I would hazard the guess that the majority of translations that have succeeded have undergone the same. In the end, the two versions of these books are in fact two works that I believe should be considered and judged based on their own merits.


IS: Have you ever been tempted to add material—more than a subtle sentence, maybe a paragraph—in a translation? Such idea, needless to say, is anathema today, such is the commitment, blind in my eyes, we have to the topic we’ve already discussed, faithfulness. Yet let’s not forget that characters like Ali-Baba, Aladdin, and Sinbad were inserted by European translators like Antoine Galland. In the case of Don Quixote, one of the French versions of the novel had an entirely new final chapter, after which another volume, all of which concocted by a translator, was attached. Love blinds… Translators aren’t innocent creatures.


SK: Of course, I have been tempted. But I always remember the indignation and sense of violation I felt when I realized a writer had taken the liberty of meddling with a segment of my translation without my knowledge. The fact that the writers’ knowledge of English was at best rudimentary was almost irrelevant. If I believe I can write a finer story than the one I am translating, then I should go ahead and write my own story.


SK: As a publisher, what qualities do you look for in a translation? How do you evaluate a translation from a language you do not know?


IS: The matching of the writer and the translator must result in a waltz of compatible sensibilities. Otherwise the overall effort ends in shame. I believe a good book—and in this case I think of classics—needs not only to survive but to thrive in translation.


SK: In pondering the difficulties of the U.S. market, what are the obstacles, or say challenges, you as a publisher of literature in translation face. How you overcome them? And how do you manage to continue in spite of them?


IS: The fallacy in the industry is that independent publishers publish books and readers find them. In truth, you have to find the readers before you agree to acquire the book. To be successful, books need to find their audience and vice versa, audiences need to find the books they are looking for. If you aren’t sure you can find that audience, you’re doing the book and its author a disservice. In other words, throwing a wide net isn’t the right approach, at least not for independent publishers.

Actually, that’s the approach of corporate publishers: bring out as many titles as possible, as quickly as possible, and hope that something sticks. They are behemoths, meaning they are clumsy, abrasive, and heavy-handed. It’s the wholesale strategy: the more the merrier. Small publishers, instead, with their limited resources, need to be intentional. Since it’s always a matter of life and death, each book is a gem. Each needs to find a home.

From the market perspective, a book in translation is born with a handicap. It is an ugly duckling. Why read it if others are directly in English and therefore not prone to misunderstanding? It takes a minimum of two years from the moment a foreign book is acquired for it to reach its audience. A major stage of the process is making sure the translation is right: every word, every comma, every intention.

Independent publishers never overcome these hurdles; we just learn to make the most of them. We learn to persevere. There are a lot of people rooting for us, of course. That support is crucial. We’ll never be millionaires; at best, we’ll be afloat financially, maybe even thriving as a major minor player. What we want is to make a difference, to humanize those who aren’t next to us, who live in far-away lands, who speak and think and dream differently.


SK: Your own books have been translated into many languages. How would you characterize those translations?


IS: Mercifully, a handful—say into Turkish or Tamil—I can’t judge, since my knowledge of those languages is nil. And those I can assess, I rather not, for I would be undermining the translator’s effort. I don’t like to be a barricade. I prefer to help but only if and when help is sought.


SK: What is it like to work with a translator who is rendering your work into a language you are fluent in? How much, if any, influence (or interference) do you allow yourself?


IS: I work closely with translators when they ask for advice, given that they’ve made the effort to reach out. But I do it with the explicit agreement that I don’t want to read the final version. I trust what they do, even when I don’t.


SK: You speak half a dozen several languages. Have you ever translated your own work?


IS: I have and the result isn’t satisfying to me. I wrote about it in On Self-Translation: Meditations on Language (2018). I am invaded by the temptation to rewrite the piece altogether. And in some occasion I have done it: a handful of my stories have different endings in Spanish and English, and sometimes the characters also do things differently. What I like about translation and dislike about self-translation is that the text is subjected to a fresh, objective set of eyes.

I wonder if you ever imagined yourself translating an old religious text, Sara. I once translated “Ave María” into Spanglish. And maybe one day I’ll translate a couple of chapters of the Hebrew Bible.


SK: No, and I would never even entertain the possibility. Translating religious text, especially an old script, would require a depth of theological knowledge and understanding of that religion. These, I don’t have.

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