Lida Nosrati knew that some time ago I had started a short story with a gay character in it. So when Words Without Borders asked her to submit a story in translation by an Iranian writer for the LGBT issue, she asked me if that story was finished. This was during the December 2012 holidays, when I was visiting her in Canada. We had a long conversation about what an international readership expects from an LGBT-themed story set in Iran. I suggested writing a story that challenged the cliché of an oppressed individual from the Middle East and talked instead about profiteers of such clichés. Lida thought I should at least give it a try.
And there we were the next morning, writing and translating the story together. I had a character in mind who is making a non-genuine asylum claim based on his sexual orientation. Lida, having been a translator and interpreter for the Refugee Board in Canada for many years, answered my questions about the asylum-seeking process. I also started interviewing a few refugees in France to learn about the system there. My comic book writer and cartoonist friend Mana Neyestani, who had gone through the whole process of applying for asylum in Paris, was of great help with the details. When he told me that the Préfecture de Police is located on a street called Ney Boulevard, the story began to take shape.
The ney is a Persian musical instrument. To an Iranian reader, even before the sound of the reed, the word “ney” brings to mind the opening lines of Rumi’s Masnavi: “Listen to the reed . . .” We wondered if we should leave the foreign word as it was. David Bellos, in his book Is That a Fish in Your Ear, argues that one of the most obvious ways of making a text sound foreign is to leave a word in the original.
The English reader may not stumble over French or Spanish words in a text, but it is a different story when it comes to a language such as Farsi which English readers might be less familiar with. To make the translation read more fluently, without slipping into over-explicating or tedious footnoting, Lida decided to provide the definition of the word “ney” right at the beginning of the story.
“When I first heard the name I got very sentimental. Ney, Persian reed. I imagined a bamboo grove on the opposite side of the street . . . ”
It was somewhat similar to the approach used for radio documentaries in foreign languages, when the original voice is aired for a few seconds before the voiceover kicks in. The original voice gradually fades away, then occasionally grows louder and fades away again, to construct a sense of authenticity for the listener. Yet it can never be guaranteed that the original sense of those words is conveyed.
The word “ney” is so culture-specific that the English-speaking reader may not immediately realize that the main character’s words are fraught with sentimentality. The literal translation of the first sentence of the story reads:
Were it not for the misery of waiting on it for hours and hours, “Ney Boulevard,” my dear, would have been the most exhilarating name a street can have.
The translation has a slightly different twist to reflect the obsessive and sentimental nature of the character:
. . . “Ney Boulevard,” my dear, could, would, and, in fact, should have been the most exhilarating name a street can have.
The opening lines of Masnavi quoted in the first paragraph of the story will be very familiar to a Farsi reader. Persian literature and classical poetry permeate Iranian culture and society. One might encounter a taxi driver quoting Hafiz, Saadi, or Rumi. Anyone who finished high school would know the opening lines of Rumi’s Masnavi. So the narrator’s quotation is glib and superficial in a way that would immediately signal to a Persian reader the character’s ignorance of the mystical tradition Masnavi belongs to.
To suggest this, Lida chose Javid Mojaddedi’s translation of the text, published by Penguin, which is one of the most recent verse translations of Masnavi. This was not to do justice to Rumi but to highlight the irony of such an unsophisticated character using such ornate words and his obvious lack of real understanding of the poem. The character’s ignorance becomes even clearer when he uses a quotation from Hafiz incorrectly. “Goftegū āin-e darvishi nabūd” could mean “conversation is not the custom of dervishes” but also has a double, and more important, meaning: “a real Sufi dervish never argues with the rule of God but rather obeys without challenging it.” The character only captures the surface meaning, reducing Hafiz’s lines to a “silence is golden”-type platitude.
Parts of this story were originally written in English. Those parts were translated by Lida into Persian. The dialogue between the protagonist and the officer at L’Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides, or the descriptions of the French country house and a few sentences here and there naturally came to me in English, perhaps because I was aware that this story was written to be translated.
The first draft of the story was finished in three days, and then we focused on editing and translating it simultaneously. The translation started even before the story was completely finished, which gave us a chance to change the original to work better in translation.
This collaborative translation was only possible because Lida and I were familiar with both languages and could discuss the different possibilities of translating a sentence into English. We had the English reader in mind as the target audience but Lida suggested that I work on it separately to make the original Farsi equally authentic. An Iranian reader comparing the two texts might come across disparities between the translation and the original because we wrote, rewrote, revised, and re-revised both texts at the same time as we went along. This collaboration was a novel experience both for me as the author and Lida as the translator and allowed us to develop the story and the characters by writing and translating aloud.