We’re pleased to welcome Mandana Naviafar, who will be working with Nadia Kalman on our education program, Words Without Borders Campus, this summer. Originally from Tehran, Iran, Mandana is currently studying English literature and phronesis in the Honors College at the University of Houston.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to Words Without Borders/literature in translation? What is your personal relationship to language and/or translation?
Mandana Naviafar (MN): I’ve been interested in reading and writing fiction since I was seven or eight. Throughout my life, I’ve read translated works as much as (or even more than) original-language works. There wasn’t nearly as much skepticism and stigma around translated literature in my home country, Iran, as there is in the US. In high school I studied English in a professional language institution and once I became somewhat fluent in English, I took an English literature class. In the beginning of that class, I wasn’t able to get past the first ten pages of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but I was fascinated by the new and unknown world of English literature and eager to explore it further. By the end of the course, I was able to read and enjoy Shakespeare’s Othello. That experience was transformative and influential enough that I changed my major from Farsi to English literature and came to the US to learn more. I am very eager to help others experience what I experienced in that class and to encourage others to broaden their views by immersing themselves in a new literature, a new culture, and a new world. Working with Words Without Borders Campus gives me the opportunity to do so.
WWB: In addition to studying English literature, you’re minoring in phronesis (philosophy and politics). Can you speak a bit about your interest in that and how it has influenced the way that you read literature?
MN: My interest in literature lead me to philosophy in the first place. I was always fascinated by the transformative power of literature and its great potential to influence individuals and societies. My curiosity about the nature of this power inspired me to read philosophical works on art and literature. Those were my very first encounters with philosophy. But as my interest in philosophy developed further, I learned to separate these two fields and value them independent of each other as well. I noticed that many people who do interdisciplinary studies in literature and philosophy reduce one to the other. For example, they only read works of literature in search of a philosophical or political message or they only value a philosophical theory in so far as it can provide a critical framework for literary studies. My understanding of philosophy certainly deepens my reading of literature and allows me to see more aspects of a work of art. At the same time I try to value fiction on its own merit and not to reduce it to a mere philosophical or political message.
WWB: What are your favorite reads or who are some of your favorite writers? What do you look for in a great book?
MN: It’s very hard for me to pick one author as my favorite. I have different favorites at different moments. But right now I am working on a research project on Virginia Woolf and my favorite is Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. To me, great books are products of a kind of integrity and deep respect for the reader that are demonstrated in the originality of the work of art.
WWB: In your final year of high school you won Iran’s National Literature Olympiad. What was involved in getting that gold medal?
MN: The Olympiad was a national three-level competition for high school students in their senior year. The first two levels consisted of two advanced tests measuring the students’ understanding of Persian literary texts from both classical and modern eras. The texts included were not part of the regular high school curriculum. Based on these tests, forty-five students from around the nation were selected for a two-month training camp. The summer camp involved university-level literature courses with select university professors, one academic research project, and an oral exam. The students’ overall performance in the training camp determined the color of their medals.