Who is the most popular American writer in Iran? Ernest Hemingway? William Faulkner? Raymond Carver? Richard Brautigan? Or perhaps Shel Silverstein?
I put this question to a group of Iranians on social media. I also asked a group of 100 poets and writers, 10 translators, as well as three bookstores in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz.
The results of this informal survey were as follows: Richard Brautigan, the author of Trout Fishing in America, and poet and novelist Charles Bukowski are among the most popular writers translated from English to Persian.
Those who took part in the survey were aged 25 to 35 years old. Among those polled, the average level of education was a bachelor degree. According to official Iranian government statistics, Iranians spend on average only three minutes per day reading books.
I wanted to see how censorship in Iran has affected the quality of translated texts.
Censorship Under Rouhani’s Administration
Under President Rouhani’s administration, censorship still makes the news. During his 2013 campaign, Rouhani promised to redirect culture from the government’s sphere of control, with a view to letting the people who deal directly with it — organizers, performers, artists, writers — play a more direct role in how it is delivered and managed.
Rouhani nominated Ali Jannati to head the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance shortly after he assumed the presidency in August 2013. Not longer after taking on the role, Jannati spoke about official “auditing” (censorship) in Iran: “if the Koran was not a divine revelation and this heavenly book was given to certain auditors [censors] they would no doubt reject it. They would say that there are words in the Koran that are contrary to public morality and that are objectionable.”
Jannati’s comments, and the promises for greater freedom that followed, kindled hope in the hearts of many writers and publishers. They expected a long-awaited opening in the closed, depressed atmosphere of Iranian culture. The renowned Iranian novelist Mahmoud Dolatabadi, author of Kelidar and Missing Soluch, was among those who expressed hope. But today, he is still waiting for a publishing permit for his novel Colonel’s Downfall, and it is thought the prospects for receiving it are dismal. The novel discusses arrests and executions following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and provides an alternate narrative of the history of the revolution.
Even the word “seat” is censored
All translated material must be vetted prior to publication; nothing can be published in Iran without prior censorship. Censors remove words such as “seat” (as in “buttocks”) and “prostitute,” as well as entire passages referring to eroticism or anything that can be considered to be anti-religious. These cuts provide Iranian readers with a distorted version of Western novels.
Translated texts are also problematic for other reasons. Many translators have a less than adequate mastery of the language they are translating from, word-for-word translations are scarce, and there is a overall lack of editing.
Over the past few decades, the publishing industry in Iran has experienced many ups and downs. Generally, readers do not trust anything, whether it is an original work or translated, and consequently, the number of readers per capita has fallen. The book market has lost its luster. Only textbooks and learning aids sell well.
“It has become less troublesome to get permits for publishing translations of poetry and novels,” says one literary publisher, and others agree. “Even if there are words or parts of the book that cannot be printed, often the translator replaces them with alternate words and phrases without being dogmatic or sensitive about it. Or the translator himself censors what he believes will be censored, or expresses the idea in a different way. For example, if a character in a novel enters a café to have a drink of vodka, the translator writes that the character entered the dining hall and ate so much that he lost his mental balance. He then continues the story from there.”
“In most cases, the real atmosphere of the work in the source language is lost on Persian-speaking readers but, as compensation, the book receives a permit to be published,” says the publisher, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “Examples of this approach include most works by Charles Bukowski and a number of novels by Richard Brautigan, all published in Iran.”
“Even with censorship, the market for translated works is better than for books by Iranian authors,” the publisher says. “Over the past two decades, not many poems or novels have been written that actually address people’s interests. The circulation for Iranian books published in Iran is currently between 200 and 300 copies, while up to 1500 copies will be printed when it comes to works in translation. Iranians trust non-Iranian writers more than they trust Iranian writers, because of their reputation and their standing in world literature. Their books sell more easily, even if the translations are not good.”
Charles Bukowski and Iranian Tastes
Ahmad Pouri is a 62-year-old writer and translator. He has translated the works of Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Anna Akhmatova and Nazim Hikmet into Persian. He also translated and published a selection of poetry by Shel Silverstein, the poet, cartoonist, singer, screenwriter and author of children’s books.
“Currently, South and North American poets are very popular in Iran,” says Pouri, citing Pablo Neruda and Charles Bukowski as the most popular in Iran. “Neruda is popular because his poetry is tightly structured. Bukowski is popular because he breaks traditions and belongs to the second Beat Generation. But among my generation, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was very popular, because he wrote about underprivileged people, and his style was good and strong.”
“There are writers like Charles Bukowski whose works cannot be really be presented in Iran because of their subjects and content,” says Asadollah Amraee, a 53-year-old translator of Ernest Hemingway’s works. “Under the previous regime, the mentality and the style of a writer like Bukowski was not to the taste of the market, or the readers. But now that these writers appeal to the market and to readers, there is no possibility of publishing their works faithfully or in their entirety.”
Amraee, who has also translated works by Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, and Heinrich Böll, points to another important aspect of translating contemporary American literature into Persian: The influence of American writing on Iranian writers. “In my own case, I am interested in Raymond Carver. He was a trend-setter, and some of our novelists [in the years after the revolution] were influenced by him. Of course, we should not ignore the fact that Carver was lucky to have good translators in Iran, such as Farzaneh Taheri.”
Amraee says Ernest Hemingway is the most popular writer in Iran. “I translated a book of his. Then three or four others translated the same book, and all translations sold well. After him comes William Faulkner and Raymond Carver.”
The Best-Selling American Writer
The poet and translator Alireza Abiz is from the younger generation. He believes Shel Silverstein (who was born in 1930 and died in 1999) is the most popular American writer for Iranian readers. “More works by Silverstein have been translated and sold than any other American author,” he says. “He has even influenced the way Iranians look at poetry and the novel.” Of course, Abiz says, only translations of Silverstein’s books for children and young adults are available in Iran. “This does not present a comprehensive portrait of this writer, poet, singer and Playboy cartoonist. Nevertheless, even adults are interested in his work aimed at teenagers.”
Thirty-one of Silverstein’s books have been translated and published in Iran. A collection of his poetry, translated by Hamid Khademi, is also available. Abiz believes that the quality of translation has played a big role in Silverstein’s success in Iran. “This holds true not only for this poet and writer but also for anybody else. As a result, one should be cautious and should not equate popularity in the target language with popularity and literary standing in the original language. At any rate, Silverstein’s lively but simple language, his happy and joyful wit and his peculiar ways of looking at things has made him popular among Iranian readers. Censorship has prevented the translation of similar works by him for adults, but adults also read his work because of his style. His influence on the minds and language of certain Iranian poets and writers — both those who write for children and those whose work focuses on the adult market — is obvious.”
Bukowski and how the Iranian translator deals with “Motherfucker”
Ali Ghanbari, a 45-year-old poet and the translator of An Anthology of Post-Modern Poetry, says that Charles Bukowski is the most popular American poet in Iran because his poems are short. “In Iran most translators look for poets who write shorter verses that can be translated and organized faster,” he says. “Another reason for his popularity is that his poetry has mass appeal. In the US, his poetry is less studied because it is anti-literary, but his mass appeal and his closeness to the Beat Generation is there for all to see. Bukowski is experimental, but the public can more easily understand him.”
But translating Bukowski in Iran comes with its own problems. “His aggressive tone and the fact that the word ‘motherfuckers’ is sprinkled through his poetry makes it impossible to [faithfully] translate and publish him in Iran,” says Ghanbari. “So what Persian-language readers see is really only the popular characteristics of his work. But outside the country, Iranian translators have provided good translations of his work and have published them online.”
Ghanbari also points out that in recent years the literary tastes of Iranian readers has changed. Now, he says, Iranian readers are less attracted to philosophical and complex poetry. “Young readers expect to grasp the poem quickly and get its point in the least number of words,” he says. “All of this can be found in Bukowski’s poems.”
Protesting à la Bartleby the Scrivener
Parham Shahrjerdi, a translator and the editor-in-chief of the magazine Na-Momken (The Impossible), has a different view. He prefers Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. “Bartleby is the story of a ‘condemned’ man who suddenly drops everything — all the rules that dominate work, society and life,” he says. “Bartleby, this former postal clerk, this scribe and this ordinary citizen, puts an end to maddening repetitions. Bartleby is a story of resistance, saying that anybody can refuse to obey and take passivity to its conclusion. Of course, this refusal has consequences, for himself and for the people around him. Bartleby’s refusal and disobedience says everything. In literature, and going beyond literature, Bartleby embodies this attitude.”
Two years after the Green Movement, in 2011, Nika Translators published Bartleby the Scrivener. Such classics continue to be translated and published in Iran every once in a while, especially when they ring true for Iranians because they speak to them about something they are going through, or express sentiments to which they can relate.