So I found out yesterday that I was not elected secretary of my union. I ran not because I was eager to get into union work per se, but because there is serious work that needs to be done on my campus–we are facing a real budget crisis and an administration that has been unambiguously hostile–and I thought the executive committee needed the skills I would have brought to the job. Clearly, my colleagues thought otherwise, since I lost by a margin that could comfortably be described as a land slide. While I’m disappointed not to have won, of course, I don’t begrudge my opponent the win; she is eminently qualified, and, to be honest, I am also a little bit relieved, since winning would have meant I’d have even less time than I do now to devote to writing, and writing is what I really want to be doing when I am not teaching, grading papers, having an intellectual life, a family life, a marriage, a social life–not to mention being co-chair of the union’s Crisis Committee and manager of the Google Group we set up so faculty could communicate with each other away from the college email servers. (See, I am still pretty heavily involved in union work even though I did not get elected.)
My life, in other words, is already plenty crowded enough. The problem is that my writing life is also crowded. There are at least five projects scattered in files around my office and on my hard drive, each of which deserves my attention. I am, for one, finally writing poems again; there are drafts of essays on writing that I’d like to complete; drafts of the essays I’ve been building from the Fragments of Evolving Manhood series I started posting a while back. (The link will take you back to my blog; if you want to read the posts here, where there was quite a bit of discussion in the comments, just do a search on “Fragments of Evolving Manhood.”) Then there is also the beginnings of a one man show based on my book of poems The Silence of Men that a director is interested in working on with me (I would perform the show, which would be very cool); there is the next book of translations, Ilahi Nama, by Farid al-Din Attar, which I have written about here, here and here; and there is the recent email I received from someone interested in turning my Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan, which is out of print, into an ebook. (This last project is not as simple as it sounds, since I do not own the copyright to the book and I would need to jump through a couple of hoops in order to make sure that the rights to the version that gets turned into an ebook are entirely mine.) The one thing that simplifies choosing which project to work on is the fact that I am eligible to apply for a sabbatical in the 2012-2013 academic year, and the most obviously sabbatical-worthy project among those I just mentioned is Ilahi Nama, primarily because a university press has expressed interest in seeing the manuscript once I am finished.
Because I would not have been able to take a sabbatical if I’d won the election, and the first draft of the application was due before the election results would be in, I handed in to the committee in my department which reviews and approves (or does not approve) sabbatical applications a very rough draft, comprised mostly of passages from both the last sabbatical application I submitted, which was for a different book of translations, and unsuccessful grant applications I submitted last year for funding my work on Ilahi Nama. Now that I’ve lost the election, I’ve gone back to look at my draft application to start figuring out how to revise it, and I’ve been pondering whether or not to follow a specific piece of my committee’s advice. They want me to cut entirely, or scale back significantly, the section I had to write the last time I applied explaining that the literary translation of poetry is often done by poets who are neither fluent nor literate in the source language–Ezra Pound, W. S. Merwin, and Adrienne Rich are three very well known examples. I wrote this section because the first time I submitted my previous sabbatical application it was rejected; the members of the college-wide Sabbatical Committee simply did not believe that I could produce the translations I said I was going to produce without being fluent and/or literate in Persian. (Interestingly, there were people from my own department on that committee who teach some of Ezra Pound’s translations from the Chinese in their literature classes and they did not know he made them based on someone else’s literal translations and notes.)
Reading over again the section I wrote to respond to that doubt and disbelief started me thinking about the reactions I’ve received from people in the Iranian community, literary and otherwise, and how they reveal the politics that are at stake in the work I’ve done–in terms both specific to the translation of classical Iranian poetry and to the project of translation in general. I’m going to list some of those reactions here, without comment, but there are a couple of things you should know before you read them. First, my wife is from Iran; second, while I am not literate in Persian, I understand the spoken language at what I would call an intermediate level and I can speak it as well, though not quite as well as I understand it.
- “Really,” she says after finding out that I’ve just published Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan, “you monolingual Westerners ought finally to get out of the way and let us bilingual Persians translate our own literature. Haven’t you done enough damage?”
- “Why do you call it Iranian literature?” he lectures me accusingly. “It’s written in Persian, and Persian literature was written in countries other than Iran, like India.”
- “Calling it Persian literature,” he wrote, “only perpetuates both British imperialism and its Orientalist perspective. The name of the country was and is Iran, and the Persian ethnic group in Iran is not the only one to produce Iranian literature. So Iranian literature is what you should call it.”
- For two years, every time she introduced me to her friends at a conference or a reading, she would say, “…and this is Richard Jeffrey Newman, who translates Persian literature even though he does not speak Persian.”
- I am not suggesting he doesn’t belong on our panel,” he writes in a pre-conference email exchange, “but if he doesn’t know Persian is he really a translator? I mean, can we call translation what people like Richard and Coleman Barks do?”
- “Let me tell you why I trust your translations and why I use them in my class,” she says. “Because you’re honest about what you’re doing, that you’re not fluent in Persian, that this limits the kind of research you can do. Neither Coleman Barks nor a Daniel Ladinsky are up front like that.
- “I know Golestan-e Saadi by heart,” he says after a reading, referring to my Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan. “I learned it from my father and I’ve been studying it my whole life. It’s remarkable how close your translations are [to the original], and you’re not Iranian and you’re not fluent in Persian. How did you do that?”
- “You’ve done important work. No one will dispute that,” he says after I’ve given a talk about Saadi, “but if you’re not Iranian, you can’t really understand Saadi.”
- “I used to be suspicious,” she wrote in an email, “of your love of all things Persian [referring in part to the fact that my wife is Iranian], but now that I’ve read what you’ve done [as editor of an Iranian literature special issue of Arte East Quarterly Magazine], I see there’s nothing to be suspicious about.”
- He is reading the list of the literary organization’s advisory board members. My name is on it. He asks the executive director who I am, and when she reminds him that we’ve met, that I have translated Saadi, he says, “Him? He’s on your board? The one who gets translation help from his wife?”
- And Now For Something Completely Different: Classical Iranian Poetry
- Translating Classical Iranian Poetry: Farid al-Din Attar
- Classical Iranian Poetry: A Very Personal Introduction to Ferdowsi's Shahnameh
- Two Appearances in Maryland: A poetry reading from "The Silence Of Men" and "Translation as Plagiarism as Cultural Transmission: How Benjamin Franklin Helped Bring Classical Iranian Literature Into English"
- Shab-e She'r: A Night of Persian Poetry