Reading “The Stranger” in Tehran: An Interview with Mohammad Hekmat

The preface shows that he was familiar with other works by Camus as well. Nevertheless, it became the cornerstone for Camus’s presence in the literary scene in Iran. Most certainly, yes. Let me give you two. We ended up getting it published in Afghanistan, because they share the same language but don’t have censorship, at least for now. After we submitted the book, we were asked to modify many things. At that point, I decided not to publish it in Iran. There have been numerous efforts to invent new words, many of which have been successfully adopted, but it’s an ongoing process. MOHAMMAD HEKMAT: Camus has been a popular figure in Iran and has a long history there. If there is copyright, the books cannot be censored the way they are now. So, should we celebrate or condemn this state of affairs? ¤
ROBERT ZARETSKY: Did personal reasons lead to your decision to translate a work on Camus? I have even seen some translators welcome the news that the books they’re working on are also being translated by others, because they see it as a sign that the book is worthy of attention and feel that multiple translations can serve as some sort of publicity. He specifically mentions in his preface that Camus is not “an ordinary writer, who, in order to entertain his readers, follows the typical recipe of a man falling in love with a woman and creates obstacles in their way to increase the page count.”
Seems like someone ought to write a book titled Reading The Stranger in Tehran! There is no direct translation of the word absurd into Persian. A couple of times, both before and after the Islamic Revolution, there have been discussions on complying with international copyright laws. (He attributes this sideline to his mother, a literature teacher in Tehran who filled their house with novels translated from various foreign languages.) Among the works he has translated are Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, and, most recently, Robert Zaretsky’s Albert Camus: Elements of a Life. For example, there is a part where Barnes talks about what books each of the four friends read, or when Tony is showing his record collection to Veronica. If you go to an Iranian bookstore, you’ll be surprised by the variety of books on the shelves, but many of them have been heavily censored. What were those modifications like? I checked Persian Wikipedia today: it lists nine translations of The Stranger, four translations of The Plague, five translations of The Fall, and, according to the National Library, there are many more. I had to add a whole section in the end explaining some of them to the reader. While working as an engineer, Hekmat moonlights as an English-to-Farsi literary translator. Or perhaps you haven’t let him go that far yet?” This was translated as: “So, Veronica, don’t forget the scabbard.” And “If she hasn’t let you Go All the Way yet, I suggest you break up with her, and she’ll be round your place with sodden knickers and a three-pack, eager to give it away” is translated as: “If she hasn’t let you finish the job, I suggest that you break up with her and she will come round, eager, and will let you finish.” These modifications, in my opinion, have greatly altered the tone of Tony’s letter and totally ruined its   spirit. Well, if you are drawing a parallel with Reading Lolita in Tehran, I would say yes — but there is an important difference: Lolita has been banned in Iran for a variety of reasons, but The Stranger has always been available; in that sense, the story line will inevitably be different from Azar Nafisi’s book. First, in Persian, the verb comes at the very end of the sentence. Sadly, some of the fervent opponents were writers and translators who feared that abiding by copyright laws would make books too expensive and would hurt the readers. From what I can tell, one moves from the austere and unbending world of censors to the wild and nearly lawless state of translating and publishing other people’s books. Well, Iranians, like many other Eastern cultures, are extremely reserved when it comes to talking about intimacy and sex. In English, the reader knows the ultimate action from the beginning, while in Persian, this can be extremely confusing, and most of the time such sentences need to be split up. Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s market is very small and, unlike Lolita, Barnes’s novel didn’t get smuggled to Iran. Are these difficulties only linguistic, or are there philosophical and political challenges as well? How did you go about it? Politically, I don’t think there has been any issue with Camus. A good part of the book is set in the ’60s, with a lot of references to pop art, musicians, and writers from that period. Censorship plays a role here too. It came out with Zaryab, the same publishing house that had earlier released the uncensored version of Lolita. MARCH 15, 2017

A NATIVE-BORN IRANIAN, Mohammad Hekmat came to the United States in 2005 to pursue graduate studies in electrical engineering, eventually graduating with a PhD from Stanford in 2010. ¤
Rob Zaretsky is   LARB’s history editor. In a brief preface, Al-e-Ahmad praises Camus’s treatment of death and the concept of the absurd. Over time, the experience of countries similar to Iran — like Turkey — has shown that this will not be the case, but there is still paranoia about it. I was at a talk by Colm Tóibín a while ago, where he discussed censorship in Ireland in the ’60s and ’70s, and how the practice was gradually abandoned as Ireland became more connected to the rest of the world, mostly through trade and the pressure from the WTO. Reading The Stranger in Tehran? There are, of course, general linguistic difficulties involved in translating English into Persian. We have some notable writers who could have been successful internationally, but most international publishers don’t want to deal with Iran, because there is no law to protect them. This has created chaos in publishing. To give you one example, consider Tony’s line: “So keep rolling the Durex onto his spindly cock, Veronica. Having said that, Iranian writers and translators have been quite creative in circumventing these limitations through careful word choice. What are the pleasures and difficulties in translating Camus into Farsi? His more philosophical works have been much harder to translate. Camus’s style of writing and the fundamental questions he asks resonate very well with Iranian readers. In this interview with Robert Zaretsky, Hekmat reflects on Camus and on the linguistic, legal, and cultural challenges facing translators in Iran. Despite all the efforts in the past 100 years, there is still a long way to go, because it’s not just the Persian language, it’s also the conservative nature of Iranian society, which still makes certain things taboo. Most notably, the first translation of The Stranger was by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, a leading leftist intellectual, essayist, novelist, and short-story writer who had a fairly limited familiarity with the French language; he translated the book with the help of another Iranian intellectual, Ali Asghar Khebrehzadeh. I read The Sense of an Ending shortly after it won the Booker Prize and I really liked its themes and style. This was not the best translation, and, in my opinion, missed some major style elements in Camus’s writing. From what you’ve told me in previous exchanges, there is also the matter of copyright laws in Iran. I’m hoping that the same thing will happen in Iran. Some months later, when I was in Iran and looked for Julian Barnes’s work in Persian, I found, to my surprise, that there was none. I have seen different approaches by Iranian translators — some even just use the transliteration of the word. When I translated The Sense of an Ending, I felt a little anxious, because it was Julian Barnes’s first book to appear in Persian and I wasn’t quite sure what the reaction would be. And so it remained somewhat unseen until another Iranian translator published it in Iran with modifications; that became a huge success and prompted the translation of Barnes’s other books. Can you cite specific passages in Barnes’s novel that were especially sensitive? Socially taboo things such as explicit sex scenes, homosexuality, and certain forms of infidelity are not allowed — or, if allowed, are heavily toned down. Still, one can certainly make a case for The Stranger based on its popularity and the impact Camus has had on the intellectual movements in Iran. The Persian language has a very long literary tradition, but it’s almost entirely poetic. In addition to that, all books in Iran need to be approved by the Ministry of Culture. For example, there is Tony’s letter to Adrian and Veronica, with its extremely offensive tone and profanity. Linguistically, the difficulty is in certain terms that he uses. Are there many other Iranians who might share those reasons? Second, Persian is completely genderless, so there is no notion of “he” or “she.” Translations of “He saw her” and “She saw him” would be identical, unless the names of the characters are repeated, or if “he” is replaced with “the man” and “she” with “the woman.” Either way, it can be repetitive and unattractively long. An ordinary sex scene, if translated into Persian, can either sound too poetic or extremely vulgar. It’s the culmination of Barnes’s experiments with different genres. In my opinion, this is an extremely unfair practice and has in fact damaged Iranian literature. With Camus, the style of writing is rather simple and terse, especially in his novels, which I believe can be worked out fairly easily in translation into Persian. What about Barnes? I believe this will eventually be resolved, but there is a long way to go. He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston. There is no evidence that he viewed Camus as an apologist for imperialism, and I doubt he had read O’Brien’s book, which was published in Iran shortly after Al-e-Ahmad’s untimely death. I tried to read The Myth of Sisyphus in Persian, and it’s extremely hard to understand. What drew Al-e-Ahmad to The Stranger? I, too, was exposed to Camus first through The Stranger, and instantly became a fan. He mostly saw Camus as a new voice in French literature. Perhaps the most difficult term, which I have seen other translators struggle with too, is the word absurd. These references, which are easily understood in most Western countries, are not as easily recognized by Persian readers. The modern novel was not introduced to Iranians until perhaps a little over 100 years ago, so part of the difficulty of translating Western novels is simply a lack of tradition — somewhat similar to what I mentioned about the difficulty of translating philosophical texts. It’s always nice to know a priori that the subject is of interest to the readers. It is unimaginable to publish Lolita in its entirety in Iran. Are the cultural differences as daunting? That is how I decided to translate The Sense of an Ending. In poetry, intimacy and lovemaking are used almost strictly for mystical allegories where the beloved typically represents a transcendental entity. Not surprisingly, the early translations were by left-wing writers and translators. The cultural context is also important. Julian Barnes’s latest book, The Noise of Time, was simultaneously released by three publishers without the writer’s knowledge. This has been a general issue with translation of modern and Western philosophy into Persian. The lack of copyright laws has effectively put Iranian literature in isolation from the rest of the world. The Sense of an Ending is a remarkable novel, one haunted by Barnes’s own preoccupation with death, as well as the puzzles that other human beings — especially those closest to us — pose to our understanding. Yes, unfortunately, Iran is among very few countries that hasn’t joined the Berne Convention. Did his view dovetail with, say, those of Edward Said and Conor Cruise O’Brien, who saw the novel as the work of a well-meaning but unknowing apologist for French imperialism? This makes translating nested sentences, which are so easily formed in English by way, for example, of participial phrases, very difficult. Even his political views aligned with the state of politics in Iran. The language just doesn’t exist. On the one hand, we have the typical Julian Barnes, with his sharp-tongued prose and sense of humor, while on the other, the book reads like detective fiction, reminiscent of the early novels he wrote under the penname Dan Kavanagh. The Stranger was first translated into Persian in the early 1950s and many of his other works quickly followed. His most recent book is   Boswell’s Enlightenment, and his   A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning   was published by Harvard in November 2013 and recently reissued in paperback. You often see best sellers being published by multiple publishers. His novels focus on fundamental questions that transcend day-to-day politics. There is simply a shortage of terms, and the style had no tradition. Most notably, his opposition to Nazis and communism might have very well resonated with the political sentiment in Iran both before and after the 1979 Revolution.