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Behrooz Azabdaftari a
Islamic Azad University, Tabriz, Iran

Online Publication Date: 13 October 2005

To cite this Article Azabdaftari, Behrooz(2005)'PERSIAN LITERATURE IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION',Perspectives,13:2,91 — 98

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Behrooz Azabda�ari, Islamic Azad University, Tabriz, Iran
This article grew out of a class I taught, in 2003, for graduate students of Persian Literature.
In the course, I used classical and modern Persian texts and their English translations. This
approach revealed many semantic subtleties, structural oddities, and cultural differences between
the Farsi source texts and the English target texts, which pinpointed issues about translations
in relation to national literature. In the first part of this article, I discuss some general points
in translation with special reference to contrasting literary works and their English renditions.
I then illustrate how source messages, especially literary works, when passing through another
linguistic prism, will reveal some new, unwonted aspects of meaning and form that captivate
readers and help them find new facets in their interpretation of the text. By means of examples
in Farsi and English, it is shown how a juxtaposition of source texts with target texts is an
invaluable source of linguistic information and cultural illumination not only to target-language
audiences, but to source-language readers as well.

Key words: Farsi-English; ‘nativization’ (familiarisation), foreignization; contrasting

source text and translation; literary translation; form; content.

First, I shall address some considerations on translation that have a bearing
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on the topic, and then illustrate them by citing specimens of Persian literature in
English translation. The main point is that when a literary text is rendered into
another language, the process and the product o�en reveal semantic subtleties
that would have remained unnoticed if it had it not been translated. The target
language, in the case at hand, English, serves as a mirror by showing different
images of source texts that, in this case, have been composed by Persian
Essentially, this is not surprising because, having reciprocal effects, language
and thought reveal different realisations of their mutual interrelationships.
Ideas concerning linguistic relativity posit that the lexicon and structures of a
particular language tend to classify world realities along the lines it provides.
Passing through different linguistic prisms, verbal messages o�en reveal
different semantic colours and shapes. Farsi literature a�ired in English is no
Reading classical versified Farsi texts, interspersed with obsolete words,
and contrasting them with English translations, untangles many knots. Words
from one grammatical category in the source text are rendered by different
grammatical functions; homonyms with different meanings in Farsi are
rendered into English, each with a relevant lexis; Arabic words and expressions
that abound in Farsi, when translated into English, spare readers the problem
of a�empting to understand Arabic phrases; obsolete words are rendered
into current English words; and idiomatic Farsi expressions, with historical,
cultural, and mystical overtones, crystalise into definite images and concepts in
the minds of readers when they are rendered in English.

0907-676X/05/02/091-8 $20.00 © 2005 B. Azabda�ari

Perspectives: Studies in Translatology Vol. 13, No. 2, 2005
92 2005. Perspectives: Studies in Translatology. Volume 13: 2

General considerations
We are here concerned with literary translation, and in very general terms,
one might suggest that the ‘technical’ translator (for industry, science, law,
politics) most o�en has to deal with words and phenomena that represent
one-to-one relationships between form and meaning, i.e., an image-mirror
relationship. The meaning is not generally subject to the vagaries of the
translator. In literary texts, however, this tends to be different. The original
author’s message - especially so if removed in time from the translation - may
give rise to various interpretations by translators. It is true that preferably
there should be a personal affinity between authors and translators; otherwise,
translators are likely to go astray in the translation process if they fail to identify
with the author’s world view. Nevertheless, the personal interpretation cannot
be entirely disregarded, since few authors will be given complete control of the
Another pair of opposing strategies in Translation Studies is familiarisation
versus foreignisation (or nativisation versus denativisation) of a translation, either
of which may be deliberately or unconsciously applied by translators. To use the
example cited by Chukovsky, (1980: 245) French nineteenth century translators
considered themselves to be paragons of perfect and refined taste, so when,
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for example, Pushkin’s The Fountain at Backhchisaray (1824) was translated into
French, the translator was free to adjust and render the work so that it suited
his ideal of perfection. Thus, Jean-Marie Chopin entitled his translation The
Fountain of Tears (1852) and brought the Russian author to the French readership
by removing all alien elements. Conversely, Russian translators from the period
regarded their literary heritage as inferior to French literary tradition and were
thus totally dependent on source texts. In Batyushkov’s words, “the translator
obviously sought words and expressions by copying the French original literally
instead of finding his own words,” (as quoted in Chukovsky (1980: 250)). With
this approach, the Russian readership was taken to the French author, while
Russian translators with their self-effacing a�itude never ventured to overstep
the bounds set by French source text.1
The argument is relevant because no ma�er whether translators distance
themselves socially or culturally from – or identify with – the writer of the
source text, the translation will resound with subtle, yet audible, voices of
beliefs and values that may be different. Many Persian works of literature,
such as, Ferdowsi’s The Shahnameh (epic poetry), Sa’adi’s The Gulistan and The
Bustan, The Odes of Hafez, and The Rubayyat of Khayyam, have been translated
in different epochs by different translators and each translation has had its own
particular impact – and appeal.
The relationship is complex: through form, a poet defines a precise nuance
of feeling, but that which is thus made precise is something that comes to
pervade the whole poem ‘from beneath’ as it were. A poem, or any literary
artefact, therefore, cannot be both good in form and bad in content or vice-
versa: a weakness in one is bound to weaken the other. Translators cannot be
faithful to the content in the source language and ignore the form in the target
language. Indeed, most approaches in practical translation (not to mention most
publishers and readers) require that translations should sound more or less as
if the source text had been wri�en in the target language and that the translator
Azabda�ari. Persian Literature in English Translation. 93

is a stylistically invisible mediator.

Another relevant notion in principles of translation is that of centrifugal
and centripetal forces of language. Introduced in the context of translation by
Michael Bakhtin, the centrifugal force is the ability of the speaker-writer to
create semiotic systems, to invent new languages, and to express new feelings
and ideas. This creative force makes it possible for language to meet the
developing and changing needs of its users. But if it were unchecked, language
would change so rapidly that it would lose its social utility and people would
be incapable of communicating.
When the centrifugal force of language is at work, language functions prevail
over conventional linguistic rules mainly because a writer may say one thing
but imply something else, especially when he cannot voice his feelings about,
say, human dignity in a traditional, closed society. Much depends, therefore, on
the negotiation of meaning between the text producer and the translator as a
The centripetal force of language provides the counterbalance, contributing
to the stability of language. Language users in their social transactions need to
invent a new language, yet there is a centripetal force that balances the outward
thrust of personal meaning.
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To say it differently, in non-literary texts, which generally represent one-

to-one relationships between form and content, the directionality of the
reference is from the text to the outside, but with literature that relies heavily
on historical, cultural, and social factors, the progression of meaning is from the
outside into the text. The translator, therefore, has to infer what is le� untold
intentionally by the author of the source text, whatever the reasons. The main
contrast between the translation of literary texts vs non-literary texts is that,
due to the centrifugal force of language in literary texts, reaching out for the
original writer’s meaning is harder for translators of literary texts; sometimes
such meaning is, metaphorically speaking, like an iceberg with the larger part
of it lying beneath the writer’s systems of beliefs and values.

Farsi literary texts in English

This article was inspired by my personal experience of teaching English to
a class of graduate Iranian students at Islamic Azad University, Tabriz, in the
autumn semester of 2003. The course syllabus comprised Iranian literary poetry
and fiction, both classical and modern, by Iranian writers and translated by
foreign experts of Persian literature.
Among the texts were:

• Bozorg Alavi. 1947. The Prison Articles: A Literary Odyssey. Translated by

Donna Raffat. 1985.
• Behrooz Azabda�ari. 2002. Western Fables in Persian Literature.
• Forough Farrokhzad. 1955. Another Birth: Selected Poems. Translated by
H. Javadi and Susan Sallee.1981.
• Tales from Sa’adi’s The Gulistan. 656 A.H.; A.D. 1651. Translated by
Richard Burton. 1956.
• Morals Pointed and Tales Adorned. Poems from Sa’adi’s The Bustan.
Translated by G. M. Wickens. 1988.
94 2005. Perspectives: Studies in Translatology. Volume 13: 2

The course involved both Farsi and English versions. In studying these, I
noticed the numerous means that the translators used to convey the authors’
meaning, such as metaphors, similes, and metonymy. In the English translations,
I sometimes marvelled at seeing the reflection of messages in foreign a�ire;
sometimes I was taken aback at the oddity of the English expressions; sometimes
I would see the meaning of the Farsi text quite distinctly in English and enjoy
that much more the beauty. On few occasions, I would arrive at a different
interpretation from the one I had cherished in my own language, Farsi.
To the students, seeing the ‘same’ message in two different languages shed
light on socio-historical and cultural contrasts and provided them with insights
into the background of literary creation. On the following pages, I illustrate
some of these aspects, not in order to discuss them exhaustively in theoretical
terms, but in order to pass on to my readers some of the illuminating insights
my class and I gained from juxtaposing source texts with translations.

As such, there is nothing surprising about differences in ‘idioms’ (which is
an ill-defined category), but here we are concerned with them as proverbial
expressions, which are given below in English. These translated idioms evoke
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cultural overtones, which are appreciated all the more when compared with
their equivalents in Farsi:

Example 1:
English translation: The cowl does not make the monk.
Farsi source: ‫ونابدك تسا هعنقم زگ ود هب ينز ره هن‬/‫يرالاس يازس يهالك هب يرس ره هن‬
[Literally: Not every woman with a two-metre veil becomes a housewife. Or Not
every head with a hat deserves seniority.]

Example 2:
English translation: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
Farsi source: ‫وا رس نم و تسكش مخ بستحم‬
[Literally: The constable broke my jug (of wine) and I broke his head.]

Example 3:
English translation: You cannot serve God and Mammon.
Farsi source: ‫نتساوخ ار امرخ و ادخ‬
[Literally: To seek both the god and the date.]

Example 4:
English translation: Good wine needs no bush.
Farsi source: ‫ديوبب دوخ هك تسا نآ كشم‬، ‫ديوگب راّطع هكنآ هن‬
[Literally: It is the musk that smells, not what the apothecary claims.]

Example 5:
English translation: Homer sometimes nods.
Farsi source: ‫دروخيم يردنكس مه ردنكسا بسا‬
[Literally: The horse of Alexander also stumbles.]
Azabda�ari. Persian Literature in English Translation. 95

Example 6:
English translation: Any port in a storm.
Farsi source: ‫تسا باتفآ هريت بش رد هم‬
[Literally: The moon on a dark night is the sun.]

Structural peculiarities
The English translations of Persian also exhibited structural peculiarities of
interest, notably for contrastive studies:

English Farsi
A He knocked his head against the door a His head knocked against the door
B He sprained his ankle b His ankle sprained
C He has outgrown his suits c His suits have become small for him

To Farsi speakers, the grammatical structures of (A) and (B) imply that the
subject intentionally knocked his head against the door, or sprained his ankle,
which are grammatically unacceptable in Farsi (a & b). In (C), the subject is
central, in that he is too big for his suit; in Farsi (c), the reverse order of the
cognitive process is invoked, namely that the suit is small for the subject. In
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English, the subject is highlighted, whereas it is the object that demands the
reader’s a�ention in Farsi.

Anecdotes in translation
In order to clarify, I shall comment on some anecdotes in Gulistan, a Persian
classic by Sa’adi, an author who lived in the seventh century, A.D. The work
consists of eight sections; the first section is entitled ‘On the manners of kings’
and consists of 44 anecdotes. The seventh anecdote tells the story of a Persian
king and one of his slaves on a voyage. Never having been to sea before, the
slave was afraid of drowning and protested wildly.The king was displeased
with this and sought a solution. A philosopher who happened to be aboard
offered to help. He ordered that the slave should be thrown into the sea. The
slave went down several times; the people on board the ship caught him by his
hair and pulled him towards the ship; the man clung to the rudder with both
hands. When he was back on the ship, the slave calmed down. Amazed with
this successful outcome, the king asked the wise man for an explanation. The
philosopher replied, “Before he had tasted the calamity of being drowned, he
knew not the safety of the boat.” (Burton 1956: 22)
The slave’s experience is described as follows in the translation:

“The philosopher ordered the slave to be thrown into the water, so that he swallowed
some of it whereon he was caught and pulled by his hair to the boat, to the stern of
which he clung with both his hands.” ( Burton 1956: 22)

In Farsi it reads:

‫و دوب هديدن ار ايرد رگيد مالغ و تسشن يتشك رد يمجع يمالغ اب يهاشداپ‬
‫هدومزاين يتشك تنحم‬. ‫داتفوا شمادنا رب هزرل و داهن رد يراز و هيرگ‬. ‫هكنادنچ‬
‫دندرك تفطالم‬، ‫دوب صغنم وا زا كلم شيع و تفرگيمن مارآ‬، ‫دنتسنادن هراچ‬.
‫دوب يتشك نآ رد يميكح‬، ‫شماخ يقيرطب ار وا نم يهد نامرف رگا تفگ ار كلم‬
96 2005. Perspectives: Studies in Translatology. Volume 13: 2
‫منادرگ‬، ‫دشاب مرك و فطل تياغ تفگ‬. ‫دنتخادنا ايردب مالغ ات دومرفب‬. ‫دنچ يراب‬
‫دروخ هطوغ‬، ‫دندروآ يتشك شيپ و دنتفرگ شيوم‬، ‫يتشك ناكس رد تسد ودب‬
‫تخيوآ‬. ‫دمآرب نوچ‬، ‫تفاي رارق و تسشنب يا هشوگب‬. ‫هدمآ بجع ار كلم‬
‫و دوب هديشچان ندش هقرغ تنحم لوا زا تفگ هدوب تمكح هچ نيرد ديسرپ‬
‫تسناد يمن يتشك تمالس ردق‬. ‫يتبيصمب هك دناد يسك تيفاع ردق نينچمه‬
‫ديآ راتفرگ‬.

Readers of the Farsi text have a problem with comprehending the episode,
because the Farsi words pish and sokan each have more than one meaning: pish
means ‘front’ and ‘near’, and sokan refers to both ‘the rudder’ and ‘the helm’ of
the ship. The English translation enables readers to visualise that the slave in the
water is dragged to the stern of the ship, where he clutches the rudder (and not
the helm) of the ship.
The final words – or the point – of this anecdote, according to the Farsi
source, suggest that:

‫تسناد يمن يتشك تمالس ردق و دوب هديشچان ندش هقرغ تنحم لوا زا‬.

[Literally: “Already he (the slave) had not tasted the calamity of being
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drowned and knew not the safety of the boat.”]

The verb in this sentence in Farsi is given in the negative. The English
translation cited, however, is more difficult to understand since ‘before’ can be
either an adverb or a conjunction. It is only easily understood provided that the
word ‘before’ is considered a conjunction.
The 9th anecdote tells about a sickly Arab king. At the end of the story in Farsi,
we read the following concluding lines:

‫لجا تسد تفوكب تلحر سوك‬ ‫دينكب رس عادو ممشچ ود يا‬

‫وزاب و دعاس و تسد فك يا‬ ‫دينكب رگدكي عيدوت همه‬

The English translation:

The hand of fate has struck the drum of departure;

O my two eyes bid farewell to the head;
O palm, forearm of my hand,
All take leave from each other. (Burton 1956: 23)

In this case, it requires that the Farsi source text is juxtposed to the English
translation for readers to appreciate the beauty of expression. The English trans-
lation makes the image vivid and crystal clear in one’s mind.
I believe that the reason why the English translation raises audience
consciousness is that the form is so alien to readers that it triggers cognitive
processes whereby the content, carried through by means of the form, stands
This perhaps can be expanded upon as follows: the human mind tends to
skip familiar phenomena and pause over unfamiliar ones. Poetic language, for
example, appeals to our literary palate because in it we find deviant structures
Azabda�ari. Persian Literature in English Translation. 97

and unwonted language that capture our a�ention and enthrall us with new
images and meanings. This implies that efficient readers respond selectively to
textual information, focusing on content words and skipping function words.
Therefore, it is natural for Iranian readers to be sensitive to the semantic subtlet-
ies revealed through English translation, especially those that are unnoticed
when expressed by means of familiar Farsi words and sentence structures.
Another interesting point surfaces in a comparison of the Farsi and English
versions of the tenth anecdote. In Farsi, the following distich (here rendered in
its literal translation into English) does not make sense unless it is interpreted
as a question:

‫دياشخبن ناگ داتفا رب هكنآ دسرتن‬ ‫دريگن شسك ديآ رد ياپ ز رگ هك‬

[Won’t he who spares not the fallen panic when no one, should he fall, will hold his

The English translation goes as follows:

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Let him be afraid who spares not the fallen because if he falls no one will take hold of
his hand (Burton 1956: 23)

In the Farsi source, there is no question mark at the end of the verse. The
English translation presents the verse in the affirmative, which means that
readers are in no doubt about what the poet meant. The English verbal mirror
holds up a clear and transparent image to the readers’ eyes. The image in Farsi
seems reflected in ruffled waters, disfigured beyond recognition.
In yet another anecdote, the combination of words in the expression ‘silvery
arm’ in a Farsi verse sounds odd, yet when read in English, it is naturally
interpreted as “a powerless arm”. The expression ‘silvery arm’ is poetic in Farsi;
it lends itself to various interpretations, such as a beautiful, or shapely, or white
arm. It is in the English translation that readers appreciate that the Farsi author
was referring to the malleability of silver and meant ‘a weak arm’.
In short, when a language is observed through the linguistic prism of
another, this reveals novel aspects of meaning, just like the beautiful colours of
the spectrum are seen in a rainbow.
Literary transaction by means of translation deconstructs linguistic barriers,
strips messages of their structural veil, highlights common ideas and feelings,
and thus brings together the hearts and minds of humans from different
cultural and religious backgrounds, all of them joining in the chorus of the
Sa’adi refrain:

The sons of Adam are limbs of each other,

Having been created of one essence.
When the calamity of time affects some limb,
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If thou has no sympathy for the troubles of others,
Thou are unworthy to be called by the name of the man. (Burton 1956: 23)
98 2005. Perspectives: Studies in Translatology. Volume 13: 2

From a traditional Translation Studies point of view, I have only shown
that translators impose their own readings and interpretations on the texts
that they render into a target language (and that they may ‘correct’ features
in the process). Or, to put it in other words, the context and the situation of
verbal interactions undergo discoursal modification, structural reshaping, and
semantic elaboration as the message is transposed from one language into
another, hence giving rise to a new understanding of the source text. However,
this only applies in so far as we compare the target-language product with
the source-language product and, furthermore, argue that the source text can
only be interpreted in a limited number of ways, which can, furthermore, be
described in full detail by ‘competent scholars’ or whatever they are termed.
My argument in this article is that when juxtaposed to the source text a
translation may add to and indeed enrich the literary response of native-
language readers of the source text who can understand the target language.
This is a facet of translation that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been
pointed out before.
Literature is a form of discourse, and to impose regulation standards on it
is to destroy its character. The beauty of literary expression is to a large extent
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ascribable to hidden meaning and references that lie outside specific texts. In
order for readers (or translators) to appreciate these, they must be familiar
with historical, social, and cultural factors bearing on the intended meanings
of the original writers. Poetry in particular has a way of exploiting resources
in a language not codified as correct usage. Literature is creative rather than
expository discourse. This entails a dynamic process in which notions of
preordained meanings cannot be sustained. This process, I argue, may go well
beyond the point of the translation process and become part of the response
to the source text when the new dimensions of a translation are accessible to
source-text audiences.

1. I do not presume to speak Russian, but I quote Chukovsky because he drew a�ention
to the a�itude so early on and exemplified it.

Works cited and used

Alavi, Bozorg, 1985. The Prison Articles: A Literary Odyssey. Translated by Donna Raffat.
Syracuse University Press.
Azabda�ari, Behrooz. 2002. Western Fables in Persian Literature. Ketab-e Mah: Literature
and Philosophy # 49. 38-51.
Burton, Richard. 1956. From Sa’adi’s The Gulistan, 1651 (656 A.H.). In: Yohannan, John D.
1956. A Treasury of Asian Literature. New York: Mentor Books. 21-29.
Chukovsky, Kornei. 1980. The Art of Translation: A High Art. Translated and edited by
Lauren G. Leighton. Tennesee: University of Tennessee Press.
Farrokhzad, Forough. 1981. Another Birth: Selected Poems. Translated by H. Javadi and
Susan Sallee. Emeryville (California): Albany Press.
Wickens, G.M. 1988. Morals Pointed and Tales Adorned. Toronto: University of Toronto