Thursday, October 19, 2006

The 29th Annual Conference of the American Literary Translator’s Association (ALTA)

I am sitting in my hotel room here in Seattle, listening to, of all things, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love” from Welcome to the Pleasure Dome (I have my iPod set to “shuffle), a few minutes away from heading back to the Hilton, where the ALTA conference is being held. I went to three panels today, each of which was interesting in its own right—and I will write about them in a moment—but what I am thinking about right now is what a friend of mine said about how old most of the conference participants seem to be. Jokingly, she pegged the median age at “What? Around, like, 70?” (She is, if I remember correctly, 40 or almost 40.) I have no idea how accurate her assessment is, but what she said made me wonder whether literary translation, which, in the United States, is an underappreciated art at best, is in danger of not attracting enough younger people to replenish the ranks of translators who are getting older and will eventually stop working. I don’t want to say more than that, because anything else I say would be pure and baseless conjecture. It is, however, what was going through my head as I tried on my walk back here to formulate what I wanted to say.

The first panel I went to this morning was called “Translating the Erotic Mode in Persian Poetry,” an unfortunately unerotic title, in my opinion, because, with the exception of the first talk, the panel dealt in very interesting and specific detail with the ways in which translation is an erotic practice. Neither of the presenters framed what they had to say in that way, but I think the subtext of what they had to say points in that direction.

The first talk, by Sholeh Wolpe, a poet about whose work David has written here on TGAP, dealt with two Iranian women poets: Tahirih (1814-1851) and Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967). Each woman was an iconoclast in her time, and each wrote poetry that was openly erotic. Sholeh began by reading two poems, one by each woman, and asking us to decide which poem was an expression of spiritual eroticism and which expressed carnal desire. Her point was that you couldn’t tell. Both poems could be read both ways. This introduction, I thought, augured well for the session, since it suggested that Sholeh was going to talk about the nature of each poet’s erotic language, and I would have been interested to hear her talk about the ways in which each woman broke, or didn’t break, with the male erotic tradition in the specifics of her language, and then say something about the challenges of translating that language effectively into English. Instead, though, Sholeh chose to give a more historical talk, focusing mostly on the details of Tahirih’s life, which was interesting in itself, since I, and I bet would be joined by most people outside of those who study Persian literature, knew nothing about this woman and I think it is always important to recover the voices and stories of women in history. Otherwise, it is more likely than not that those voices would be lost to us.

From the limited notes I was able to take, this is Tahirih’s story: She was the gifted daughter of a mullah who was quite open-minded for his time, and so he let her attend his classes, as long as she sat sequestered from his male students. Her father married her to a cousin who did not approve of her intellectual, creative and spiritual pursuits. She left this man—an extraordinary thing for a woman of her time to do—left her children as well, and became Eventually, she surpassed those students in intellectual achievements and became a Bábi, rising to become a leader of that religious sect. As the leader, she decided—because of the imminence of the coming of the Messiah—that the rules of the Quran no longer applied. To demonstrate this to her followers, she appeared before them unveiled, a transgressive act for which she was ultimately put to death by having a scarf stuffed down her throat till she suffocated. (An interesting note: She was not put to death as an apostate because, at the time, women were seen as so insignificant that, even if they declared themselves no longer to be Muslims, the attitude was that they simply did not know better. Rather Tahirih was put to death for violating the gender taboo of appearing unveiled in public. In other words, she was killed for being a woman.)

Forugh Farrokhzad, who was born more than a century after Tahirih, was also a woman who dared to write in ways deemed inappropriate for women by the male establishment, and it was remarkable how much like Tahinih’s work was the Farrokhzad poem that Sholeh read—a fact that, again, makes it too bad that Sholeh chose to focus more on the poets’ biographies than on the particulars of their work, especially since the next speaker, Mahmood Karimi-Hakkak, spoke very interestingly on some of the specific linguistic and cultural challenges of translation between Persian and English. The most interesting part of his paper was a taxonomy of erotic terms in Persian that pose difficulties for anyone translating either from Persian into English or from English into Persian. Some examples: The connotations of the Persian expression which means “to sleep together” do not necessarily include sex. As well, the expression in Persian which means “to share a bed” includes, by definition, not only sexual activity, but sexual activity of a short-term, one-night-stand nature. Those terms in English often carry precisely the opposite connotations.

More interestingly perhaps are the two Persian words “kardan” (to do) and “dadan” (to give) when used to talk about sexual intercourse. The “doer” is the one who penetrates; the “giver” is the one who is penetrated. In Persian, because the third person singular pronoun has no gender, it is impossible to tell whether the “giver” is male or female. (The “doer,” on the other hand, is always and by definition male.) More to the point—and I may be reconstructing this incorrectly—while we can say in English “She fucked him” or, to adhere more closely to the words in Persian, “She did him” (to mean “she fucked him”), that construction—if I have understood this correctly—is impossible to render in Persian. (I think that towards the end of his presentation, Karimi-Hakkak did mention a word that can be used for intercourse that does not distinguish between the penetrated and the penetrator, but it is, if I remember correctly, a recent coinage.)

This question of the gender-neutral third person pronoun in Persian also figured centrally in the next speaker’s paper. Bill Wolak talked about how, in classical Persian poetry, everything below the neck is pretty much invisible; it simply is not written about. What is eroticized, then, is everything above the neck: face, hair, eyes, eyebrows, etc. What is fascinating in classical Persian poetry is that the descriptions of physical beauty—“moon-faced,” for example—are used for both men and women. Unfortunately, I am looking at my notes and I realize that I must have gotten so caught up in the conversation that I did not write down what Bill said about this observation, so let me end here by posing one of the questions that this panel raised for me. It is one that preoccupies me quite a lot these days, and, in fact, the panel presentation that I will be giving tomorrow takes the question up from a slightly different angle: To the degree that sex is about the body, the way we talk about sex is a way of talking about what bodies are for in a very literal sense. So, for example, if we talk about sex as being only or primarily about reproduction, bodies are there to reproduce and to be reproduced. While if we talk about sex as being about enjoyment, then bodies are there to be enjoyed. It would be fascinating to push this consideration of how to translate the eroticism of one language/culture into another into a consideration of the cultural construction of the body in each culture, to get at an even deeper level of significance.

Also posted on my blog.

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