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Ali Alizadeh on translation, post-modernism and faith

Posted by Sarah, 6th September 2012

Ali Alizadeh
Ali Alizadeh

To celebrate the publication of Six Vowels and Twenty Three Consonants last month I recently spoke with one off its editors Ali Alizadeh about his and John Kinsella's collaborative process

You and John Kinsella make a great partnership in the book: you introducing both sections of the book with useful and succinct overviews of Persian poetry and John providing the fascinating introduction to your collaborative process. Can you share a little about the collaboration from your perspective?

A: This has been by far the most involved and stimulating collaboration I've worked on, not only due to its size and scope, but also because of the intricacy and complexity of the individual pieces included in our project.

Selecting and translating poems from a literary tradition of such depth and breath of aesthetic variety and divergence required quite a bit of research and discussion between John and I; and once we had chosen the pieces that we would include in the anthology, we set about turning my initial literal English translations (often in the form of prose/paragraphs) into English poems that very closely aesthetically resembled the original Farsi texts. This required quite a bit of fine-tuning at times, and very detailed work on individual lines and phrases. I feel I've learnt a lot from working so closely with John and observing his poetics in action, and I hope our versions are both effective as new, English-language poems and also quite similar and faithful to the Farsi originals.

How do you ensure you keep the voices of each poet distinct when you're translating so many different poets?

A: This was something that was integrated into our work at a specific stage of our translation process. After my sending John my initial, rather clunky but linguistically correct prose glosses, he would ask me to describe to him the specific aesthetic qualities of the original Farsi texts, e.g. the rhyme schemes, the sound devices, the lexical choices -- in short, elements that give the poems their individual voices.

Very occasionally, I provided John with what I thought of as a relevant fact or facet of a particular poet's personality/persona, to help him imagine the piece's authorial voice, if need be. (E.g. by suggesting that Nima Yushij is something of an Iranian Ezra Pound.) But I'm not sure how much influence that sort of observation had on our work.

And what, if any, specific difficulties did you encounter within the translations themselves?

A: For me, the desire to present the poems as faithfully as possible whilst also making them accessible to a contemporary (Anglophone) reader was quite a challenge. To write a modern English piece inspired by or loosely based on a classical non-English piece is one thing -- e.g. Coleman Bark's versions of Rumi -- but to do what we had in mind, that is, to attempt to present as accurate and as engaging a selection of Persian poetry as possible, is something else entirely. My desire for accuracy and faithfulness to the originals has nothing whatsoever to do with a sense of ethnic pride or anything of the sort -- having lived in Australia for over 20 years, I don't consider myself an Iranian and have no patriotic feelings towards Iran or its culture -- but it's what I see as my duty as a serious artist and also as an academic.

I also struggled with the religious/mystical aspects of many of the poems. I'm a rather staunch atheist with no desire in propagating anything to do with any religion, so I did find it difficult to spend so much time and energy on poems with ostensibly Islamic doxa or implications.

You highlight the persecution of many of the poets included in the anthology. The modern section continues that political emphasis within the poetry. How important a force for action is poetry today within Iran?

A: Certainly not as important as it was in early-mid 20th century, when poets were some of the most outspoken political activists. The opposition to the mullahs and theocrats of today is rather intellectually and artistically weak and ineffectual, perhaps in keeping with our 'postmodern condition', according to which all political commitments, including those displayed by artists, are viewed suspiciously and seen as 'preachy'. So, to the best of my understanding, there's as much opposition to political poetry in today's Iran as there is in the West.

I blame postmodernism -- the selfish obsessions with bodies, food, fashion, gadgets, etc -- more so than state oppression. Who needs a cruel, censorious despot when the poets are too busy being 'ironic' and 'innovative' to speak out against injustice?

What triggerd this project? Why now?

A: It was really John's idea, if I remember it correctly. He suggested that we work on an anthology of Persian poetry together -- after I had contributed to a Singaporean-Australian anthology that he had just edited with Alvin Pang -- and I felt that it was an amazing opportunity to work with one of Australia's best and most politically committed poets. As for why we have produced this anthology now, I suppose, for me personally, this was something that I felt I needed to do as part of my development as a poet.

I genuinely love classical poetry, so reading and translating so much medieval verse was something that I was really interested to do -- this was almost immediately after my completing my PhD work, which had included research on Dante and Christine de Pizan, among others. I also think that we -- by which I mean all poets, readers, etc -- are now finally starting to get over the blight of postmodernism, and I think reviving -- or, in philosopher Alain Badiou's sense, 'resurrecting' -- the great radical poetry of the past is a step in the direction of revitalising an engaged, oppositional poetic, which is precisely what the world needs now.