Translating Iranian Fiction: An Interview with Sara Khalili

For me, the most valuable gift of my long-term working relationship with Shahriar is the trust that has developed between us.

Sara Khalili is one of a handful of translators bringing contemporary Persian literature to English readers today. Her translations include works by Shahriar Mandanipour and Goli Taraghi, among others. After several years of reading her translations and communicating with her via email, I finally met her a few months ago at a PEN World Voices event in which she was interpreting for Hossein Abkenar, another Iranian author she translates. Meeting Sara was, for me, like meeting a kindred spirit; she has a calming presence and, as with many literary translators, one can feel how this is a labor of love for her. Following the publication of Moon Brow, a novel by Mandanipour that came out with Restless Books in April 2018, we conducted this interview. She speaks to us about the peculiarities of working with Mandanipour and the larger context of her work as a translator from Persian.

Poupeh Missaghi (PM): Will you share with our readers the story of how you became a translator? And what has been the biggest reward for you as a translator?

Sara Khalili (SK): Most literary translators will tell you that their work is a labor of love. It is the same for me. I get great satisfaction from working on literature. And being deeply proud of my heritage and culture, I find it gratifying and rewarding that in my own small way I am helping introduce the literary art of Iran to an English reading audience.

By trade and training I am a financial journalist and worked in my field for many years. I only thought about translation on occasions when the late Karim Emami would tell me that I was wasting my time, that I should just quit my job and translate literature, that I had a flair for it. Karim, a dear friend and a close relative, was one of the most eminent Persian literary translators, as well as a renowned editor and literary critic. Our back and forth banter went on for several years until in 2004 he called to tell me that PEN was publishing an anthology of contemporary Iranian literature and that I should work with him on the short story he had been asked to translate. As we worked on that story, Karim guided me and educated me on the art of literary translation. I was hooked.

Several weeks later, the editor of the anthology, Nahid Mozaffari, asked if I would translate a few more stories on my own. Of course, I would!

By the way, among them was “Shatter the Stone Tooth” by Shahriar Mandanipour. It was the first time his work was published in English.

PM: Shahriar Mandanipour’s most recent book Moon Brow is a book of multiple layers and points of view. What was your biggest challenge in translating the work?

SK: Shahriar’s prose is always a challenge to translate. In Moon Brow, several elements made this challenge even greater. The inner reflections of the protagonist (Amir) were particularly difficult as they are the shattered and chaotic thoughts and memories coursing through the often-fevered mind of a shellshock victim, and in many instances Shahriar has written these as poetry in prose or complicated plays on words and language. Capturing their essence and retaining the nuance, structure, and meter of Shahriar’s compositions in English was difficult. One example of this is the novel’s two-part prologue, which needed to be unraveled, translated, and then re-raveled into its original form.

Another twist was that the novel has two narrators—the angel scribes on Amir’s right and left shoulders—each of whom have their own distinct personality and manner of speech. One is refined and poetic, the other bold and brash. It is their tone and language that sets them apart, and this had to come through in the translation clearly and seamlessly.

PM: How was translating this new work different, or not, from translating Shahriar’s previous work, Censoring an Iranian Love Story? Now that you have had a longer-term author-translator relationship and thus come to know his style better, how did you two work on the translation? Can you speak a bit about the specifics and benefits of such long-term collaboration?

SK: Shahriar and I worked in tandem on both Censoring an Iranian Love Story and Moon Brow. I translated as he wrote. It certainly was not the conventional way of going about it. But despite its complications, the feeling of being in the trenches together created a much greater sense of collaboration between us.

The most palpable difference in my experience with Moon Brow was that by then we knew each other much better and I felt more confident in my understanding and interpretation of his style, his language, and the underlying intent in his prose. I was also less daunted by his intricate constructs. Peeling away the layers and disentangling the webs he weaves had become somewhat easier.

For me, the most valuable gift of my long-term working relationship with Shahriar is the trust that has developed between us. In our case, this trust is even more imperative because neither Censoring nor Moon Brow have ever been published in their original Persian, and all translations into other languages are based on my English rendition. This makes the stakes much higher for Shahriar as the writer, and the weight of the responsibility much greater for me as the translator.

I think today as Shahriar writes, he is less worried whether I can recreate his work in English. And I translate feeling less anxious of whether I am doing his work justice.

Of course, we still have our long discussions and occasional arguments, but each in our own way, we have more confidence and faith in the other’s work, in the choices and decisions that the other makes.

PM: You have also translated other works of fiction by Iranian authors, including Goli Taraghi and Yaghoub Yadali, as well as poetry by Forough Farrokhzad, Simin Behbahani, and others. Can you tell us about your relationship to the translation of prose versus poetry? Which one do you feel more at home with? What are some of the joys of doing each for you?  

SK: I am, without a doubt, more drawn to prose. The last volume of poetry I translated was in 2009. To be honest, I can’t really explain why or what it is about prose that appeals to me more. And anything I say would simply be for the sake of having said something.

I just love a good story, written well.

PM: You have also worked as an editor curating special features on Iranian literature in different journals. What are some of the main characteristics of contemporary Iranian literature that you find engaging?

SK: There are some very talented young Iranian writers producing wonderful works of literature. The revolution and the weight of the eight-year war with Iraq has changed the way they observe the world around them. In recent years, there has been a detachment from traditional beliefs and ideological literature and greater interest in experimenting with form and language.

This generation of writers delves into new social issues and revisits old ones that were often not openly examined. New genres have emerged. One of the more interesting ones, for instance, is the new style of short story writing that has come to be known as “apartment stories”. The common thread is that they occur in the confines of apartments or apartment buildings, perhaps shielded from the topics, themes, and elements beyond those walls that might subject the story and the writer to scrutiny and censorship.

One of the greatest changes in today’s literature is the way women’s images are being redefined and rethought. Of course, much of this has to do with the growing presence of young women writers on the literary scene, with a great deal of variety in the genres and themes of their works. One striking feature in their writing is the representation of domesticity and how they observe themselves in the settings of the home, the society, and the country.

PM: What kind of challenges have you faced in bringing works by Iranian authors to an English-language readership? Do you consider the task of a translator from Persian to be of more significance these days because of the socio-political conditions of our times?

SK: Unlike the art of the cinema that has managed to survive and thrive in Iran since the revolution, literature has been more exposed to, and a victim of, the socio-political dynamics inside the country. Writers continue to struggle with arbitrary censorship, repression, and intimidation. Yet, they continue to defy the system and create vibrant, exciting works. Unfortunately, very little of what they produce is available in translation and even fewer of these reach mainstream audiences in the West.

As a translator, my greatest challenge is finding interested publishers. A very small percentage of books published in the US are works of literature in translation. And a majority of these are by established European and Latin American writers. This leaves very little room for as-yet-unknown writers from countries such as Iran. Compounding this is the scarcity of skilled literary translators of Persian fiction and poetry.

That said, I don’t find my role, or that of any other translator from Persian, to be any more or less significant today than it was ten or twenty or thirty years ago. The unfavorable socio-political conditions, inside and outside Iran, have been present for four decades. They just tend to ebb and flow, from bad to worse and back.

Sara Khalili is an editor and translator of contemporary Iranian literature. Her translations include Moon Brow and Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons by Goli Taraghi, The Book of Fate by Parinoush Saniee, Kissing the Sword by Shahrnush Parsipur, and Rituals of Restlessness by Yaghoub Yadali. She has also translated several volumes of poetry by Forough Farrokhzad, Simin Behbahani, Siavash Kasraii, and Fereydoon Moshiri. Her short story translations have appeared in AGNI, The Kenyon Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, EPOCH, GRANTA, Words Without Borders, The Literary Review, and PEN America, among others.

Poupeh Missaghi is Asymptote’s Iran editor-at-large. She holds a Ph.D. in creative writing and an M.A. in translation studies, and currently teaches as a visiting assistant professor at the creative writing program of Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. Her nonfiction, fiction, and translations have been published in CatapultEntropyThe Brooklyn RailThe Feminist WireWorld Literature TodayGuernicaThe Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. Her first book, trans(re)lating house one, is upcoming from Coffee House Press in the fall of 2019.


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