How I Ended up in Afghanistan: Thoughts on Fatalistic Translation BY Roger Sedarat

Welcome to the National Translation Month! It’s nice to be back to this project and see it develop into an annual celebration of poetry in translation. I hope you’ll enjoy the journeys on which we’ll take you this time around.

To get started, here is a short and moving essay by poet and translator Roger Sedarat who found unexpected significance in a recent translation gig.

And remember, in February and beyond: read, write, and share your favorite translated poems. The world lies open; take time to enjoy it.

—Claudia Serea & Loren Kleinman

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Once while bemoaning how I’ve yet to find “the” right thing to translate, acclaimed Hebrew translator Peter Cole explained to me that what I was meant to undertake would appear at the right time.

Having written a doctoral dissertation on psychoanalytic theory in graduate school, this made intuitive sense to me, akin to Jacques Lacan’s famous statement: “A letter always arrives at its destination.” Thus far in my translation career, my work on the verse of Hafez had felt like it had always been a part of me, though truth be told, I think almost any Iranian feels that way. My renderings of the 14th century master’s ghazals did end up teaching me how to write original English poems in the form, a mentorship of sorts that ultimately led to the writing of my collection, Ghazal Games (Ohio UP, 2011).

What has since transpired, however, has made me a firm believer in fatalistic forces. I would never have chosen the region of Afghanistan, nor for that matter to have crossed genres from poetry into nonfiction. Of the former, one day I got a call from an editor at Arthur A. Levine. She told me how Trent Reedy, a recently discharged U.S. Marine, had written a YA novel—Words in the Dust— based on the real life account of how his unit rescued a young girl whose mother, a teacher, had been killed by the Taliban. In the novel, he had included some of the masterful Persian poetry her mother had taught her, cutting and pasting rather florid 19th century translations of Ferdowsi and Jami found on the Internet into the narrative.

I was asked to retranslate the same excerpts from Persian. This unexpected gig, my translation dream job, proved especially significant for me. As an Iranian-American father of two young children, I feel especially terrible about US intervention in the Middle East. At my college, I’ve voluntarily designed undergraduate and graduate courses on Middle Eastern Literature in part to clear up stereotypical misconceptions of the region. Playing a small part in this well-written book allowed me a chance to see my translation have real social relevance, especially as I got to send a copy of the novel to my teenaged Iranian-American second cousin.

Recently, seemingly out of nowhere, an Iranian human rights lawyer contacted me, asking if I could translate a diary written by an Afghani child bride in an Iranian prison for murdering her husband. Mind you, I don’t profess to work in nonfiction. Even further, like a lot of writers aligned with academia and perhaps too corrupted by literary theory and criticism, I pride myself on exclusively undertaking “high art” devoid of sentimentality. Yet as I finish this project, I am regularly brought to tears over what she calls the prison of a cultural practice she could not bear to endure. Unable to attend high school, she is nevertheless an incredible writer. I’m told she will benefit from any money made from publication of her work, which gives me great incentive to complete the job.

Often we are told that the ideal translator forgets him or herself, becoming mere agency as much as possible. More and more I’m coming to believe this applies not just to the process of translation, but the process of allowing the fated translation project to arrive, like a letter, at its unexpected destination.

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Roger Sedarat is the author of two poetry collections: Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, which won Ohio UP’s 2007 Hollis Summers’ Prize, andGhazal Games (Ohio UP, 2011). His translations of classical and modern Persian verse have appeared in World Literature TodayDrunken Boat, and Asymptote. Current translation projects include a collection of ghazals by Hafez and a prison diary by an Afghani child bride. He teaches poetry and translation in the MFA Program at Queens College, City University of New York. You can contact him by clicking HERE.

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