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The Translator Relay: Sholeh Wolpé

By Jessie Chaffee

Image: Photo of Sholeh Wolpé by Bonnie Perkinson

WWB’s Translator Relay series is back! The Translator Relay features a new interview each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For June’s installment, Amaia Gabantxo passed the baton to Sholeh Wolpé, an Iranian-born poet, literary translator, and writer. Her publications include four collections of poetry, a play, three books of translations, and three anthologies. A semifinalist for the 2016 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and one of this year’s ten Centenary Stage Women Playwrights Series finalists, Wolpé is the recipient of the 2014 PEN/Heim, the 2013 Midwest Book Award, and the 2010 Lois Roth Persian Translation prize, among others. Her writings have been translated into eleven languages, and a collection of her poems in Spanish, Cómo Escribir una Canción de Amor, is forthcoming in Mexico and Spain. About her latest collection of poems, Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths, Shelf Awareness Magazine writes, “A gifted Iranian-American poet beautifully explores love and the loss of love, beauty, and war and the ghosts of the past.” Wolpé’s modern translation of The Conference of the Birds by the twelfth-century Iranian mystical poet Attar is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in 2017. She is based in Los Angeles.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I was born in Iran. I am a poet and writer fluent in Persian. But I write in English. I began translating poems by my fellow Iranians because I wanted the English-speaking world to see Iran through the eyes of its poets, not its politicians du jour, religious leaders, or the Western media.  I was pulled into translation after my first book of poems, The Scar Saloon, was released by Red Hen Press. At a conference, poet Galway Kinnell encouraged me to translate the iconic rebel poet of Iran, Forugh Farrokhzad, whom he had met many years ago in Iran. That was the beginning of my love affair with translation. I became a better poet because of it, and in turn a better translator as I practiced my craft as a poet and writer.

Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

I approach all poems as untranslatable. A poem’s metaphoric life force as well as its internal music cannot be transferred from one language to another. Instead the translator must recreate the experience.

I translate as a poet and always seek to recreate the complexity of the original poem in English. When a good poet uses a specific word with multiple meanings, it is usually intentional. For example, in a poem called “The Green Phantasm” in Sin—Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, the poet uses the word vahm to mean all its definitions in Persian—phantasm, imagining, illusion, groundless fear, apprehension, whimsy and figment. Clearly there is no single word in English that carries the same weight as the original. Luckily, the word is repeated several times in the poem. Therefore, I employed a different definition each time the word vahm was used.

When I was cotranslating Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (with poet Mohsen Emadi) into Persian for a project sponsored by the International Program at the University of Iowa, we came across many words and phrases that took hours to recreate linguistically and culturally in Persian. As you know, Whitman’s book-length poem consists of fifty-two sections, and we were translating one section per week, with audio recording.

The night before Christmas I went to bed thinking about “sluff of boot soles” in section eight. Whitman liked to make up words, and this was one of them. I was in regular correspondence with scholars Ed Folsom and Chris Merrill, so, forgetting it was Christmas Eve, I appealed to them for help.

I wrote, “My dear Ed and Chris, I don’t know how to translate ‘sluff of boot-soles’ in section eight, particularly if it is a sound. Help!!!”

Chris replied, “I have the feeling that Whitman’s coinage contains the idea of a snake sloughing off its skin, the image of a man shuffling down the street, and the sound of boots scraping the sidewalk. (Hass and Ebenkamp suggest that it is “pure onomatopoetic invention.”) Shuffle, shamble, scuff, scrape, soft-shoe, rub, skip, graze . . . Is it common to coin words in Persian? If so, then this may be such an occasion. Good luck!”

Ah, I thought. Good luck to me indeed.

Then came Ed’s answer. He wrote, “I've always heard Whitman's ‘sluff of bootsoles’ as his invention of the sound boots make as they slog through mud.  ‘Sluff’ is a phonetic spelling of ‘slough,’ which as a noun is a muddy bog, not unlike Manhattan sidewalks and streets in the mid-nineteenth century.  As a verb, ‘slough’ is to shed or cast off. So all those boots walking the muddy streets are continually taking on mud and shedding it off, all the while making a distinctive sound that echoes both the noun and the verb—the sluff of bootsoles.”

On Christmas Day, while kids jumped out of bed excited about the presents that Santa had left under the tree, I sprang out of bed excited about the idea I had woken up with. Still in my PJs, I dialed my cotranslator Mohsen on Skype. Just out of bed, his salt-and-pepper hair in a tangled mess, he watched his crazy poet friend, me, do a crazy dance before the computer camera, yelling: “I got it! I got it! Kelesh Kelesh. Kelesh Kelesh.”  That was the precise sound-translation of Whitman’s onomatopoetic invention. 

Later, Ed wrote: “Sluff Sluff Sluff: I hear it every time I witness someone walking through mud!  And now I’ll hear kelesh kelesh kelesh as well . . .”

Do you have any translating rituals? 

I am, first and foremost, a poet and a writer. I have come to translation via my own writing. Therefore, my rituals are that of a working writer. I like writing in the morning.  When I wake up, I prefer not to speak to anyone. I like to make my Italian-style espresso on the stove top. Then I sit with my coffee and notepad, and I write. If I am translating, I read the text I’m working on, making notes with a pencil on the margins.

For the actual work of translation, I prefer to be behind my desk in my writing studio, with my three gigantic monitors. Very high tech.

I can’t listen to music when I work. I have to hear the music of the poem in my head, and any other music would interfere with that and would be a distraction.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Persian and English are as different as sky and sea. The best I can do as a poet-translator is to create a reflection of one in the other. My translation becomes a re-creation that reflects the original, just as the sea can reflect the sky with its moving stars, shifting clouds, gestations of the moon and migrating birds—but ultimately the sea is not the sky. By nature, it is liquid. It ripples. There are waves. If you are a fish living in the sea, you can only understand the sky if its reflection becomes part of the water. That reflection is the translation.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

I am happy to say that my modern translation of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds will be published by W. W. Norton & Company early next year, in 2017.  Considered by Rumi to be “the master” of Sufi mystic poetry, Attar is best known for this magnificent epic poem, which is an allegorical tale about the soul’s search for meaning. The poem recounts the perilous journey of the world’s birds to the faraway peaks of Mount Qaf—a mythical mountain that wraps around the earth—in search of the mysterious Simurgh, their king. The story is peppered with beguiling anecdotes and humor that intermingles the sublime with the mundane, the spiritual with the worldly, and the religious with the metaphysical.

I am very excited about this book and have already been invited to share it at several major international festivals in 2017. What I love about this book is that it is superbly entertaining and a blueprint for peacebuilding through inner revolution.  

Amaia Gabantxo’s question: You’ve inhabited different countries for long periods of time. How have the different geographies in the map of your life (Iran, England, the Caribbean, California), your experiences of change and displacement, rooting and uprooting and rooting again, affected the writer and translator that you are today—your voice, what you have to say?

I was born at home in Tehran, Iran. My aunt, a midwife, sang me into this world. Perhaps that is why I love the music of languages. I used to roll the radio dial to the American station in Tehran, and just listen. I didn’t understand a lick of English, but I loved the music of the English language.

By age fourteen, I was already quite literate in literature. I recited poetry by heart, wrote stories as well as silly plays that I directed at the summer camp I attended each year. But then I was sent to Trinidad to live with my aunt. All of a sudden I was thrust into another language, another culture. Two years later, I was sent to a British boarding school. The English language in the UK had a different music, and was culturally different. Then I came to the US to attend university. Again, the music of the language changed. Water in British English, for example, does not sound anything like the way Americans pronounce it. Then there are differences in the definitions of some words. For example, a rubber in the UK means an eraser, but in the US it is a birth control item used by men. The spellings of words were different too. To this day, I spell words like “labor” as “labour” and am incessantly corrected by my iPhone and word processor. Indeed, I arrived at English language not once, but three times.

Therefore, the way I approach language may be a bit different from a monocultural or even bicultural translator. Perhaps it is apt to finish with one of my poems on the subject:

The Outsider

I know what it’s like to be an outsider, a kharejee.

I know how English sounds
when every word is only music.

I know how it feels not
to be American, English, or French.
Call them
            —Amrikayee, Ingleesee, Faransavi,
see them
            see me as alien, immigrant, Iranee.

But I’ve been here so long.
they may call me American,
        with an American husband
        and American children . . .

But mark this—I do not belong anywhere.
I have an accent in every language I speak.

Further Reading: Sholeh Wolpé’s translations of Forugh Farrokhzad’s poems “I Pity the Garden” and “Connection” in Words without Borders.

Published Jun 7, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

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