Translating a work of literature from one language to another is an art form, in which the translated work becomes a "conduit" through which the reader of one language may pass into the cultural world of another. For the translator, the process of translation offers an intimate experience of the text that is perhaps unavailable even to the author. And yet, as M. R. Ghanoonparvar observes at the outset of this book, "every translation is inevitably a failure, with occasional moments of success."
In Translating the Garden, Ghanoonparvar allows readers to watch him in the process of translating Shahrokh Meskub's Goftogu dar Bagh (Dialogue in the Garden) from Persian into English. This short philosophical work uses a conversation between a writer and a painter to explore Persian perceptions of art, literature, nature, identity, and spirituality. As he translates the text, Ghanoonparvar discusses the myriad decisions that a literary translator faces, from word choices to the problems of conveying cultural concepts and deciphering authorial intent. He also compares some of his translated passages with those of other translators to highlight the uniqueness of each act of translation. The complete English translation of Dialogue in the Garden rounds out the volume.
1. Invitation to the Garden
2. Renditions of the Garden
3. Reflections of the Garden
4. Artificial Paradise
5. The Garden of the Soul
6. The Garden in Exile
Dialogue in the Garden
This is not a book about translation, nor is it a book about translating. But it is in some ways about both. Neither is it a book of translation, though it is. And this is not a book about literary criticism or a book of literary criticism, though in a way it is both. In the same vein, this is not a book about translators, or me as a translator, nor is it a book about translation theory, though its core may be a theory or theoretical.
My argument, at least the "logic" of my argument, may stem from my Moslem roots and some of the ideas and notions with which I was inculcated as a child and adolescent. Islam, I was told, began with a negation: "la elaha ell-Allah" [there is no God but God]. First it negates, then it asserts. And in a sense, now that I have stated what this book is not or may not be about, I can say that it is about the act of translating, the actual process of translating, the personal experience of the translator with a literary text, the intimate relationship of the translator with a literary text, the intimate relationship that is established between the translator and the text, the unfolding of the text in the process of translating, all of which, I contend, results in a close, critical reading of a literary text that may not be, in fact is not, possible for even the most careful reader, perhaps not even the creator of the text. For another person to have a similar experience, he or she must also undergo the same process of translating, which would not be the same, but a different, albeit similar, experience of the text.
My attempt in this book is twofold. As have most academics in the field of comparative literature, I have worn different hats, so to speak, as a teacher, literary critic, and translator, among others. In a sense, this book is an attempt to combine these diverse roles (which in daily academic life are in fact combined and intertwined) and to examine, or rather to practice in writing, the ways in which the translator in me helps the literary critic, and vice versa, while both help me as a teacher to communicate my understanding and experiences of literature to my students. Secondly, in light of the claim that the experience of a translator with a literary text is unique in the process of translating, an experience which is elusive to readers of the completed translations (including the translator), I attempt in this book to record one single experience of the translating process, with the hope of inviting the reader to look over my shoulder, as it were, to observe the process and the act of translating and thereby to participate in this act of close reading and production of meaning. I also hope to show how and why in practice every translation is inevitably a failure, with occasional moments of success.
For this experiment, I have chosen a relatively short Persian-language work of only about ninety pages, titled Goftogu dar Bagh [Dialogue in the Garden], by Shahrokh Meskob. As I translate this text, I try to record at least parts of my own "dialogue" with the text, although I am quite aware that it is at most a partial record of one translator's, or reader's, interaction with one literary text. As any translator would concede, translating, especially literary translation, is not just the act of rendering words, phrases, and sentences from one language to another; rather, it involves the translating or transmitting of culture. A metaphor often used for the translator is that of a conduit, which is somewhat deceptive yet accurate, if we take into account that the essential components of the conduit—in other words, the cultural and educational background and all that contributes to the intellectual and emotional composition of the translator—affect the material that is transmitted through this conduit. In the course of the present exercise, I also try to describe, as much as is pertinent, the key components of this conduit.
The chapters that follow are more or less arbitrarily divided. While in the first chapter I record an instance of group translation of a small portion of Dialogue in the Garden, the text I translate dictates the content of other chapters. Dialogue in the Garden appears deceptively simple, but it is a culturally complex work. Using the format of a conversation between a writer and a painter, Meskob delves into the Persian psyche and explores Persian perceptions of art, literature, nature, identity, spirituality, and the world in general. It follows that the act of translating this work inevitably represents an exploration of my own perception of these concepts in the context of Meskub's exploration of the Iranian psyche. In the epilogue, in addition to discussing the relationship between reading and translating in general, I also address issues of particular interest to translators, such as editing and decision making, after the process of translating ends.
With the exception of Persian terms and names that have standardized English spellings, the transliteration of all Persian words and names is based on Persian pronunciation.
M. R. Ghanoonparvar is Professor of Persian and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin.
"This is a practical, stimulating, and enjoyable book—a primer for translators and a behind-the-scenes guide for the general reader of literature in translation. It reads like a novel."
—Franklin Lewis, Emory University, author of Rumi: Past and Present, East and West