Monday, 11 February 2013

Persian Poetry: The Bodleian Library...and a Yellow Stocking

At the beginning of January, I spent the day in Oxford with a visiting friend. I have been to Oxford several times - a few times as a tourist, and also for work - but it is always worth re-visiting. We took a tour of the Bodleian Library which involved malfunctioning headsets and (more excitingly) an unusual surprise visit to the Radcliffe Camera. (It is very round, and I got into trouble for taking a flash picture.) Also, my German friend spotted a German actor (famous in Germany) who happened to be in the beautiful Divinity School at the same moment when we were there. This was pretty funny because of course I would never have known who he was.

We also went to the free Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond exhibition, which will run until April 2013. This is a display of Persian manuscripts from the 11th century onward, with a strong focus on poetry. My friend was interested in this because she has been learning Iranian; I was interested because of the poetry. The poets featured included the world-famous (and popular in modern times) Rumi and Hafiz, and I enjoyed seeing how outstandingly important poetry has been in Persian culture: probably the pre-eminent art form.

This came back to me again when, a few weeks ago, I went to one of the Poetry Translation Centre's translation workshops. At these workshops, poets, writers, linguists and others get together to attempt what is best described as translation by committee, of a poet from Africa, Asia or Latin America, who may not have been previously translated into English.

It turns out that translation by committee is not nearly as terrible as it sounds. It is quite a lot of fun and the results can be excellent. The starting point is a very literal translation into English - a sort of interlinear - because it would be difficult to get a group of people together who all speak the original language and all have translation-related skills. (There is at least one person there who speaks the language, though, and hopefully a few.)

In this workshop we translated two poems by Masoud Ahmadi, a contemporary Iranian poet who like many poets from the Middle East and Central Asia has been viewed as a political threat and even imprisoned. His poems have much of the delicacy and lush romantic imagery that I associate with poems from this part of the world.

We first translated a poem called 'This Craving and this Me', and then 'The Yellow Stocking', which I preferred. The discussions included a certain amount of agonizing over a Persian flower with incredibly symbolic weight which doesn't have a name in English (it's not really a dandelion and that's very unromantic anyway); the fact that "blessed" turns out to be the best English equivalent for a word literally translated as "damned" which can be both affectionate and somewhat pejorative; and the very important detail that a stocking can introduce erotic tension, but a sock never can.


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