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Source: Foreign Policy

Jul 29, 2023

Reading ‘Lolita’? Not in Tehran.
Iran’s vibrant tradition of literature translation is becoming collateral damage in the Raisi regime’s retrograde cultural agenda.

By Kourosh Ziabari, a journalist and Asia Times correspondent.


Scores of books go into print in Iran every year. Data from 2018 puts the number of published titles at 102,691, positioning Iran as one of the top 10 nations with the most books released annually. The figures have slightly fluctuated ever since, but Iran has remained loyal to its publishing bonanza.


A tradition of translating literature from English, as well as other European languages, into Persian has long animated Iran’s cultural scene, accounting for the lion’s share of Iranians’ reading preferences. Some of the country’s most celebrated intellectuals rose to fame courtesy of their translation work, which the middle-class treasures as a bridge to the rest of the world, facilitated by elites who understand the nuances of exotic cultures and interpret them for the inhabitants of a hermit kingdom.


As different realms of artistic practice continue to be constrained by the hard-line conservative administration of President Ebrahim Raisi and independent artists find themselves hard-pressed to subsist under heightened levels of fear and inhibition, Iran’s vibrant tradition of literature translation is becoming the collateral damage of a retrograde cultural agenda. For a government that is overtly opposed to anything that resembles the relics of the modern world, clamping down on translated books that showcase the best of Western literature appears entirely justified.


The introduction of some of the finest translated classic literature predates the Islamic Republic. Still, the translation of contemporary U.S., British, and other European novels and nonfiction into Persian gained currency following the 1997 ascent of the reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami, who ventured to reverse the country’s self-inflicted isolation and initiated a fresh national introspection on the relatively alien concepts of press freedom and civil liberties.


Along with dozens of progressive newspapers that were issued licenses to operate, new publishing houses were founded that specialized in translated literature.


After years of cultural strangulation in which newspapers, books, music, and other forms of artistic expression languished, the birth of a nascent reform movement meant Iranians were afforded propitious opportunities to explore the outside world. International travel became trendy, and many families started sending their children to language institutions to prime them for educational programs overseas. At the same time, literary translators provided enchanting insights into Western life by making the masterpieces of U.S. and European literature accessible to Iranian readers.


As the rules on vetting cultural products were eased and censorship mutated into subtle forms, young, middle-class Iranians gained better access to the works of writers such as Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Harold Pinter, J. D. Salinger, and Kurt Vonnegut, and exposures that were previously unthinkable were made possible piecemeal. The internet had not yet evolved into a dominant mode of communication, and people were still circumscribed in their ability to broaden their global experiences.


The translated books would give them a glimpse of what distinct cultures and lifestyles looked like, especially regarding mundane particulars.The year Khatami was elected president, no more than 2,450 titles out of a total of 14,386 books published were works of translation. When his presidential term expired in 2005, nearly 39,000 books were published, and 9,146 of them were translations. The significant rise in the number of translated books signaled that literary practitioners were orienting Iranian readers to the best of world literature and also that the market was receptive to that sort of output.


That doesn’t mean that every work of Western literature could be translated and published freely, though, or that those that survived the purgatory of censorship at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance were faithful, verbatim reproductions.


First, with Iran being an outlier of the 1886 Berne Convention on copyright, most books are translated in Iran without the authors’ and primary publishers’ permission, at times spawning international disputes.


Translated works were also plagued by bowdlerization. During the various stages of translation and preparation, any passage construed as having a political message that could be potentially unfavorable to the government was typically expunged preemptively by translators or eventually omitted by the stern reviewers based at the culture ministry, and the erotic innuendos that are fixtures of many novels were hardly ever tolerated. It was thus common to see poorly sanitized and redacted translations of Nobel Prize-winning books and other literary masterpieces for sale at bookstores and seasonal exhibitions.


Yet the window of cultural familiarization was open wider than it had been since immediately after the revolution, catapulting a number of prolific translators to national acclaim. Reading translated books came to be seen as a mark of intellectual sophistication and refinement. In cozy cafes in Tehran and other large cities, some of which had emerged as literary hangouts, passionate young people, including female university students, discussed the latest U.S. and European literature they had read, both as a departure from the vicissitudes of life and to flaunt their artistic know-how.


A career in translation soon became so esteemed that Iranian publishers featured the names of translators on the book covers with the same font size and stature as the authors, and usually included brief biographical blurbs of the translators somewhere on the back cover or before the preamble. However, translation work never matured into a profitable enterprise. Book circulations are notoriously low, and some titles are printed in as few as 1,000 copies. And despite near-universal adult literacy, which the government says stands at 97 percent (UNESCO puts it at 85.5 percent), reading is not ubiquitous across generations.


This kept translators’ financial prospects within bounds. With the advent of the internet and social media, the reliance on translated books as the primary conduit of learning about what lies beyond the national boundaries was challenged and supplanted with new availabilities, but the books didn’t lose their luster. Indeed, reading translated literature continues to be an emblem of enlightenment and cosmopolitan, pro-Western attitudes.


This is largely why resistance to translation has been a hallmark of the cultural policies of the various conservative, hard-line administrations that have been in power on and off since 1979—including the current government of Raisi.

Censorship has been the most effective tool used by hard-line administrations to sideline translation and stymie the intimate cultural connections that Iranians could have forged with unfamiliar Western cultures, even when those bonds were solely cognitive and cerebral. At times, translators complained that entire paragraphs or even chapters were eliminated from their drafts, often convincing them to withdraw the manuscripts in favor of their own reputation or that of their publishers.


Conservative administrations also often teamed up with like-minded publishers, earmarking substantial funds to purchase their books written by Iranian authors en masse, both as an economic stimulus and to proselytize a specific cultural and political viewpoint. The outcome was that in a barely competitive book market, publishers that primarily produced translated works were inevitably marginalized.


Since coming to power in August 2021, the Raisi government has been defined by its Orwellian aversion to civil liberties, women’s rights, and artistic expression. And translated literature has not been spared. Although no official road map has been announced on curtailing translation, it’s clear that the administration and its allies have been quietly working to thwart Western literature from influencing Iranian hearts and minds.


According to local media reports, in the three-month period ending on Sept. 22, 2022, a total of 1,431 translated books were published in Iran—a 37 percent decline compared to the summer of 2021, when 2,258 works of translation were printed over the same three-month period. In the first three months of the current Persian calendar year, 5,713 translated books have been released, while the number stood at 7,936 for the corresponding period last year, suggesting a steep decrease.


The administration doesn’t have the means to directly outlaw the translation of Western literature, though it’s likely it would have done so if it did have a legal mandate. But its top officials don’t shy away from publicly lamenting the notion of translation as something morally reprehensible.


Raisi explicitly told publishers at a recent book exhibit in Tehran that translated works should not be allowed to “overtake” domestically written books, and his minister of culture, Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili, said last year that “a stack of translated work has captured the minds and spirit of our children” and that this situation should change so that books written about the “rich Iranian, Islamic culture” become the focus of attention. He didn’t forget to mention that the “ideals and norms of the Islamic Revolution” should be preserved by the members of the book supervisory committee, which is in charge of ideologically screening manuscripts before they can be circulated.


During the 34th Tehran International Book Fair that wrapped up in May, books by Iranian authors were sold with a special discount of 25 percent, while translated books were offered with just a 15 percent price cut.


One of the members of the policymaking committee at the 2021 edition of the  book fair, the country’s largest cultural event sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and usually visited in person by the supreme leader, is on the record saying the prevalence of translated books can bring about “cultural invasion.”


He also argued that subscribing to the international copyright convention and translating treatises into Persian after securing permission from Western publishing houses is “extremely dangerous and illogical.” He didn’t elaborate on why Iran complying with its copyright obligations would be dangerous, but it is probably the case that, in the thinking of the Islamic Republic authorities, upholding copyright would necessitate refusing to arbitrarily abridge or alter the content of the books, and this is something they won’t acquiesce to.


Mohammad Hosseini, the vice president for parliamentary affairs and a former culture minister under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said in April that the translation of written texts from other languages during the Qajar and Pahlavi eras induced “infatuation, alienation, and Westernization” among Iranians. In a conference dedicated to what is billed as the “reverse translation movement,” he gloated about the government’s plans to have the books of Iranian authors translated into the world’s most commonly spoken languages.


He claimed that “from China to the United States and from Russia to Africa,” people around the world are curious to read the works of Iranian writers and intellectuals, which is why the government is going to invest in encouraging “reverse translation” as opposed to financing the translation of Western literature into Persian.


It’s not a bad idea to promote books by Iranian writers and make them available to readers internationally. But as long as they are merely works of a religious nature or otherwise ideologically charged materials that the government wishes to popularize, rather than the best works of modern Iranian literature, the reverse translation campaign will remain a lost cause.


Many young Iranians are still avid fans of Western literature, and however determined the Islamic Republic is in monopolizing the public’s media diet and cultural interests, most no longer wish to adhere to the government-mandated way of seeing things. A silent crackdown on translation may deprive some Iranians of the chance to access what their counterparts are reading elsewhere in the world, but it is hardly practical to cordon off a population that has never lost its appetite for international connectivity.



Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist and Asia Times correspondent and a former Chevening scholarship recipient. He is an alumnus of the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship by the East-West Center, a 2021 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow, and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. He was a finalist for two Kurt Schork Awards in international journalism in 2020 and 2021, and his writings have appeared on the National Interest, openDemocracy, Responsible Statecraft, Middle East Eye, and the New Arab. Twitter: @KZiabari

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