“Translation is a scalpel,” writes Sholeh Wolpé. “It cuts to reveal and to heal.” Through her translations of Iranian writers, and through four collections of her own poetry, Wolpé seeks to bridge the fierce political divide between her native Iran and her adopted Western homes—to pierce their mutual ignorance, and reveal one to the other. In 2007, she translated the twentieth-century Iranian poet and feminist Forugh Farrokhzad in the collection Sin, and in 2013 and 2014, she and Mohsen Emadi collaborated on the first complete Persian translation of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, to be published in Iran later this year. Her own poetry cuts at multiple homelands—Tehran, Trinidad, Los Angeles—revealing beauty, dislocation, hope, and violence in each.
Wolpé’s latest project, for which she received a PEN/Heim grant, is a new translation of The Conference of the Birds, published by W. W. Norton in March 2017. Composed by the twelfth-century Sufi poet and mystic Farīd Ud-Dīn Attar, The Conference of the Birds chronicles a quest by the birds of the world to find their king, the mythical Persian bird called the Simorgh. The story is revealed as an allegory for the soul’s journey to the Divine. For Attar, the journey’s chief obstacle is the ego, that worldly self-conceit that traps us in our own smallness, and his indictment of egoism is as timely today as it was in medieval Persia:
What is in you arises from greed;
it comes from anger and rage.
Others see it, but you don’t.
Inside you lies an ash pit full of dragons
that you’ve carelessly let loose.
You tend them day and night,
let them happily sleep and feed.
The Conference of the Birds has fascinated writers from Rumi to Borges, and Wolpé’s translation strives to make Attar’s unorthodox and mystical vision accessible to contemporary Western readers. In her Los Angeles home, she took me through a shaded courtyard to her study, where stacks of musty scholarship on Attar still crowded the desk, and showed me the original poem: an unbroken block of calligraphic Persian. “It’s gorgeous, but no one’s going to read it like this,” Wolpé said. Over a thick slice of cake and a samovar of strong tea, we discussed the difficulty and necessity of re-creating Attar’s masterpiece in English, its timeless critique of fundamentalism and extremism, and the translator’s role in resisting ideological divisions.
—Theodore McCombs for Guernica
Guernica: How did this project to translate The Conference of the Birds come about?
Sholeh Wolpé: I didn’t know it was going to be my next translation project. I was invited by San Jose State University to give a talk on Farīd Ud-Dīn Attar. I said OK, fantastic, because I love this poet and I’m happy to talk about his work, and I looked for representative poems from Conference. I noticed, first of all, that in a language where we don’t have gendered pronouns, no “he” or “she,” the translated poetry I was picking up had genders. All the birds were “he.” And God is a “He.” [The translator had] already decided that it’s all male. That didn’t sit right with me. And I just did not feel the spirit of the poem spoke to me in those translations as it did in Persian.
So, I translated a group of poems for this particular presentation. I took it there, I presented the poems and the talk, and people went wild. They loved it, and they wanted copies of those poems, and I said, “Well, it’s not available, I just did this.” I sent these translations to PEN, and it got one of their highest grants in translation. They told me the judges unanimously were in favor of this project.
Guernica: That response to Attar seems pretty common—that people don’t just admire him, but respond strongly when they discover his poetry. Why do you think that is?
Sholeh Wolpé: Because it isn’t just Attar. He was able to bring into a coherent whole all the philosophy—both religious and non-religious, spiritual and non-spiritual—that had existed [in Persia and in Sufi Islam] for hundreds of years, into a form that was not only beautiful, but entertaining. Before him, all the books of poetry or treatises of philosophy were instructive: Learn this. Heed this. And Attar said, “Let me tell you a story about this. How about the donkey who farted?”
Guernica: There have been other English translations of Conference; the last one was the 1984 co-translation by Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi. But you’re the first Iranian-born poet and woman to translate Conference alone. How do you think your perspective has influenced your translation choices? You talked about the lack of gendered pronouns in Persian, for example. What were other choices you made differently from previous translations?
Sholeh Wolpé: Because the word “Allah” is not there, I did away with the word “God.” I used different words like “the Almighty,” “the Great.” Another choice I made differently was the use of the word “Ego.” Attar uses words like taab, kheesh, khod, nafs. They are different words, and they all mean the essence of self. A Persian reader knows exactly what he means. But it would have been confusing for the English reader. So, I had to make a choice. And I knew that “ego” was the right word, but I was a little wary of it because of Freud. But ego is Latin—”I”—and I figured, My God, in the twenty-first century, I think people would really understand what the ego is.
I think it makes a difference that I’m a woman translating, and I’m a woman who doesn’t feel attached to any one religion. I think extremism is dangerous, and the message of this book resonated with me. So, I brought a lot of my own sensibility and sensitivity to the text.
As I have said, translation is a re-creation. The poet I am translating is borrowing my poetic voice. When I translated Whitman into Persian with Mohsen Emadi, it was a combination of our poetic voices; Attar’s voice in English is my poetic voice. I took content, I took my connection to the poem, and I was faithful to the spirit of the poem—to that spirit that came to Attar—but filtered through me.
Guernica: You’re bringing Conference of the Birds from twelfth-century Iran into a twenty-first-century American context, which is not just English-speaking but can also be very secular, without the political or spiritual structures Attar was working within. In addition to re-creating the experience of the poem, how do you go about that kind of cultural translation?
Sholeh Wolpé: I knew I wanted the English-speaking public to read it. It wasn’t going to be for scholars. Scholars can read it, and it’s great. But I wanted a fifteen-year-old to pick it up and still love it and understand it.
I had worked years ago on poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad, and I knew how demanding it was, but also how rewarding, because all of a sudden you have this incredible, most significant female Iranian poet coming to the English-speaking public, and they love her to this day. The publisher of my translation told me it is still one of their bestselling books after ten years. When English-speaking readers discover her, they just connect with her, men or women.
So, for The Conference of the Birds, I had to give the work form, to present it as a readable text in English, not just for scholars and universities. In its original format, it’s overwhelming. No one’s going to read it like this: It’s all poetry, line after line after line after line, and no titles, no separation. I separated the parables, I gave the parables titles, I made them into prose. That’s my re-creation of this work.
Language, especially poetry, translates into visuals in our heads, and so we have to respect that when we are translating or re-creating a work of literature. There is a line toward the end of the poem that I translate as, “When True Sun shines eternal, / does it matter if here is an atom / or here, its shadow?” The word Attar uses is zarreh. Zarreh is the tiniest piece in anything. And it has many, many meanings. I could say to you, “Would you like a piece of cake?” and you’d say, “Oh, I’ll have a little bit,” you can use zarreh. “Give me a zarreh,” a little piece. But also zarreh can be the smallest possible little thing. So then I thought about it, well what is, to us, to readers, what is the smallest, smallest possible thing? If you want to think of it, you say, “An atom.”
Guernica: And if you were to use the more era-appropriate “speck of dust,” in English—in today’s context, with what we now know—that actually would not be an accurate re-creation of Attar’s idea.
Sholeh Wolpé: It’s not. It has to be the re-creation of the same thing, the same image in your head. So, that’s what I was trying to do. When you re-create poetry in another language, you want it to be fresh, right? Persian is very flowery. And if you follow that floweriness of the language, and are faithful to that in English, you do not have a beautiful work of literature in English. In Persian, sometimes you repeat the same word, over and over, and it’s beautiful. But it’s not beautiful in English.
At the same time, I believe translating or re-creating a work of literature should enrich the target language. So, I’m not going to transform the original work into something that is fully English, or American, because then I’ve demeaned the original work. Forugh Farrokhzad uses a line, “May you be green from head to toe.” She invented the phrase in Persian. Now, in English, I had seen it translated as, “May you prosper,” and that’s what it means, but why translate it that way? Why not let the English-speaking public learn that “May you be green from head to toe” and use it?
Guernica: What do you see as the literary translator’s role in making those kinds of connections across the globe?
Sholeh Wolpé: We live in a world torn apart by various ideologies. Every day, we hear about how different we are. For me, the only thing that really draws people together is the arts. And I want to be a part of that process. Because on one hand, you can despair and say, as a writer I can just write my poems or write my plays. But because I am bicultural, and bilingual, and because I am a poet and a writer, if I do not translate, it’s a sin. Through translation and re-creation, I can bring different cultures together.
I can bring Iran—the supposed enemy, this “rogue nation” of terrorists—to the English-speaking public and say, Look, this is what the real Iran is. This is what its people are like. They read this, they love this. This is our culture. What you see is temporary. And it’s inaccurate, because it has only been created by the people who have something to gain from division. I want to fight against that and I do that through translation.
Guernica: As Conference presents a different vision of Iran to the West, it also presents Islam in a way we don’t often see today. There’s a lot of heterodoxy—there’s the parable of the sheikh who apostatizes for the Christian girl, and there’s a lot of same-sex eroticism. How do you see this in relation to our current moment, where we do have rigid visions of Islam from both Western leaders and factions in the Middle East?
Sholeh Wolpé: Conference is completely anti-dogma, anti-ISIS, anti-any extremism. Because in here, Attar says, Yes, we are coming from an Islamic tradition, but let me tell you, it does not matter. Church, pagoda, mosque, all of these are meaningless. You have to walk the Path. And he’s adamant that everyone, everyone, will end up at this beautiful metaphor of the Grand Ocean. And it will never turn anyone away. Except some people’s journeys are longer than others. That’s the difference. Your journey becomes longer if you do not give up your ego. If you do not behave in a righteous manner. So, in a way, Attar does away with the idea of Heaven and Hell, which is something that groups like ISIS, the mullahs, or even the Vatican—you know, anywhere, any religious dogma—bases itself on: If you do this you go to Heaven, if you do that you go to Hell. And he does away with it. Conference does come from Islamic tradition. But this is Sufi mysticism.
Guernica: How do the mullahs of Iran, for example, look at someone like Attar or Rumi in that Sufi tradition, at this point?
Sholeh Wolpé: I don’t think they pay much attention, you know. This is part of our heritage, and no one attacks Hafez or Rumi or Saadi. We’re proud of our ancient poets. But no one, in terms of political discourse, discusses them. They should, but they don’t, because it doesn’t serve them. If it served them, they would.
And also remember that even though Iranians read a lot of poetry, many, many, many have never read The Conference of the Birds from cover to cover. How many in this country sit down and read all of Shakespeare?
Guernica: It’s interesting to bring in Shakespeare. We’ve seen, with the recent Julius Caesar production in New York, how even talking about what someone in Elizabethan England thought about political assassination can have a disruptive effect. Is that what you’re hoping to do with Attar—keep him in the conversation, so he has that disruptive presence?
Sholeh Wolpé: Yes, yes, but—Attar himself prophecies. He says, I’m scattering seeds and one day in the future, people will read me. It’s in the epilogue: “I may not remain here forever, yet, what I have scattered will continue to waft eternally upon the world. Until the day of reckoning I will remain on people’s tongues. For me, that is memorial enough. Were the nine spheres to fall apart, not a single dot of this book will be lost. I’ve gifted you roses from the great garden.”
He knew this work was not for just for the people of the time. He knew that. This book was a spirit that came to Attar. And even though it was in twelfth-century Iran, perhaps it was meant for today. Because when you read it, never before have we needed a book like this so much. We are living in a world that is increasingly about ego. I mean, look at our president. Right? We need a book like this to talk about the dangers of ego, what it represents, what it can do to us, the dangers it will bring to us. And how to dispel it. How to let it go.
Even though I spent three years translating this book, I have no memory of it. I honestly don’t. If I had to do it over again, I would not be able to do it. The spirit that came to Attar came and helped me to put it in this shape, and now it’s gone. It doesn’t belong to me. The book exists as itself. So when I read it now, I read it for itself, not as something that I did. For me, it’s new as well.