Can translating a Shakespeare play serve as a cultural bridge? This is what Iranian professor and Shakespeare scholar Ali Salami believes. He has used the Folger Shakespeare’s freely available digital texts to translate almost all of the works of Shakespeare into Persian, an unprecedented endeavor. Several have recently been published in bilingual editions by Gooya Publications, one of Iran’s largest publishers, with the rest on the way.
“As there are numerous editions of Shakespeare’s plays, the translator is faced with a difficult job to choose the best and the most reliable ones,” Salami says. “What I personally noted in the Folger’s editions was that the editors were extremely faithful to the original text and endeavored their utmost to keep the text as intact as possible.”
These new Persian editions will be added to the Folger collection. We did a short Q&A with Salami over email to learn more about his Shakespeare translations.
What inspired this translation project?
Well, there are a couple of reasons. The translation of Shakespeare’s works started in 19th-century Iran with a handful of his works and poems. However, due to Shakespeare’s linguistic complexities, most translators embarked on translating him from a different language other than the original. Such translations were made from French, German, and Arabic. A lot was lost in translation. Besides, all the mistakes made in the first translations unfortunately crept into the Persian translations as well.
To Iranian translators, Shakespeare has always been a challenge and a source of enchantment. So each of the prominent Persian translators only translated one of two plays. Most translators were attracted to Hamlet and Othello. The reason for choosing Othello seems partly clear as there are similar themes in Eastern culture so the readers could easily connect. As for Hamlet, it was a great choice for any translator, including myself, to prove their linguistic and literary capability in the first place. A second reason is that Hamlet, due to its philosophical nature, proves quite fascinating to Iranian intellectuals and artists as well as curious youths.
Another point which inspired me to start this project almost ten years ago was that I always thought the kind of language employed by Iranian translators leaves much to be desired. Either they used an archaic and affected style unfit for contemporary readers or they preferred to simplify Shakespeare’s style.
While teaching Shakespeare at the University of Tehran, I sometimes felt – and still feel – that it would be a good idea if I could give my students a taste of Shakespeare in Farsi to see how they reacted. To my astonishment, I saw that they were impressed by my translation of some selected passages such as “To Be or Not to Be”. There were certain occasions when they said, “Wow! That’s Shakespeare in Farsi!” I was deeply inspired by their encouragement to pursue the translation of Shakespeare’s works seriously. In my translations, I have used a style which comes as closely as possible to the style of Shakespeare. In certain cases, I have even coined Farsi words for purely Shakespearean words.
You have said, “I personally believe that Shakespeare can help bridge the gap between our cultures.” Could you expand a little more on what you mean?
We are not different; we have the same human challenges and the same human concerns. Shakespeare addresses all these challenges and concerns by using an incredibly powerful language which touches hearts and minds. If this language is properly translated and the message properly conveyed, the Iranian reader may have a similar experience to the English reader.
The ever-increasing interest in Shakespeare all around the world testifies to the fact that Shakespeare can unite all nations, bring them closer to one another, and create a spirit of solidarity and brotherhood. Rumi, the Persian poet, seems to have attracted a lot of attention in recent years and the reason for this fascination is almost the same. In the manner of Shakespeare, he also glorifies sublime human values such as love, fraternity, and the dignity of man, while he denigrates hypocrisy and hatred. To these two poets, Man is the miracle and should be treated as such.
So if there are any cultural gaps, they emanate from an ignorance regarding what the two nations deem to be true shared values.
Can you tell us about your translation process? Are there any examples you could provide of instances where your translation uses metaphor or other figurative language that leans heavily into the Iranian cultural context?
Translating Shakespeare is not just a matter of translation but also involves extensive research. Although I had written a few articles on Hamlet, I found the job quite challenging. Eventually, Hamlet was published and warmly welcomed. So I was even more encouraged to finish translating all his works.
Apart from the handful of earlier translations, Shakespeare has influenced some Iranian artists and filmmakers. For instance, Iranian director Bahram Beyzaei wrote and directed two of his best works under the influence of Shakespeare. Many Iranian readers tend to see traces of mysticism in Shakespeare, something which is thoroughly interwoven into the very fabric of their lives, as they see this kind of mysticism in the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz. Well, that’s nothing new as Martin Lings had already studied Shakespeare in the light of sacred art.
Is there anything particular about the way that Iranians view, approach, or interact with Shakespeare’s plays that you think might be surprising to Westerners?
Romeo and Juliet is quite a fascinating read to Iranians not because it’s a love story but because there is a famous parallel in Persian literature: the story “Leyli and Majnun” by Persian poet Nezami, which dates back to the twelfth century.
Another instance can be found in Hamlet where the titular protagonist says, “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.” This humanist approach is quite understandable in our culture for we believe that man is the best of the creations in the world, and God praised Himself when he created man and endowed him with divine qualities.
Ali Salami is an assistant professor of English literature and translation studies at the University of Tehran. In 2014, he organized and managed the First International Conference on Shakespeare in Iran at the University of Tehran, which featured Stephen Greenblatt (Harvard University) and Mark Thornton Burnett (Queens University) as its keynote speakers. Salami is also the author of Shakespeare and the Reader (Illinois, 2013) and the editor of Culture-blind Shakespeare (New Castle, 2016) and Fundamental Shakespeare (New Castle, 2016). His Shakespeare translations can be found on his personal website and through Gooya Publications.