OMID TOFIGHIAN: Being Australian...it all comes down to chance.
It’s difficult to describe Dr Omid Tofighian as a translator without feeling like you’re missing a big part of the picture. In 2018 stateless refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani released No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison, a literary tour de force and first-hand account of five years in exile.
Tofighian’s role in this? To translate the now 416 page book chapter by chapter from WhatsApp text messages and PDF’s sent by Boochani from Manus Island on a smuggled mobile phone. A task that called upon Tofighian’s areas of academic research, interest and own cultural background.
It took a team to complete the project and involved much more than translating from Farsi to English. It was a project that required a shared vision and a fearless approach to storytelling.
No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison has since won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award Victorian Prize for Literature 2019.
MEET OMID TOFIGHIAN.
OMID TOFIGHIAN. I grew up interpreting for my parents from a very early age. I never realised this was a skill that could develop into other skills. I owe a lot of my ability to interpret and translate to the role and responsibility I had growing up.
So much of what I have been doing with Behrouz Boochani began many years before I met him, you could even say it goes all the way back to before I was born.Both of my parents are lovers of storytelling, and pretty much all of my life growing up I listened to stories from their experience in Iran; their experience of moving to the United States, and then moving to Australia and trying to find our way here. Iranians of all backgrounds, all ethnic groups, and all social, cultural and religious backgrounds are really proud of a multiple range of poetic traditions, so poetry was also an important part of my life growing up. I was hearing stories not only of my parents experiences, but going back even further and right back into the mythological past. I think that in combination with my area of research and my interests I was in a good place to interact with Behrouz and understand what he was trying to say.
THE PIN. When you received the first of many PDF or Whatsapp messages of the book did you feel your skill sets combining as you read through and translated it?
OT. Right at the very beginning, maybe two or three pages in, I knew it was going to be a masterpiece. I was already sensing all of these multiple layers and different dimensions to the text and felt not only the connection that Behrouz has to all of the things I am familiar with and passionate about in terms of my own research and background, but there were also elements I was not familiar with. I realised I would have to do a lot more research myself to be able to become familiar with it and to be able to get it right if I were to translate it.
I’d been translating his journalism for over six months before beginning the book project so to some extent I had an understanding of his writing style and his literary identity, but I don’t think any of that really prepared me for what I was reading when I got the first chapter.
Yes because it seems like you were dealing with translating from Farsi, which has a very different structure to English, and a different style to pieces written for the Guardian or the Saturday Paper. How did you adjust your mindset from a journalistic approach to a more creative yet still journalistic one?
OT. Because so much of the work that I do with Behrouz is unpredictable and in reaction to something really distressing or horrifying we don’t have a lot of planning time or know what to expect. So much of the work we do is us trying to respond in the best way we can. We don’t have time to think about it much, although we can reflect on it afterwards and we often do at length. When I moved from journalism into the book, I just immersed myself and waited for the surprises. I knew how important this book would be historically and politically and I didn’t want to lose that opportunity even though I was anxious about taking on such a huge project and having not being trained as a translator, but once I got into it I just developed a rhythm.
We had a lot of conversations where Behrouz would explain a lot of the philosophical ideas and his own cultural history and heritage. I was in constant consultation with Behrouz throughout the process so I could ask him things and would even make suggestions. We would even debate a couple of features every now and then. There were also two people involved, Moones Mansoubi who was his first translator and who I met with every week or fortnight and Sajad Kabgani who was a researcher from Iran specialising in education and literature. I would meet with him sometimes as well.
It was a shared philosophical activity, there was a series of people in Australia, in Iran, and even on Manus Island in conversation with each other, all committed and dedicated to this one project. All with the same kind of intention and way of thinking. Maybe you could even say the same stream of consciousness.
You did not meet Behrouz until you were 80% of the way into completing the book. How important was this meeting to finishing it? Was it an important part of telling his story?
OT. Absolutely critical. It was absolutely important that I meet Behrouz just so that I could first of all thank him, congratulate him, and show my support in person. I felt that was something I could do face-to-face that I could never do over WhatsApp. Sitting down and talking to him on a more intimate level was important because all of our conversations were until then just over voice text and through WhatsApp so we could never really talk in real time.
I also felt that at least one full read through the chapters and being 100% sure was vital. I knew from the first few pages that it was going to be one of the most important political cultural documents for decades to come so I wanted to get everything right. But more importantly, the book would provide a platform and create new networks that would enable Behrouz to become even more empowered and give him a sense of liberation. This book going out into the world is a form of freedom for him as well.
Ultimately you’ve taken a story that Behrouz has written in Farsi and translated it into English, and the translation will be read many times more than the Farsi version. How do you navigate being a platform to empowerment and the feeling that you’re changing the original story in some way?
OT. That’s an interesting point and gives me a bit more of an opportunity to talk about the collaborative process. It was a consultative process that involved deep analysis of what Behrouz had written. There were conversations we had that influenced my translating that would also influence his writing style and the direction of some of the stories. I don’t think the translation would have been able to come out the way it did without Behrouz’s own input.
The translation has taken on a character of its own, and has its own identity as well. There’s something really unique in the English version that has gone beyond the Farsi original, but then again there are things about the Farsi original that the English translation will never be able to embody. Thinking about it as a translation I think is slightly inaccurate or insufficient in any conventional sense. It’s something in between a translation and a whole new creative enterprise. I think this is what is special about the translation. Creatively it really reflects so much of the disrupted fragmented purgatory state that the writer is in himself and the situation he’s talking about. It wears so much of that in the way it’s written. Its style, content, structure, and mode of production as well.
You’ve never worked as a translator before working with Behrouz, what have you learnt from the experience?
OT. It’s really difficult even now to think of myself as a translator. When someone introduces me as one it feels kind of awkward. There were so many different skill sets I had to draw on in order to translate this book. I talk about literary experimentation in the translators notes of the book. I realised I had to experiment so much in the translation. Behrouz’s situation, identity, the tropes he draws upon, the narrative frameworks, and diction are so unique and mix together in unprecedented ways. That experimentation and being open to new possibilities - absolute or radical openness - I think was one of the most important things.Not just for working on this project but for what I plan to do in future.
It would have been good if I had come trained as a translator but the fact that I didn’t helped me even more.
It removed constraints...
OT. Yeah, it just catapulted me into these new phases or landscapes of literary, philosophical, and artistic thinking.
There’s something special about the book, the style, the character to Behrouz’s writing. I don’t want to call it a genre, but there’s a particular kind of attitude in the book that I refer to it as horrific surrealism and this surrealism is very close to many Kurdish writers in different parts of Kurdistan - whether it’s Syria, Turkey, Iran or Iraq. Kurdish creatives and Kurdish thinkers have this particular surrealist way of seeing the world and representing it, but there’s also the horrific as well because of the political situation. Behrouz uses this really well to show the absurdity of the whole situation. It’s represented in this fragmented and disrupted identity of the situation, there’s all of these different stories and experiences and he has tried to put them into a whole and they never fit.
If you look at Behrouz’s relationship with me, Behrouz is stuck in this disgusting place that has been created by a country that prides itself on human rights and on an island that is part of its former colony so already we are starting to get some sense, some feel for the absurdity or the surreal nature of it. He is communicating with me through WhatsApp and sending me his work and I’m translating it but I’m crossing borders at will and have very few problems when it comes to crossing borders. I was in Sydney, Cairo and Manus Island while I was translating. I was answering or asking him questions through WhatsApp text while I was preparing for my classes or I was at a coffee shop having an espresso. He’d send me a text message that he wanted to tweet something and I’d be there having breakfast and trying to translate something about an attempted suicide. The whole thing is just remarkably ironic, it’s so surreal, it’s disgustingly absurd and it shows something about the gross inequalities that are part of this globalised modern world.
Has it made you reflect upon your own background and cultural heritage?
OT. Absolutely. There’s so much I could draw upon thinking about my own heritage and my own experiences of this place and exile but my family and I left at a time when certain things didn’t work for us. We didn’t manage to come to Australia immediately but did when things didn’t work out for us in the United States.
Globalisation, the shifts in geopolitics, attitudes, different kinds of policy decisions, and certain people in power in some way ended up working for my family and they haven’t worked for Behrouz. This all really comes down to chance, so much of this comes down to luck. That just again shows us the horrific, ever surreal nature of this whole enterprise, this whole collaboration, this whole project.
THE PIN. Do you think you’ll ever be able to read back passages and not be able to relate them to where you were?
OMID TOFIGHIAN. Different things happen every time I read the book. Sometimes I recall those times, sometimes I just go into the book itself and get lost. Sometimes I think about what’s happening now or another conversation Behrouz and I had. This is important, this disruption and fragmentation. It’s so important to understanding Behrouz’s interpretation and critique, what he produces and even our relationship. I think that’s the best way to describe it. Everything is so unpredictable. Everything is so shattered.
Omid Tofighian is appearing at Lunchtime Lit: The Art of Translation and Work in Progress: Telling Other People’s Stories as part of the Emerging Writers' Festival in Melbourne (19–29 June).
Find Behrouz Boochani on Twiiter.
Image credit: Emerging Writers’ Festival
Published June 2019