Iranian-Canadian novelist and translator Akram Pedramnia writes on translating James Joyce into Persian, evading the censors, and imperial co-option of resistance.
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The Iranian novel must fight on two fronts. The first attempts to control its narrative through a system of censorship: the Iranian government has firm control of the information published within the country. This control of the ideas that enter the consciousness of the Iranian people and has implications broadly for Persian literature, and implications specifically for my current project: the translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses into the Persian language.
Systematic censorship means that the many and varied narratives of Persian literature is eclipsed by the singular narrative of the dominating group. For readers in Iran and internationally, the result is an inaccurate representation of Persian literature, and a false account of Iranian lives and their social experiences. With time, state censorship has stifled the creativity of many Persian writers.
Ulysses has all the features that makes a Persian translation prone to censorship: sex, politics, religion, alcohol consumption, male-female relationships and LGBTQ characters. A version of Ulysses that would pass the Iranian censors would require the translator to conceal the meanings of words and sentences, obscure the qualities of characters, and eliminate whole chapters from the book. The result, for an important piece of literature, would be inaccuracy and loss.
I am producing an entirely uncensored translation of Joyce’s book. It has been banned from publication within the country. For this reason, the first volume was published in the UK and is being distributed illegally in Iran. Early on, Iranians abroad would smuggle it into the country for their friends and family. Now, venders in the underground market are reprinting and distributing it to the public. Soon, its eBook will be offered for free online download. But all this has a price for the translator. I face immense pressure from the Iranian government’s cyber army, who try to suppress my work from online publication, even beyond its own borders.
The second front against which the Iranian novel must fight is the control of its narrative by global imperialism: a fear of many Iranian activists and writers is having their anti-oppression struggles co-opted and, in the worst cases, used to justify western interventions.
So alongside the oppressions imposed by the Iranian government, the public simultaneously face structural violence from imperial powers and decades of western intervention. By ‘intervention’, I mean sanctions, coups, occupation, and expropriation – all of which shape the social and economic issues Iranians face. As Iranian writers, we always risk giving these interventions strength.
Narratives of western imperialism are often hidden from the public to construct an image of Iranian society as inherently disorganised and socially chaotic; such hidden narratives are, in turn, part of a greater global project of controlling discourse. A sole focus on Iranian society as a space of destitution without an explanation of its origins enables imperial social actors to justify the actions that cause social and economic strife. Too often has the discourse of political chaos been used to justify military intervention – the situation under which the population of the occupied country experiences the greatest violence. Western social actors – even those who are well-meaning – co-opt our resistance efforts and silence the voices of Iranian people and their struggles for freedom from oppression. This is true in my anti-censorship work: framing Iran as destructive society – one in which people do not have freedom of speech – allows imperial actors to justify inntervention under the guise of anti-censorship solidarity. Co-opting Iranian anti-censorship struggles into the narratives of global imperialism has led to a situation in which Iranian authors have no choice but to take caution when discussing political and social issues. The Iranian public should be free to support their own anti-censorship struggles, without the fear of intrusion from global social actors.
The Iranian government and global imperialism each present a narrative that benefits and reproduces their respective power of control. The Iranian writer must, therefore, fight on both fronts.
The future of an uncensored translation of Ulysses may be one that sets a precedent for Iranian writers and translators: a pulling-away from publishing under a system of censorship, and from distributing uncensored literature illegally on a national scale. Anti-censorship as a form of resistance introduces new knowledge to the Iranian public, and offers tools to build on critical awareness. As a work, Ulysses resisted the imperial powers of its time, revealing the political activities of colonial social actors and their implications for the occupied people. Greater access to these ideas enabled, perhaps, the population of the time to cultivate critical consciousness further.
Ironically, we are in a time when publishing an uncensored translation of Ulysses has the potential to be appropriated by social actors who seek to reinforce the current imperial system. Upon completion, however, the volumes of the Persian translation will be free for readers outside of markets systems. Such access is the first, although not only, step to achieving educational sovereignty for native Iranians.
As an Iranian writer and translator, I face two systems of imposed censorship: one that prevents me from sharing complete works with people and the other that conceals political activities against those very people. I will continue to fight, on both fronts.
Akram Pedramnia is an Iranian-Canadian writer and translator. She is the translator of James Joyce’s Ulysses into the Persian language, which has received the Literature Ireland Translation Grant. She is a recipient of the Friends of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation Scholarships 2019 and the Joyce Scholarship and Looren Residency 2020. Among others, she has also translated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (2009) and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (2013), the latter of which was disseminated through the Iranian underground market. She has authored five novels in the Persian language on themes that reveal underlying social issues in Iran.