Mariam Rahmani discusses translating vernacular fiction.
On Thursday, February 17, 2022, the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) hosted a panel to discuss the recent publication of In Case of Emergency (Feminist Press, 2021), the first English-language translation of the Mahsa Mohebali’s 2008 Nigarān nabash which remains popular in Iran up to the present day. CNES showcased this translation by Mariam Rahmani, who is a writer and translator that teaches as a lecturer in the departments of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA. Previously, Dr. Rahmani was a Ph.D. student in the Department of Comparative Literature and she received a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship for Persian. Rahmani’s masterful translation is not only notable for its adherence to the original Persian novel but also for her masterful presentation of the colloquial nature of its contents.
Rahmani discussed issues of translating colloquial works during the panel discussion. She argued that presenting the uncouth subject matter and shocking language in an irreverent American slang gives the reader an experience similar to that of the original Persian readership. The book examines the social world of its protagonist, Shadi, who cross-dresses rather than donning the hijab and who is, along with other characters in the story, addicted to opium. Unlike some scholarship on Iran and the broader Middle East which highlights the religious and political contours of its people in a cliff-notes version that relies on unhelpful generalizations, this novel speaks to the less idealized version of Iranian life in contemporary times. At the same time, the novel speaks to a number of issues surrounding womens’ agency in the Middle East and challenges the notion that women are mere victims of a patriarchal society, a line too often repeated uncritically in discussions of the region.
Dr. Rahmani’s decision to translate this novel in particular was born out of two distinct yet complementary forces. On the one hand, her experience growing up around classical Persian poetry and pursuing the study of classical Persian-language literature in her college days made her familiar with the accepted canon of Iranian classics from Ferdowsi to Rumi, among others. On the other hand, her commitment to a more contemporary Iranian literature which explores modern society, culture, and politics in an urban setting led her to some of the most notable novels in recent Iranian history. These include In Case of Emergency, which Rahmani claims made her “the translator I never wanted to be” on account of the fact that she had for so many years made her own original writing a higher priority. For Rahmani, each language occupies “its own spaces” and for this reason she did not always conceptualize herself as a translator. The masterful translation of In Case of Emergency, however, demonstrates that presenting such a work in a foreign vernacular (in this case an informal register of American English) requires a similar creative outlook to writing ‘original’ works of fiction.
This translation comes on the heels of a number of other important works by Rahmani. Dr. Rahmani has written for such major publications as the Los Angeles Review of Books and many others. She has also received awards for her fiction writing and significant public praise for her recent translation from the New York Times and other major media. At the moment, Dr. Rahmani has plans to publish her own works and, in the future, once again “To tell another’s story. Painstakingly, with a patience you hardly afford your own.”