Azita Rassi, the translator of our first eight books, had recently been interviewed by Shahrvand magazine (link) in Persian. Below you will find the English translation of her interview.
Let us start our conversation with The Little Black Fish, a book by Samad Behrangi with which several generations of Iranian families have grown up. I think this book was translated to English before. What was the problem of the previous translation(s) that made a new translation necessary?
The main factor was that in the previous translations, the Little Black Fish was deprived of Farshid Mesghali’s unique illustrations that originally accompanied the story in Persian. It was Tiny Owl Publishing that was capable of bringing the two together in the English version. One of the beauties of working with this publishing company is that they are well aware of the importance of illustrations in children’s books. Not only that, they also have a keen appreciation of the sort of books to which children can relate. Because of these reasons, all of the books that this company has so far published or is about to publish have a high cultural as well as physical quality that succeeds in attracting those buyers of children’s books who are not familiar with Iranian specimens and pleases children who are the strictest of all judges.
The problem with the previous translations was not only the lack of these memorable and worthy illustrations. They were also not easy to read as the vocabulary they used was not particularly tailored for children. This can be seen in the reviews left by some of the parents in Amazon, parents who had bought those translations for their children and later complained of the dryness of the prose that did not appeal to their children.
I made a comparison between the Persian text of the Little Black Fish and your translation. Well, from the beginning it was obvious that yours is a free translation, judging from the changes you have made to the sentences, their structure, and their position in the text. Why free translation?
Well, actually, one of my problems is that I can’t do free translation. Quite the opposite, I sometimes go overboard in staying loyal to the text! This book was no exception. Fortunately, the English-speaking editor, who has much experience in creating children’s books in the UK, came to the rescue of the English text and although my work was not free translation, she gave the necessary freedom to the Little Black Fish so that he could communicate with English-speaking readers in the most efficient way. When I saw the result, I admitted that it had improved considerably.
I am not an advocate of word-by-word translations all the time, especially when it comes to translating poetry or children’s stories, particularly when children are going to read a text about half a century later than its creation. I can confirm that now this story is genuinely in English. It is as if a native English speaker has originally written it for an English-speaking child or young adult. However, there is the issue of remaining loyal to the text. Is this version still the story by Samad Behrangi?
Thank you for your compliment. I’m very glad that you have this opinion about the book, because that was precisely our goal. We didn’t want the English version to reek of translation, so to speak. See the books that are translated to Persian nowadays. Sometimes they are so far from fluent Persian that I have to translate each sentence word by word back to English in order to understand the meaning. In response to your question, I should say that this text is still Samad Behrangi’s story in its entirety. Nothing has been omitted from the story, except a scene in which the Little Black Fish tells the Moon that people want to fly to you. Since this wasn’t related to the story and had rather to do with the date the book was written which was before astronauts went to the Moon, it was omitted as the editor and publisher saw fit. Apart from this all the events in the story are exactly the same in the Persian and English texts. The thing that has somewhat changed is the tone and the reason behind this change is aiming for cultural equivalence. Allow me to explain. In Persian, the way the Little Black Fish speaks is the language of courage and independence. If we translate those words to English exactly as they are, it would become the language of disrespect and impudence. To make the Little Black Fish also a symbol of bravery, curiosity, and independence, we need to alter the words and the tone a little. In fact, the goal is to keep the impact of the book on the reader the same, to keep the ambience the same in both languages, but in two different cultures, that sameness should be attained by a difference in tone. Maybe it will help to illuminate the difference between the cultures if I mention here that, while acclaiming this book, David Cadgi Newby gave a slight warning to the parents that the story does not shy away from discussing death!
How about the books by Ahmadreza Ahmadi? What ideas did you and the British editor have for the translation of these two books by Mr. Ahmadi?
Again the goal was to keep the spirit of the works intact and maximize verbal and graphic communication with the child reader.
The poems created by Ahmadreza Ahmadi are usually simple and complex at the same time. The language of these poems seem very simple, but the atmosphere of the work is his alone. The two books by him that you have translated are closer to poetry than to children’s stories. How can one translate the language and atmosphere to English? What was your experience in dealing with these two books?
Translating poetry is undeniably more difficult and it is a bigger responsibility. Fortunately, there are numerous English books in verse written for children and as a matter of fact some of them have the same, shall we say, expressionist atmosphere. Anyway, we read and re-read Mr. Ahmadi’s books and thought about their nuances. Choosing equivalents was not easy. Sometimes choosing the right word kept us all thinking for several days: Ms. Goodheart, the book editor; Ms. Fard, the publishing house administrator; and me. In the cases of these two books too, the brilliant illustrations were a big help and I liked to look at them every now and then during the translation in order to feel more in the atmosphere of the books. These pictures definitely play a big role as well in communicating the meaning of the works to the audience.
You have changed the names of the two books by Ahmadreza Ahmadi in the translation. The Lights Are Switched on has been changed into When I Coloured in the World and Journey has become Alive Again. The titles of two other books have also changed. For example the story we know in Iran as The Lying Shepherd has here become The Boy who Cried Wolf. Is the reason for these changes simply the market?
Let me begin from the end and explain about The Boy who Cried Wolf. It shouldn’t be called anything else in English. This story is not Iranian and is a famous fable by Aesop. If you give a summary of this story in any part of the English-speaking world and ask what the title of the story is, you’re told that it is The Boy who Cried Wolf. As for the other books, the goal in changing the titles was to have titles that would better reflect the content of the books. This is also a rather widespread practice in translation. May I also point out that the Persian title of Mr. Ahmadi’s book is a little different from what you mentioned and the original title is The Lights Were Suddenly Switched on.
Now one or two more personal questions: which book did you enjoy more while translating them? And which one was more difficult to translate?
I think I enjoyed Everybody’s Baby most of all, which was published as A Bird Like Himself. Of course, there is a book even dearer to me that has not yet been published and that is We Want a Sister by Ali Asghar Seidabadi. As for your second question, I should say translating poetry was more difficult. However, each work had its special beauty and would take me to my own or my children’s childhood.
Have you had any feedback from English-speaking children? How close do you think these books are to their inner world?
The welcoming that the books have received has been good and promising. I haven’t heard anything form the children themselves yet, but some blogging mothers have written in their blogs about the positive reaction their children have shown to the books. When I read about how one of these young ones had become attached to A Bird Like Himself, it was even more heartwarming than seeing the Little Black Fish’s name on the top of Guardian picks. One of these mothers had made fish-like stamps out of plasticine with her child and together they have made fish paintings using these stamps, inspired by Farshid Mesghali’s illustrations. They also listened to Iranian music besides reading the book. You can see some examples of such weblogs by clicking on the following links:
In my opinion, the books have been and will continue to be successful in being a cultural bridge, establishing a relationship between Iranian mentality and life on the one hand and foreign thoughts and experiences on the other. I hope your readers will also purchase these lovely enduring books, enjoy them, and write us what they think.