Kayvan Tahmasebian is a poet, critic, and the author of Isfahan’s Mold (Goman, 2016), Lecture on Fear and Other Poems (Radical Paper Press, 2019), and co-translator (with Rebecca Ruth Gould) of High Tide of the Eyes: Poems by Bijan Elahi (The Operating System, 2019). He is currently a Marie-Curie Fellow at University of Birmingham, and PI of TRANSMODERN, a Horizon 2020-funded project on the position of translated literature within modern Iranian literary theory. While most of his publications to date have been in Persian, he is the author of a number of articles that have been published or which are forthcoming in Overland, Modernism/Modernity, and Twentieth Century Literature.
In responding to my questions, Tahmasebian preferred to reply in impersonal terms (to speak of himself as an “other”), a step which he considers basic to any act of self-representation and self-fashioning. The interview is followed by Tahmasebian’s preface to his Persian translation of Giorgio Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus, published in 2016.
Rebecca Ruth Gould: What were you hoping to achieve with your book, Isfahan’s Mold? What motivated you to write it? Were you pleased with its reception?
Kayvan Tahmasebian: Isfahan’s Mold is the first volume in a larger cycle named Sharha matn (literally meaning both “explication de texte” and “fragmented text.” In Sharha matn, he had projected a series of critical-creative texts onto a number of Iranian writers, poets and artists such as the modernist short story writer Bahram Sadeqi, the modernist poet-translator Bijan Elahi, and the seventeenth century calligrapher Mir ʿEmad. Methodologically, these volumes engage with critical modes that have been rarely practiced in modern Iranian literary criticism such as close reading and deconstruction. His efforts to address contemporary critical theory’s interrogation of the boundaries between critical and creative writing in this project is inspired by Maurice Blanchot’s insight into the relation between theory and poetry, as formulated in Blanchot’s seminal work, Infinite Conversation (1969). In that work, Blanchot states that “Poetry has a form, the novel has a form; research [by contrast] seems unaware that it does not have a form or, worse still, refuses to question the form that it borrows from tradition.”
In the only published work in the Sharha matn series, on Bahram Sadeqi’s short stories, he tried to show how Sadeqi’s work could be read with a hyper-vigilance toward language. He aimed to provoke a radical questioning of the concept of the text. Typically, we define the text as flat, comprising two dimensions, that is, two horizontal and vertical extensions on the page. In this conception, a text gains depth only metaphorically and through the reader’s hermeneutic interventions: a depth that remains stubbornly figurative. He has always been intrigued by the tradition of marginalia writing and its ability to deepen the text materially by expanding it through commentary. With three distinct voices intermingling on each page in Isfahan’s Mold, he tried to expand the text’s uni- or bi-directional movement and open it up to a more interactive dialogue with the reader.
Do you see any parallels between Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and your Janīn poem series (several of which have been published in English translation in Lecture on Fear, a chapbook published by Radical Paper Press), named after the Persian word for fetus?
If there is a central idea with the Janīn cycle, it’s unfinished-ness, the idea of fragment in contrast to totality, pure potentiality. This comes from a generational awareness. He belongs to a generation that still awaits its birth, still looks forward to actualising its potential. So, the Janīn poems for him are residua of an abandoned work. Poems that are not finished, are rather foetuses of poems which are suspended between being born and unborn. Or even aborted foetuses, inspiration interrupted. Those are poems that died in the process of their creation without having the opportunity to take a final shape. So, the formal parallel between his Janīn project and Benjamin’s Arcades Project (a parallel which is not at all pre-meditated) is the idea of incompleteness and fragmentation. However, while this incompleteness seems to be mainly an effect of chance with respect to Benjamin’s work (due to his suicide), Janīn poems internalise unfinished-ness as a structural element. They develop an aesthetics of abandonment. Generally, we can view an aesthetics of abandonment in all artistic creations. From a certain perspective, all works of art that are exposed to an audience are in fact the residua of an abandoned work. Perhaps he has this opinion from his literary translation experiences, best formulated in Paul Valéry’s words, “un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé, … mais abandonné.” He hears an “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” with all of these foetus texts that he’s hardly ready to call “poems.” There is definitely a sense of accomplishment lacking in these texts which does not amount to failure. Because failure is meaningful in the expectation of accomplishment and totality which is absent in the case of these fragments. An aborted foetus has its own artistic potential somehow.
From another perspective, these aborted poems were a response to a state of emergency in which he found himself and a whole generation involved. He means the life of a generation of around forty-year-old Iranians who are still expecting their birth, who are still seeking the opportunity to actualise their potentials. They have lived their lives through unstable conditions brought about by war, domestic political power struggles and international conflicts and sanctions. A massive waste of energy! In around ten years from now, millions of Iranians will approach retirement age without having seriously worked, without pension, without future, having been supported by their families all their lives.
In addition to your work on the Iranian short story writer Bahram Sadeqi, you have translated Giorgio Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus into Persian. Can you describe the style you cultivate as a translator and the strategies you develop to render European critical thought into Persian?
Giorgio Agamben’s fostering of a certain mode of poetic thinking intrigues him. In his readings of Agamben, he was more concerned with the form of ideas than with the ideas themselves. That’s why as a translator of Agamben’s texts, he prioritised his rhetoric and his tone. He made a first draft of Adam Kotsko’s English translation of Pilato e Gesù in Persian. Then with a very superficial knowledge of Italian, he revised the Persian draft in order to bring it as close as possible to an extreme word-by-word rendering of the Italian text, respecting most of all the syntactic sequence in which the idea is presented. At the same time, he took extreme care to keep a delicate balance and not to lose the sense. One of the biggest problems when you translate philosophical or theoretical texts into Persian is that you can barely find a single agreed-upon equivalence for European concepts. Instead of relying on a single one-to-one correspondence for certain key terms such as “decisivo,” “paredoken,” and “krisis,” which might be misleading, he preferred to diversify the equivalents within the text and use as many different terms for a single term when appropriate, and then mark the original term in the footnote whenever it appears in the text.
What motivated you to translate the works you have translated, especially Agamben and Beckett?
He sees something in both Beckett and Agamben, despite their apparent disparity especially in political terms which he thinks has its own implications for our here and now. In both writers, he discovered a language of impotentiality which needs to be translated, implemented and amplified in modern Persian language and culture. The ethos of “Fail again. Fail better” in Samuel Beckett’s later prose reverberates with Agamben’s understanding of impotenza and Agamben’s emphasis on “what we can not do.” Both authors project the ways in which powerlessness and failure can still be turned into action: how to act with the minimum power, how to act in the impossibility or incapability of action, how to turn failure into power.
At what point do you decide that a text you are working on is ready for publication?
He usually avoids publication. He doesn’t think that publication at any price is good. However, he’s aware that not publishing creates a gap between the work and its proper time. This gap destroys the work’s exigency, that is, what makes its reception necessary here and now, apart from the diachronic exigency that gives the work its archival value. However, we should be able to distinguish between the writing of a work and the decision to publish it, to let others read it, to submit it to others’ judgments. A large part of what he writes or translates remain unpublished because for him, most of them are simply etudes, or mashq in the language of Persian calligraphy. This may sound much like a classical perfectionism and in contradiction with his emphasis, in the Janīn project, on the idea of incompleteness. But it’s not. It’s like the fermentation of the idea. During the fermentation, the idea should be concealed from view. Just like rehearsals in relation to the main performance. This does not mean that the main performance is necessarily perfect. Etudes do not necessarily mark a movement toward perfection.
Has growing up and living in Isfahan affected your writing style?
He thinks it has. As the narrator in the Hormoz Shahdadi’s novel, Shab-i howl (Night of fear), published the year of the Islamic Revolution, writes about Isfahan, “In Isfahan, one is initiated to God, to history, and to tradition from a very early age.” You receive hallucinations from the space and you become fond of oral history, aura, and magic. Growing up in Isfahan, for him, was living a Borgesian fantasy. Wandering in the maze of Isfahan Bazar inspired him to notice the form and spatiality of ideas. However, as he lived more in that city, he developed a love-hate relationship toward it, as a prisoner might develop for his prison. The city represents a paradigm of paradise, albeit a stagnant paradise that resists change, that is in danger of being buried under the burden of a glorious past and a blind industrialism, hurling towards the future.
Can you comment on the status of English poetry in Iran, as compared to other literatures, like French? What about the values underwriting poetry in these literatures? Are these the same?
He thinks English poetry is not as influential as French poetry on the development of Iranian poetry. Traditionally, French symbolist poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud were read and appreciated more than English poets. The most popular English poets among Iranian readers of European poetry were the Romantics: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelly, and Keats. However, T.S Eliot’s poems are widely translated into Persian and had an impact on the modernist Iranian poets of the 1960s. In a letter to the editor of Berkeley Review, Saint-John Perse contrasts English and French poetry by suggesting that English poetry is “poetry of idea, therefore of definition and of elucidation, always explicit and logical, because deriving from a rational source,” while French poetry is “synthetic” rather than “analytic,” “esoteric” rather than “exoteric,” consisting of “incantation” rather than “definition and elucidation.” He believes that Persian poetry is closer in nature to French poetry, understood in these terms.
He himself had the opportunity to study and teach English poetry in a post-revolutionary Iranian academic environment. This was a strange experience that should be discussed at length in another context. He usually used the example of William Carlos Williams’ poems with his Iranian students—particularly “Red Wheelbarrow”—to create a shock effect within his students and to teach them about the radical gap between the minimalist aesthetic of American modernism and the Iranian reader’s typical expectation of a poem.
How does your work as a translator interact with your creative writing?
Indeed, they are not separate at all. He can’t see translation as a secondary activity. Literary translation can be as original as writing a poem. In addition, his writing is itself not separable from his translation. He thinks a considerable part of the language he works out in his poems or in his critical writing is formed through his translational involvements. He can remember the first poems he wrote in his early twenties were during his attempts to translate poetry.
Kayvan Tahmasebian’s Preface to his Persian Translation
of Giorgio Agamben’s Pilato e Gesù
(translated from the Persian by Kayvan Tahmasebian)
For the translator, the Persian translation of Giorgio Agamben’s Pilato e Gesù (Nottetempo, 2013) was part of a venture into translating the “tone” of a critical text which he had already practiced through trials on Giorgio Agamben’s Idea della Prosa (1985) and several shorter texts, such as “Il Giorno del Giudizio” (2004) and “Su ciò che possiamo non fare” (2009). By translating the “tone,” a movement is meant, under strict literal restrictions and through a neatly patterned network located at the heart of the verbal structures and the textual transformations of Agamben’s essay. In this way, the translator’s “faithfulness” consists of not only re-presenting the ideas––the evident task of any translation and the “testimony of truth” that is expected from an accused in trial–– but also surveying the material geography of the original text. More precisely, the task of translating both the idea and the form of the idea was taken into consideration.
For this purpose, first, a Persian version was prepared based on the English translation of Adam Kotsko (Stanford University Press, 2015) to be modified and re-written next (over the course of several drafts), entirely and according to the syntax of the original text. During a re-reading of the Persian translation, it was decided that the writer’s frequent references to Latin, Greek and German (more natural in Italian than in Persian) should be moved to the footnotes in order not to trouble the reading of the text in Persian. By not losing concentration on the footnotes, the reader is able to trace the word-ly network of the original text. The main nodes of this verbal network, which are marked frequently in the footnotes, consist of:
- A communion of senses of “decision [ حکم],” “judgement [داوری],” “fate [قضا],” and “crisis [بحران]” all in the single word, krisis, and its derivations.
- The translator’s undecidability with regard to a single “decisive” Persian equivalence for the frequent essential word of the text, decisive. Derived from the medieval Latin “decider” literally signifying “cutting off,” it also indicates situations that are essentially related to “decision.” Interestingly, the reader can associate the word with the “decisive moment” in photography, the moment when the photographer decides to click (as in “Il Giorno del Giudizio”) as well as the traumatic “decisive experience” of facing the “thing” of language itself (as in “idea della materia”).
- Tracing the trajectory that joins the Italian “consegna” in the sense of “delivery” and “handover” to tradizione (سنّت) and paradosis (سپارش). Both involve a sense “transfer [تحویل].”
- Finally, the difficulty of finding a proper Persian equivalence for the frequent word of “piano” in both senses of “plan” and “plane” ––from the Latin planus.
It should be noted that in its structure, the book reveals a “fissure” or “crack” that constitutes also the necessary form of Agamben’s idea of encounter reflected first in the title of the essay: Pilate and Jesus, consisting of the main title essay appended by 7 “glosses.” The word “symbolon” in the beginning of the text is indeed a symbol for the fissured structure of the text. Derived from the Greek sun + ballein meaning “throwing (ballein) together (sun),” the word originally denoted two halves of a broken object that, placed together, work as symbol or token of recognition between the owners. The Nicaean Creed was called “symbolon” because, as the Christian article of faith, it was the token of recognition of Christians from pagans. Yet, Agamben presents another “symbolon” in his essay through the notions of “encounter,” “placing together,” and “collision,” as already announced by the essay title. In light of the fact that the idea of symbol is based on the principle of representation and substitution, the reader recognizes that the fundamental encounter of Agamben’s compact text, between the vicars of the earthly and heavenly kingdoms, is also reflected in the structural crack of the essay and its division into “text” and “margins” as well as in the mystery of the “cross” at the end of the text.
Formulating this cut or crossover in his work, Agamben conceptualizes the essential characteristic of life as a perpetual but restricted course of decision and cutting-off. The translator believes that in this short treatise on “decision,” Agamben puts forward a performative ––and not merely ethical–– aspect of decision-making: apart from being “right” or “wrong” (variable with time), a decision is legitimate so long as it is taken as the only decision: to take the decision as if there were no other options; otherwise, it would be only doubt and uncertainty. If decision-making in the flood of possibilities is the common denominator of life and translation, Pilate and Jesus may also be read as an allegory of the “mystery” of translation.
Rebecca Gould is the author of Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016), which was awarded the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies and the best book award by the Association for Women in Slavic Studies, and the translator of After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2016), and The Prose of the Mountains: Tales of the Caucasus (Central European University Press, 2015).
Rebecca is one also of our inaugural Full Stop Fellows. She will use her time as a Full Stop fellow to further explore the link between translation and activism. The project begins with a series of interviews and culminates in a set of curated book reviews by Palestinian students in Gaza focusing on the work of James Baldwin. The reviews will be published in a special Full Stop supplement.