By Anna Learn
Poupeh Missaghi wants you, the reader, to stumble.
In her genre-twisting 2020 novel trans(re)lating house one, the writer and translator declares, “I want you to be disrupted when you arrive here, feel some discomfort, feel out of place” (35).
Although trans(re)lating house one is presented to us in English, Missaghi insists that Persian is the true language of its characters and city. The book was “translated” from Persian to English, then, before it was ever written.
For this reason, throughout her novel, Missaghi seeks to “acknowledge the Otherness of both the territory and the language to you, make them visible, and celebrate them” (35). Contrary to the dominant market ideal of “fluidity” or “smoothness” in literary translation, which tends to value the flattening of the “strangeness” or “foreignness” of a text, here Missaghi aspires to make the “foreign” or “translated” element of her novel actively trip up the reader, inciting the reader to falter, question, and search, rather than to simply glide over the words’ surface with ease. Missaghi does this most powerfully when she plays with the very layout of the page. In various chapters, the English-language text is right-aligned, an overt nod to the Persian script, which is read from right to left. This layout shift produces an unsettling effect in an Anglophone context, forcing that reader to contend with what it means to be “Other” in a literary territory made to be “foreign.”
It is with this poetics of translation (what I think of as a poetics of generative stumbling) that Missaghi rendered the Iranian writer Nasim Marashi’s novel Pāyīz fasl-e ākhar-e sāl ast into English as I’ll Be Strong for You for Astra House Books in April of 2021. The book is narrated by three Iranian women in their late 20s, who grapple with unrealized dreams, paralyzing indecision, and an ever-present sense of loss. The six chapters are divided neatly between three narrators, Leyla, Shabaneh, and Roja, who first appear in a triad of chapters labeled “Summer,” before coming back in the same order in the devastating Act Two of the novel, tellingly called “Fall.” Marashi’s novel has been met with critical and popular acclaim in Iran, but the book has not received the attention it merits in its English translation by Missaghi.
Reviews of the book that consider its translated nature have tended to focus on Missaghi’s choice to morph the title from its literal equivalent in English (“Fall is the Last Season of the Year”) to “I’ll Be Strong for You,” a decidedly different collection of words. This may be seen as an unfaithful translation, one that so blatantly alters the source text when converted into English. However, as Missaghi asks in trans(re)lating house one, “What is faithfulness? What is translation” (245, italics mine).
Rather than critique the translation of the title for the simple fact of its divergence, it may be more constructive to ask: what are the effects of this title translation, and what can this choice tell us about Missaghi’s powerful poetics of translation more generally?
For me, the title I’ll Be Strong for You serves to make four key elements of the book more visible.
First, the title’s use of the pronoun “you” puts a spotlight on a notable structural trait of the book: the second-person narration that Leyla uses in her two chapters. Leyla, a disillusioned cultural reporter, is grieving the absence of her ex-husband, Misagh, who left Iran in order to make a life for himself in France. Laying listlessly in her dirty apartment, Leyla addresses her narration directly to the vanished Misagh. In her narration, Leyla moves between the present tense of her bleak reality, the past tense of her memories and dreams, and the conditional tense, musing on what could have been, all the while regularly invoking the second person. The rawness with which Leyla talks to and about her absent beloved is made even more painful by the intimacy that the repeated “you” evokes.
I sat in silence and packed your suitcase. I was not agreeing with you leaving, I was just silent, and then you left without me. (14)
I called your name. You began to walk away, gaining distance. You were sliding over the floor tiles. I ran, reached out my hand, and grabbed yours. Your hand remained in mine, and the airplane took off. (3)
I wish you were here. (121)
Despite the fervor with which Leyla thinks of Misagh, he never responds directly to her in the novel’s pages. Instead, Leyla’s countless, desperate yous float off into space, with no interlocutor to catch them:
“You were waiting behind the door. You only had to knock and come in. You didn’t. I got up and opened the door. You were not there” (134). I’ll Be Strong for You is thus a call for the reader to take note of Leyla’s second-person lament in particular, and to pay attention to the stylistic or aesthetic elements of the work more broadly.
While appreciating the literary techniques of a novel may seem like an obvious activity for anyone to do while reading, it is often not so in the realm of Persian-language literature translated into English. This group of books generally tends to be interpreted (almost exclusively) through a socio-political lens, leaving literary elements of these books un(der)considered. Given this context, it is a meaningful act to choose to take note of the stylistic or aesthetic elements of I’ll Be Strong for You.
While making an internal reference to the literary qualities of the text itself, the invocation of “you” in the title also reaches outwards, beyond the pages of the novel, speaking directly to you, to us, the readers. In doing so, the title prompts the reader to think about their relation to the book’s (Persian-speaking, Tehran-dwelling) narrators. As one reviewer asks, “Who is this You that is being referred to here?”. The ambiguity present in the title (the stumbling that Missaghi causes with the title’s “You”) thus makes the reader labor in order to orient themselves vis-à-vis the title.
Negotiating the relationship between “I” and “you” is a central theme in Missaghi’s creative work. In trans(re)lating house one, Missaghi is particularly concerned with the (constructed) separation of oneself from the Other. She asks,
How can we walk the distance that separates you and me, you and us, who became one and the Other […] and arrive on the other side, alive and generous? (72).
How can one “shift the perspective and adjust the self toward the Other to imagine a new “we”? (97)
Missaghi is interested in the assumed distance between oneself and the Other, but in her translation of Marashi’s novel, she does not try to bridge that distance by translating culturally-specific phrases or concepts into closer equivalents in English. She has thus directly rendered phrases such as “all you are missing is some chest-beating mourners” (23); “brooding like a Qajari woman at a gathering” (52); or “nobody is Rostam or Arash or Pouria anymore” (163), and has chosen not to gloss, footnote, or exoticize these culturally-embedded references through italics. In choosing not to domesticate the text, Missaghi hedges a bet: that the Anglophone reader, if they do trip over an unfamiliar cultural or religious reference, will get back up again, and continue reading. Missaghi places her faith in the reader’s willingness to learn from this stumble and to expand their cultural literacy, rather than damning, dismissing, or scorning the phrase that made them trip.
In short, Missaghi’s translation choices show that the distance between “I” and “You” can be creatively and fruitfully walked by the reader, and that a new meeting space can be found. I’ll Be Strong for You is a title that encourages the reader to consider how they (the “I”) are in relationship with the Other (the “You”).
The wording itself of the title I’ll Be Strong for You also serves another function: it offers the reader a guide for how to understand its characters. The title suggests that the three female protagonists in its pages are willfully, well, strong.
In the context of Western discourses that seek out “certain narratives of backwardness and victimhood” (Missaghi, 52) when framing Middle Eastern stories, especially ones about women, the word “strong” works to create alternate narratives, and different representations of women that break with Orientalist stereotypes and essentializations. Indeed, the book’s three main characters are deliciously messy and complex people: Leyla has high career aspirations, and yet delights in the femininity garnered through throwing a successful party; Shabaneh fancies herself a fairytale princess in her innermost thoughts, and yet lets loose quite profane language (in Missaghi’s translation) with regularity; and Roja, despite her acceptance to a prestigious PhD program in France, secretly cultivates the following macabre fantasy:
…When I finish my PhD, I will be like him [Kieślowski]. How wonderful it would be to be so content with life, not to want to do anything other than having fun and dying. (102-103)
Finally, the English-language title’s dynamic divergence from its Persian counterpart signals to the reader (particularly, to a reader who may know the meaning of the Persian-language source text) that this translated novel is a work of rewriting (which is the condition of translation). Missaghi does not propose a literal equivalence between her translation of Marashi’s novel and the Persian-language source text by translating the title word-for-word into English. Instead, the creativity with which Missaghi has grafted a new title for the book’s English-language version demonstrates a more artistic conception of the role of the translator, one in which the translator does not do all of the work of cultural/linguistic/aesthetic transference for the reader, but rather invites the reader to take a more active role in learning about the “foreign” aspects of the text.
Of course, there are other ways in which Missaghi’s poetics of translation as a writer emerge through her rendering of Marashi’s novel, beyond the title.
On the level of style, Missaghi opts for unstable, visceral, and intense language when re-creating Marashi’s words into English. As a translator, Missaghi maintains the temporal instability of the narration, selects compellingly visceral verbs to animate the feelings of anxiety and despair that Leyla, Shabaneh, and Roja feel (“the numbers will line up one after the other and chew my brain.” (6); “I’ll work until I’m exhausted, and then I’ll hold my exhaustion in my arms and gradually go to sleep” (10), italics mine), and opts for more explicit language when translating Marashi than the author had used in the original. Instead of giving a milder, and more literal translation of the Persian phrase “لعنت به من” as “Damn me,” Missaghi goes for the more profane and arresting “Fuck me” (36).
There are also parallels between the content of both Missaghi’s and Marashi’s creative works: both writers delight in describing texture and flow of the city of Tehran:
The map of the city is to be drawn with words. The map is the text. The text is the map. The text is the city. But even that will not remain stable. Even that will be forever changing. The text breathes. The text grows. The text decomposes. The city grows and dies and dies and grows. The city decomposes. The city breathes. (Missaghi, 5)
Every time I make a turn, the number of people grows, and they walk faster and faster, and like fluid molecules with Brownian motion, they bump into one another and pass by one another…Their lips move as if in a nightmare, and they speak strange words in a language I don’t know. There are thousands of people. They all seem to be speaking in my head. The heat is driving me crazy. The loud horn of a bus startles me. (Marashi, trans. Missaghi, 25)
Both reflect on the unusual shapes womanhood takes:
We are grotesque women, Shabaneh. We’ve walked out of our mothers’ lives but have not yet walked into our daughters’ lives. Our hearts belong to the past, but our minds to the future. Each life pulls us toward itself and tears us into pieces. If we weren’t so misshapen, all three of us would be peacefully sitting in our homes right now, raising our kids. (Marashi, trans. Missaghi, 171)
A woman’s language. Spiral. Sprawling. Moving in and out. Meandering toward and away. Breathing in and breathing out…Exploding into formation within a constellation of past, present, and future female (hi)stories, which the official, rigid, patriarchal narrative intends to erase and forget… (Missaghi, 78)
And both fill their narratives with questions upon questions:
How do we fight the myth of the one and only Truth? How to move from Truth to truths? Who defines truths? Our truths? (Missaghi, 142)
With what force did our foundation crack so deep that, without even realizing it and with just one breeze, we crumbled down on top of ourselves, unable to get back on our feet? (10) (Marashi, trans. Missaghi)
Throughout the brief 210 pages of I’ll Be Strong for You, Leyla, Shabaneh, and Roja try to reach towards happiness, but are regularly knocked back into states of depression by capitalism, familial traumas, misogyny, governmental suppression, loneliness, and heartbreak. Ultimately, however, the three protagonists still aim to cultivate strength and resilience. The ending may not be happy, and the characters’ futures may not be clear, but, as Missaghi writes in house one,
…it’s all O.K. […] the only thing that really matters is to keep wandering, to keep searching, to keep asking questions, to become the questions, to aim to create not a map that leads to arrival, but a map for getting lost… (200)
Getting lost, stumbling, questioning.
These are the types of un-glamorous, un-smooth, and un-fluid actions that make for a reader’s generative engagement with a written work. Missaghi, in translating Marashi, and in “translating” herself, has sown questions within the novels’ titles and texts for the reader, urging us to take our time in the act of tripping, falling, and feeling foreign in our own home of English.
Marashi, Nasim. I’ll Be Strong for You. Translated by Poupeh Missaghi. Astra House, 2021.
Missaghi, Poupeh. trans(re)lating house one. Coffee House Press, 2020.
Anna Learn is a Ph.D. student of contemporary Persian and Spanish-language literatures at the University of Washington. She received her MA in Comparative Literature in 2019 from the Universidad de Salamanca, in Spain. She is particularly interested in short fiction, women’s writing, and translation studies. She hopes to broaden the literary conversations taking place in the US by focusing on (non-Western European) literature in translation in her work. Anna can be reached at email@example.com.