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Translation Movements in Iran; Sassanian Era, to Year 2000, Expansion, Preservation and Modernization
(Continued from page two)
By Massoume Price
 
 
Iranians survived and managed to preserve their culture. The brilliant and ingenious adaptation of the Arabic alphabet (Aramaic in origin) guaranteed the survival of the Persian language. The script was changed but the phonetics remained the same. Pre-Islamic Persian literature flourished in neo-Persian texts and was immortalized by the likes of Ferdowsi, Nezami and Attar. One thousand and one night originally Hazar Afsanak became Arabian nights and Shahrazad inspired European writers and composers. Children of the world came to know the legendary Barmakid minister Jafar through Walt Disney's Aladdin. Persian became the court language of the Moguls and the Turks and Persian cultural influences remained in Pakistan Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics.

By far the most important work re-written and translated in the 10th century was Shahnameh. The Persian language at its' best, the book contains elements of Persian history survived from the Sassanian period plus a magnificent collection of Avestan mythology. Avestan characters such as Feraydon, Jamshid, Tahmoureth, Kiomarth and the legendary bird Seemourgh etc., were forever engraved in the psyche of Iranians. As correctly put by Ferdowsi himself, the nation was revived through Shahnameh's language. In Reza Shah's period when Arabic names where replaced this book was used as the source book to find the equivalent in Persian!

The second millennium witnessed the demise of the Iranian culture and civilization as a whole. Towards the end of this period another major translation movement would make its mark. The second half of the 19th century is the beginning of major political and ideological transformations in the country and the start of modernization processes. Modern sciences and western ideas of democracy civil society enlightenment human rights and emancipation of women were introduced through translation of European texts into Persian. The Armenians of Isfahan for their exclusive use imported the first printing machine in 1641. However the first printing machine in Persian started work in Tabriz in 1813 and the book industry was changed forever. The first modern school Dar ul Fonoun (the Institute of technology) started work in 1851 with a few European instructors and texts were translated from a number of European languages to introduce Iranian pupils to modern sciences.

Educated Iranians joined and in no time tens of books in Geography, Engineering, Medicine, Military, Biology, Mathematics and other disciplines were translated. The school had a theater as well and for the first time since pre-Islamic times plays by western writers (Moliere) were performed in the school. Translations of historical and literary work followed. Voltaire's Histories of Peter the Great, Charles the VII, Alexander of Macedonia and Sir John Malcolm's History of Iran were translated. Along with Three Musketeers, Count of Monte Cristo, Queen Margo, Adventures of Telemaque, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's travels James Mauriers's the Story of Hajji Baba of Isfahan and Jules Vern's science fictions.

The early translations were clumsy inaccurate and Persian poetry and anecdotes were added in between the lines. Nevertheless they opened the way to the modern world and introduced new ideas. The introductions talked about the importance of modernization, new sciences, new literary concepts and they significantly changed the old and pompous literary style of the local writers. Translators wanted to remain true to the originals as a result a simpler and more natural language was adopted. The pleasantries and unnecessary commentaries common till 19th century were abandoned and modern Persian literature and poetry was born. Amin Dulah, Rezagholi e Hedayat, Yousof e Mostashar Dulah, Prince Taher Mirza, Etemad Saltaneh, Malcom Khan, Talebof and Akhond Zadeh are amongst the first popular translators of the period.

The modernization movement resulted in the constitutional revolution (1906) and for the first time since the conquest of Islam secularization began in the country. During the Pahlavi era translation became an art. All major international texts, literary and otherwise were translated into modern Persian from a number of languages and the translation culture was amongst the best in the continent. Books from a variety of subjects from Nobel Prize authors to popular romance, detective stories, history, health, philosophy etc. were translated. Censorship existed and it was mainly applied to political and erotic literature.  The religious sector remained behind and few attempts were made to translate major Islamic texts especially from the Middle Ages into modern Persian. Universities, academics and government institutions such as the Organization for translation and Publication of Books carried out such translations.

The second decade of the Islamic Republic has seen an explosion in book publishing. This is despite the high cost, low readership, political instability, pressure groups and contradictory policies by the Ministry of guidance with respect to censorship. Translated books about New Age and modern spirituality are appearing in great numbers. Feminist literature has a strong presence and all the major books and biographies from western sources are translated along with historical and fictional accounts of the goddesses of the ancient times. Ancient Iranian history has made a strong comeback and all recently published books in the field are translated despite the government's unwillingness. Popular romance and other escapist literature are amongst the best selling books. The government's sponsorship and financial aid is mainly directed towards religious texts particularly translations of Medieval texts in Arabic and Shiite literature.
 

The translation culture at the present reflects the struggles and contradictions in the country at large. Its aim appears to be preserving the Persian history and heritage, encouraging flow of information from the west and at the same time provides temporary relief. It is hard to get any reliable statistics from Iran but Daniel Steel's books seem to be one the best sellers in the country!


Massoume Price is an Ecologist and a Social Anthropologist educated in Iran and England, Kings and University Colleges, London University. She currently lives and works in Canada and is a free lance writer.

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