The annual announcement of the recipient of the Nobel prize for literature is always big news. Last year, many were shocked (some even offended) when the award went to the songwriter Bob Dylan. Why celebrate a big celebrity when the award could shed light on lesser known talents? In previous years, of course, some grumbled precisely because the award went to what the New York Times recently called “obscure European writers whose work was not widely read in English.” The article listed a few laureates who supposedly fit this description, including the French novelist Patrick Modiano, who won in 2014.
But what if we look at the award given by the Swedish Academy more globally? The Iranian literary community, for instance, would not have considered Modiano “obscure,” as his work was widely translated into Persian and the subject of numerous studies and book events in the country, some in small provincial towns.
This year’s winner, the Japanese-born British writer Kazuo Ishiguro, is well known around the world, a fact partly explained by the fact that he writes in English. But he is also very well known in Iran, where he can perhaps be counted as one of the most-read novelists in the country.
Every single novel by Ishiguro has been translated into Persian, often more than once, and not just by anybody, but by the giants of Persian literature and translation. Ishiguro’s Persian life began when Najaf Daryabandari, arguably the greatest living literary translator working in the Persian language, translated Remains of the Day. The novel, set in interwar England and telling the story of a butler serving an English lord, was Ishiguro’s third novel. It won him the Man Booker prize and cemented his literary stardom. For his translation, he picked an archaic Persian prose, reminiscent of the times of the 19th century Qajar dynasty, to re-create the tone of the narrating butler. The result was so successful that many consider the translation a masterpiece of modern Iranian literature in its own right.
“In English, the work has a melodic and weighty language and also a slavish tone that is cumbersome,” said leading wordsmith Ahmad Poori about Remains of the Day. “Daryabandari’s Persian translation has carried all of that. There is even that sense of the language being obnoxious and ridiculous.” Poori says that Daryabandari’s translation was, in fact, better than the original.
Daryabandari, also a communist essayist, was already well known for his translations of William Faulkner, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. But when Remains of the Day’s Persian translation came out in 1996, the work had an electric effect on Iran’s reading public. It has remained ever more popular throughout the years and a new edition was published in 2015. Tens of thousands of the previous edition were sold. In the early 2000s, when Iran caught blogosphere fever and Iranians became one of the world’s most avid bloggers, there was more than one blog entitled Remains of the Day. Today, the Paris-based Iranian movie critic Mohamad Vahdani still runs a blog with that title. When news of Ishiguro’s award emerged, dozens tweeted about their memories of the book, and of Daryabandari’s translation. “What he’s done is more than translation. You can call it a pure translation or maybe a literary re-creation,” said Erfan Mojib on Twitter.
But why would a story set in an English manor house be so relevant in a different society like that of Iran?
“The delicate writing means one is not alienated from the unfamiliar setting,” Nikoo Khakpoor, an Iranian writer who lives between Tehran and London, told IranWire. “I had been to England before reading the book but didn’t know anything about the aristocratic space described in the book or about wartime England. But the book’s details, its pictures and the atmosphere it creates makes you feel as if are you are actually there. I was with the book’s characters without feeling confused.”
The book’s “open plot” significantly affected Khakpoor’s work as a writer, she said. “It is easier to use this technique in a short story but to do it right in a novel is difficult. In Remains of the Day it is done brilliantly,” she says.
Poori says the work also resonated in Iran because it is actually a political book “indirectly targeting fascism” and also “a delicate romance.”
An Inspiration to Writers in Exile
That the novel was written by a migrant with a visibly non-English name has appealed to writers in the diaspora. On Twitter, one Iranian said, “whenever a migrant achieves something like this, I feel like a compatriot of my own has.”
One scholarly work on Ishiguro’s global reach mentions a conference on his work that took place in Ankara, Turkey in 2011 that included scholars from Iran. It also compares him to Shirin Nezammafi, an Iranian engineer who found a second life as a writer when she moved to Japan at the age of 20. In 2009, Nezammafi became only the second non-Japanese writer in history to win the country’s most prestigious literary award.
Bahman Farmanara, an Iranian filmmaker who was at the height of his career when it was disrupted by the 1979 revolution, considered it impossible for an exiled artist to achieve abroad what he has achieved back home. He mentioned Ishiguro, a Japanese person writing in English, as an exceptional success, because he had grown up in England.
It is no surprise that Ishiguro’s name has become a guarantor of bestsellers in Iran’s book market. In 2015, when Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years, was published in English, a quick race for its Persian translation began. Two of the big rival publishing houses quickly published translations. Cheshmeh, a favorite of the pretentious artsy types of Tehran, published it with a translation by Amir Mehdi Haqiqat, primarily known as the translator of Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri. The more commercial Qoqnoos published a translation by Soheil Somi, who had also translated Ishiguro’s previous work, the dystopically-set Never Let Me Go. Two small publication houses also published their own versions, bringing the total to four to date, less than three years after the 352-page book was published in its original English. (Since Iran is one of the very few countries not party to international copyright law, there are no limits on how many translations can come out.)
Ishiguro’s other novels have also found top translators. Mojde Daghighi, known as the translator of Sherlock Holmes stories and Alice Munro, translated We Were Orphans. Mehdi Qobrayi’s translation of Never Let Me Go was one of his dearest projects even though, during the dark years of President Ahmadinejad, the culture ministry prevented it from being published for years. Qobrayi complained that the ministry had asked for six full pages from the 288-page book to be taken out and for 159 other cases to be “corrected.”
Like any good literary success, the book and author also have its “haters” in Iran. Some grumbled that the fellow Japanese Haruki Murakami should have won the award. Some opted for the Canadian Margaret Atwood.
Ishiguro’s face adorns the first page of most of Tehran’s newspapers pages today, and appears on many Iranian news websites, including Tasnim News Agency's site. One can expect the bookshops to hastily arrange his works on their displays. As much of the country’s establishment does its best to close the country up, it is worth remembering that thousands of Iranians are in tune with the latest in global literature.