Reading “The Stranger” in Tehran: An Interview with Mohammad Hekmat

A NATIVE-BORN IRANIAN, Mohammad Hekmat came to the United States in 2005 to pursue graduate studies in electrical engineering, eventually graduating with a PhD from Stanford in 2010. While working as an engineer, Hekmat moonlights as an English-to-Farsi literary translator. (He attributes this sideline to his mother, a literature teacher in Tehran who filled their house with novels translated from various foreign languages.) Among the works he has translated are Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, and, most recently, Robert Zaretsky’s Albert Camus: Elements of a Life. In this interview with Robert Zaretsky, Hekmat reflects on Camus and on the linguistic, legal, and cultural challenges facing translators in Iran.


ROBERT ZARETSKY: Did personal reasons lead to your decision to translate a work on Camus? Are there many other Iranians who might share those reasons?

MOHAMMAD HEKMAT: Camus has been a popular figure in Iran and has a long history there. The Stranger was first translated into Persian in the early 1950s and many of his other works quickly followed. Not surprisingly, the early translations were by left-wing writers and translators. Most notably, the first translation of The Stranger was by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, a leading leftist intellectual, essayist, novelist, and short-story writer who had a fairly limited familiarity with the French language; he translated the book with the help of another Iranian intellectual, Ali Asghar Khebrehzadeh. This was not the best translation, and, in my opinion, missed some major style elements in Camus’s writing. Nevertheless, it became the cornerstone for Camus’s presence in the literary scene in Iran.

What drew Al-e-Ahmad to The Stranger? Did his view dovetail with, say, those of Edward Said and Conor Cruise O’Brien, who saw the novel as the work of a well-meaning but unknowing apologist for French imperialism?

In a brief preface, Al-e-Ahmad praises Camus’s treatment of death and the concept of the absurd. The preface shows that he was familiar with other works by Camus as well. There is no evidence that he viewed Camus as an apologist for imperialism, and I doubt he had read O’Brien’s book, which was published in Iran shortly after Al-e-Ahmad’s untimely death. He mostly saw Camus as a new voice in French literature. He specifically mentions in his preface that Camus is not “an ordinary writer, who, in order to entertain his readers, follows the typical recipe of a man falling in love with a woman and creates obstacles in their way to increase the page count.”

Seems like someone ought to write a book titled Reading The Stranger in Tehran!

Most certainly, yes. I checked Persian Wikipedia today: it lists nine translations of The Stranger, four translations of The Plague, five translations of The Fall, and, according to the National Library, there are many more. I, too, was exposed to Camus first through The Stranger, and instantly became a fan. Camus’s style of writing and the fundamental questions he asks resonate very well with Iranian readers. Reading The Stranger in Tehran? Well, if you are drawing a parallel with Reading Lolita in Tehran, I would say yes — but there is an important difference: Lolita has been banned in Iran for a variety of reasons, but The Stranger has always been available; in that sense, the story line will inevitably be different from Azar Nafisi’s book. Still, one can certainly make a case for The Stranger based on its popularity and the impact Camus has had on the intellectual movements in Iran.

What are the pleasures and difficulties in translating Camus into Farsi? Are these difficulties only linguistic, or are there philosophical and political challenges as well?

It’s always nice to know a priori that the subject is of interest to the readers. When I translated The Sense of an Ending, I felt a little anxious, because it was Julian Barnes’s first book to appear in Persian and I wasn’t quite sure what the reaction would be. With Camus, the style of writing is rather simple and terse, especially in his novels, which I believe can be worked out fairly easily in translation into Persian. Linguistically, the difficulty is in certain terms that he uses. Perhaps the most difficult term, which I have seen other translators struggle with too, is the word absurd. There is no direct translation of the word absurd into Persian. I have seen different approaches by Iranian translators — some even just use the transliteration of the word. His more philosophical works have been much harder to translate. I tried to read The Myth of Sisyphus in Persian, and it’s extremely hard to understand. This has been a general issue with translation of modern and Western philosophy into Persian. There is simply a shortage of terms, and the style had no tradition. There have been numerous efforts to invent new words, many of which have been successfully adopted, but it’s an ongoing process. Politically, I don’t think there has been any issue with Camus. His novels focus on fundamental questions that transcend day-to-day politics. Even his political views aligned with the state of politics in Iran. Most notably, his opposition to Nazis and communism might have very well resonated with the political sentiment in Iran both before and after the 1979 Revolution.

What about Barnes? The Sense of an Ending is a remarkable novel, one haunted by Barnes’s own preoccupation with death, as well as the puzzles that other human beings — especially those closest to us — pose to our understanding. How did you go about it?

I read The Sense of an Ending shortly after it won the Booker Prize and I really liked its themes and style. It’s the culmination of Barnes’s experiments with different genres. On the one hand, we have the typical Julian Barnes, with his sharp-tongued prose and sense of humor, while on the other, the book reads like detective fiction, reminiscent of the early novels he wrote under the penname Dan Kavanagh. Some months later, when I was in Iran and looked for Julian Barnes’s work in Persian, I found, to my surprise, that there was none. That is how I decided to translate The Sense of an Ending.

There are, of course, general linguistic difficulties involved in translating English into Persian. Let me give you two. First, in Persian, the verb comes at the very end of the sentence. This makes translating nested sentences, which are so easily formed in English by way, for example, of participial phrases, very difficult. In English, the reader knows the ultimate action from the beginning, while in Persian, this can be extremely confusing, and most of the time such sentences need to be split up. Second, Persian is completely genderless, so there is no notion of “he” or “she.” Translations of “He saw her” and “She saw him” would be identical, unless the names of the characters are repeated, or if “he” is replaced with “the man” and “she” with “the woman.” Either way, it can be repetitive and unattractively long.

Are the cultural differences as daunting?

Well, Iranians, like many other Eastern cultures, are extremely reserved when it comes to talking about intimacy and sex. The Persian language has a very long literary tradition, but it’s almost entirely poetic. In poetry, intimacy and lovemaking are used almost strictly for mystical allegories where the beloved typically represents a transcendental entity. The modern novel was not introduced to Iranians until perhaps a little over 100 years ago, so part of the difficulty of translating Western novels is simply a lack of tradition — somewhat similar to what I mentioned about the difficulty of translating philosophical texts. The language just doesn’t exist. An ordinary sex scene, if translated into Persian, can either sound too poetic or extremely vulgar. Despite all the efforts in the past 100 years, there is still a long way to go, because it’s not just the Persian language, it’s also the conservative nature of Iranian society, which still makes certain things taboo. In addition to that, all books in Iran need to be approved by the Ministry of Culture. Socially taboo things such as explicit sex scenes, homosexuality, and certain forms of infidelity are not allowed — or, if allowed, are heavily toned down. Having said that, Iranian writers and translators have been quite creative in circumventing these limitations through careful word choice. If you go to an Iranian bookstore, you’ll be surprised by the variety of books on the shelves, but many of them have been heavily censored.

Can you cite specific passages in Barnes’s novel that were especially sensitive?

For example, there is Tony’s letter to Adrian and Veronica, with its extremely offensive tone and profanity. After we submitted the book, we were asked to modify many things. At that point, I decided not to publish it in Iran. We ended up getting it published in Afghanistan, because they share the same language but don’t have censorship, at least for now. It came out with Zaryab, the same publishing house that had earlier released the uncensored version of Lolita. It is unimaginable to publish Lolita in its entirety in Iran. Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s market is very small and, unlike Lolita, Barnes’s novel didn’t get smuggled to Iran. And so it remained somewhat unseen until another Iranian translator published it in Iran with modifications; that became a huge success and prompted the translation of Barnes’s other books.

What were those modifications like?

To give you one example, consider Tony’s line: “So keep rolling the Durex onto his spindly cock, Veronica. Or perhaps you haven’t let him go that far yet?” This was translated as: “So, Veronica, don’t forget the scabbard.” And “If she hasn’t let you Go All the Way yet, I suggest you break up with her, and she’ll be round your place with sodden knickers and a three-pack, eager to give it away” is translated as: “If she hasn’t let you finish the job, I suggest that you break up with her and she will come round, eager, and will let you finish.” These modifications, in my opinion, have greatly altered the tone of Tony’s letter and totally ruined its spirit.

The cultural context is also important. A good part of the book is set in the ’60s, with a lot of references to pop art, musicians, and writers from that period. For example, there is a part where Barnes talks about what books each of the four friends read, or when Tony is showing his record collection to Veronica. These references, which are easily understood in most Western countries, are not as easily recognized by Persian readers. I had to add a whole section in the end explaining some of them to the reader.

From what you’ve told me in previous exchanges, there is also the matter of copyright laws in Iran. From what I can tell, one moves from the austere and unbending world of censors to the wild and nearly lawless state of translating and publishing other people’s books.

Yes, unfortunately, Iran is among very few countries that hasn’t joined the Berne Convention. This has created chaos in publishing. You often see best sellers being published by multiple publishers. Julian Barnes’s latest book, The Noise of Time, was simultaneously released by three publishers without the writer’s knowledge. A couple of times, both before and after the Islamic Revolution, there have been discussions on complying with international copyright laws. Sadly, some of the fervent opponents were writers and translators who feared that abiding by copyright laws would make books too expensive and would hurt the readers. Over time, the experience of countries similar to Iran — like Turkey — has shown that this will not be the case, but there is still paranoia about it. I have even seen some translators welcome the news that the books they’re working on are also being translated by others, because they see it as a sign that the book is worthy of attention and feel that multiple translations can serve as some sort of publicity.

So, should we celebrate or condemn this state of affairs?

In my opinion, this is an extremely unfair practice and has in fact damaged Iranian literature. We have some notable writers who could have been successful internationally, but most international publishers don’t want to deal with Iran, because there is no law to protect them. The lack of copyright laws has effectively put Iranian literature in isolation from the rest of the world. I believe this will eventually be resolved, but there is a long way to go. Censorship plays a role here too. If there is copyright, the books cannot be censored the way they are now. I was at a talk by Colm Tóibín a while ago, where he discussed censorship in Ireland in the ’60s and ’70s, and how the practice was gradually abandoned as Ireland became more connected to the rest of the world, mostly through trade and the pressure from the WTO. I’m hoping that the same thing will happen in Iran.


Rob Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor. His most recent book is Boswell’s Enlightenment, and his A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning was published by Harvard in November 2013 and recently reissued in paperback. He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston.