Translator’s Note

Kayvan Tahmasebian and Rebecca Gould  

Bijan Elahi (1945-2010) is the preeminent hermit-poet of Persian modernism. Once the leading figure in a circle of younger poets who promoted what they called Other Poetry (She’r-e Digar), Elahi passed the last three decades of his life in seclusion in his house in northern Tehran. He stopped publishing poems and never appeared in public following his official retreat. Shortly after his death, a new generation of Iranian poets revived Elahi’s legacy both as a poet and as a translator as part of their search for new modes of expression and experimentation.

Elahi’s poetics is distinguished by its diversity of styles and registers. Traversing the borders of ambiguity and clarity, speech and writing, familiarity and foreignness, in Elahi’s work the nuances of the Persian language are registered in ways that are without precedent in Persian poetry. As a distinguished translator (of Neruda, T.S. Eliot, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri Michaux, Friedrich Hölderlin, and many others), Elahi offers among the most striking combinations of poetic norms with mostly European poetic influences in modern Persian poetics. A considerable strand of Persian poetry today is directly and indirectly inspired by Elahi’s inventions and inspirations. Elahi haunts contemporary Persian poetics sometimes invisibly, but always persistently, and in as-yet-unchartered ways.

We hope with our translations to contribute to the ongoing revival of Elahi’s poetry. We have aimed to present to the reader something of the alien and counterintuitive register that defines Elahi’s poems in Persian. To the translators, the process of creating these translations was like a musha’ira, a Persian tradition of poetic recitation in which one poet completes the other’s poem. The translation process exiled us from our native languages as taught each other to give voice to Elahi’s poetics in a language it was never intended to inhabit.

Walter Benjamin’s words sum up our approach well. “Translation,” Benjamin writes, “does not find itself in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.” For us, translating Elahi was like sending a call into the forest and waiting for it to reverberate, miraculously and in ways that we could not predict, in another language and in luminous poetic form. Thus, these translations of Elahi are the fruits of infinite conversation, interpretation, mistranslation, debate, disagreement, and retranslation.

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