Composing a Persian Letter: Simin Daneshvar's Rendition of Hawthorne

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Introduction: From Boston to Tehran

One of the defining features of Hawthorne's fiction is its interpretive ambiguity. The American's equivocal use of symbol and narrative voice, his partiality to "veils" and "twice-telling," have come to epitomize the enigmatic character of his novels and tales. Scholars continue to exposit the "instability" of Hawthorne's signs and symbols, marveling at the "indeterminacy" of his allusive prose. One of the most celebrated novels of nineteenth-century America--The Scarlet Letter--exemplifies well this penchant for ambiguity, refusing as it does to provide its readers with a stable explication of its eponymous "emblem." (1) While such hermeneutic complexity serves to endow Hawthorne's fiction with a rich potency, it also serves to problematize attempts to render his canon into other languages. One of the primary tasks of translation is to convey with precision the meaning of a given source, to render faithfully the significance of a textual original. (2) In approaching Hawthornean fiction, however, translators are confronted with narrative and symbolic ambiguity which seems to resist definitive rendition. How are translators to convey the precise meaning of a source text which itself evades semantic precision? Is the "undecidable" quality of Hawthorne's ambiguous prose communicable through other linguistic mediums?

These inherent difficulties of Hawthornean translation are exacerbated when attempting to render his prose for readers whose culture, history and language differ sharply from the culture, history and language of Hawthorne's original Anglo-American readers. As his fiction is regularly grounded within a distinctly American setting, as it customarily grapples with a distinctly American heritage, Hawthorne's novels and tales necessarily pose a unique challenge for translators whose target audiences may be wholly unfamiliar with the locales, customs, rites and records of New England. When rendering Hawthorne for non-European readers, translators are furthermore challenged to express his ambiguous prose through languages which do not share the syntactic, stylistic, or even script, conventions common to nineteenth-century American English--languages which have developed according to entirely different cultural, religious and aesthetic standards.

It is just such a predicament which confronts translators who seek to introduce Hawthorne's works into the vernacular languages of the modern Middle East. And yet, despite the translatory obstacles, we nevertheless find that considerable attention has been devoted to rendering Hawthorne's fiction within the Muslim world. Editions of The Scarlet Letter, for example, have now appeared in Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran, granting Arabic, Turkish, and Persian readers access to Hawthorne's most recognized novel. (3) These Middle Eastern editions embody tangible confrontations with the interpretive complexities of Hawthornean prose, serving to exemplify both the difficulties of translating his signature ambiguity, as well as the difficulties of transporting American Romance into non-American lands and languages.

Among the Hawthornean translations which have been produced for Muslim readers, it is Simin Daneshvar's Persian rendition of The Scarlet Letter that most prominently invites our attention. Originally published in 1955, this translation is distinguished not only by having merited a second edition in 1990, but by originating from one of the most celebrated Iranian writers of the twentieth century. (4) Recognized as the first female Persian novelist, Simin Daneshvar "arguably remains the most famous of all Iranian women authors ever published," renowned in particular for authoring the most widely sold novel in Iranian literary history--her 1969 Savushun. (5) The present study will be concerned not with Daneshvar's own fiction, but rather with her reception of Hawthorne's, exploring some of the tensions, negotiations and redactions stimulated by this cross-cultural encounter between celebrated novelists. …


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