In 2013, the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa launched a multimedia web gallery with 52 weekly installments of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in 15 languages. Each installment of the poem was supplemented with commentaries from distinguished scholar Ed Folsom, and poet and literary translator Chris Merrill, who is also the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
When I was commissioned to translate this American classic into Persian for the Whitman Web, I knew it was going to be an all-consuming project for the next 52 weeks of my life. When I first read Song of Myself in college, I wished I had read it in translation when I was in school back in Iran. It would have changed my perspective of the United States in a radical way. At the time what I knew of America came through the lens of Hollywood Westerns, dramas, and TV soaps such as the very popular Days of Our Lives.
Here I was now with the means and opportunity to give my fellow Iranians Whitman’s masterpiece. I was excited. I was also terrified. What a daunting, humbling, and at the same time exhilarating project! Translation is re-creation. I knew I had to re-create Whitman’s poem in a language and culture fundamentally different from English and the world within which Whitman lived. And I knew I could not do it alone. So I called my friend, Iranian poet and translator Mohsen Emadi, who lives in exile in Mexico City. He was a poet I trusted and whose work I had translated into English. Together we planned to work on Skype and re-create Song of Myself into Persian. As poets we were united in our approach to literary translation. We both believed that we owed the poem (and Whitman himself) our absolute best to deliver a living, breathing Song of Myself in Persian—a re-creation.
On our first day of collaboration, we spent two hours discussing how to translate the title. We settled on Avaz-e-Kheeshtan. Still ahead were weeks of such discussions and of cutting to the marrow of the poem. Some nights I went to sleep with pages of the sections we were translating scattered on my bed. I studied each section in depth, produced the first draft of the translation, and sent it to Mohsen. He then sent me his draft, after which I responded with mine. We’d then Skype and work on the fourth and fifth drafts together, mouthing the words to compare their music and discussing the use of one word versus another, in terms of implication, historical reference, and musicality.
Whitman sang in my head for those 52 weeks, spoke to me, teased me with lines I thought impossible to translate. This is a poem that is deeply rooted in American culture and expressions—expressions in need of interpretation or complete re-creation, as in the case of such lines as “Endless unfolding of words of ages!” (line 477), “I resume the overstaid fraction” (line 967), and “I am afoot with my vision” (line 716).
Some phrases or expressions that may appear simple and direct in English are quite challenging in Persian. For example, “And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away” (line 147) seems straightforward enough. Yet we spent hours thinking about and discussing the words “around” and “shaken away.” There are multiple ways to translate these words in Persian. We needed to not only communicate the meaning and intention of the poet accurately but also maintain the beauty of expression it demanded.
Another example of the type of challenges we faced is section 35 in its entirety. It is written in a completely different voice than the rest of the poem. How were we to bring to the Iranian reader’s imagination the voice of the American sailor telling his story in such an intimate yet sailorly tone? After a lengthy discussion we decided to employ the diction of a dashee, a tough Iranian street guy—a manner of talking that is readily recognized by Iranians and communicates to them the class and background of the speaker.
Whitman also made up words. The night before Christmas I went to bed thinking about “slough of boot soles” in section 8. I was in regular correspondence with Ed Folsom and Chris Merrill, so, forgetting it was Christmas Eve, I appealed to them for help.
I wrote: My dear Ed and Chris, I don’t know how to translate “sluff of boot-soles” in section 8, particularly if it is a sound. Help!!!
Chris replied: I have the feeling that Whitman's coinage contains the idea of a snake sloughing off its skin, the image of a man shuffling down the street, and the sound of boots scraping the sidewalk. (Hass and Ebenkamp suggest that it is "pure onomatopoetic invention.") Shuffle, shamble, scuff, scrape, soft-shoe, rub, skip, graze... Is it common to coin words in Persian? If so, then this may be such an occasion. Good luck!
Ah, I thought. Good luck to me indeed.
Then came Ed’s answer: I've always heard Whitman's "sluff of bootsoles" as his invention of the sound boots make as they slog through mud. "Sluff" is a phonetic spelling of "slough," which as a noun is a muddy bog, not unlike Manhattan sidewalks and streets in the mid-nineteenth century. As a verb, "slough" is to shed or cast off. So all those boots walking the muddy streets are continually taking on mud and shedding it off, all the while making a distinctive sound that echoes both the noun and the verb—the sluff of bootsoles.
On Christmas day, while kids jumped out of bed excited about presents Santa had left under the tree, I sprang out of bed excited about the idea I had woken up with. Still in my PJs, I dialed Mohsen on Skype. Just out of bed, his salt-and-pepper hair in a tangled mess, he watched his crazy poet friend, namely me, do a crazy dance before the computer camera, yelling: “I got it! I got it! Kelesh Kelesh. Kelesh Kelesh.” That was the precise sound-translation of Whitman’s onomatopoetic invention.
Later, Ed wrote: Sluff Sluff Sluff: I hear it every time I witness someone walking through mud! And now I'll hear kelesh kelesh kelesh as well . . .
(On the website, readers are also able to listen to each section of the poem read aloud in Persian by me. http://iwp.uiowa.edu/whitmanweb/fa/section-1)