Translating a Novel That Subverts How a Respectable Iranian Woman Should Be

Mariam Rahmani on translating youthful, profane Tehran Farsi in "In Case of Emergency"

Photo by ariyan Dv on Unsplash

When a fictional Tehran is seized by rolling tremors, the city’s inhabitants are thrown into carnivalesque disarray. As the earth slips and sways, a mother clicks her digital prayer beads between operatic screams, young people rollerblade maniacally amidst scurrying riot cops, and a cane-clad old man guards his precious African violets from the frenesi. Watching it all with arch remove is our narrator, Shadi, a cynical and musically-inclined opium addict. Like a macabre conductor, Shadi orchestrates this tale of urban bedlam for the reader, her narration a juxtaposition of Mozart sonatas, curse words, Hafez ghazals, and the errant phrase in Azeri Turkish. 

Welcome to In Case of Emergency, a boisterous novel written by the Iranian author Mahsa Mohebali, translated into English by Mariam Rahmani. 

To say that this book is radical would be an understatement. Or, simply, an incomplete thought. In Case of Emergency is radical given its context. Mohebali’s novel was written and published in contemporary Iran, meaning that the book had to first pass through governmental censorship, a process in which profanity is toned down and “respectability” is ostensibly preserved. Despite having been censored, however, the book is still chock-full of content that has shocked and delighted Iranian audiences. In its Persian version, In Case of Emergency shows off a Tehran-specific vernacular, contains impious characters who flaunt their non-conformity, and splashes gore nonchalantly across its pages. 

But, how does one go about moving this roiling, dynamic mishmash of language registers, cultural references, and aesthetic literary games from a Persian-language context into an Anglophone one? 

For translator Mariam Rahmani, the answer was to take risks. As Rahmani puts it in her Translator’s Note at the novel’s end, she wanted to allow Shadi’s “English avatar” to breathe, and to let the coolness of her narrative voice flow naturally from Persian into English, to avoid making Shadi’s voice seem  “dorky,” or tied up in a rigidly literal form of translation. 

I spoke with Rahmani over the phone about social and literary ideas of respectability, translating profanities, and the soundscape of In Case of Emergency.

Anna Learn: Could you describe your first encounter with Shadi, the protagonist of In Case of Emergency? What was it that initially compelled you about Mohebali’s writing?

Mariam Rahmani: The voice really spoke to me. There is this pendulum [in the book] that goes between the cinema verité type of realist dialogue, where you hear this young, profane, Tehran Farsi, and Shadi’s first-person narrations and reflections as she goes through the day. The willingness to swing between those two modes is not something that I’ve seen very much in Anglophone fiction. So that spoke to me. I feel like there’s often an expectation in American fiction to kind of “pick a track.” So, if it was originally written in an Anglophone American context, a book like Negaran nabash [In Case of Emergency] might have had a voice in narration that matches that of the dialogue, that mimics it. That lack of mirroring, and the willingness to have those two modes stand far apart, with only some connectors, was quite fascinating to me. It seemed freer to me than a lot of what I’ve seen in English. 

When I was going through my reading list for Qualifying Exams for my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, I did notice that it [Mohebali’s writing] formed a rupture with the modern, or even contemporary, Persian canon. Her writing stood out whichever way I looked at it. 

AL: So both in an Anglophone context, and a Persian-language context, the book is doing something distinct.

MR: Yeah, I think so. But what makes literature interesting is that it’s always in conversation with other books. So part of the book’s power is that it plays with forms we’ve seen before.

AL: At the end of In Case of Emergency we even get a playlist, a “soundtrack”, with songs that the narrator has referenced. Did you ever listen to the book’s playlist as you worked?

MR: That’s an interesting question because, in its Farsi version, the book does not have a playlist. I actually added the playlist, with Mohebali’s permission. I came up with the idea because I thought it would be a fun way for American readers to hear the soundtrack of the book because, in Farsi, the reader would already have that soundtrack in mind. Most American readers are not going to have heard the Farsi musicians whose Farsi lyrics are quoted in the novel. In contrast, when [Mohebali] references a certain type of tune, or a specific contemporary band, or singer, or songwriter, [most] Iranians would know what that sounds like. It seemed like, in order to translate that experience [of having Persian-language musical references], I needed to draw more explicit attention to it for American readers and Anglophone readers in general. Putting in the list of songs was a fun way to have readers just play the songs from the playlist, instead of having to scour the text for each particular reference. And Mohebali was happy with the idea.

AL: Wow, that’s so interesting that you added the soundscape in the English translation.

MR: But I also didn’t add the soundscape, the playlist is limited to the songs that are in the text, they’re just listed one after another. So it’s more like I highlighted, or indexed the songs. It’s more like an index than anything. Not added on; pulled out

AL: I want to ask more about paratext. You don’t use footnotes or a glossary—

MR: No!

AL: And you chose not to have an introduction preceding the translated text. Instead, you have this beautifully elaborated Translator’s Note that follows the text. Why did you go for the Translator’s Note as your main form of paratext?

MR: It was important to me, and to the publisher, that the text be available to readers as a novel like any other novel. It is Mohebali’s novel, and her voice should be the one that is centered. And it is a contemporary text; it’s not like we’re dealing with some kind of academic treatise. It’s a fun contemporary novel, let me put it that way; this isn’t scholarly writing. We wanted to honor that in English, and recreate that space where you can just pick up this novel, read it, and get what you will out of it, as you would if you were reading it in Farsi. 

Cross-dressing [in Iran] is not identitarian in the way that we often think gender performance is in the US. It’s quite explicitly political.

As you know, when you translate a text, you translate the whole culture around it. So I tried to just incorporate what some translators would call “stealth gloss,” just including a word or two around [something culturally-specific] that would hint at the larger context, instead of pulling it out and putting it in a glossary, or putting it in a footnote or endnote. We wanted the text to live in English as it does in Farsi, as a novel. 

Specifically with Middle Eastern fiction, there used to be a tendency to have these texts primarily live with academic publishers. There was a veil that you had to go through in order to get to the text [made up of footnotes, glossaries, or academic introductions]. We wanted readers to just have the book, and have a relationship to the book. If you read the book and want to know more, you can continue reading the Translator’s Note.

AL: I do want to get into your Translator’s Note a little bit more, because I think it is so rich. In that Note, you write that Shadi mocks and “fucks with” the respectability culture or politics of Iran. In some ways, you are doing a similar thing with your translation, by turning the concept of a “respectably” literal or neutral translation on its head. Instead of claiming to pursue a “faithful” or semantically “equivalent” translation, you make it quite clear that your translation is a re-creation of Mahsa Mohebali’s work, one in which you endeavor to let Shadi’s radical “cool” seep through into English. You do so by intentionally giving the book a more profane lexicon than the original Persian has, and by employing an American English-inflected slang. How did you come to feel confident in this particular “translative flair”? Was this an instinctual move for you, or did you receive pushback?

MR: When first I started translating the novel, I kept a “neutral” tone. But then I would read it over myself, or I would hand it to someone else to read, and it actually wasn’t “neutral” at all, it was flattening the text. Because it just didn’t sound like the character Shadi. And so I think words like “neutral” are actually just hiding a different politics. I was finding that the “default” translation was actually a kind of mis-translation, because it was not at all conveying the voice. And the voice is what people liked about this novel in Iran. And the voice is what its contribution has been to Persian literature as a whole. And so it became clear that I had to, like, go big or go home. I either had to leave the text alone and not translate it, or actually try to do something with it, and let it speak and occupy space in the language it’s being brought into. 

AL: By intensifying the profanity in your English translation, for example. 

MR: I will say with the profanity… in the Translator’s Note I talk a lot about the word “fuck” because [Mohebali’s text] did go through the typical route of publication in Iran, which includes a pass through the Ministry of Guidance, and censors, who are assigned to the case. And so, in that process of censorship, some very profane Farsi words were cut out of the text. But what remains is still so shocking to an Iranian reader. 

When you encounter the [the book in] Farsi, knowing that it is a published text, that it’s actually this published work of literary fiction, the [toned-down Farsi “curse words”] that remain so much more crass than anything you could ever publish in English. Because, in English, writers have already successfully broken [that particular cursing] taboo. In a sense, I actually think that the English is not harsh enough, because the word “fuck” in English just doesn’t do anything to people anymore. 

If “fuck” serves as a sort of asymptote in cursing—or used to; part of the issue is that it no longer does—then should I leave it out of the English version? I asked Mohebali what she thought, whether she wanted the text to recreate that sense of holding back [caused by censorship] in order to create a sense of that censorship in English, or not…And she was very emphatic that no, she wanted the text to sound natural, and the word “fuck” should be used as freely as it is in spoken English today. To reiterate, though, it’s not that there is one particular Farsi word that translates as “fuck” that is not used in the original text but more about posing the question of limits. In the end we agreed that that particular limit would only be counterproductive, straining Shadi’s voice.

I felt quite empowered working with an author who trusted me. Since Mohebali took such risks writing the original text, it became clear to me that the only way to translate that text with integrity was to also take risks with the translation. 

AL: That’s really well put. And it goes to show how much of an advantage it can be to translate contemporary literature, because you can be in conversation directly with the person who wrote it. Are there any other interactions between you and Mohebali that might be interesting to the reader?

MR: One of the big ones was our conversation around the cross-dressing in the book, and what that meant about Shadi. I learned about mard-pushi, women cross-dressing as a particular act of protest against mandated hijab. You know, Shadi’s cross-dressing is not identitarian in the way that we often think gender performance is in the US. It’s quite explicitly political [in Iran], in the strictest sense of politics, meaning in relation to the state. Shadi cross-dresses as a man when she’s in public. She puts on a cap instead of a hijab when she goes outside because, according to civil law in Iran, women have to wear hijab when they go out. Of course in general in Iran today, [public hijab] is not very strictly interpreted or enforced, depending on where you are in the country or even in the city of Tehran. [Wearing hijab] is a kind of gesture of modesty that you’re supposed to uphold. And Shadi doesn’t. As protest. Mohebali was very clear and generous about explaining that to me, and elucidating this issue or phenomenon of mard-pushi, which is women cross-dressing as a particular act of protest against mandated hijab. But for Shadi, it’s a political act [to cross-dress in public], not an identitarian act.

[The book wages] as much against larger social ideas of respectability as against the literary world’s idea of literariness and what makes for respectable fiction.

There was no way to give an American reader that clue [about the significance of Shadi putting on a cap instead of hijab] within the text without violating the integrity of the text. You would have to insert so much, more than a word or two, to make that clear. It would have to be a sentence…or two! And it would make it feel forced. So that moment is a very important part of the novel–and is one an Iranian reader would notice–but in translation, it’s probably something you’ll miss unless you read the Translator’s Note.

But part of translation is that we accept that there is going to be a little bit of a knowledge gap, and part of the beauty of it is that you’re learning so much by reading in translation, that even if you miss a thing or two, it’s still such a [net] gain to have this work in English. Any translation is a contribution to the literature of the language it’s coming into.

AL: Another recurring characteristic of Mohebali’s writing is that she embraces filth, gore, and the ugliness of the human body with such relish. I’m also thinking of Mohebali’s short story “My Own Marble Jesus,” that constitutes a part of Salar Abdoh’s translated collection Tehran Noir, where we get the story of a woman’s slow disembowelment of a young man. But also in In Case of Emergency, we are inundated with disgusting corporeal details. What do you make of these depictions of filth and impurity?

MR: I think it brings us back to the anti-respectability issue, a willingness to talk about shit in the most literal way, relishing that. Ultimately, there’s a sort of irony in it, because [Mohebali] is a very artful writer, and so the descriptions of shit are not shit, they’re actually quite good [laughs]. So there’s a kind of rupture between form and content in her writing that I actually think is really fun. We’re used to praising moments in texts in which form and content are aligned, and here the pleasure is really the misalignment and the artistry of talking about the banal, what’s foul. I do think it’s also related to the politics of protest that the book wages. As much against larger social ideas of respectability as against the literary world’s idea of literariness and what makes for respectable fiction.

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