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My Barbaric Yawp, with Sholeh Wolpé

Sholeh Wolpe worked with co-translator Mohsen Emadi to produce the first-ever complete Persian translation of
Sholeh Wolpe worked with co-translator Mohsen Emadi to produce the first-ever complete Persian translation of "Song of Myself"

As more than 2,000 poetry lovers around the world journey through "Song of Myself" with Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, "My Barbaric Yawp" offers a special glimpse into the process, challenges, and delights of rendering Whitman’s words, world, and intent into another language. This week we hear from Sholeh Wolpé, who, working with co-translator Mohsen Emadi, spent nearly a year producing the first-ever complete translation of "Song of Myself" into Persian as part of online multimedia gallery project WhitmanWeb.

How (well) is Whitman known in your country/language?

Sholeh Wolpé :  Not very well. Those who are familiar with his poetry have read him in English. But this will soon change. My co-translator, Mohsen Emadi, has found a great publisher for our translation of Song of Myself (complete with Ed Folsom and Chris Merrill’s notes for each section) in Iran. Hopefully it will be available by the end of the year. We are also considering a couple of Persian publishers in Europe so that it can be made available to Persian speakers outside of Iran.

What is your favorite section of the poem and why?

Sholeh Wolpé : As we were translating Song of Myself, or rather recreating it in Persian, I realized that my favorite Whitman poems in Persian were different from the ones I had originally favored in English . Every language has its own music and Persian is far more musical than English. You can swear in Persian and still give it the rhythm and beauty of a song or poem.

That is a bit harder to do in English. Also, the message itself changes when you present it to a different culture, because each culture has different points of reference, histories and identities. For example, even the phrase “I celebrate myself” feels different in Persian than it does in English. In English it is natural to put the emphasis on “celebrate”. However in Persian, you naturally place a much greater emphasis, if not all of it, on the word “myself”.

That being said, it’s still hard for me to choose just one favorite. However, there are two sections worth mentioning here, one for its sheer poetic beauty, both in Persian and in English:

Press close bare-bosom'd night — press close magnetic 
    nourishing night!
Night of south winds — night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night — mad naked summer night.
Smile O voluptuous cool-breath'd earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset — earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
 Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbow'd earth — rich apple-blossom'd earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.
Prodigal, you have given me love — therefore I to you give
O unspeakable passionate love.
And another for its wisdom and translucent truth that is unfortunately not heeded in our world:
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his
    own funeral drest in his shroud,
And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of
    the earth,

How did your relationship with Whitman evolve over the course of the translation? How did translating Whitman inflect your own thinking, your relationship to your own mother tongue, and your sense of American culture? --Which passage(s) were particularly difficult to translate? Why?

Sholeh Wolpé :   I didn’t have a strong relationship with Whitman’s poems before University of Iowa’s International Writing Program commissioned me to translate Song of Myself. I say that because a “relationship” implies something that is reciprocal. I had read Whitman’s work but had not spoken to it, nor had it spoken to me. Whitman’s Song of Myself existed for me the way a beautiful flower exists in a garden. You see it, smell it, maybe touch its petals, but then move on to the next flower, and eventually go back to your meal, lover, bed, etc...

This project took me back to the garden, to this flower which I brought back to my room, rubbed it’s petals over my face and body, examined it under a microscope, tasted it on my tongue, put it to my ear to hear the whispers inside its stem.

Sholeh and Mohsen at a cafe in Mexico City, where they often worked on the translation of the 52-section poem.
Sholeh and Mohsen at a cafe in Mexico City, where they often worked on the translation of the 52-section poem.

Mohsen and I had to deliver one section per week, including my audio recording of that section in Persian. That’s 52 weeks of living and breathing Whitman. Some nights I went to sleep with his poems scattered on my bed, which means I can say that I have slept with Mr. Whitman, or at least his spirit. I spent most of such nights preoccupied with how I was to get through the rest of the section we were translating, record and deliver it on time to the International Writing Program.

Each morning I’d make strong coffee and video Skype Mohsen in Mexico City. We’d talk for hours, sometimes discussing a single line, or word. It is no exaggeration when I say we tasted the marrow of this poem.

My co-translator and I are both poets, and we believe all translators of poetry owe it to the poem and the poet to deliver a living, breathing poem in the target language—if not as good as the original, then one that is even better; a recreation. Therefore, this was an exhilarating, exhausting, challenging but ultimately very rewarding project for Mohsen and I.  We were given the opportunity, and more importantly were trusted, to recreate Song of Myself as a living, breathing poem in Persian.

During the year of translating Song of Myself, Whitman sang in my head, spoke to me, teased me with lines I thought impossible to translate. This is a poem that is deeply rooted in the American culture, and hence transporting it to another culture and language does at times require re-interpretation, or complete recreation. Further, line such 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) require great attention so that translation does not oversimplify their depth.

Sometimes phrases or expressions that may appear very simple in English are actually quite challenging in Persian. For example, And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away (line 147) seems straight forward enough. Yet, we spent two days on words “around” and “shaken away.”  There are many ways to translate these words in Persian, but we needed to accurately communicate not only the meaning and intention of the poet but also maintain the beauty of expression and language 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. It is almost impossible to bring the Iranian reader’s imagination so suddenly to the American sailor who is telling his story in such an intimate, yet “sailorly” tone. After much discussion we decided to employ the diction of a typical, tough street guy— an accent and way of talking that is readily recognized by Iranians, and communicates to them the class and background of the speaker.

Whitman is also fond of making up words, and he does so in this poem quite brilliantly. How is one to recreate this in a language and culture so vastly different from Whitman’s America? One night, the night before Christmas to be exact, I went to bed thinking about “slough of boot soles” in section 8. I was in regular correspondence with Ed Folsom who is the Whitman Scholar connected to the project, and with the director of the International Writing Program, Chris Merrill. So I appealed to them for help.

I wrote: My dear Ed and Chris, I cannot figure out 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 to myself. 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.

Sholeh and Mohsen on the last day of translation.
Sholeh and Mohsen on the last day of translation.
First thing in the morning, I jumped out of bed in a nerdy ecstasy. I dialed Mohsen on video Skype. I was still in my PJs, and poor, sleepy Mohsen, his massive salt and pepper hair a tangled mess, was astounded (and amused) to see his crazy poet friend, that’s me, doing 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 Mr. 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 . . .

What did this translation teach you about your own language’s special traits?

As a poet and a literary translator I didn’t learn anything I already didn’t know. It merely confirmed my belief that each translation is a new creation, and that only poets should be trusted to recreate poetry in another language.

In the line “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (section 52) how did you translate the onomatopoetic “yawp” and what can you tell us about the decisions that went into finding the best equivalent?

We started with repeating “barbaric yawp” twenty times to get a feel for how it should move in the mouth. Then we made a list of words that meant “barbaric”. There is no equivalent for “yawp” in Persian, so we had to imagine what would work and be understood in Persian. Iranians are very particular when it comes to language. We did not want to create a word that would have a comedic effect. After several days of thinking and discussion, we decided that verrajee  (nonstop talking without pause for breath,) coupled with vahshee (wild as in a wild animal,) and na-behanjar (without order), would convey what Whitman was after with his barbaric yawp both in sound and intention. Hence we arrived at: verrajee-yeh vahshi-yeh naw- beh-hanjaw-ram . It may sound long and unpronounceable to you, but believe me, it sounds great in Persian.

It is my hope that Iranians who read this poem, recognize the echoes of their own great mystic poets Rumi and Attar, and readily rise upon hearing Whitman call: Who wishes to walk with me?

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