The Allure of Untranslatability

Submitted by Bret Windhauser on

A new article by Dr. Aria Fani appeared in the Iranian Studies journal's recent issue. The article is titled  "The Allure of Untranslatability: Shafi'i-Kadkani and (Not) Translating Persian Poetry."

In the article, Prof. Fani argues that it is important to celebrate translation as a vital means of bridging cultural boundaries and literary traditions, particularly in our world of walls and borders today. However, it is equally vital to think critically and methodically about translation and not be allured by tired concepts like untranslatability.

The idea of untranslatability is linked to the very same nation-state oriented discourses centered on the problematic notion of cultural singularity that we wish to dismantle through celebrating translation. This is the angle through which this article examines translation, putting Iranian Studies in dialogue with Translation Studies and Comparative Literature.

The abstract of "The Allure of Untranslatibility"
How could one translate into any European language a Persian poem as culturally and aesthetically embedded as this hemistich by Hāfez: beh may sajjādeh rangin kon garat pir-e moghān guyad. This is the central question Mohammad-Rezā Shafiʿi-Kadkani addresses in his essay titled “On Poetic Untranslatability.” For Shafiʿi, translation is primarily a function of cultural—and not linguistic—affinity. Therefore, he argues that Hāfez’s poem is all but untranslatable in European languages given their fundamental cultural difference from Persian. This article critically engages Shafiʿi’s essay by outlining and analyzing the set of problematic assumptions embedded in its rubric of untranslatability. It places Shafiʿi’s view on translation in conversation with theorists of untranslatability in comparative literature and translation studies. Ultimately, it outlines why untranslatability is not a useful conceptual framework for the analysis of linguistic and cultural difference.