How do your readings work in Europe? After all, the audience does not understand Persian.

Cheheltan: Firstly, I read a few lines in Farsi to give the audience an idea of what the original text sounds like. Then an actor or presenter reads longer passages in German, and the subsequent discussion takes place in English.

Better quality translations

Interest in Iranian literature is growing in Europe. Do you think this is related to political developments?

Cover of Cheheltanʹs "The Steadfast Parrot. Memories of Iran 1979" (published in German by Matthes & Seitz)
Settling scores with the Islamic Revolution: in his 2018 novel "The Steadfast Parrot", Amir Hassan Cheheltan describes how after the fall of the Shah in 1979 the revolutionary forces radicalised themselves and finally established a repressive regime that replaced the corrupt tyranny of Reza Pahlavi with a despotic religious state

Cheheltan: There is no doubt that the world public is following Iran with interest. I suppose there are some who want to find answers to their questions in my novels. That's possibly one reason my books and articles are attracting more attention today.

Does the better quality of the translations also play a role? There are some outstanding literary translators out there, such as Susanne Baghestani, whom you have already mentioned.

Cheheltan: Yes, indeed. Translating literature is a difficult undertaking; to quote Don Quixote from Cervantes: translating is at best like looking at a carpet from the back.

But I am lucky; my translators Susanne Baghestani and Jutta Himmelreich are very good, as editors and critics alike assure me. I am also very satisfied with Kurt Scharf, who has translated some of my novels. He is an outstanding linguist who translates texts from seven or eight languages.

Do you check the translations?

Cheheltan: I don't speak German, but one should check things occasionally. Once the name Torabi was translated as Terabi because Persian words are written without vowels. I only noticed it when the book had already gone to print.

In the case of name descriptors such as Hassan Chaghoo (Hassan the knife) or Hossein Ferfereh (the nimble Hossein), it is obviously better to translate the attributes rather than leaving them in the original language.

Censorship destroys the literary imagination

The plots of some of your books are set several centuries in the past. Nevertheless, they have been well received in Europe. Why is that?

Cheheltan: My novel "The Calligrapher of Isfahan" is set in 1722, 300 years ago, yet this novel is my most successful book in Germany. People in Iran also like reading books that belong to world literature, but play out in a different cultural setting. For example, the works of Haruki Murakami, which are regularly translated into Persian immediately after publication, are very popular.

Iranians see themselves reflected in these narratives and that is important for a novel. Some of our authors don't pay enough attention to this. Many novels written in Iran are of no interest to an international audience. They may be read and enjoyed by Iranians, but they do not appeal to the global reader.

he metaphors the authors use to circumvent censorship are often difficult for readers to understand. You avoid censorship by publishing your books abroad.

Cheheltan: I do send my manuscripts to Iranian publishers first. They send them to the Ministry of Culture and ask for permission to publish. My first novel was published 42 years ago in Iran. Since then I have been in constant conflict with the censors.

Censorship has ruined Iranian literature. I have not been able to publish a single novel in Iran in the past 15 years because the Ministry has always refused to give me the necessary permission.

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