On a rainy day at a small outdoor bookstall, a man hides his face with a book. On the cover a girl, loosely wrapped in a sheet, lies on the floor, a pair of large men’s shoes inches away from her young, outstretched arm. If we could read Persian we would see, and then perhaps mouth, the word Lolita.
“That’s my translation being sold on the streets of Tehran,” says Akram Pedramnia, showing me a picture of the man. “The book is banned, but people send me these photographs, hiding their own faces, of course. And they post these images on social-media platforms, showing off the contraband.”
Pedramnia must be one of the strongest-willed translators active today. Confronting pernicious state-sponsored censorship, watching as dubious publishers eight time zones away put her work into print without permission or payment, and working on texts that some of her close friends disapprove of, she has to be.
Born in Iran, and educated in both Iran and Canada, Pedramnia has been a resident of Canada for about 20 years. She immigrated under the federal skilled-worker program.
As her writing and translations started to gained wider attention, she knew it was unsafe to return to her home country. Her family, still there, have begged her not to return, and she last visited Iran in 2001.
“There were ominous signs along the way, preventing my return,” she says. In 2010, an Iranian website reported that her Wikipedia page was under attack, as though someone wanted her to disappear.
She says that in countries such as Iran, it’s never possible to fully navigate all the complicated levels of censorship and persecution: “You can’t ever really tell whether you are safe or not.”
The publication of her translation of Lolita from English into Persian was a labyrinthine journey. Knowing Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious text would likely never be published inside Iran, she decided early on not to publish through official channels, but rather to publish it online, as she was working on it, and then to publish the completed book outside Iran.
Her full translation was published in Afghanistan in 2014, after which several unnamed underground Iranian publishers reprinted it and sold it inside Iran, without her knowledge.
In the months that followed, the theocratic regime denounced the book as obscene, declaring that all copies must be confiscated. Their justification was that it had already been banned in the United States and other Western countries. (Although once banned in France, Britain, Argentina and New Zealand, it was never banned in the United States.)
The Iranian Minister of Cultural and Islamic Guidance declared that Pedramnia’s translation of Lolita “has been disseminated illegally.” The deputy minister added: “The book has been submitted to the ministry twice and it refused permission to publish.”
“In fact, I never submitted this work to the censors,” Pedramnia explains, “but the Iranian authorities wanted to make it appear as though they had control over the situation, in order to discourage others.”
Some of Pedramnia’s friends and colleagues challenged her when they discovered her interest in Lolita. “They asked how I, a woman, a mother, a medical doctor, could translate such a book into Persian,” she says. “A few wondered if the pedophilia in Lolita was inconsistent with my world and what I stood for.”
She quotes to them words from Nabokov on Lolita: “A work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
In addition to articles, reviews and short stories for Persian newspapers and websites around the world, Pedramnia has finished five other book-length translations from English to Persian, including Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Failed States by Noam Chomsky and Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, which has still not been published. The authorities asked for significant cuts to Atwood, she says, “and I won’t do that.”
How did she get around the censors with her earlier writings – those she wanted to appear inside Iran, where descriptions of men and women touching, or drinking alcohol, are forbidden?
“I used vague words. To describe people touching, I might say they are waving. I might replace alcoholic beverages with juice. I hoped that readers would replace, in their imagination, such vague words with more realistic and honest ones.”
In her translation of Tender is the Night, for example, she was asked to remove the sentence, “Now she lowered the lights for love.” Pedramnia elected to replace it with, “She pulled the curtains,” which the censors accepted.
Pedramnia is currently translating Ulysses by James Joyce. Because of its sexual and scatological language, Ulysses was banned and censored while it was being serialized in small journals and immediately after being published in book form. Pedramnia says her translation will take about 10 years.
She had hoped that the first six chapters of the book could be published without censorship, but she recently discovered that the Iranian censors will not allow her to publish the book without alterations, which she refuses to make. These changes, she says, would be much more substantial than the adjustments she’d made in the past. “I am not going to change anything,” she says. She has decided to publish her translation in five volumes, outside Iran, and is currently negotiating with publishers in Europe and Afghanistan.
“It feels very natural for me to resist systems of censorship,” she says. “I have been an activist from a very young age. Over the last 100 years, many great Persian writers have been exiled, imprisoned and assassinated for writing and publishing their ideas. For me it is never a question of why I should persevere, but rather how.”
Pedramnia has also published three of her own novels, all in Persian, set mostly in Iran. In a few months, she’ll finish a draft of a new novel, her first in English. An adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, it is set in Iran and revolves around the massacre of thousands of political prisoners during the summer and fall of 1988. She is not hopeful she will find official approval to publish the novel inside the country. “I want to see the book published just as I wrote it,” she says. “I won’t allow one word to be censored.”