Sunday, May 19, 2024

Lost in translation, retired SUNY prof finds second act

Patricia Higgins, PhD, and Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi, PhD, introduce their first translated book, “The Thousand Families: Commentary on Leading Political Figures of Nineteenth Century Iran,” by Ali Shabani.


By Robin Caudell

Translating Persian literature to English is the second act of retired SUNY University Distinguished Professor Emerita Patricia Higgins, PhD, of Plattsburgh.

Her trajectory began inauspiciously enough when Higgins wanted to learn Persian better.

“Because Persian was my field language as an anthropologist,” she said.

“I was conversational, and I could read and write a little bit but not very well. I wasn’t very sophisticated in the language. So, I got in touch with Islamic Studies Institute at McGill and asked if I could audit their Persian classes. They were extremely welcoming.”

At McGill University in Montreal, the Intermediate Persian class was taught by Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi, PhD, who is now at the University of Chicago.

 “She was very welcoming that I could come in and sit in the classes,” Higgins said.

“So, I did that for a couple of years. I took basically all of her classes. After that, she was trying to translate this book, the political commentary. She especially wanted to translate it because it was written by her father. I offered to edit it or take a look at it. She shared a chapter with me. Because I knew Persian or I could kind of read the Persian too, and I had done a fair amount of editing in English, she was so pleased with what I did she said, ‘Well, why don’t you be my co-translator. It sort of started from there.

“We enjoy working with each other. So, when we finished this one book, then we started thinking about what other projects we could do. So, that got us into the other three and now the fourth one we’re working on.”

Books published to date are:

– 2023: The Bewildered Cameleer by Simin Daneshvar. Mazda.

– 2022: Island of Bewilderment: A Novel of Modern Iran, by Simin Daneshvar. Syracuse University Press.

– 2021: Hafez in Love: A Novel, by Iraj Pezeshkzad. Syracuse University Press. (Winner of the Lois Roth Prize in Literary Translation from Persian.)

– 2018: The Thousand Families: Commentary on Leading Political Figures of Nineteenth Century Iran, by Ali Shabani. From Antiquity to Modernity: Studies on Middle Eastern Society Series. Peter Lang Publishing Inc. NY.

“We’ve been translating mostly novels, three novels, and we’ve translated also political commentary that was our first one,” Higgins said.

“We actually have another one that we’re sending out to publishers right now. We kind of got into this translating project and enjoy doing it.”

“Hafez in Love” is about the Persian lyric poet Hafiz, born Khwāja Šamsu d-Dīn Mu’ammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī), who grew up in Shiraz and is one of the most celebrated of the Persian poets, and his influence can be felt to this day, according to

As the author of numerous ghazals expressing love, spirituality, and protest, he and his work continue to be important to Iranians, and many of his poems are used as proverbs or sayings.

“It’s kind of a historical novel based somewhat on the poet Hafez who lived in Iran in the 14th century,” Higgins said.

“Hafez is still an extremely famous and read and recited every day all over the Persian speaking world, but very little is known about him except for his poetry. The author of this book imagines Hafez as a young man and he puts him in a setting, what actually was going on in the cities that he lived in in 1354.

“Everything else is kind of imagined events of his. The imagination is also based on the poetry, and the novel includes a lot of Hafez’s poetry. The story imagines him sitting around with his friends quoting things. That’s kind of an unusual thing for a novel to have so much poetry interspersed in it.”

“The Island of Bewilderment” is set in Tehran with a college-educated young woman, who is trying to be independent and make her own choices in life from the pressures of her society.

“One of the reasons that I really enjoyed doing it is it’s set in the 1970s, which is when I was in Iran,” Higgins said.

“I could almost hear my friends talking in this book. So, it had a very kind of a personal connection for me. I enjoyed doing those for that reason.”

Daneshvar is known as the first woman to have a novel published in Persian.

“That first one was published in 1969 and became a bestseller,” Higgins said.

“We did her two later novels that are kind of connective with one another. It’s kind of a sequel. Those were fun books to work on.”

For Higgins, translation has been a pleasure.

“It keeps my mind active, and I sort of have this entertaining thing to do,” she said.

“It usually doesn’t have a deadline. When we have a publisher and their editing is done and they want us to proof pages or whatever, then there’s deadline. So, you have to kind of work hard on it. For me, it’s very compatible with retirement because basically I have my own schedule.”

With Shabani-Jadidi in Chicago, the translators collaborate now primarily by Skype and email.

“We enjoy working together, and we’ve become really good friends through the process,” Higgins said.

- Advertisment -spot_img