Translating Mohsen Namjoo's poem Alaki

On the challenges of translation

Mohsen Namjoo. Photo Credit: Masoud Harati

One of my all-time favorite artists is Mohsen Namjoo. His specialty is putting Persian poetry to music, using a fusion of classical Iranian, modern, and western instruments. The result is an experience that respects, enchants, and elevates the soul, in a way that only the best art can do.

Namjoo is often called the Iranian Bob Dylan, for several good reasons. They are both cultural icons with deep social commentary, singer-songwriters who promote anti-war, humanitarian, and equal rights causes with a folksy, counterculture style.

But I actually think of Namjoo more as the Iranian Bob Marley, which in my estimate is an even greater compliment. There is a mystical aspect to Namjoo’s work that is reminiscent of the one and only Robert Nesta Marley.

In his poem Alaki (الکی)–which I’ve translated as “Spurious” but it could also mean fake, illegitimate, superficial, or haphazard–Namjoo plays the role of the Old Testament prophets, questioning the values and pursuits that drive our lives (e.g. keeping up with the Joneses, longing for some imaginary bygone past, waiting for some imaginary better future, etc), but also simultaneously poking at superficial believers, heartless businesmen, short-sighted nationalists, and so-called intellectuals.

You can play the song and follow along with the translation below. At the end, I’ll conclude with some comments about my translation and the challenges of translating a literary work.



English lyrics - Spurious (translation by Vahid Dejwakh)Persian lyrics - الکی (Mohsen Namjoo)
Of my coming, I understood nothing
A spurious facade, a spurious facade
This soul, methinks, has seen no refinement
A spurious space, a spurious space
از آمدنم هیچ معلوم نشد
یک نمای الکی، یک نمای الکی
این جان نزارم هیچ پالوده نشد
یک فضای الکی، یک فضای الکی
Beyond the limits of superstition,
My language has not passed
A spurious voice, a spurious voice
The flower was found, not worthlessly held in my hand
A spurious air, a spurious air
از سطح خرافه، این زبانم نگذشت
یک صدای الکی، یک صدای الکی
گل یافته شد به دست من پوچ نشد
یک هوای الکی، یک هوای الکی
From our coming and going, is there any profit?
A spurious fall, a spurious collapse
The pains and regrets that our eyes witnessed, friend—
Did not fool the Officer who caught us
Spurious praises to God, a spurious oath
از آمدن و رفتن ما سودی کو
یک هبوط الکی، یک سقوط الکی
دردا و ندامتا که تا چشم زدیم
!مامور که گرفت ما را، بابا، خیط نشد
به خدا»ی الکی، یک «به خدا»ی الکی»
The donkey made felt from the head of an owl, but
A spurious whole, a spurious whole
From the beginning to the end of the scene, it was a votive offering
Spurious intentions, spurious intentions
خر از سر شحنه یک نمد ساخت ولی
یک کُلای الکی، یک کُلای الکی
سرتاسر صحنه آش نذری بود
نیت های الکی، نیت های الکی
Will you give me a week’s vacation?
Spurious pleasures, spurious pleasures
Those Paolo Rossi goals were so amazing!
Spurious goals, spurious goals
My love’s hand-cooked meals were ghormeh sabzi
Spurious greens, spurious greens
یک هفته به من مرخّصی می دی؟
لذّتای الکی، لذّتای الکی
با اون گُلای پائولوروسی حال کردم
یک گُلای الکی، یک گُلای الکی
دست پخت عشقم قورمه سبزی بود
سبزیای الکی، سبزیای الکی
“O, the forties are so cool, my o my o my!”
Spurious nostalgias, spurious nostalgias
The old days were masculine
Spurious wonderments, spurious bodies
وای دهه ی چهل خیلی باحال نو و او او او ووو
نوستالژیای الکی، تالژیای الکی
ایام قدیم مردونگی بود
هیبتای الکی، هیکلای الکی
When we were children, there was homemade bread
Spurious tastes, spurious tastes
The men now have their mustaches at last
Spurious mustaches, spurious mustaches
وقتی بچه بودیم نون خونگی بود
مزّه های الکی، مزّه های الکی
مردا حالا دیگه سیبیلشو دارند
سیبیلای الکی، سیبیلای الکی
Have you ever been to a summit of intellectuals?
Spurious intellects, spurious faces
Have you ever been to a subtraction of intellectuals?
Spurious pieces, spurious pieces
Have you ever been to a multiplication of intellectuals, a division of intellectuals?
Spurious whitewashes, spurious whitewashes
تا حالا جمعِ روشن فکرا رفتی؟
شنفکرای الکی، چهره های الکی
تا حالا تفریق روشن فکرا رفتی؟
تیکه های الکی، تیکه های الکی
تا حالا ضرب روشنفکرا، تقسیم روشنفکرا رفتی؟
ماست مالیهای الکی، ماست مالیهای الکی
Have you ever had dinner with the CEO of Westinghouse?
Spurious moments, spurious moments
Have you ever truly longed for someone?
Ahem ahem ahem ahem ahem hem hem
Spurious coughs, spurious coughs
تا حالا با رئیس وستینگهاوس شام خوردی؟
لحظه های الکی، لحظه های الکی
تا حالا از کسی دل بردی؟
اوهوم اوهوم اوهوم، اوهوم اوهوم اوهوم
سرفه های الکی، سرفه های الکی
They are our enemies,
We are good; they are shit
These spurious westerners, these spurious easterners
Spurious delusions, spurious delusions
،اونا با ما دشمنن
،ما خوبیم اونا عنن
این غربیای الکی، این شرقیای الکی
توهمای الکی، توهمای الکی
Have you ever met a woman who reads Paul Ricoeur?
Spurious disciplines, spurious disciplines
Have you ever… with a woman who reads Paul Ricoeur?
Spurious exertions, spurious exertions
تا حالا زنی که پل ریکور بخونه دیدی؟
دانشای الکی، دانشای الکی
تا حالا با زنی که پل ریکور خون باشه... هوم...؟
هوی و های الکی، هوی و های الکی
A spurious air… (Air, air, air!)
A spurious space… (Space, space, space!)
A spurious air… (Air, air, air!)
A spurious space… (Space, space, space!)
یک هوای الکی هوا هوا هوا
یک فضای الکی فضا فضا فضا
یک هوای الکی هوا هوا هوا
یک فضای الکی فضا فضا فضا
Leave the town and go outside,
That your surroundings be changed
Spurious roads,
Mountains, plains, spurious hills, spurious hills, spurious creations
از شهر برو بیرون فضات عوض شه
جاده های الکی
کوه ها، دشت ها، تپه های الکی، تپه های الکی، خلقتای الکی
Walking in the rain, lying on the sand
Walking in the rain, lying on the sand
All these had that certain level of purity,
What the world of our love contained
قدم زدن در زیر بارون، رو ماسه ها دراز کشیدن
قدم زدن در زیر بارون رو ماسه ها دراز کشیدن
،اینا همه با اون صفا داشت
دنیای عشق ما چه ها داشت
A spurious covenant, a spurious purity
A spurious covenant, a spurious purity
“Everything I say is for your own good, girl!”
Spurious claims, spurious claims
یک وفای الکی، یک صفای الکی
یک وفای الکی، یک صفای الکی
من هرچی می گم واسه خودته دختر
ادعای الکی، ادعای الکی
What kind, what kind of persecution is this—
That makes you no longer persecute?
Spurious nags, spurious nags
You, relative to others, are more prosperous
Spurious comparisons, spurious comparisons
این چه جور، این چه جور جفاییه
که دیگه جفا نمی کنی؟
زر زرای الکی، زر زرای الکی
تو نسبت به دیگران موفق تری
نسبتای الکی، نسبتای الکی
You should try to not be left behind by the caravan
Spurious leads, spurious leads
You have to leave everything behind, and run and throw yourself to the end
Run to the end
The end
Spurious ends—
No, no! The end, the end! The end of everything,
The end of this set, the end of tonight, the end of this concert—
The end!
باید سعی کنی از قافله عقب نمونی
سبقتای الکی، سبقتای الکی
باید سعی کنی همه چی رو ول کنی بدویی بندازی بدویی تا انتها
بدویی تا انتها
انتها
انتهای الکی
نه نه، انتها، انتها، انتهای همه چی، انتهای همین سِتلیس، انتهای امشب، انتهای همین کنسرت
!انتها
Spurious ends, spurious ends, spurious ends,
Spurious ends, spurious ends, spurious ends,
The end, the end, the end, the end, the end
،انتهای الکی، انتهای الکی، انتهای الکی
،انتهای الکی، انتهای الکی، انتهای الکی
انتها، انتها، انتها، انتها، انتها
Of my coming, I understood nothing
This soul, methinks, has seen no refinement
Beyond the limits of superstition, my language has not passed
The flower was found, not worthlessly held in my hand
ازآمدنم هیچ معلوم نشد
این جان نزارم، هیچ پالوده نشد
از سطح خرافه این زبانم نگذشت
گل یافته شد به دست من، پوچ نشد
From our coming and going, is there any profit?
The pains and the regrets that our eyes witnessed
The donkey made felt from the head of an owl, but
From the beginning to the end of the scene, it was a votive offering
از آمدن و رفتن ما سودی کو؟
دردا و ندامتا که تا چشم زدیم
خر از سر شحنه یک نمد ساخت ولی
سر تا سر صحنه، آش نذری بود
Will you give me a week’s vacation?
Those Paolo Rossi goals were amazing
My love’s hand-cooked meals were ghormeh sabzi
یک هفته به من مرخّصی می دی؟
با اون گلای پائولورسی حال کردم
دستپخت عشقم قورمه سبزی بود
O, the forties are so cool—such nostalgias!
The old days were masculine
When we were children, there was homemade bread
The men now have their mustaches at last
وای دهه ی چهل خیلی باحال نوستالژیا
ایام قدیم مردونگی بود
وقتی بچه بودیم نون خونگی بود
مردا حالا دیگه سیبیلشو دارن
Have you ever been to a summit of intellectuals?
Have you ever been to a subtraction of intellectuals?
Have you ever been to a multiplication of intellectuals, a division of intellectuals?
تا حالا جمع روشنقکرا رفتی؟
تا حالا تفریق روشنفکرا رفتی؟
تا حالا ضرب روشنفکرا، تقسیم روشنفکرا رفتی؟
Have you ever had dinner with the CEO of Westinghouse?
Have you ever truly longed for someone?
They are our enemies, we are good, they are shit
These westerners, these easterners—illusions!
تا حالا با رئیس وستینگهاوس شام خوردی؟
تا حالا از کسی دل بردی؟
اونا با ما دشمنن، ما خوبیم، اونا عنن
این غربیا، این شرقیا
توهمات
Have you ever met a woman who reads Paul Ricoeur?
Have you ever slept with a woman who reads Paul Ricoeur?
Leave the town and go outside,
That your surroundings be changed
تا حالا زنی که پول ریکور بخونه دیدی؟
تا حالا با زنی که پول ریکور خون باشه... خوابیدی؟
از شهر برو بیرون
فضات عوض شه
“Everything I say is for your own good, girl!”
What kind of persecution is this—
That makes you no longer persecute?
من هرچی میگم واسه خودته دختر
این چجور جفائیه که دیگه جفا نمی کنی؟
You, relative to others, are more prosperous
You should not be left behind by the caravan
You have to to leave everything behind,
And run and throw your self, run to the end
Run to the end
The end,
The end
تو نسبت به دیگران موفق تری
باید سعی کنی از قافله عقب نمونی
باید سعی کنی همه چی رو ول کنی بندازی
بدویی تا انتها، بدویی تا انتها
انتها
انتها

Comments

Translating the piece was challenging, first and foremost because of my limited Farsi vocabulary. I had to look up many words, and consider them in different contexts in order to determine and decide which meaning Namjoo probably intended. Some of my own biases and limitations are therefore inescapably incorporated into the translation.

But even with a perfect grasp of both languages, translating is challenging because there are so many double entendres in the original that, as much as one tries, are hard to incorporate into a translation.

For example, the word جمع means both “addition” and “meeting.” One of the lines from the original is, “Have you ever been to a جمع of intellectuals?” Namjoo then proceeds to play on this by using the other mathematical terms like subtraction, multiplication, and division, insinuating that intellectuals are not only able to meet (i.e. add), but they can also subtract, multiply, and divide–i.e. they can cleverly obfuscate and both create something out of nothing, and turn something into nothing.

In this instance, I was somewhat able to capture the double meaning by translating جمع as “summit” which incorporates both the mathematical term “sum” and the concept of a meeting. In other instances, I failed and had to pick the meaning that made the most sense. But in doing so, I lost some of the depth and beauty of the original.

Vahid Dejwakh
Vahid Dejwakh
Senior Engineer at Briefcat, LLC

Vahid writes about interesting ideas at the intersection of data, software, philosophy, psychology, policy, and business. He enjoys coffee and has a palate for spicy and diverse foods.

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