Sex is Universal, but it Still Needs a Translator

Iranian Poet Forough Farrokhzad sits on a chair smoking a cigarette looking serious off to the distance
Selling the Iranian feminist poet Forough Farrokhzad

By Mariam Rahmani

“I sinned a sin full of pleasure,” goes the opening line of the poem that launched Forough Farrokhzad’s career, in a new translation by Elizabeth Gray, recently published by New Directions. For a brief 32 years from 1935 to 1967, Forough, as she is lovingly known to Iranian readers, wrote as unapologetically as she lived. Challenging poetic convention in a period of literary modernization, Forough stuck to a simple vocabulary and, in her final works, abandoned meter. She wrote darkly of wifehood and she celebrated sex. She criticized consumerism. She directed a documentary that helped usher in Iranian New Wave cinema. 

Off the page, in a life lived largely in the public eye due to her early, and controversial, success, she was equally unflinching. She married young — sixteen and in love, though perhaps also seeking the freedom that this rite to womanhood would offer — and had a child. Then she had an affair, or two or three — transgressions referenced in “Sin,” whose 1954 publication in the respected magazine Roshanfekr incited what the reigning Forough expert Farzaneh Milani, in a 2016 Farsi-language biography, describes as “a flood of letters and phone calls” (my translation). Forough demanded a divorce, lost custody of her son, was institutionalized and given shock therapy, took other lovers, went abroad, came back, and fell in love again, openly dating a married man — all before dying in a car accident. Thrown from her Jeep in Tehran, she is said to have died on impact, though others claim that she died in her lover’s arms. 

With you my loneliness was silenced / [from you] my body smelled of sex

Working against a canon perfumed with euphemisms and Sufism, wherein desire for the beloved represents union with the divine, Forough shattered expectations. A couplet from “Lovingly” (“Āshiqānih”), in her fourth collection, Another Birth (Tavalodī Dīgar), states frankly, “With you my loneliness was silenced / [from you] my body smelled of sex.” I’ve translated coarsely here, stressing sense and not sound, and yet the effect is nearly as blunt in the rhyming, rhythmic original. Published in 1964, when Forough was dating the married filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan, lines like these are hardly coy. The relationship was so public that even Golestan’s wife was aware. (Quoted in a 2017 Guardian article, he likened this polyamorous arrangement to loving your kids equally.) This stuff was scandalous. There’s writing about sex, and then there’s writing about sex with your married lover who runs in the same circles. 

But the poetry of her poetry had, and continues to have, the last word. Golestan shmolestan — we all know the feeling. That scene, in “Lovingly”, pinned on the distinct smell of sex on the body, of sweat and fluids and self-expense. The distance and solitude that come with communion. These lines straddle love’s ambivalence. In the end, the “I” remains elusive and refracted, gestured to and glimpsed at through what it possesses and what it lacks — “my loneliness,” “my body” — and yet, as a subject, absent. The sex is there, but also a strangeness — and estrangement, from both the lover and the self.

The poet Simin Behbahani, Forough’s contemporary and peer, credits Forough’s popularity to the sexual rebellion of her work. “The audacity that she had in revealing her feminine feelings, which she consistently insisted on doing in all her poems, surprised people and drew them in, and contributed a lot to her fame,” Behbahani said in a 2007 interview with BBC Persian (my translation from the Farsi). Later in the interview, she described a climate in which “fanatics and half-wits” — as in, non-lefties (fair enough)  — “had huge issues with Forough. They didn’t want their daughters reading Forough’s poetry, and they talked about her behind her back.” When virginal virtue is at stake, many a culture have been moved to extreme measures. In Forough’s case, after the 1979 Revolution, her poetry was banned for years and, when made available again, often censored — though I will note that I first read “Lovingly” in a bilingual edition I picked up in Tehran, the text intact, sex included. 

Forough’s crime is to kiss and tell, while her craft — to say nothing of the intellectual labor of writing — is reduced to “talking.” 

Behbahani also described Forough as a bit of bitch, saying that she could be so bothersome it was “like torture.” Slut, bitch — to align oneself with Forough is to take on that reputation. The translator Sholeh Wolpé has written, “When I told a family member I was translating Forough Farrokhzad, she said, ‘Why are you wasting time on that whore?’” The encounter is a familiar one for many Iranian feminists. Writing in 1992, Milani similarly recalled the range of “purely paternalistic” to “hard-core sexist” reactions to her dissertation on Forough that she confronted as a grad student at UCLA in the mid-1970s: “Some were genuinely concerned about my professional future. Others, amazed and amused, wanted to know if a Ph.D. could be granted for a dissertation written on a woman poet who … only talked about her carnal desires and adventures.” Forough’s crime is to kiss and tell, while her craft — to say nothing of the intellectual labor of writing — is reduced to “talking.” 

Is the sex what matters? A male poet might write, “Off with that girdle,” “Off with that happy busk,” and go down in history as one of the most important poets of the English language, and yet few think of him as the swan of striptease. (For the record, I like John Donne.) The cultural conditions that reduce a woman poet to her sexuality are too tired to list here. But then again — reduce or “reduce”? Sex is a part of life. Not to mention what motivates a great deal of human striving, and what accounts for much of one’s sense of failure. To take Forough seriously is to take sex seriously. To take poetry seriously is to take sex seriously. (Indeed, this credo might solve the crisis in the humanities.) 

Iranian Poet Forough Farrokhzad stands in profile outside in a mountainous region

If Forough has been sexualized by her Farsi readership — and not only in Iran but also in the American academy — in translation this attention to the female body often takes on an Orientalist tone. “In a country where for centuries women have lived silenced, diminished, and in the shadow of their men,” Gray’s introduction to the New Directions edition starts, Forough “broke all the rules.” This is not wrong, yet it’s also not right. The opening phrase — unwittingly, presumably, given the care that’s evident in the translations that follow — freezes Iran in the past, erasing centuries of women’s movements and their discourses and debates, from nineteenth century unveiling to turn-of-the-century suffrage and constitutionalism to mid-century Marxism and secularism and, since the 1970s, a rainbow of Islamic feminisms, plus more Marxism and secularism. The creation of a timeless, unchanging Other is a key tool of Orientalism, as elaborated by Edward Said; unwitting as it may be on the part of any individual translator or publisher, starting a compendium of Forough in this way is no accident of history. The present collection invites readers to appreciate Forough anew. It also offers fertile ground for considering the politics and economics of literary translation and their relationship to imperialism.

In my class at UCLA, I recently taught three translations of Forough’s “Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season,” a poem published posthumously and widely recognized as her magnum opus. (Somewhat serendipitously, I teach in Milani’s old department.) With one exception, my students were encountering Forough for the first time. Many of them were taken with her, and a few were particularly incensed at the history of her reception. There was an understanding in the room that the denial and demonization of the female body that Forough faced were not particular to her context; slut-shaming has not disappeared. Gray’s introduction quickly goes on to stress Forough’s universality. But that is a universality that follows on the heels of foreignization — not of Forough but, more broadly, of the category of “Iranian woman,” singular and dehistoricized. 

The contemporary American translation market requires this: Seemingly, a book must be as strange as it is recognizable — or rather, strange in recognizable ways — to warrant publishing. (In this case, evidently, New Directions approached Gray.) Even works written in European languages often contain tropes that fulfill American expectations of the culture at hand. Think of the captivating mess of soap-operatic behavior that is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Italians being extra — Italians being Italian, as it goes — helps account for the series’ wild popularity. The candor of Forough’s work — its corporality and sexuality — is reinterpreted by an American audience as a glimpse behind the veil and entry into the harem. In translation, Forough can have the twisted effect of reinscribing the borderlines she rejected. That’s what sells.

But if part of what sells Forough is the image of Iranian women “in the shadow of their men,” who is getting paid? Too often, “opening up” an author to the Anglophone market is seen as doing them a favor. Cynically, Global South to North translation — that is, along neoimperial and neocolonial vectors of power — might be considered a form of global resource extraction. Publishers reduce their costs: Translators are hardly paid, a dead author will not demand justice, and a living one is not likely to. 

In fairness to New Directions, it’s not immediately clear who should benefit in Forough’s case. Her works are not yet part of the public domain, according to American copyright convention, but she has no estate. Moreover, Iran is not a signatory to the Berne Convention, the international treaty that dictates the need for translation authorization, and Iranian publishers commonly flout permissions when translating into Farsi. “Iranians can hardly expect to have their copyright respected when they don’t respect anyone else’s” — this is a line I often hear from Iranian intellectuals. Its logic falls flat. When it comes to structural forms of power, there is no fair tit for tat. Indeed, the proliferation of recent Anglophone intellectual production in Iran —academic books and theory, if not the latest hit novels, are often quickly translated into Farsi — is arguably but a sign of American global hegemony. The Iranian literary community’s deference and relative poverty (the toman is not worth much on the global market) do not justify its abuse. American publishers must hold themselves to their own standards. 

When I contacted New Directions to ask about copyright, I was assured that the press had spent considerable time making contacts and pursuing copyright in Iran, hoping not to “step on any toes.” In any case, I was told, New Directions wouldn’t have been able to pay royalties to anyone in Iran due to sanctions. 

Though accepted as common knowledge, this isn’t quite accurate. As the legal anthropologist Arzoo Osanloo stressed to me in a call, individual Iranians, unless explicitly named by the U.S. Treasury Department, are not sanctioned. But there is the practical difficulty of paying Iranian authors, given that SWIFT, the Belgium-based co-op that enables international banking, has honored U.S. sanctions on Iran: There is no way to move money directly from the States to Iran. To get living Iranian authors paid, some American publishers get around this by using informal, circuitous routes, the same ways Iranians send money to family — paying a friend with an account in each country who then converts and distributes the sum. Ethics can trump foreign policy, the logic goes. The point is, it’s complicated. And those complications are intentional. The cultural costs of sanctions extend well beyond the letter of the law. As Osanloo told me, “Sanctions carry more than legal weight — they carry the weight of … fear.” 

Iranian Poet Forough Farrokhzad stands in front of a mountainous landscape

Sticky as this gets, surely it is better for Forough to be read than not to be read. A competent edition from a respected publisher goes far. Line by line, this translation has many fine moments, and others that make me pause. To return to my prior example, Gray’s translation of the title “Āshiqānih” as “Love Poem” rather than the more literal “Lovingly” is graceful; it strays from a literal translation precisely to remain faithful to the simple sentimentality so characteristic of Forough’s poetry. But “my body exudes the scent of your embrace” loses the immediacy and poignancy of “my body smelled of sex” (“paykaram bū-yi hamāghūshī girift”). There’s an argument for translating “hamāghūshī” as “love making” — like the English, it is at its root euphemistic, a compound that amounts to “reciprocal embracing” — and yet “embrace” alone is too coy. The word “hamāghūshī” unequivocally means sex. Why veil that? 

It is a coup to offer translations of Forough poems hitherto found only in editions by academic presses, or not at all. But when it comes to more oft-translated poems, I find that this translation neither adds nor detracts. For me, the 2007 collection Sin, translated by Sholeh Wolpé, better captures the experience of reading Forough in Farsi, that way the lines hit you. When I polled my class on our three versions of “Let Us Believe,” they said the same.

Forough deserves more readers, and any translator and publisher that toil to make that happen can be congratulated. But there must be creative ways of contending with the entanglements I’ve outlined above. Money saved on author or estate fees — and, if relevant, royalties (we should all be so lucky!) — might be put to some cause, supporting contemporary writers like Forough, whether in Farsi or otherwise. An imperfect solution — who will adjudicate? — and yet better than nothing. 

But before that, we, the American literary community, must have an honest conversation. Where is the necessary mention of Forough’s outstanding copyright in the front matter? Where is the contention with the material reality of translation? To be an English speaker today is to wield the force of the global lingua franca. With power comes responsibility, a truism that needs repeating. A case can be made for translating this work despite copyright; why not make it? We deserve that much as readers. As translators. As writers. We need more transparency in translation. Until then, we remain bound by our imperious advantage. 

Mariam Rahmani is a writer and translator working on a debut novel. Her translation of Mahsa Mohebali’s In Case of Emergency is out with Feminist Press. 

Author and date of images unknown, sourced from