A word from the translator – Tom Patterdale

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Tom Patterdale, whose translation of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel received an award in 2011

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadicolonel

Translated from the Farsi by Tom Patterdale

“There was a fusillade of laughter at this and Amir, mortified, dissolved into floods of tears. His sobs grew ever more violent until they reached a crescendo of loud and uncontrollable wailing. Suddenly a bullet whizzed through the air. The policemen immediately reached to their shoulder holsters for their guns, pushed Amir out of the way and ran out.” 

Interview by Polly Roberts

The structure and plot of The Colonel is fairly fractured in places and not necessarily in order.  Did you have any difficulties in following this and piecing it together yourself?

Most certainly. The stream of consciousness had many eddies and backwaters, rocks and floods. The translator can only reproduce what is there, as to rewrite the whole thing is not an option. This author requires his readers to work to follow him. He does not feel it his duty to make things easy for them. He said himself that the book resulted from a series of nightmares he had had over the years, which finally boiled up until his head burst and he had to write them down. Nightmares do not appear in an orderly fashion!

Each character is said to be symbolic of a figure in Iranian history; were there any times where you were questioning who was supposed to represent who?  Did you feel it was important to be informed of the symbolism before translating the text, in order to successfully transpose Dowlatabadi’s intention?

Absolutely crucial.  The German translation, by an Iranian, gives no hint anywhere that the colonel in the photograph is the legendary Colonel Pesyan. A German reading it would have no idea who he is meant to be, whereas an Iranian reader would realise immediately. The same would go for Khezr. Iranians would also know which of the children represent which revolutionary faction, but an English reader needs help.

Do you feel there is a clearer sense of morality today than the warped morality exposed in The Colonel?  The Colonel as a character draws from a hero Mohammed Taqi Khan Pesyan working as a metaphor for the Iran that could have been; do you believe this is still an applicable ideal for the future of Iran?

There are some Iranians who say that the only hope for a better Iran is for a Pesyan character to emerge from the Revolutionary Guards. There are a few such young officers who are as yet patriotic, uncorrupted and with a following both inside and outside the armed forces, but if they get too much of a following they are rapidly cut down to size or eliminated. Reza Shah was such a character in the 1920s, but by the 1930s he had become a tyrant, much enriched. The very nature of an oil economy, where the government, rather than the people, creates the wealth, means that corruption is inevitable. The very difficulty of everyday life in Iran today makes almost everyone necessarily corrupted to some degree, just to survive. Pesyan is an ideal to aspire to. One might not achieve this ideal, but 70% would be a good mark. When he was in the USA recently, Dowlatabadi pointed to some of the undesirable results of the Arab ‘spring’ and warned his audience to be careful about what they wished for.

You included in the English translation ‘translator’s notes’ at the start and a glossary as well as an afterword.  Was this because the novel would otherwise be too hard to follow or is this a reflection of a personal attachment to the novel?

I felt that, even if one could follow it without notes, it would be impossible to understand the novel fully.  I also felt that some readers might be interested to know about the historical aspect.  One could not expect them to pick up the various allusions unaided. Even WH Auden had to add notes to the later editions of his poems, to help the younger generation with his allusions to the classics no longer taught in school.

The Colonel was never released in its original Persian. Did you hold any hopes in its translation and release in English?  Does the value of this feel any different to the value of translating a title that is already a success in its original language?

When I first read the book I was blown away by the power and sheer desperation of some of the passages, and the force of the language, which broke every taboo in Iranian literature. Here was the language of the common man crying out in pain at lost hopes and the betrayal of all his ideals. It had to be translated, but no, I had no hope or expectation that it would be published at home. However, it appears to being read by the large Iranian diaspora in the UK and the USA.

All books in Iran have to pass the censor before publication. It is the same with films, where the scripts have to be approved before shooting can begin. This can take months or years. It is not so much that the book is banned as the fact that none of the censors has dared to let it through. The answer they give Dowlatabadi is that the book is ‘too depressing’. The book is therefore in a kind of limbo, neither published nor damned. After it was published in Germany and the UK and had been honoured by being long-listed for the Man Asia award, Dowlatabadi asked the censors whether they would now allow it to be published at home. The answer they gave him is that, since it has now been published in English, there is no need for it to appear in Persian!

In trying to recreate Dowlatabadi’s preference for choosing words whose origins were in Persian rather than Arabic, you chose to use Anglo-Saxon words over Latin.  Was this a hard choice?  Do you feel it kept something similar to the language choice of Dowlatabadi and did this choice make the translation into fluid sentences any more challenging?

Translation of Dowlatabadi’s prose, where sentences run over several pages without a main verb or a full stop, was challenging enough. This is fine in Persian, which is often discursive and rambling, but not acceptable in English. What does Joyce sound like in translation? In fact, much modern Persian prose sounds wonderful but is in fact meaningless waffle. They say that it should be translated into English to see if it actually makes any sense! The hardest thing to do in translation, particularly where the structure of the languages is so different, is to create a prose flowing naturally in the rhythms of the second language. If it were translated back into Persian it would be horrible.

Meeting the author face to face was a great help, as it gave me the ‘voice’ of the colonel. If I had translated the book word for word it would have been quite unreadable, so I had to create a voice from an ‘English’ colonel, a character who had done many brave things in his time but now saw the country as having gone to the dogs.  That sort of person does not go in for Latin much so, to answer your question, it was not too hard to choose words of one syllable.

I met Dowlatabadi only a few days after receiving the text. I had just had time to highlight some of the most difficult passages. His German translator, an Iranian, was with him in case I knew German, which I don’t. At some of the passages, one of them would say that it meant one thing, while the other said no, it meant something quite different! This did not make my task any easier.


Tom Patterdale read Persian at university and worked in Iran for a number of years.

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8 Comments on “A word from the translator – Tom Patterdale”

  1. Dear translator I need to translate my book (my life story from farsi to english I need to contact you somehow if you send me an Email , a phone number , I,ll be very thankful Masood

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