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Iran Snapshot: The Literary Translator Who Is Now a Political Prisoner (Dumas)

Mohammad Soleimani NiaAuthor Firoozeh Dumas writes for The Los Angeles Times:

A translator is an alchemist, transforming cadence, voice, meaning and symbol from your mother tongue to mine, from my culture to yours. He spreads ideas, draws the world together, erases boundaries. This is dangerous work in a place like Iran, and so it has proved to be for Mohammad Soleimani Nia, my translator, now a prisoner somewhere in Tehran.

In 2003, Mohammad contacted me through my website expressing interest in translating my book, Funny in Farsi, into Persian. Iran does not adhere to international copyright laws (surprise!), so I was eager to short-circuit a shoddy Iranian edition. And I wanted a translator who could get the jokes. Mohammad assured me that I could inspect his translation and that I would have final edit. He was an honorable man in a nation where honor in translating is neither encouraged, necessary nor profitable.

It's a truism that humor does not translate. Throwing a pie in someone's face is funny in America, not so much other places, and even here, not everyone sees the humor in wasting a perfectly good dessert. There were many American references in "Funny in Farsi" that baffled Mohammad. I received an email one day asking, "What is Fake 'n Bake?" I sent back a lengthy explanation. First about Shake 'n Bake and its association with joyful housewives shaking drumsticks in a bag, and then about the play on words and the importance of a suntan. He responded with a "thank you" and found a way to convey it to a nation where slow cooking is the norm and white skin is cherished.

When he translated a story about Christmas, Mohammad rendered "the bearded fellow coming down the chimney" as just that in Persian. I emailed him that time: "Don't you think the bearded fellow coming down the chimney" in Iran might conjure up images scarier than Santa Claus? Mohammad hadn't thought of it that way because, as I realized through our correspondence, he lives in a world of literature and poetry and not much in the world of politics. I often tried to sneak in a political question. He never answered them, though he responded to every other question I posed. I believe he has no interest in politics.

Before "Funny in Farsi" was published in Iran, it had to be approved by state censors. They decided an entire chapter, "The Ham Amendment," had to be removed. I was livid! I dashed off an email: "How dare they!" But Mohammad calmly told me that it was more important for Iranians to read some of my stories than none at all. He assured me that the message of my book still came through. He accepted the limitations of life in Iran and worked alongside them. His calm demeanor persuaded me to go ahead with the publication. He was right.

"Funny in Farsi" sold almost 100,000 copies before it was banned with no official explanation. Before the ban, I received so many grateful emails from Iran that I was forced to removed my address from my website. Every one basically said the same thing: "Thank you for bringing laughter back into our life. I had forgotten what my parents' laughter sounded like." I replied to as many as I could, and I always said they had Mohammad Soleimani Nia to thank. The book they had read, in their native Persian, would not exist without Mohammad.

Four weeks ago, Mohammad was taken from his parents' house by the Iranian government. No one has heard from him since. He has not been accused of any crime. He is undoubtedly being held in Evin Prison, alongside too many journalists, bloggers and users of social media. Their only crime is living in a country where freedom of speech does not exist.

Mohammad reminds me of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince. His gentle soul shines through. He is not somebody who will survive an Iranian prison. People are tired of terrible news, perhaps especially about men named Mohammad, but I hope somehow, somewhere, someone can help free this man whose only crime is translating laughter from here to Iran.

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