Consider the Words: On Translating Infinite Jest into Farsi
Moeen Farrokhi Recalls Grieving a Mentor While Traversing a Linguistic Labyrinth
Grief, like relief, sneaks up on you, unannounced and unexpected. And there I was, seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies, talking with a publisher about the importance of translating Infinite Jest into Farsi. I was babbling about the importance of the “serious” literature in our era, the necessity of literature conveying the Truth amid the constant noise in the industry. Yet, those arguments were but a smokescreen for the fact that I yearned to grieve the loss of my long-time literary mentor, Kouresh Asadi, who had taken his own life six months earlier, in July 2017.
When I first met Kouresh—or “Mr. Asadi,” as I called him for more than ten years—I was a college freshman, determined to pursue my passion for literature in the violent jolt of the capital, a stranger navigating streets and faces in Tehran. Kouresh had isolated himself from the Iranian literary scene for four years after his book achieved significant acclaim, devoting himself to writing a novel that would remain banned from publication for nine years. It was an unofficial workshop, held in one of his students’ apartments, attended by a small group who either remembered him from his glory days or, like me, sought any place to anchor themselves for a few hours each week. During those years, this modest workshop became a lighthouse in an otherwise dreary academic life that seemed to be pushing me towards a career of a failed engineer.
Yet, Kouresh was never truly at home in the bustling capital and suppressed literary industry of Iran. Having escaped the horrors of the 1980s’ Iraq war, he remained a perpetual stranger, lingering in an existential detachment. “We are not aware of what goes on inside us.” He once wrote, “We pass along each other, like two people from utterly different lands. Heads down, lost, confused. At the same time, Literature makes us to face a situation that we would normally avoid. It can tell us what it is that matters about us, and others, and enemies. The miracle of literature lies within imagining what is yet to happen.”If fiction was not the sanctuary, if it failed to make an imaginative access to other selves and thus offer redemption, then what else could? What is it that fiction is about? To be a fucking human being?
For him, fiction was the sole sanctuary where his war-torn psyche could seek refuge, albeit in a distant, nearly inaccessible island. It was the one definitive constant in his life. He had keen eyes to detect what he called a “great fiction”, a kind of fiction that stands solely on its own merit, self-contained narratives that “expand human’s capacity to understand the next person, and how others feel.” When I first read some of Wallace’s stories to him—Forever Overhead standing out—he was astonished. “This guy, he’s the real deal, what was his name again?” he asked, lighting yet another cigarette.
As a writer who approached fiction with a sense of reverence, Kouresh, much like Wallace, meticulously controlled every aspect of his writings, selecting words with the delicacy of a poet, and polished everything until he was confident he had written a story that would never crumble. He didn’t shy away from the mysterious and absurd nature of life.
But all my perceptions of him changed with the news of his death. His sudden suicide left those who knew him grappling with an even greater mystery. If fiction was not the sanctuary, if it failed to make an imaginative access to other selves and thus offer redemption, then what else could? What is it that fiction is about? To be a fucking human being?
I thought about a line from Infinite Jest often in the months following Kouresh’s death: “The truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you.” I found myself contemplating the Truth surrounding his choice, gazing vacantly through the window at the dimly lit, slumbering streets of Tehran, a reflection of myself fading in the glass. When I advocated for the translation of Infinite Jest. I desperately wanted to believe that maintaining faith in literature had not failed. What if, in this instance, words could speak louder than actions?
The truth is you don’t need faith to translate a book. What you need is commitment. You need to equip yourself as thoroughly as possible, to wrestle—and dance when needed—with the text, and devise solutions when countless challenges arise. The faith aspect, ironically enough, is a bit like the Higher Power concept in Alcoholic Anonymous. You don’t have to genuinely believe in it, know its name, or feel like kneeling down, but you have to go through the motions, even if it’s just pretending to kneel down to find a sock or anything under your bed, unless. Otherwise, you might find yourself back on that cliff—facing a choice to jump or to humbly admit that it does work, somehow. In other words, you have to commit.
And commit I did. Infinite Jest wasn’t my first translation of David Foster Wallace, so I knew that a linguistic labyrinth awaited me. I knew I had to go through the motions, a routine of sitting in front of my laptop with two windows open: the intimidating English version on the right, and the tentative Farsi on the left. I didn’t dwell much on the challenges ahead, trying to focus on each day’s task. If you bothered to set up a camera to record my days, you’d witness a man sitting in front of a laptop, his frustration evident, soundtracked by a playlist marking passage of time. I barely moved, except for necessary tea or coffee breaks. Then, unbeknownst to the observer, the pandemic would strike, locking the world in fear and isolation, the man would still keep sitting in the same chair. What the camera wouldn’t capture is that the man in the chair felt like he was engaged in an awkwardly sober and self-conscious dance with words—an ongoing endeavor to unearth new, nearly dormant linguistic faculties within himself, day in and day out. On the monitor, behind those two windows, was another window: my affiliated Twitter account through which I had connected to individuals, experts, and my fellow Wallace-readers. I was divulging my daily routine there, ranting about the project, and sharing those fleeting moments of elation. Those generous people not only followed my project but also extended their hands whenever I got stuck in the quicksand of Wallace’s elegant complexities.
On one of those dull long quarantine days, as I was knee-deep in the infinite jest of translating the book, I got a reply on Twitter from Igor Cvijanovic. He mentioned that he was translating Infinite Jest into Serbian. Our exchange quickly revealed that so many of the questions we both faced within the text—phrases whose meaning eluded us, words that felt cryptic—were very similar. It was Igor—and Can Kantarcı, the Turkish translator—that reached out to fellow translators, and soon I received an email with the subject line “Infinite Jest around the World” from one of the veteran translators—Caetano W. Galindo, from Brazil. He asked me if I want to join an internal group of former and present Wallace translators.
So our mailing group started. The translators of Infinite Jest all around the world gathered to help each other, to let the words spread. The discussions often kick off with seemingly straightforward questions—”Trial-Size Dove Bar”, ice cream or soap?—which evolve into in-depth discussions about Wallace, language, and translation. If that said camera were still rolling, you would capture me with an unmistakable grin as I read each email. The Truth we sought in our little community of Wallace translators wasn’t about what the late author did, but about his words, those tiny, easily missed details that readers might skip, but we translators couldn’t afford to. It was in these minute ingredients, dissected as if the fate of the world hung in the balance, that we discovered not the Truth, but fragmented truths, reflected in each language. And then the question for each translator would become: what to reflect to the reader?
“The book is 1,079 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence,” wrote Dave Eggers in the preface of the 10th anniversary edition. Every sentence, every tricky word, and each grammar twist is a little gift, carrying care —or dare I say, love—to the reader. “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art,” Wallace once wrote, “lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.”
This love doesn’t just reside in the text or the author; it thrives in the space between the reader (or translator) and the text itself. If the piece of fiction “can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain”, as Wallace suggested, so that “we might also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own”, then the translator’s role transforms into that of an invisible tunnel builder, creating a passageway that makes the once-inaccessible accessible.
This is where those never-ending discussions about aesthetics and technicalities come into play. Because translation is fundamentally the act of sacrificing one thing for another, it’s always a process of give and take. Not every language grants the flexibility that English does, and certainly, not every wordsmith plays with sentence structure as boldly as Wallace. This means you have to push the limits of your own language. You might choose to overlook a grammatical quirk with a sigh, all in favor of preserving the tone. You might opt to loosen a sentence slightly to maintain the flow, or on the contrary, you might embrace the text’s density, taking the risk of sacrificing some of its playfulness. You might feel you have to explain the certain reference or leave it to the reader to find out or miss. There is no comforting answer.
Of course you can talk in-depth about how and what to choose, which is essentially what we did in our email exchanges. Yet, in the deeper level, you must choose what can best convey that love, or rather, create a space for the love to thrive. You have to translate out of the part of yourself that loves the text, cherishes both languages and connects with the consciousness behind the text that made you feel less alone in the first place. It’s the kind of love I had forgotten, somehow deliberately, since Kouresh’s passing, only to rediscover it through this newfound community. It was through the process of translation, surrendering to the nameless Higher Power within Wallace’s words, that I recalled Kouresh as a fucking human being, not merely a concept or symbol of a failed notion. I could vividly picture him, bubbling up from depths: he always looked older than his age, with wispy gray hair, a bony face, a wide half-toothed smile that would appear if someone praised him, and a cigarette that was perpetually on the verge of falling. I recalled his calm demeanor, how he’d keep his eyes closed while intently listening to our stories, seemingly distant, only to snap them wide open when a truly great story came to its end. Those fleeting moments were the only times his eyes sparkled. And so did mine, meeting his.Translation is fundamentally the act of sacrificing one thing for another, it’s always a process of give and take.
In rediscovering those moments of genuine connection, I felt the relief of rediscovering a forgotten belief. Translation felt less like rock-climbing than mountaineering. The Higher Power gently guides you off the cliff, even if only for a while. You can lean on the structure of a magnum opus that won’t crumble, despite the fact that it’s a gift from a writer who, as Wallace’s sister Amy put it, “simply ran out of the strength to hope that tomorrow might be a little bit better.” But the words will live on. They will enhance our capacity to understand—or at least make peace with—how others lived, felt, suffered, or even chose not to live. There will always be a new reader, a new language, a new translator, and subsequently, an ever-expanding community of readers who would find connections with consciousness beyond their own. They will consider the tiniest details, relate with other human beings in profound ways, and feel the sadness with greater depth. Perhaps, they would come to the realization that the act of reading—or translation, for that matter—a truly great work of fiction is more about connection than isolation. This, then, is why we translate.