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Untranslatable Modernity: Modern Literary Theory from Europe to Iran

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TRANSMODERN (Untranslatable Modernity: Modern Literary Theory from Europe to Iran)

Reporting period: 2019-08-07 to 2021-08-06

The expansion of the spatial and temporal horizons of world literature cannot be conceptualised without reference to the central role of translation in the international reception of literary texts and critical norms. However, in the comparative studies of literary change, the role of translations is typically conceptualized as a vehicle of influence in hierarchical order that places original above translation and identifies translation with imitation.

TRANSMODERN (Untranslatable Modernity: Literary Theory from Europe to Iran) explores the advent of modernist Iranian literary theory and its transformation from classical Persian rhetoric (balagha) into modern criticism (naqd) in the mid-nineteenth century. Although it is widely accepted that the cultural renovation in modern Iran has been driven by translation and adaptation of European literary critical norms, the mechanisms of this translational encounter have remained understudied and translations have been presumed to be self-evident in their meanings and implications.

TRANSMODERN examines the invention of modern literary theory in Iran from the perspective of resistance to translation. The project reconceptualises Iranian literary modernism as a succession of translational failures, incomprehensible translations and empirical encounters with untranslatability. TRANSMODERN searches for “the modern” in the critical norms that are left out of translation in the form of distortions, mistranslations, retranslations, variations, and imaginary interpretations of European literary critical norms.

By examining the modern Iranian translators’ encounters with European literary theory, TRANSMODERN theorizes untranslatability as the co-existence of the original and the translation and points to the ways in which untranslatability produces creative constellations, dialogic conjunctions, and alternative comparative paradigms in world literature.
The project concluded with six peer-reviewed articles––sole-authored and co-authored––published in Modernism/modernity, New Literary History, Representations, Twentieth Century Literature, The Translator, and Licit Magic: GlobalLit Working Papers. The results of the project were disseminated in various workshops and seminars in SOAS, Oxford, Yale University, The American University in Cairo, University of Birmingham, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, and Hay Festival. The project has produced outputs in collaboration with other international research projects such as ERC-funded “GlobalLit” (University of Birmingham) and AHRC-funded “Prismatic Translation” (University of Oxford). The project’s website ( and Twitter account (@transmodern1) continue to disseminate the outputs of the project and attract public engagement after the lifetime of the project.

The results achieved so far in a nutshell are:

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Translation do not substitute their originals. Translations create an interspace with their originals. A translation stitches itself to an original. The differential space between the two texts that are related (become involved) with each other through translation are not to be analysed solely in terms of a relation of fidelity. Fidelity in translation is not only a qualitative aesthetic value. It is also a descriptor of a degree of correspondence between two texts. It is devised for measuring a deviation from an original. The original itself is comprised of differential spaces. The final published text is constituted of a set of variabilities–––outlines, sketches, drafts, revisions, strikethroughs, omissions, insertions, manuscripts, proofs, and variants that materially precede a text. TRANSMODERN questions how to translate the instability of a text. The image shows variants of the first paragraph of Samuel Beckett’s Mal vue mal dit, self-translated as Ill Seen Ill Said. The image is taken from the bilingual, evolutionary, and synoptic variorum edition edited by Charles Krance (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1996). TRANSMODERN explores these interspaces in “Translating the Plural Text: Samuel Beckett in Persian,” The Translator>.

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Untranslatability is when a translation does not and cannot adequately replace an original. Untranslatability can be described as the co-existence of the original alongside its translation. Footnotes are among the most visible manifestations of this co-existence. One type of footnote is when writers or translators use foreign terms in the main text and then explicate this term in the language into which the text is translated at the bottom of the page. They are sometimes short, sometimes they take up nearly a whole page; sometimes they contain the author’s comments on the text. TRANSMODERN traces Iranian modernity through the footnotes of works of literary theory and criticism translated into or written in Persian. The image is taken from a translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into Persian (1984), by Mir Shamsod-Din Adib Soltani.

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If, as the 11th-century philologist ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī posits, meaning is order, then interlinear translations represent the text as a sequential order. TRANSMODERN analyses these mapped translations in order to develop a kairological approach to translation according to which a radically literal translation seizes the word/idea exactly at its proper time/place. Read Kayvan Tahmasebian and Rebecca Ruth Gould, “The Temporality of Interlinear Translation: Kairos in the Persian Hölderlin,” co-authored with Rebecca Ruth Gould, published in Representations 155: 1-21.>.

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The algebraic reformulation of classical Persian figures of speech, jamʿ (addition), tafriq (subtraction), taqsim (division), and laff-o-nashr “rolling and unrolling.” TRANSMODERN analyses the structures of literary comparison in conjunction with the premodern Persian art of moraqqaʿ (patched albums) in order to develop a model of literary comparison in which translation becomes a means of juxtaposing concepts, genres, texts and forms in Kayvan Tahmasebian’s forthcoming article, “Comparison beyond Similarity and Difference.”
TRANSMODERN proposes new ways of understanding the relationship between translation and literary comparison based on the embeddedness of the forms and methods of literary comparison within the linguistic and rhetoric structures of language. The project sheds new light on how translation can be used as a comparative method to conjoin, constellate, and patch texts and ideas regardless of their similarities or dissimilarities. The results of the project will advance both Middle Eastern studies and the study of world literature by presenting a model of a literary world in which materials and practices are seen as both locally embedded and amenable to global comparison. By proposing the interdisciplinary convergence of translation studies and genetic criticism, the project outlines new ways for literary translations to approach unstable source texts which consist of a set of drafts, thereby affecting and expanding the literary translator’s decisions.
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