“The blind alleys that run alongside human conversation/like lashes are a sign of God…From these diverse signs you can see/how much work remains to do./Put away your sadness. It is a mantle of work.”
Anne Carson, “The Truth About God”
They say it takes ten years to make a dancer and twenty to settle an immigrant, both of which I have been. I started to dance in my mid-twenties, and after ten years of training, having swum upstream to make an aging instrument into an expressive one, I began to finally acquire that coveted dancer’s “center,” though the moment I danced as a tenured dancer was fleeting—as the absence of a life-long foundation collided head-on with the tenuousness of a newly-trained body. Then, what does the aging dancer do when her physical facility wanes? She pours herself into other bodies, redirects her ideas into movement for other bodies, translates her ideas into movements for those bodies. In other words, she choreographs, superimposes herself on the shifting surface of other bodies. She re-enters the self from a different position, recreates herself elsewhere. This way, the dancer does not die, but lives on by way of transforming.
Ecosystems, humans, all systems continuously make adjustments to persist, even if those adjustments seem invisible to the eye. It is an illusion that a dancer stands in perfect, static balance on one leg. If one looks closer, one can detect the rapid, micro-movements the ankle must make to reach the next exact position of balance, informed by nerves signaling from the brain. The dancer is considered mature when she has developed enough strength to transition through and sustain her positions. With this maturity, all her ideas can finally translate into movement. Humans adapt and transform their psychological, emotional and spiritual postures on a constant basis in order to persist in an ever-changing historical and personal narrative. Adaptation is survival. In addition to evolving biologically, our minds must learn new ways of framing things, again and again. Our psychology must reconfigure its position in relation to what our consciousness perceives to be reality at any given time.
It is twenty-three years since I immigrated to the United States from Iran. What I experience is not homesickness, or longing for the homeland, but disconnection from the elements of childhood. If we broaden the definition of immigrant, everyone has immigrated in some way: those of us who came from somewhere else are sensitized to fluctuating definitions of self/home. And if we are not the product of physical re-placement, our conceptual or emotional leaps serve as migrations. So it is safe to say that in favor of occupying a new place, we have all made departures. Longing can result whether the departure is voluntary or not. For example, growing older is an involuntary departure from youth every person experiences; childhood is something we cannot regain. On a voluntary level, all art-making is a form of migration, from one state of consciousness to another, from one point of creative maturity to another.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines longing as, “a strong persistent yearning or desire, especially one that cannot be fulfilled.” Nostalgia is described as, “a longing for the past, often idealized and unrealistic.” Originally coined in the seventeenth century from the Greek Nostos, meaning homeland, and Algos, meaning pain and longing, it referred to “the pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again”. In the French, this feeling is called, Maladie du Pays, sickness for homeland; in the German, Heimweh, home-pain; and El Mal de Corazón, heart-pain, in the Spanish.
In examining other cultures’ understanding and experience of longing, the untranslatable Portuguese notion of Saudade, sometimes spelled Sodade, comes to mind. A uniquely Brazilian and Western Iberian emotion, it combines longing, homesickness and nostalgia for something unattainable or distant. It insinuates a joy and acceptance in this yearning. The Portuguese words Falta and Saudade are both translated as “missing” in English, but they are two different kinds of missing. Whereas Falta refers to misplacing one’s keys, missing someone by arriving late or an even-tempered kind of missing, Saudade refers to a more profound kind of suffering-missing. Saudade is untranslatable in English perhaps because it grew out of the longing experienced after many left Portugal in journeys to unknown seas. A genre of Portuguese music, Fado, derives itself from this unique notion of Saudade.
In the Iranian culture, the Persian word Del-tangui, or, literally translated, contraction or missing (tangui) in the heart (del)–similar to the Spanish El Mal de Corazón or heart-pain–can mean any of the English notions of nostalgia, homesickness, and longing. A more specific word for homesickness in Persian is Beemaar-e Vatan or literally translated, home (vatan)-sick (beemaar). Embracing longing is also an integral attribute of the Iranian culture, from capturing nostalgia in its art music, to elaborate rituals for mourning the dead, to a long tradition of poetry that speaks of the longing of the lover for the beloved.
If longing is an inherent step in the process of departures/arrivals, why not, as in the instances of Saudade and Del-tangui, embrace one’s longing, and taking it a step further, subvert it into a catalyst in our search for a state of integritas or wholeness? Longing for the unattainable dance experience compels the retired dancer to choreograph. Beckett might have had this spirit in mind when he said, “I can’t go on. I will go on.” He can’t go on according to a seemingly unendurable pain, but not going on would be an insult to our resilience as humans, so he goes on because of our resilience, because this pain, indicator of some desire, can be shepherded in the service of art.
Desire, the driving force behind longing, is also the driving force behind the creative response to it–whether it is the artist’s desire to externalize thoughts, and to connect with his or her time and generation, or of the work of art itself to be created, to exist at a point in history which has evolved to the precise moment when it can contain within itself that work of art. The task then, for those who long, is to sustain longing on the razor’s edge, at a balancing point of vying for the desired object and yet not crumbling under its force or ever fully resolving that longing, lest desire should disappear.
What has kept my longing perched on point, so to speak, on the razor’s edge, is translating Persian into English. Metonymically, language is homeland. For the immigrant, language evokes intimacy and vulnerability. Translation is the intricate negotiation between author, text, translator, translated text and reader, with the translator at the center of this interaction. Translation, for me, integrates the personal, historical, linguistic and cultural knowledge internalized from living in several worlds, giving expression to my cultural sensibilities. I began translating not knowing this, not knowing that it would weave together so many of my disconnections and bring me as close as I have ever felt— since childhood, or since a few illuminated moments on stage where I suddenly felt a bright, piercing sense of my existence, fulfilling exactly the destiny of the transient, minuscule creature that I am — to a state of wholeness. When I translate, I re-engage at the most profound level with those sounds of intimacy, the objects of my longing. It is the only way I can confront my longing, the only way I have allowed myself to tip-toe back to the past and hover at the edge of memory, watching it unfold before my wide eyes. The associations I make in phrases such as Asr, late afternoon approaching early evening; Mashgh Neveshtan, to do homework; Be Khaab Raftan, to go to sleep; Hameen Deeshab, just last night; Faraamooshy, forgetfulness; or Naam, name, are innumerable and indescribable. A desire for what they conjure up is the driving force behind going back to them. And what they conjure up is a mother slapping her thighs, laughing on the phone during Asr; a mother who smells like caramelized onions and spinach, a mother who wears cozy sweaters and whose house keys make a familiar sound when they turn the key coming home with summer apricots and cherries. Or the early darkness of winter days when a child drags a leather book bag bigger than herself home to sit behind her looming desk for Mashgh Neveshtan, to write math equations in her spiral notebooks with her four colors of ink. And then, against mother’s orders, going barefoot on the cold, hard bathroom tile to brush her teeth before Be Khaab Raftan, going to bed in the tiny blue room with the looming desk. Or the phrase, Hameen Deeshab, just last night–a line of poetry remembered–whose author’s Naam, name, for the reason of mother’s Faraamooshy, or forgetfulness, she cannot recall.
This Asr is different than any late afternoon I can experience now in America; nothing could be the same Asr I dreaded every summer day, when my curfew approaching, I turned into a pumpkin and ran home to my father’s watchful eye. Or the same winter Asr when I had to begin hours of homework. Or the same Asr, a time of general Del-tangui in Iran, particularly on Fridays–equivalent to Sundays–when the feeling of malaise was at its peak. Here lies the difficulty in translating from one culture to another, even if a word for word equivalent of a notion is available. It is the untranslatable emotional and cultural inflections that distinguish one language and people, as well as a person’s particular experience, from another. The translator’s challenge in recreating the same feelings in the new language stems from this near-impossibility.
In the act of translation, I interact tangibly with the objects of my longing and bring Iran into my present and future. When solving the puzzle of translation, I, the incomplete I, the ever-shifting creature of multiple references can express herself. Sometimes, I am able to hit the right note, create an amalgam-word to convey the sense, the emotion I need to, and sometimes, I must settle for all the losses the text undergoes, hoping for as many gains as I can conjure up. While in the trenches of translating, invoking long-gone smells, tastes, sounds, and unearthing their most provocative English equivalents, negotiating the difference between Iran’s Asr and America’s late afternoon, I trace back the steps I have already taken to recreate myself in a new language and culture. Texts become a medium for experiencing sensations and memories.
Ilan Stavans coined the term Transnationality, explaining that translation is more than a literary endeavor; it is an amorphous state where a person can experience his or her identity by traversing between his or her languages. It is precisely in the occasion it offers to experience one’s full identity, that authentic self we are after, that translation transforms longing from a debilitating emotion and turns it into the desire implicit in the creative process. My longing, a key element in the return to my mother tongue, must never be fully relieved, otherwise, the impetus to translate will disappear—a fine point to sustain. About the necessity of desire, Michelangelo said, “Lord, let me always desire more than I think I can do”, for desire itself is the desired object here.
Translating has inducted me into the ranks of “post-immigrant”, an immigrant who has determined, or is constantly determining systems by which existing in the fragmentary state is acknowledged and celebrated, rather than treated as a state of crisis to be eventually overcome–which is what a new immigrant might feel. This state is more than being assimilated; it is assimilation with sass. It is the ability to utilize both cultures’ resources in the high-wire act of living, rather than living in a confounded state of disconnect between them. Thinking back to running home with all the awkwardness of an eleven-year-old on a late afternoon, Asr, still well before dinner-time in Iran, in my flowery Kelly-green skirt and olive t-shirt does not double me over with Del-tangui (well, yes, it does), but that longing fuels the translator in me to find occasions in a text where I can re-experience and communicate that long-gone feeling.
Longing/translation remains a sensory adventure for me, a personal place of limbo, a private ploy to pull out of my pocket at any time, to toggle back and forth between animal in native realm and valiant species in foreign flora, ever-evolving to adapt. Longing itself, I am not against; it is longing as debilitating force, longing not harnessed that I address here. The longing—in myself—that I am against is longing wasted, its capacity to transcend itself overlooked, its power to transform untapped. While, for me, translating depends on my longing, it is also an act fundamentally against longing, an act of resistance that perpetually defers its spectacle of sentiments.