Roya Zarrin: Three Persian Poems in Translation


Translated from the Persian by KAVEH BASSIRI

Poems appear in both Persian and English.


Translator’s Note:

My interest in translating Persian poems began more than a decade ago, while spending six months in Tehran researching contemporary Iranian poetry. I met many poets and returned with hundreds of poetry books. The range of voices was amazing—their work ran the gamut from postmodern experimentations to traditional ghazals—yet very few of these poets were available or properly translated in English.

During this trip, I also met Roya Zarrin, who had just won the Khorshid Poetry Prize for her third book, I Want to Swallow My Children. I attended the award ceremony, and the following week I went to a discussion of her work at Poets House in Tehran. Zarrin learned from Iran’s poetry movements of the 1990s and applied this knowledge to create works that are both innovative and accessible.

The poetry of Zarrin reflects the struggles and courage of an Iranian woman. She creates a personal mythology, full of surprise and discovery, that also speaks of her time and place. The poems are about love, marriage, divorce, and motherhood, as well as war, revolution, religion, oppression, and patriarchy. They include prayers, confessions, chants, pleadings, praise songs, and protests. They combine personal narrative with myth, scripture, and history. For example, using the story of creation, Zarrin rewrites her experience as a mother and artist into a new myth that traverses an expanse of time from the dawn of life on earth to the present day in the streets of Tehran. The weaving of past and present resonates with the Iranian tension between modernity and tradition. We can even see this tension in her use of language, where she incorporates archaic phrases, vernacular and contemporary vocabulary, and even foreign words and references.

As an English translator of Persian poetry, my ultimate goal is not to recover Iran for the United States—or to be the spokesman for Iranian poetry—but to assist in the border-crossing between English and Persian cultures. I want to heed Walter Benjamin’s warning and not block the light of the original language. I hope to facilitate cultural exchange and understanding. To this end, I look closely not only at the words and their meanings but also at the spirit and tone of the work, the connotations, the sound and formal elements. For example, in translating Zarrin’s poems that invoke spiritual texts, I take advantage of the language of the King James Bible.

I hope my translations will find a larger audience interested in Iran and its culture, as well as among American poets who are looking for ways to expand their language. I am excited by the prospect of extending English with the possibilities of another culture through translation. I want to enable readers to experience what Judith Butler calls “the disruptive return of the excluded.” My goal is to produce works that can feel natural in English while also questioning the expectation of the readers, making them see and experience the world and language in new ways.

[Did You Hear?]

صدایم می کنند
از باغچه های شمالی ام که بوی برنج می دهند
و از باغچه های جنوبی ام که بوی درختان وحی

عدالت آب را فراموش کن
دنبالم نیا
امروز تلخم، عوبدایا!
امروز    روز قربانی ست
و زهره ی گوسفندانم آب می شود از
دندان قروچه ی سوهان.

پسرانم آب می خورند
و غرق می شوند در پیاله های طوفانی
و دختران زنده بگورم
دندان هایشان را مسواک می کنند 
و گیس بافته را
خیسِ روغن زیتون
و دختران زنده به گورم درخت می شوند،
درخت    با لانه های صبوری   لابه لای انگشت هایشان.

شنیدی؟    صدای پا می آید
و اره ی برقی    و جیغ   جیغی خفه، عوبدایا!

… و کلمات عوبدایا!
حروف فشرده ای که کبوترند
مثل انگشت تشنه ای
که رطوبت گونه های مرا می مکد
مثل نامه های کوتاه من برای خودم     
و اوراد عاشقانه ای
که ابرها را فشرده می کند

و اما درخت
که حروف فشرده نیست
که قطعات بریده بریده ی دختری ست
مثل قلمه های بادام خیابان نارنجستان
و قلمه های دیگری با عطر زغال
در جعبه ی مداد رنگی ها.

پس نه این نوشته بیهوده ست
نه دست دور و نفس های عمیقت
که چشمه ها را به نام های مادرت صدا می زنی و تپه ها را
و تپه آیا شبیه مادر نیست
وقتی که طاقباز و خسته
خواب مرگ می بیند
درست مثل من، که آبستن کلمات نیمه روشنم در نیمه های تاریکم.

پس بغلم کن عوبدیا!    تا حروف معلق آرامش   از اضطراب نمیرند

… و من تو را دوست دارم، عوبدیا!
و او که دوست می دارد از علاقه های آسان خویش بگوید
شبیه تبسم غمگینی ست 
بر لب های زنی
که ایستاده تا جاودانگی اش را
به بوم جعلی نقاشی بسپرد.

من    تو را دارم و خون رقصانی
که سلول های ساکتم را روشن می کند
من    تو را دارم و استخوان هایی
که بار هستی ام را بر دوش می کشند.

و من   امروز 
دیوارها را به شهادت می گیرم
و زبان کلید را     در دهان این قفل
و کلمات معلق را؛
قلبت را می بوسم، عزیزم!
    و رهایت می کنم
          تا دوباره

[The earth was vast]

زمین بزرگ و خالی بود
و آسمان     بر ستون نامرئی اش لمیده بود
و آب     از گوشه های خاک سر می رفت.

پایان روز نهم بود
و من
دو قاچ بزرگ
.سیب زاییدم


گوش کن، عوبدیا!
خرچنگی بزرگ
در آسمان‌های هفت گانه قدم می‌زند
رویاهایتان را قیچی می‌کند و کلماتتان را
و با صدای زنگوله اش تعقیبم می‌کند آن جا،
همه جا

این جا، همه چیز ابتر است
شما نمی‌دانید
و این را نوشته‌ام که چیزی نگفته نماند.

«پارادیزو» عوبدیا!
و این عبارتِ بی دلیل
آخرین چیزی ست که از حافظه‌ام گذشت. 

[Did you hear?]

Did you hear?
They’re calling me
from my northern gardens, with the scent of rice,
and from southern gardens, with the scent of revelation trees.

Forget water justice.
Don’t follow me.
Today I’m bitter, Obadiah.
Today is the feast of sacrifice
and the blood of my lambs run cold
from the gnashing of the whetstones.

My sons drink water
and drown in the stormy goblets,
and my buried-alive daughters
brush their teeth
and anoint their long braids
in olive oil.
My daughters grow into trees —
trees with patient nests between their fingers.

Did you hear? The approaching sound of footsteps
and the chainsaw and the scream, the muffled scream, Obadiah.

… and the words, Obadiah.
Condensed alphabets are pigeons,
like thirsty fingers
that suckle from my wet cheeks,
like my short letters to myself
and spells of love
that condense the clouds.

But a condensed alphabet
isn’t a tree,
it’s a girl cut to pieces,
like almond grafts on Sour Orange Grove Street
or charcoal-scented pencils planted
inside a box of colored crayons.

So neither is this writing fruitless
nor your embrace and deep breaths
since you call the springs by your mother’s names, and the hills…
The hill, isn’t it like a mother
supine and spent,
dreaming of death,
like me, pregnant with half-lit words in the dark hours.

Hold me, Obadiah. So the hanging letters for peace won’t die of despair.

… and I love you, Obadiah.
And she who speaks of her simple desires
is a sad smile on the lips of a woman,
standing to entrust her immortality
to the fake canvas of a painter.

I have you and whirling blood
that ignites my silent cells.
I have you and bones
that shoulder the weight of my being.


I call to witness the walls
and the tongue of the key in the mouth of this lock
and the hanging words;
I kiss your heart, dear,
    and set you free.
                So you’ll come back.

[The earth was vast] 

The earth was vast and empty
and the sky    reclined on its invisible spine
and water    brimmed over the corners of the land.

It was the end of the ninth day
and I
gave birth to two large
slices of apple.


Listen, Obadiah.
A giant crab
steps across the seven heavens,
slicing your dreams and your words,
and with the sound of its little bells, it tracks me there,

Here, everything is barren.
You don’t know.
I write so nothing is left unsaid.

Paradiso, Obadiah.
This pointless word 
is the last thing that crossed my mind.


Roya Zarrin is author of nine books of poetry, six of which have received the necessary permission to be published in Iran. Zarrin’s first book, The Earth Needs the Lover’s Incantation (2004), was a finalist for the Karnameh Prize, an important annual award given to the best new poetry book in Iran. Her third book, I Want to Swallow my Children (2007), brought her national recognition, winning the 2008 Khorshid Prize for the best new poetry book by a woman and named the best book of the year by the Eavar Festival. The Pleasant Tricks of April (2011), won the Iranian Journalist Prize for the best book of poems and received a special recognition from the official National Literary Prize.

Kaveh Bassiri is an Iranian-American writer and translator. His translations have received the 2019 NEA Translation Fellowship and Witter Bynner Poetry Translation Residency. They have appeared in the Chicago Review, Guernica, Colorado Review, Two Lines, and The Massachusetts Review. His own poetry has been published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Beloit Poetry Review, Shenandoah, Copper Nickel, and Best New Poets. His chapbook 99 Names of Exile (Newfound, 2019) was the winner of the Anzaldúa Poetry Prize.

Roya Zarrin: Three Persian Poems in Translation

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