As part of our month-long William S. Burroughs celebration, we are about to embark upon a short series of interviews with Burroughs’ translators. First up is Farid Ghadami, who has translated several of Burroughs’ works into Persian.

Ghadami was interviewed for Beatdom #21. There, he talks more about Jack Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, and other Beat writers. Today, we are focused entirely on Burroughs.

First of all, please tell our readers what Burroughs works you’ve translated.

I have translated and published two works by Burroughs, with one notable piece being The Junky’s Christmas and Other Stories. This work is part of a collection known as Interzone, which encompasses a compilation of short stories and early works by Burroughs spanning from 1953 to 1958. The entire collection was initially published by Viking Penguin in 1989. The title of the collection, Interzone, draws inspiration from the International Zone in Tangiers, Morocco, where Burroughs resided for a significant period, and from which he drew considerable influence. Interzone is structured into three distinct parts:

I. Stories (featuring “The Junky’s Christmas,” “The Finger,” and six additional stories),

II. Lee’s Journals, and

III. Word.

In my role, I took on the translation of the first part (Stories) and successfully published it in 2016 as a standalone book.

The second book, Naked Lunch, made its debut in Iran in 2020. Since its initial release, the book has undergone multiple reprints, attesting to its enduring popularity. Notably, starting from the third edition, the Persian translations have been enriched with introductions penned by Barry Miles and Oliver Harris, adding valuable context and insights for the Iranian readership.

I currently have two Burroughs translations that remain unfinished, delayed due to various circumstances. One significant factor has been my commitment to writing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris 12, initiated in 2021. This academic pursuit delves into Whitman’s poetry and the intriguing concept of literary community.

Simultaneously, I embarked on a collaborative project with Oliver Harris to co-author a book on Burroughs, Two Assassins: William Burroughs and Hassan Sabbah, which was published in September 2023. The two translations awaiting completion are The Soft Machine and Junkie. These projects have been temporarily set aside due to the demands of these concurrent academic and collaborative writing commitments.

Over the past two years, amidst these undertakings, I managed to complete the translation of “THE LAST WORDS OF HASSAN SABBAH,” a concise yet significant work. This translation, accompanied by an introduction that encapsulates the essence of the book Two Assassins, will be published soon in Persian.

Before you translated these, how was Burroughs perceived in Iran, if he was known at all?

Prior to these translations, literature enthusiasts in Iran primarily encountered Burroughs through two avenues: first, via my introductions within other translated works, such as the exploration of the Beat Generation and Burroughs in books like my translation of Ginsberg’s Howl, or through articles I contributed to Iranian publications on this subject. Additionally, a substantial number of individuals became acquainted with Burroughs through Cronenberg’s acclaimed film adaptation of Naked Lunch, which gained considerable popularity in Iran.

In fact, considerable anticipation had built up among avid literature readers in Iran who had long awaited the opportunity to delve into Persian Naked Lunch. And now, I’ve been receiving numerous inquiries from readers eager to know when the translation of Junkie will be made available.

 In a previous interview, you called Burroughs “the wildest philosopher in the history of literature.” His ideas are often shocking even in the countries where he lived and worked, but I wonder how they have been received by readers in Iran.

The release of Naked Lunch in Iran during the COVID-19 outbreak added a unique twist to its narrative. The novel’s depiction of a human virus resonated deeply, and Burroughs’ unconventional writing style shocked readers. Despite prior exposure to Burroughs’ work through limited translations and introductions, as I said, and the popularity of the movie adaptation, the novel’s impact was profound. Burroughs’ critique of capitalism, bureaucracy, religious fundamentalism, and medical science within the novel’s unconventional style fascinated readers. The concept of “Control,” as explored by thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari, who are very well-read in Iran, took on a frightening dimension in Burroughs’ narrative.

I daresay, for Iranians, Naked Lunch is particularly particular, considering the coexistence of fundamentalist ideologies and aspects of the capitalist system. The novel’s exploration of the link between science, repression, psychology, control, drugs, police power, and the looming threat of violence from religious fundamentalists resonates deeply in the Iranian context. Burroughs’ work is not just a classic literary text but a profound source of thought that delves into the complexities of life in Iran. I often say that while Naked Lunch may be a novel for Americans, for us, it is life.

Is it hard to translate Burroughs’ prose into Persian? How do you handle the ungrammatical, the idiomatic, or the cut-up language he uses?

Fortunately, I didn’t deal with the cut-up technique when translating Naked Lunch, Junkie and The Junky’s Christmas, but tackling The Soft Machine proved to be a horse of a different color, presenting its own set of challenges. While I had previously tackled the translation of Joyce’s Ulysses into Persian for the first time in Iran, often regarded as a daunting task, I always say that translating Naked Lunch was the most demanding endeavor of my life.

The translation of Naked Lunch posed two main challenges. First, understanding the work, including its form or its slang, jargon, and language games, for which I heavily relied on scattered notes and explanations from Barry Miles and Oliver Harris in their books, introductions, or articles. Naked Lunch abounds with argot and slang terms, some of which may be unfamiliar to contemporary Americans. The text features repetitive sentences, images, and tones, requiring careful attention to ensure that these repetitions are faithfully preserved in Persian. Additionally, numerous ambiguous sentences demand meticulous translation to ensure the integrity of their form without sacrificing their nuanced meaning. The second challenge involved converting the text into Persian. To tackle this, I incorporated numerous footnotes and explanations for the readers, and also I used my creative skills as a Persian writer. There were paragraphs in the novel that sometimes I spent several days to find their meaning, and several days to find their appropriate translation into Persian.

However, I can say the open structure of the Persian language significantly eases the translator’s task. In Persian, a simple sentence can be expressed in multiple ways, allowing for fluid rearrangement of subjects, verbs, objects, or adverbs. This flexibility stands in contrast to languages like French, where for example adverbs typically follow the verb. This linguistic trait owes much to the influence of Persian poetry, which has played a vital role in shaping modern Persian. The adaptability of Persian has been preserved through the contributions of Iranian poets who sustained the language during periods of Arab rule. For instance, traditional Iranian schools traditionally taught Persian through the works of Sa’di Shirazi, a renowned 13th-century poet. I would say the poetic and adaptable nature of the Persian language not only aids in maintaining the language’s richness but also significantly eases the translator’s task.

Burroughs’ work has been banned in many places. Have you faced any legal challenges publishing his work in Iran?

For a book to be officially available in Iranian bookstores, it must receive approval from the Iranian Ministry of Culture prior to publication. The censorship department may necessitate the removal of certain parts or lines from the book. Notably, the censorship imposed on Iranian writers tends to be more stringent than that applied to translated works. Even in the case of Naked Lunch, the Ministry of Culture mandated the removal of a few lines and words. Despite these challenges, the book was eventually published. To ensure access to the complete content, I shared all omissions on social media platforms, making the uncensored version available to the Iranian audience. This practice extends to all my translations and novels, a commitment that, regrettably, not all translators and writers share due to concerns about potential repercussions. Social media has played a crucial role in challenging and, to some extent, rendering censorship ineffective.

With Naked Lunch, I genuinely anticipated a ban, considering its content. However, I must acknowledge that the book’s pointed criticism of America, in addition to the difficulty and complexity of the text, seemed to have played a role in obtaining permission for publication. Given the longstanding political tension between Iran and the US, spanning more than four decades, the authorities might have welcomed the critical stance toward American culture expressed in Naked Lunch. In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that writers often prove to be more astute than the staff in the censorship department.

Finally, would you like to share with our readers a little about the collaborative work you have done with Oliver Harris and Moloko Press? 

Well, this book titled Two Assassins: William Burroughs and Hassan Sabbah has a fascinating journey. Hassan Sabbah holds a significant place in Burroughs’ literature, with Burroughs even considering himself the Hassan Sabbah of modern literature. Hassan Sabbah is notably recognized in the West for founding the Hashashin or Assassin sect, of which my ancestors were a part. I wasn’t born an Assassin, but I learned about my ancestral connection to the Assassins in Alamut when I was around thirteen or fourteen. Shortly thereafter, I immersed myself in the world of Beat poets and writers, with Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl being my first encounter. This journey led me to the works of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. However, it wasn’t until I was 23 years old that I came across Hassan Sabbah’s name in Burroughs’ novel Nova Express. This revelation unveiled another layer of connection between Burroughs, the Beat Generation, and myself: Hassan Sabbah.

My understanding of the relationship between Burroughs and Hassan Sabbah deepened through Barry Miles’ book, The Beat Hotel, as well as various articles and forewords by Oliver Harris on Burroughs. However, discrepancies arose between the Hassan Sabbah I knew and the one depicted in Burroughs’ works. Burroughs asserted that nothing is accidental and everything is written. Almost three years ago, when Barry Miles introduced me to Oliver Harris, I hoped to resolve the questions arising from these disparities. Now, this book serves as a response to those intriguing questions: Why does Burroughs’ portrayal of Hassan Sabbah differ from the historical depiction of Hassan Sabbah in Iran? Who is the Hassan Sabbah that Burroughs speaks about?

In recalling the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant detective was accompanied by an assistant named Dr. Watson, whose incorrect conclusions often proved vital in aiding Holmes to solve mysteries. Dr. Watson’s errors, from his perspective, served as lessons on how not to approach a case. As this book, among other things, explores detective work, I find myself in a position similar to Dr. Watson, with Oliver Harris embodying the role of the brilliant detective, Sherlock Holmes. The main challenge, however, lies in knowing the culprits from the start: Hassan Sabbah and William Burroughs.