Truth to power: my time translating Behrouz Boochani’s masterpiece



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Behrouz Boochani photographed on Manus Island.
Jason Garman/Amnesty International via AAP

Omid Tofighian, University of Sydney

The GM picks me up from the airport. I call him the GM because after the PNG Supreme Court ruled the Manus Island immigration detention centre illegal, this man was able to leave the prison and find work as the general manager of a lodge in Lorengau town. Behrouz Boochani has arranged for me to stay at that lodge.

The GM’s Manusian colleague and another refugee accompany him. Driving into town we see police blocking part of the road beside a school; some locals are dispersing, others are gazing over at a cluster of trees.

Hussein Shamshiripour alongside a picture of his deceased son Hamed in August 2017.
Supplied/AAP

I find out afterwards that the body of Hamed Shamshiripour has just been discovered among those trees beaten and with a rope around his neck.

Hours later, I meet Behrouz for the first time at the central bus stop in Lorengau. I always imagined him holding his smart phone – an inseparable union. A Kurdish journalist, writer and refugee from Iran, Behrouz has been incarcerated on Manus for five years. Since the start of 2016 I have been translating his journalism, communicating with him through WhatsApp.

During this time, his phone has been a lifeline to the outside world. He has shot a film and written articles on it – texting them to those beyond the prison fences – and now his book, No Friend but the Mountains.

We greet each other as he finishes a phone call. Australia’s border regime has stolen prime years of his life – he is weary and famished, but proud, vigilant and resolute. This is despite having had nothing to eat all day, the heat and sweat, being traumatised at the loss of a friend and the responsibility of reporting and communicating with the Australian and international media.

Behrouz Boochani and Omid Tofighian pictured in 2017.
Author provided

Over some days we get to know each other personally for the first time, and I meet others and translate articles in response to this latest tragedy. Then after the intensity, stress and anger have faded a little, we begin reviewing the chapters of No Friend but the Mountains. I have already translated about 80%.

Behrouz began writing from the very beginning of his exile and incarceration; he persevered after his phones were confiscated twice and stolen once. I began translating in December 2016; for one year I translated as he wrote using his smart phone.

Behrouz had text-messaged parts from various chapters to Moones Mansoubi, his very first translator beginning in 2015 and a translation consultant on this project. She would sort the texts into chapters on his instructions. Mansoubi then emailed me the PDFs – each chapter was one long text message of between about 9,000 and 17,000 words.

As I was translating from Farsi to English, I consulted regularly with Behrouz through WhatsApp. He would often add sections and make changes.

My translation process also involved weekly sessions with either Mansoubi or Sajad Kabgani, an Iranian researcher living in Sydney. While I translated, Behrouz continued to finish the book while communicating with his friends and literary confidants, Janet Galbraith, Arnold Zable, Kirrily Jordan and Mahnaz Alimardanian in Australia, and the intellectuals and creative thinkers Najem Weysi, Farhad Boochani and Toomas Askari in Iran.

Here on Manus, Behrouz reads the Farsi while I check the English. We stop and discuss sections, meanings, nuances and changes; we also digress and explore ideas, symbols, stories and theories far beyond the pages of the text. Describing his thinking and writing process, he explains:

The book is a playscript for a theatre performance that incorporates myth and folklore; religiosity and secularity; coloniality and militarism; torture and borders…

The translation method requires a form of literary experimentation. And the process is a form of shared philosophical activity.




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Trying to preserve the sentence structure when translating Farsi literature into English results in unnecessarily long and cumbersome passages. Literature written in Farsi mostly consists of sentences with many elaborate and varied consecutive clauses. The subject is at the beginning and the verb is usually placed at the end.

The patterns and flow of adjectival clauses, synonyms and poetic and cultural images and allusions enable Farsi readers to move smoothly through the extended sentences due to a combination of melody, imagination, anticipation and consolidation.

In English, the same chain of clauses within a sentence becomes too awkward to read, losing much of its rhythmic thrust. Splitting sentences into many smaller ones is helpful. It also reflects the disrupted and fractured subjectivity and modes of knowing of those who are imprisoned refugees.




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In this book, political commentary and historical account meet philosophical and psychoanalytic examination; these are framed or supported by myth, epic and folklore from various traditions, particularly Kurdish, Persian and Manusian. It is an anti-genre. I call the style “horrific surrealism”.

In significant places, noun phrases and monikers are also capitalised to emphasise personhood and Farsi prose is translated into English verse. For instance:

Killing time involves a simple trick /
Reach out and hold another sunset /
Another one of the thousand-colour Manusian sunsets /
Then, reach out and hold another night /
Another one of the dark island nights /
A futile cycle … /
Night and day revolving /
Under the shade of an old tree.

Behrouz and I had a mutual understanding; in fact, the translation team embodied a kind of collective intention or shared agency. Our literary and philosophical interpretations evolved throughout the process. But the shared goal from the start was to produce a visceral narrative, a riveting masterpiece that exposed one central aspect of the detention regime: systematic torture.


Behrouz Boochani will appear by video link at Melbourne Writers Festival on August 29.

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The Conversation

No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison is available in bookstores and online.

Omid Tofighian, Lecturer, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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A tribute to Winston Ntshona: a pioneer of storytelling and activism in South Africa



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Winston Ntshona in ‘Sizwe Banzi is dead’.
Supplied by Baxter Theatre

Sarah Roberts, University of the Witwatersrand

A slim, well-thumbed paperback volume occupies a special place on my bookshelf. Its spine is torn and barely legible, but such is its familiarity that I can dispense with such necessities. I can find “Statements: Three Plays” instantly. The plays were Sizwe Bansi is Dead, The Island, and Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act.

Today, I turn to the volume seeking guidance and as a means of paying homage to a remarkable man, Winston Ntshona, who passed away on 2 August 2018. Not a man that I knew personally, but one whose impact resonates in so many in different ways. This publication in itself – an Oxford University Press edition – preserves much of what Ntshona represents in the legacy of theatre-making and theatre-going in South Africa and the world.

A black and white photograph from the Royal Court Theatre production (1974) dominates the front cover. It shows two men and a camera on a tripod in the foreground. The image captures a vital ephemeral moment which has become as iconic as the three names superimposed above: Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona.

These names pronounce a genesis of South African theatre-making founded on creative partnership and collaborative authorship. Together and individually, they represent a paradigm for collective action that fuses storytelling with political activism.

Alphabetical ordering might account for the sequence of surnames, but the image composition contradicts Ntshona’s being named last of the trio. His prominence is asserted through sheer physical presence and position. It is he who is seated in the foreground in a relaxed, expansive pose, elbow resting on the table in the role of the eponymous Sizwe Banzi.

Behind the table, the beam of Kani’s gleaming smile is as arresting as his appearance in dapper bow-tie and crisp white dust coat. Ntshona’s role was invariably to be the foil to Kani’s more urbane, eloquent and flamboyant personae.

The two bodies declare what words cannot capture: an extraordinary complementary relationship between two very different individual performers and storytellers. They share an outward orientation of their bodies and gestures in a reciprocal acknowledgement of each other and simultaneously offer this interaction to an audience.

Ntshona leans into a chair with the dignified air of assurance and a right to occupy his seat: a man who is at one with an identity he is forging. His head is tilted upwards in an expression that suggests a man with a vision or a dream of prosperity.

Theatre paradigm

In the early 1970s I was an undergraduate at what was then named the University of Natal (Durban) studying Speech and Drama.

The performance of “Sizwe Banzi is Dead”, a play about the struggle for human dignity in apartheid-era South Africa, was to take place in the Student Union Building. I recall (with absolute clarity) my doubts that two actors could project a presence that would fill that enormous space. The multipurpose assembly hall accommodated sporting and recreational events and its multi-volume high glass windows tempted the eye to the intense blue of sky and ocean behind and beyond a rudimentary temporary stage.

I sat in what must have been – from the perspective of the two performers – a relatively homogeneous sea of animated young middle-class white faces. We waited, slightly apprehensively, seated uniformly on blue plastic chairs (as we might for an eventual graduation ceremony) ill-equipped, unprepared even, for a seminal experience of theatre as “a great reckoning in a little room”.

Some 35 years later, I vividly recall the impact of Ntshona’s voice – deep, rich and resonant – along with his vibrant presence. Even more memorable was his slow, smile spreading across his face. That silent spellbinding action conveyed the resilience of the spirit, the conviction of simple dignity more than words could express.

Nothing But the Truth

Decades later I met Ntshona (4 July 2002). Kani’s solo authored play “Nothing But the Truth” had just received a tumultuous standing ovation at its Grahamstown Festival premiere. In the somewhat overwhelming aftermath of the performance and its reception, Ntshona was the first person to be admitted to Kani’s dressing room. They had taken different routes on the journey from what might be called protest idiom to what author Zakes Mda has called “a theatre of reconciliation” in which Kani has figured so authoritatively. Respectful of the longstanding brotherhood, no one wished to intrude on what these two legends might wish to say to one another.

I was surprised to be called to the dressing room and introduced. Ntshona had one question for me. He wanted to know how it was that I knew the inside of the New Brighton township home in which Kani had grown as featured in the play.

As production designer I hadn’t been inside the house nor had I had access to photographs. Instead, the stage design was based on the sketch layout that Kani had talked me through: condensing, abstracting and selecting details. It tended towards an expressionist rather than realist rendering.

I could only marvel at the generosity of a consummate artist, profoundly familiar with the world of a New Brighton home and his pleasure at having his memory of a particular place being triggered by the creative efforts of another.

His joy at the reception of Kani’s play and performance remains inspirational. The capacity to acknowledge and value participatory collaboration has emerged as a core strength of emergent South African theatre at its most vigorous and committed. Ntshona embodied those attributes.

In an age that venerates celebrities, public achievement as a marker of status and self-promotion in the arts and culture sector, Ntshona remains a role model of a modesty of being and accomplishment. The personae that Ntshona created epitomise moral and ethical integrity conjoined with steadfast purpose. “The Island” (1973) ends with Winston, in the role of Antigone saying:

I honoured those things to which honour belongs.

The words seem fit as an epitaph to him, his work, artistry and achievements.

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The Conversation

Winston Ntshona, actor, born 6 October 1941; died 2 August 2018.

Sarah Roberts, Associate Professor of Dramatic Art, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.