A Conversation with LRCW Faculty member Poupeh Missaghi by Justin Duyao

March 15, 2021

Writer and translator Lydia Davis said about the perils of translating, “...often I can’t accept the fact that there isn’t a way to solve all the parts of a problem successfully, so I go over them again and again.” For her, the scarcely trodden space between languages was another dimension where the overlapping of cultures, lexicons, and ways of seeing opened up endless possibilities—and posed a nearly-impossible task.

Bridging that space between a writer in one language and a reader in another meant stepping inside each individual, cavernous phrase, as Benjamin wrote, “unraveling what the night has woven,” and holding “in our hands … a few fringes of the tapestry of lived life,” before putting it all back together.

If Davis bridges that gap between worlds with poetry, Poupeh Missaghi does it with grace.

As a writer, translator both into and out of Persian, editor, and educator, Missaghi wears more hats that heads seem built to carry. And yet, her passion for “working with language as a material,” as she says, unifies all of her work.

Missaghi holds a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Denver, an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University, and an MA in translation studies. Her nonfiction, fiction, and translations have appeared in numerous journals. She also has several books of translation published in Iran.

As an editor, she worked for many years with Asymptote and as the co-editor of Matters of Feminist Practice from Belladonna* Collaborative. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at the Department of Writing at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a faculty mentor at the low-residency MFA of Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, as well as a writing consultant at Baruch College, CUNY, NY.

Most recently, her debut novel, trans(re)lating house one, was published by Coffee House Press in February of 2020. Not to mention, on April 6th of this year, Nasim Marashi’s debut novel, I’ll Be Strong for You, will be published by Astra House with Missaghi as its translator.

Q: How did you get here? Did you have one, original passion that propagated all the others? Do you see all of your work as connected or grounded in one core passion of yours?

A: I would say the original passion was learning languages (rather than wanting to tell stories). One of the teaching methods my tutors, both for English and French, used back in Tehran was to have us write—essays, book reviews, film reviews, etc. Later, I continued on to study translation for my undergraduate and first master’s degree, which still necessitated not just translating from/into English, but also writing in English. When I was done with school and working as a translator and editor, I noticed that I really missed writing in English. That’s how I began considering writing more seriously in my late twenties, then going on to do an MA and a PhD in English and creative writing. To this day, my main passion remains working with language as a material to create and to express. This manifests in all the different roles you mentioned.

Q: You’ve just published your first work of fiction in February of last year, trans(re)eating house one, with Coffee House Press. (Right at the start of the pandemic, no less.) Happy Anniversary, by the way. It’s received glowing praise from around the world—Kirkus called your writing "an ambitious, important work"; Publishers Weekly called your work a “bravura exhibition of writing as performance art”; Ploughshares categorized your “experimental hybrid work” as “probing human experience, cracking open the English language, and portraying life in the U.S. and Iran with a crisp honesty.”

Do you feel your novel was received in the way you’d hoped it would be? Has it been understood? Did any part of that process, start to finish, surprise, challenge, or excite you in unexpected ways?

A: Thanks for the anniversary shout-out! It definitely was a strange year to have one’s first book come into the world; thus, the process was accompanied by many unexpected practicalities and emotions. To be honest, I didn’t have any particular expectations beforehand. I knew the combination of the hybridity and the themes addressed in trans(re)lating made it a book that’s not for everyone, so I was mainly curious about how it would be received and the kinds of conversations that would happen around/about it. There were several instances of feedback from strangers and readers that were quite joyful for me, as were the close readings and explorations by my interviewers.

The migration online canceled some of our initially planned readings for the book but also allowed for other readings and audiences that couldn’t have happened in person. I’m grateful for them, for the book’s sake of course, but also because they sustained me individually throughout this hard year.

The most surprising aspect for me has been the professional and creative opportunities I’ve already been offered solely because someone has read the book, without having known me in person. Being introduced into like-minded communities through the book, that has been wonderful. On a different level, one of the most amazing experiences has been the engagement of visual artist Mandana Mansouri with the book—with its content, as well as its being an object, culminating into her map no.1: one should practice drawing with both hands, 2021. She has made me want to work with other visual artists to explore more possibilities and collaborations around trans(re)lating.

Thinking about challenges, the hardest one has been how to sit with and accept the fact that trans(re)lating needs to be moved to the side for me as a writer, even while I do the readings and publicities, so that I can create space for my new work. It has been a learning experience: How can I do this new work with the same kind of faith and sustained dedication, while also finding new dynamics and practices needed to navigate it?

Q: On April 6th of this year, Nasim Marashi’s debut novel, I’ll Be Strong for You, will be published by Astra House with your name on it as its translator. I would love to hear more about what excites you about this book. Did you feel you grew as a translator, while working on this project?

A: There is an interesting story about my relationship with Nasim’s book. I translated an excerpt from it several years ago. I was drawn to the friendship among the three main characters, each of whom gets their own chapters, as well as to the intimacy of Nasim’s narrative of their lives. One other aspect of the book that I love is that it doesn’t create a stereotypical picture of Iranian women, while it still addresses their struggles, which they share with many women around the world.

At that time, I didn’t get the grant I applied for with the translation and was not able to place the book with any of the few publishers I tried. So with my limited time and resources, I had to let go of the project. Then Astra House bought the rights for the book from its Iranian publisher, Cheshmeh. Nasim mentioned to them that I already had an excerpt translated, and that’s how I joined the team.

I’ve translated and published many shorter pieces over the years, but this was my first book of translation into English, so I definitely have grown in the process. We had a short timeframe, so that demanded organization and long hours of work. I also enjoyed working closely over the months with editor Alessandra Bastagli. I’ve also learned more about the production and marketing of a book in translation in the US.