How censorship makes itself absurd?

Iran is the country full of paradoxes. Especially when it comes to censorship of literature. Hossein Shahrabi, publisher, emphasize the lack of a consistent censorship law which means that the regime can do as it pleases. How else can they ban the word dance but not oral sex? In this article, Shahrabi shares his experiences and tricks on the unpredictable and ridiculous censorship in Iran.

June 10 2013 Text: Hossein Shahrabi

The term dance is one of those terms that, if mentioned in a book, is most often censored by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. For this reason, in translating Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man without a Country, I didn’t translate dance into raqs [=dance]; instead, I defined it as “Moving your hand and foot”; a definition with some complexity which is somewhat a subtle synonymy for dance and appropriate for the satirical tone of the book. By this common trick among translators which is often called “The trick of synonymy” I intended to mislead the censor. It didn’t work and the censor requested for the removal of the “whole” sentence. In another part of the book, the most informal and vulgar word had been used for oral sex. The euphemistic translation of the word (e.g. the formal and medical word) was not possible and it would have been censored. I risked translating it into the accurate Persian equivalent which was equally taboo and vulgar. I hoped it would be unfamiliar for the censor who was probably very devoted and conservative. This trick worked; dance was forbidden and oral sex permitted.

What is the reason behind such a strange and absurd condition? It is naïve to see this particular case as a chance event. In Iran, there is no approved law for censorship in the structure of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In addition to the chance of the translator or author, the extent of censorship depends on some laughable factors, such as the censor’s lust, his precision and attention, his honesty and patience in fulfilling his duty, level of his education, his devotion and, more interestingly, such factors as the transformation of governments (near to the end of the president tenure there is less strictures or even a book may not gain permission to be published), proximity of an important election, proximity of the book exhibition in Tehran, the extent and seriousness of a crisis in the political situations in Iran, etc. To my experience, the small publishers or the translators or writers who are less known have more chance of passing the process of censorship rapidly.

Based on such instances it can be said that it is the lack of censorship law that put everything subject to chance. The question is why does the government avoid providing this law? Briefly speaking, I can make the following guesses:
1) Such a law is not in line with Iranian constitution which recognizes the freedom of speech.
2) In case of the existence of such a law, the censors must act more strictly to satisfy the devotees and other radicals in the society. In such a case, not only will the publishing of book decrease, but it will also be easier for the radicals to object permanently and legally to the publishing of some works; that is why the government doesn’t like to get involved in such problems. Is so much trouble necessary for a book with a run of few thousands?
3) If such a law is supposed to be useful, practical and precise, we need to register all the censorable works. It means that the government should publish a formal document that lists the words which are abusive and politically motivated (i.e. anti-revolution) and anti-religion, sexual, etc. I will demonstrate below that in Iran it is preferred to make people believe that such issues have no existence at all.

What would the publishers do in a situation where there is no law for censorship? During my literary activity I have been mainly involved in translation, so I attempt to show some normal trends of the translators’ reaction in dealing with such a problem and, giving some real examples, I will demonstrate that to disclose the absurdity of the phenomenon of censorship we don’t need any logical or legal arguments; living in an environment of censorship and speaking about it is sufficient to demonstrate that censorship is a useless and absurd phenomenon. While reading these examples you will be familiar with the nature of censorship in Iran which may seem unbelievable to some extent, but is true in essence.

First of all, you’d better become familiar with the methods of censorship in Iran which is a peerless phenomenon. The publishers must send the most finalized version of the book (ready to be published) to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. If the book is a translation, it should pass lithography, proofreading and editing before it is sent; even the introduction, acknowledgement and everything in the book must be in the most finalized stage. This rule applies even to those books which are illustrated and replete with pictures or graphs. The publisher should incur all the costs and do all the works. Afterwards, the ministry will offer its own proposals in an informal sheet with no seal or signature which are sometimes so hard to fulfill. Then the edited book will be sent to the ministry again. The lucky publishers are not required to do edition more than once; otherwise it must be read again (even by a new person) and this process will go on until the permission letter is issued for the book to be published. In addition, the book must gain permission for its “release” after it has been published in the press. In the past eight years, books have been banned in this stage; it means that both the preparation and publishing costs have been wasted. Moreover, note that the identity of the censors is always hidden as well as other information about their wages, working hours and the way they reply to the senior officials. Publishers work only with a few administrative employers to whom they give the unsigned and unsealed sheets and are not in an administrative position that enable them to reply to the publishers’ objections.

Accordingly, the Iranian translators are permanently under the pressure on the part of their audiences to make the least changes in the original text resulted from the process of censorship. I don’t say “under the pressure on the part of the writers” because Iran has not joined to the global copyright law and most of the books are translated without gaining permission of the original writer and publisher. Regardless of the audiences’ wishes, translators whish: 1- their effort during several months would yield, 2- a given book categorized as an important book would be read if it doesn’t suffer much censorship.

The former is a personal matter. We can only point out the fact that the majority of Persian translators don’t make much money by translation (there is no statistics but to my experience $500 is regarded as good); risking on this small wage is a big pressure on the translator as well.

The latter is open to debate. What is meant by “not being harmed by censorship”? If it can be supposedly true, what procedures do translators employ to avoid the harms of censorship?

No doubt, avoiding the harm of censorship can be realized only when we don’t see it in the strict sense of the word; for instance if we suppose that manipulation or deletion of a word or even a paragraph of a given book, though it is harmful for the book, is important enough to be beneficial.

This essay don’t attempt to defend or ridicule such approaches or tricks; but rather it aims at giving details and the use we can make of such instances to demonstrate the absurdity of censorship.

To deal with censorship, many of the professional translators have learned different tricks, for instance “the trick of synonymy”. This trick is used in several ways. The first method is using the old expressions. For example, in referring to the sexual organs sometimes the medical terms are used, like “the sexual organ”. Sometimes the archaic terms are used which have most often an Arabic root and are used in religious and legal texts. Giving examples from contexts outside the Persian language is useless, but to let non-Persian speakers understand, we could say it is like translator’s use of a word, in a book written in twentieth century, that has not been used, at least in spoken language, since seventieth century. In the following paragraphs, I will point out the reactions of readers to such phrases.

The second way of using synonyms, which is more widely used and sometimes controversial, is “disguising legitimacy”. A famous example is using the word “beverage” to refer to “(any) alcoholic drinks”. Another famous example is using “fiancé” for “girlfriend” or “boyfriend”. In case of “beverage”, spread of its use in different books in this specific sense has somehow influenced its sense in spoken Persian, more or less confining it to “alcoholic drinks”. In other words, pressure of censorship on Persian written language has given a new, illegitimate meaning to a neutral word, which has also become common in spoken language.

The problem with this trick is obvious: in case the character is actually drinking a non-alcoholic beverage or really has a fiancé, the Iranian reader will be deceived! He or she is so used to such synonyms when reading books that readily assumes words have disguised meanings unless otherwise proved; in the same way that s/he mentally changes archaic words referring to sexual parts of the body to their contemporary equivalents. Years ago, I translated a book in which the father would drink heavy beer and get drunk. After discussing it, my publisher and I decided not to use “beverage” as we felt the Persian equivalent was a bit difficult for children; moreover, we feared the notorious trick would not work in case of children books’ censorship, be regarded the same as alcoholic drinks and lead us to trouble. Therefore, we decided to use the word “syrup” instead and then we submitted the book to Ministry of Culture for being “scrutinized”. What we were told was (recalling from memory), “We will not be deceived. It is clear what you mean by syrup. Use beverage instead!” How relieved the publisher and I were!

Another problem with using synonyms is that in case the author, for example, refers to a specific kind of wine to create a particular setting or for a special purpose, this will be lost through translation. But translators, unfortunately, often have no better choice than using synonyms. These unfortunate decisions often keep Iranian translators in a constant state of shame: such slight manipulations in the text, however clear to the Iranian reader they will be, still count as infidelity in translation.

The second trick is evading from telling the whole truth. For example, if “Johnnie Walker Whiskey” is used in a text, Iranian translators often prefer using “Johnnie Walker” without mentioning whiskey. Using the latter might even end up in the whole sentence being cut out, whereas “Johnnie Walker” is more likely to be safe. As another example, if the translator omits the type of a relationship between a woman and a man in a paragraph in which that relationship is described (where the two are friends, not married), then the description will be more likely to end up staying in the book.

In one of my translations, the freemason character was described as being “philanthropist” (freemasonry is a forbidden topic in Iran). Translated into Persian, the adjective would sound even more positive than it did in English, which could be dangerous. What I did was to transliterate the word in Persian (like a loan word). Transliteration of this word was used in Persian in some cases before but it was so rare that most people would not understand the word, but I had no other choice. What I did was evading from telling the whole truth as many people would not understand transliteration of philanthropist; it was, however, the only way to save the word!

The third trick is using “footnotes”. There is a point to be made here: in periods that the country’s political atmosphere is slightly less heavy, censorship is often practiced only on form; i.e., sensitivity is only on words and not on content. There is a story about the first years after Iran’s revolution, definitely with exaggerations in it, telling that the word “araq”, which is the name of a heavy homemade drink in Iran, would be replaced by people at Ministry of Culture with “sheer”, i.e. milk. Then, since araq also means sweat in Persian, one could find in some books published in that period sentences like “He wiped the milk off his forehead” [instead of “he wiped the sweat off his forehead”]! Anyhow, in periods in which censorship is practiced on content as well (as was the case with the eight years of Ahmadinejad presidency), one trick to deceive censors is to add footnotes to text in which the publisher or translator expresses his/her disagreement with the idea presented in the book, explaining that “it is crystal clear to everyone” that this idea is all wrong.

Such footnotes often do not do more than flickering smirks on readers’ faces. In other words, “it is already crystal clear to everyone” why the publisher or translator had to add the footnote. Expectedly, this trick most often works in nonfictional books, especially religious one. Some years ago, a book on “historicity of Jesus” was published (accidentally in Qom, the most important city of Shiite clergy). It was Archibald Robertson’s 1946 Jesus: Myth or History? The whole book of around 200 pages examined whether a person named Jesus stood at the top of Christianity. In one of the final pages, there was a footnote added stating that Islam’s view to the issue was different from those proposed in the book and that Islam’s view was no doubt meta-historical and “orthodox”. The fact is that the reader knows why the original book is published and what its value is in the field of religion studies, a discipline free from partiality; s/he therefore knows why the publisher or translator have no choice but to give such a footnote in order that the important book be published.

Adding such footnotes sometimes leads to interesting results. The book Lost Symbol by Dan Brown has ten different translations in Iran. There is a sentence in the book claiming that inhabitants of Paradise in Islam are in age of 33 and remain so. As far as I know, this sentence is dropped in all translations. In my translation of the book, however, I added a footnote mentioning the reference of the claim, which is Imam Gazzali’s Ihya ulum-id-din, and the sentenced was not censored.

Tricks of this nature are a lot more. The ones mentioned here are just a few examples to demonstrate the type of censorship in Iran and its oddities. Meanwhile, the biggest trick played by Iranian translators on censorship should not be forgotten: they translate steadily. This is in fact their biggest fight. A lot of books have been banned, particularly in recent years, but translators keep on translating. Having embraced all financial and professional burdens, they continue their work, even some (as well as some authors) distribute their books on the Internet for free. The government, regardless of its efforts and its desire, does not have an efficient supervision on the Internet. Moreover, there is no rule for suing translators and authors who publish their works on it—no rule at all; even when the work is banned in Ministry of Culture.

A question one might ask after seeing all these examples is, “then how can this many books with direct and indirect references to banned topics, such as sex, wine and religious dissent, be published in Iran?” We have to refer back to the beginning of this note: absence of law and leaving everything to chance.

In the absence of laws for censorship, then, in a sense, its disadvantages are doubled: not being able to follow up complaints, constant pressure on the publisher and the owner of the work, endless concerns when translating or writing. On the other hand, translators (and writers) have well used this absence to their advantage: many books slip through censorship, censors cut out some parts and miss some other, the Internet is a good way to escape censorship (translators sometimes publish censored parts of their books on the Net). Sometimes, one translation of an important book is banned or partly censored while another translation of the same book is published without any problem. This happened three times to me: two times my translation was banned and another translation of the same book was published; once it was vice versa. It is odd yet adorable that translators often do not complain on this since it might end up in the ban of the other translation. There is a strange empathy among Iranian people of literature on this issue. I should highlight that the fight is mainly for delivering books into the hands of readers in spite of all troubles and obstacles.

It is because of this lack of rules that rarely a person from the government sues a book for being published or for containing certain words. The government prefers to assume no such problems exist. A policy of denial exists in the book publishing section, much similar to Ahmadinejad’s policy when, speaking at Colombia University, he said, “no homosexual exists in Iran.” In the history of Islamic Republic of Iran, probably no book has been attacked by governmental media more than Harry Potter series, yet they have been republished hundreds of times. For many years, books on new gnosticisms were attacked yet they were among bestselling books in Iran. We were publishing a book on pregnancy in which pregnant women were advised “NOT to consume alcohol at all”. The sentence was cut out, probably because we should not admit that “a small number of” people of Iran drink alcohol. In the same period, an article was published in a newspaper about harms of alcohol and its probable effect on different diseases. No one closed the newspaper for publishing this article; why? Because of the absence of law. Plus, they do not want to close a newspaper for such a matter and cause commotion. That is why sometimes they “do not see” what is published.

These examples and stories have probably somehow shown how censorship has been defeated in Iran since many years ago, and how ridiculous it is in spite of all harms it makes. Yet my favorite story about emptiness and uselessness of censorship is this one: Our publishing house was asked to cut out the 19th line of a poem. Although he could disagree to do so and omit the whole poem, for some reasons, the translator decided to cut out the line, and then we sent the book to Ministry of Culture again. Sometime later, an argument broke out between the Ministry’s employee and our colleague at the house in which the former demanded, “Why have you not followed the order and have not cut out the nineteenth line?” It took our colleague a few minutes to recognize that what he meant was the 20th line of the uncensored poem which was now the 19th line! The employee would count the lines only to find that a 19th line was still there, without realizing that the 20th line would now be the 19th; as if the only thing mattered to him was the number, not what was censored and what was published. Censorship is in fact nothing but this “nineteenth line”: unbelievably stupid.