The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat

Certain stories really stick in my head and haunt/influence me for years. This could be one of them.

The story of how this book was translated, told in the preface to the book, was an interesting read in itself.

Apparently the story was banned in Iran for many years, and there were several censored and heavily edited versions circulating. The translator claims this translation as the definitive, and most close to the original from what we can tell.

One thing I found very interesting, and a bit worrying, was the decision of the translator of the previous version to change the text so much.

In the hand-written original version, Hedayat used dashes in place of a large portion of the punctuation. I would guess about 50% of the time, wherever a period, comma or semicolon could have been, there was a dash. The previous translator, apparently, decided to remove all the dashes and just replace them with whatever punctuation he thought should have been there…

To me, this seems just, absurd, and extremely arrogant. The dashes, as I read it, clearly seemed intentional. They added a chaotic feeling, and made the narrator seem erratic and unstable. It seems blindingly obvious to me that this was the author’s intent. And if the translator took such liberties with the punctuation, what else might he have changed?

Noori (the translator for the version I read) went on to describe his philosophy for translation, and why he prefers ‘foreignization’ over ‘domestication’ when translating.

Many translated works are ‘domesticated’ for the country where they will be sold. Phrases and terminology are chosen which will best match the words and ‘flow’ that the designated country is expecting.

This, I suppose, makes sense on a marketing level. It’s always in the interest of money-making to water things down as much as you can for mass appeal. But, it is still just so sad and strange to think about. Why would I, knowingly choosing to read a book written by an Iranian, why would I expect or want that book to read like it was written by an American?

Thankfully, Noori prefers what he called ‘foreignization’ when he translates. Foreignization is where, he says “an effort is made to preserve the source language and culture by use of language or techniques which may be unfamiliar to the reader” in this way, it is the reader who travels to a foreign land when reading the book, rather than having the book brought to them in a domesticated or assimilated form.

With all that out of the way, I was ready to read the actual book, which was only about 80 pages long. They were quite a potent 80 pages. I can understand why they caused such an uproar and why this is still being read 85 years later.

I can’t quite tell you what the story is about, other than the narrator is an opium addict and it is difficult to tell what parts of the story are real, hallucinated, or metaphor. It seems to be a love story, or maybe a story of obsession, or maybe one of guilt. Whatever it is, the overall impression it gave me was so striking and memorable, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it for weeks. It is already starting to bleed into my own writing.

There was so much unsettling, visceral weirdness packed into so few pages. I will likely need to read this again to understand it. Though, maybe it is not meant to be understood, and only to confuse and unnerve you with the constant repetition and seemingly building pattern. I got the impression I was trapped in a repeating-but not quite repeating-loop. A cycle that kept changing slightly whenever I thought I had it figured out, but not changing enough to break the pattern completely.

Give it a try if you want something dark, surreal, and beautiful.

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