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Iran's Epic Poem Continues to Resonate With New Translation

The Islamic Republic of Iran is simultaneously a departure from, and a natural progression of, the path Iranian society has followed for millennia. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 explicitly denounced the Shah, who had claimed legitimacy to rule through lineage with the monarchs — including those in “The Shahnameh” — who had gone before him.

The text remains a staple in Iranian culture and politics today. Since the 1979 revolution, officeholders including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have continued to quote from “The Shahnameh” and otherwise harken to the country’s ancient history to curry favor for their own leadership.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s current president, quoted the epic during his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last year. Drawing from the verses of Kay Khosrow, one of Iran’s most revered and peace-loving kings, he said, “Be relentless in striving for the cause of good / Bring the spring, you must / Banish the winter, you should.”

“Iran is so politicized,” Rahmanian said. “But imagine there was no revolution, no Ahmadinejad, no Hezbollah, no mullahs: you’d learn about Iran from these kinds of stories.”

The Library of Congress’ Dinavari shied away from talking about the book’s potential political impact but emphasized its cultural value, both for Persians and Westerners.

“There are lots of entities in Washington that focus on politics, and this is one of the few things that one can say really showcases the culture and the literature [of Iran],” he said.

At the same time, the new “Shahnameh” makes the heritage accessible to descendants of Persian immigrants who live in the United States, something both Rahmanian and Sadri said they had hoped to do.

“If there is a cultural DNA to Iran, it is all in ‘Shahnameh,’” Sadri said.

Not Lost in Translation

It so happens that Sadri, a professor at Lake Forest College and the translator for this new version, was also the translator for the line in Rouhani’s speech. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called in a favor with his old friend, much in the same way Rahmanian asked for Sadri’s help in helping create a text that would be accessible to lay readers but remain true to Ferdowsi’s time-tested lyricism.

“It has some grandeur to it, but it is very user-friendly,” he said of his translation.

Sadri, who writes in the book’s introduction of his childhood experiences with these stories, was more than happy to contribute. “Most non-Iranians associate Iran with oil and with mullahs,” he said. “Adding some texture to that basic knowledge, I think, is good.”

But it hasn’t been easy. This was Sadri’s first time translating “The Shahnameh,” let alone creating a new version for a new audience of people who are familiar with what he called the syntax of movie storytelling.

He talked of arguing frequently with Rahmanian and Melissa Hibbard, Rahmanian’s wife and the editorial director for the project, over what passages to include and which to reject.

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