Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Watching Shrek in Tehran is a four part Believer essay by author/teacher Brian T. Edwards that trades particulars for a gloss that I, at least, found smoggy and vague. In the first section, the Alborz mountains disappear "shade by shade into the ever-increasing fog", as Edwards's "smart and dynamic" Iranian interlocutor Nahad (whom the orientalist will no doubt imagine in dark sunglasses and a mini- skirt) describes the national love of Shrek: "You know," she says, "It's not really the original Shrek we love so much here. It's really the dubbing. It's really more the Iranian Shrek that interests us." In the second section, Edwards abandons Shrek in order to introduce the mysterious "Ali", a 35 mm. film collector, whose illicit lending and projection of western films has earned him the nickname "The Iranian Henry Langlois." The sixty year old Ali wears "a plad shirt under a worn tweed jacket." No pun intended. "Everybody knows Ali, but nobody knows where his archive is." In the third section, a brief filmography of the renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami contrasts with a description of two articles about said filmmaker: a laudatory, if inadvertedly political one by Deborah Solomon (in the New York Times magazine), and a more rhetorically savvy, if still naive one by SUNY Buffallo's Jean Copjec. Finally, a fourth section manages to touch on the recent political unrest by quoting lengthily from a pair of Guardian articles by young gun Iranian filmmaker Mosen Makhmalbaf.
All of this leaves us wanting more about the whole Shrek-dubbing phenomenon, which surely deserves its own article/monograph/career. The translation of American movies is apparently growing into its own as an art form. Like the melody in a jazz song, or the text in one of Maurice Sendak's "picture books", the film itself becomes a set of constraints that the audio track then plays with and against. Local details (stereotypes, characters, political critiques) are grafted onto mythological stock (much the same way that the American Shreks harness fairy tale themes to, um, Mike Myers's Scottish accent).
In Travelling Between Languages, the poet Chen Li asks "Is writing some kind of translation, travelling between languages"? More Hanks than Clooney, when it comes to air travel at least, he lingers in the terminals of his various poems like a short, nondescript man with dark sunglasses and a newspaper folded over his knee. That glow you feel radiating off of him is love: "Travelling in the family of poetry is the most substantial and warmest link on the lonesome journey in the universe," he says, which is sort of like what Mandelstam said. Actually, a lot of his poetry reads like Mandelstam to me, which would seem to be the most striking and improbable translation of all (except maybe not so improbable: after all, family members do tend to resemble one another...)