Discourse against Discourse: The Early Reception of Sartrean Existentialism in Iran

By Marzieh Malekshahi and Ali Khazaee Farid (Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran)


Marxist discourse and its leading propagandist in Iran, the Tudeh (Mass) Party, played such a leading role in the Pre-Revolutionary Iran that any account of the reception of other discourses in that period should include an analysis of its relation to it. Existentialism was the most important rival intellectual movement for Marxist discourse in Pre-Revolutionary Iran, both challenging Marxist discourse and being overwhelmed by it. However, the conflict between these two discourses, especially in the early stages of Existentialism’s reception, has never been fully investigated. The present paper aims to investigate, through related translations and indigenous writings, the early reception of existentialist discourse in Iran from 1941 to 1953 (from the fall of Reza Shah to the 1953 Coup), a period which coincides with the establishment of the Tudeh party, the zenith of its power and prestige and then its drastic repression. To this end, the article offers an account of the socio-political context of Iran from the 1940s (the beginning of the introduction of Existentialism in Iran) to the early 1950s with a focus on the role of the Tudeh party. An overview of the Persian translations of Sartre’s books and indigenous material on Existentialism in this period and translators’ and other agents’ profiles shows that Sartrean Existentialism, imported with different and sometimes contradictory purposes, was received mainly as an individualistic, nihilistic and pessimistic philosophy which posed a threat to the then dominant Marxist- Leninist ideology.

Keywords: Sartrean Existentialism, marxist discourse, Tudeh party, Iran, history

©inTRAlinea & Marzieh Malekshahi and Ali Khazaee Farid (2019).
"Discourse against Discourse: The Early Reception of Sartrean Existentialism in Iran", inTRAlinea Vol. 21.

This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/archive/article/2409

1. Introduction

Knowledge, discourses and theories are produced in different ways: whether they are constructed within the borders of a culture, or imported from a different culture through the channel of translation or other forms of rewriting (e.g. original writing on the imported discourse). When discourses are imported, the process is generally thought to be easy and unobstructed. However, as Edward Said (1983: 226) states, the transfer of knowledge and theory to the new environment is by no means easy and discourses undergo many transformations during the process. Said observes a recognizable and universal pattern in the transfer of theories and claims that each idea or theory goes through three or four stages in the process of its importation. First of all, there is a starting point, or what seems to be a starting point, a set of initial conditions in which an idea is born or enters into a discourse. The second stage is the distance which the theory or idea travels to find a new significance in its new environment. In the third stage, there are sets of conditions that are called reception or resistance conditions encountered by the immigrant idea or theory. In the fourth stage, an idea that is now completely or incompletely assimilated undergoes many transformations and finds new applications (Said, 1983: 226-227). Said’s report on the migration of theories, however, is taken to task by Susam-Sarajeva (2006) on account of the fact that it totally ignores the role played by the translations and translators, as if theory could be transferred without being translated. 

Venuti (2006: 106) also refers to the neglect of translation in philosophical research and states:

philosophy does not escape the embarrassment that faces contemporary academic disciplines when confronted with the problem of translation. In philosophical research widespread dependence on translated texts coincides with neglect of their translated status, a general failure to take into account the differences introduced by the fact of translation.

According to Venuti (2006: 106), philosophical thinking has long created concepts based on the native versions of foreign texts, but these native versions are generally considered to be transparent, and the influence of native culture and language on the created concepts has been ignored.

Despite the general neglect of translation in many fields of study, over the past few decades, migration of theories and discourses through translation has attracted many researchers from the field of Translation Studies. Some of these scholars have sought to propose new approaches to address the migration of discourses, while others have foreshadowed the pattern of transmission and reception of these discourses. Some others, like Susam-Sarajeva (2006) have tried to account for the migration of theories through conducting (multiple-) case studies within the framework of Descriptive Translation Studies. Since it is not possible to address all these studies in present paper, two examples will be provided.

Robbins (1994: 408-409) puts forward a model for the transmission and reception of discourses through translation, and believes that the target culture may adopt a different stance towards the discursive elements of the alien. In his view, if when confronting with a new discourse, the otherness is ignored, the target culture has an imperialist position. If otherness is acknowledged but transformed, the target culture or discourse has a defensive stance. If the target culture or discourse does not prevent the entrance of foreign discourses, the target culture is said to have a trans-discursive stand. And finally, if the target culture encourages the introduction of new discourses, it has a defective stance and is in the position of weakness.

Dangchao (2014) proposes an approach for studying the migration of theories, which he believes is new from three perspectives: first, unlike many studies on the transfer of theories which mainly focus on the moving theories, in this approach the reception of the theories in different times and places is emphasized. Second, in this new approach, in addition to discursive issues emphasized by the previous approaches, the relation between discursive conditions and material conditions is also explored, so that in addition to the study of translated texts, the interaction between discourse and practice is also studied. Finally, in this new approach, the complexities of power relations affecting the transfer or non-transfer of theories are also examined. According to Dangchao (2014), there are powers at work that facilitate the transfer of certain theories and prevent the transfer of some other theories.

Despite recent international focus on the role of translation in the migration of theories, in Iran modern discourses and theories are often discussed without any reference to the role of translation and translators in constructing them. In Iran, many modern discourses and theories are products of translation. This does not mean that some elements of these discourses have not been previously present in Persian literary and philosophical works, but it means that such discourses and theories as coherent sets of knowledge, philosophy and theory and with a specific purpose and worldview are products of translation and importation from different cultures. However, few studies have been carried out in this regard and even in those few studies the role of translation in introducing and constructing new discourses has been totally ignored. For example, in a book called Existentialism and Modern Persian literature (2013), which explores the introduction of existential discourse into modern Persian literature, there is no mention of translators and translations as a channel through which this discourse has been introduced and represented. To overcome this shortcoming, the present paper aims to study the early reception of Sartrean Existentialism in Iran with a focus on the role of translation.

Following Rundle’s distinction between historical and scientific methods in Historical Translation Studies (Rundle 2012), the present study aims to study the reception of Existentialism as a specific historical phenomenon and avoid yielding a general account of the role of translation and translators in the immigration of the theories by applying the pre-prepared theories and hypotheses which defy the purpose of history which is seeking the specific in any situation. Thus, as Rundle suggests the results may interest a wider range of audience, historians as well as Translation Studies scholars.

Existentialism is one of the major foreign discourses that dominated the intellectual life of Iran for decades. In Iran, Existentialism is mostly associated with the name of Sartre, so much so that from the very beginning of Sartre’s importation to Iran, he was hailed as the father of Existentialism. One of the first articles to introduce Existentialism was “Sartr va Falsafeh-ye Jadid” [Sartre and the New Philosophy] published in the journal Sokhan in 1946. As the title suggests, Sartre was introduced to Iranian readers as the founder of this philosophy. As Susam-Sarajeva (2006: 1) states, ‘‘theories do not travel on their own, but often under the name of well-known writers.’’ This was also the case with Existentialism when it reached Iran. Although in the years after the Existentialist boom in Iran, Iranian philosophers and theologians took an interest in other branches of this philosophic movement including Heideggerian and religious Existentialism, what dominated the minds of many Iranian writers and intellectuals was French and, in particular, Sartrean Existentialism. The purpose of this article is to explore the reception of this branch of Existentialism which proved to be an important intellectual movement in Iran for more than three decades.

In order to understand Existentialism in Iran, we must first understand the important role that Marxist discourse and its leading propagandist, the Tudeh party, played in pre-revolutionary Iran. The conflict between these two discourses in Iran, especially in the early stages of Existentialism’s reception, has never been fully investigated. This article aims to investigate the early reception of Existentialist discourse in Iran from 1941 to 1953 (from the fall of Reza Shah to the 1953 Coup), a period which coincides with the establishment of the Tudeh party, its rise to popularity with intellectuals and, finally, its severe repression.

2. The Socio-political Context of Iran from 1941 to 1953

The Importation of Sartrean Existentialism to Iran goes back to the second half of the 1940s, in the early years of Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign. Mohammad Reza came to power during World War II following his father, Reza Shah, who was dethroned by Anglo-Soviet forces. This period coincides with “the sudden rise to public prominence of French Existentialism as an intellectual movement in the 1940s” (Baert 2011: 619).

During the sixteen years of Reza Shah’s rule, power was exclusively in the hands of the king, but during the following twelve years, from the fall of Reza Shah in 1941 to the 1953 Coup, where Mohammad Reza Shah, in collaboration with the British and American governments, overthrew the democratically-elected Prime-minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, power was held by five pillars of the establishment, each with their own internal conflicts: the court, the parliament, the cabinet, foreign embassies and the public (Abrahamian 1982). During these 12 years, the country experienced many social changes and political crises.

As a result of the relative freedom of the period 1941-53, various parties were established and various periodicals emerged. Among the many parties that had been active in these years, only six continued to operate in the following years as national organizations. These parties included the Tudeh party, which mostly appealed to the intelligentsia and the urban working class; Hezb-e Hamrahan [the Comrades Party]; Hezb-e Iran [the Iran Party]; Hezb-e Adalat [the Justice Party]; Hezb-e Etthad- Melli [the National Union Party]; and Hezb-e Vatan, [the Fatherland Party] (Abrahamian 1982). Among these parties, the pro-Soviet Tudeh party soon became very influential by recruiting members transversally from different social classes and became the main political party in Iranian society challenging Mohammad Reza Shah’s government with its Marxist-Leninist ideology.

At the beginning, the Tudeh party was a democratic and popular front. Until 1946, the Party leadership was a combination of Marxist and Social-Democrat elements, with its Marxist members exerting much more influence. Since the party supported democratic and popular aspirations and since the popularity of the Soviet Union was increasing at that time, the party managed to recruit many young and educated people. But perhaps the most important attraction of the party for the young and educated was its capability for publishing new European ideas. The party was the focal point for those who were interested in these ideas (Katouzian 1992). The party recruited not only a relatively broad spectrum of white collar workers and craftsmen, but also many prominent intellectuals who enjoyed a high status in Iranian society (Abrahamian 2010). Ehsan Tabari (1948a: 3), a founding member and theoretician of the Tudeh party, said at the time:

Our party [...] not only sees itself as an initiator of a social, political, and economic resurrection, but also, and rightly so, as an initiator of a great spiritual resurrection. This spiritual and intellectual resurrection, like the social resurrection, is achieved only as a result of a serious struggle on all ideological fronts including philosophy, art and science. There should be no impartiality in this spiritual and intellectual struggle, as in the social, political, and economic struggle.[1]

Although, from the very beginning, Socialist Realism, the official literary and artistic school of the Soviet Union, attracted the Tudeh party members, it was not until 1947 that it dominated most of its literary productions. In the early years of the Tudeh party’s activity, the advocates of various literary and artistic schools were allowed to freely write about their favorite schools in its periodicals even when they were banned in the Soviet Union (Khosropanah 2010). According to Mir-Abedini (2001: 132), “in the early years of its activity, [the party] offered the pages of its publications to anyone willing to cooperate.” This meant that the publications of the party did not just host Russian socialist realism but other literary currents as well. In fact, it can be claimed that the Tudeh party, while using intellectual writers and translators to promote its ideology, also provided them with an opportunity to publish their own ideas. However, in the later years of its activity, the party’s publications were mainly focused on an ideology that served the interests of the Soviet Union.

The Tudeh party’s unconditional support for the Soviet Union in the later years, especially in the events of Azerbaijan, led to widespread dissatisfaction on the part of many intellectuals and writers. A crisis broke out when the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, Tudeh’s sister party, was suppressed by the central government of Iran following an attempt by the party to form an independent state in the north west of Iran. After the defeat of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party in 1945-46, a split occurred in the Tudeh party and a group of intellectuals led by Khalil Maleki left the party in 1948 and some of the party leaders had to move abroad (Behrooz 2001; Katouzian 1992).

The crisis that followed the suppression of the soviet-supported revolt in Azerbaijan and the reorganization of the party in 1946, which led to its severe ideologization, along with the greater restrictions imposed by the Soviet Communist Party on writers and artists from 1944 to 1948 undermined literary and artistic pluralism in the Tudeh party and strengthened socialist realism. Gradually the principles, criteria and foundations of socialist realism were accepted by a large number of party members, and eventually socialist realism not only became the artistic and literary ideology of the Tudeh party of Iran but, with some adjustments, it became the theoretical basis of literature and revolutionary and popular art in Iran for four decades (Khosropanah 2010). The political and cultural ideology of the Tudeh party and the Soviet literature it advocated, affected the literary production of many Iranian writers and poets such as Abdul-Hossein Noushin, Mahmoud Etemadzadeh (Behazin), and Siavash Kasrai. However, this impact was ambivalent; on the one hand, it supported and promoted a new type of literature, but, on the other, it prevented the development of a free literature due to its ideological nature (Akbariani 2010).

In 1948, the Tudeh party faced another crisis, which led to the dissolution of the party by the government. The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was the victim of an assassination attempt during a ceremony at the University of Tehran that year. The government blamed the Tudeh party, which was dissolved and forced to go underground. Since many of its leaders were arrested and the party had little experience in underground activities, the crisis posed a serious threat to its survival. However, since the government was not strong enough at the time to impose a brutal repression, the party soon managed to reorganize by creating a number of front organizations and publications in order to compensate for its inability to function openly. After that, the Tudeh party became a full member of the International Communist Front. (Behrooz 2001; Katouzian 1992).

With the start of the Oil Nationalization Movement led by Mosaddegh, a prominent parliamentarian and prime minister from 1951-1953, the Tudeh party became one of the main actors in the political scene in Iran. The party’s opposition to some of Mosaddegh’s views played an important role in the movement. After public protests that led to the re-election of the prime minister Mosaddegh, who had resigned because the Shah had refused to give him the control of the Ministry of Defence, the party changed its course and supported Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh’s government was overthrown in the wake of the 1953 Coup believed to be plotted by Mohammad-Reza Shah in collaboration with the United Kingdom and the United States (Behrooz 2001). The Tudeh party failed to take effective action against the coup. In the aftermath of the coup, the government suppressed the party’s organizations, arresting, torturing and executing some of its members (Behrooz 2001). Consequently, many party leaders were forced to leave Iran. They fled to the Eastern bloc, many of them staying there until the Islamic Revolution in 1979 (Behrooz 2001; Katouzian 2004). According to Abrahamian (2010:224), “Mohammad Reza Shah praised the 1953 coup as a bloodless revolution by the courageous people of Iran in support of their king. The American President, Eisenhower, […] told Americans that the “people” of Iran had “saved their country” as a result of their “intense aversion to communism” and their “lasting and deep love for their king”.

As observed by Baqer Momeni (2012), a historian and former member of the Tudeh party, the impact of the Tudeh party on the political and cultural atmosphere of Iran was so great that even after seventy years, it is acknowledged by writers and scholars from various, even opposing, intellectual and social fronts. Momeni (2012) states:

one of the reformists and journalists of the Islamic Republic who believes that after seventy years the Tudeh party of Iran has turned into a “historic subject” and “is almost dead” writes, “but the Party continues to be the theme of our time because the mind and language of Iranian society are heavily influenced by Tudeh language and literature, and from 1940s to 1990s Tudeh intellectualism has dominated the intellectual discourse in Iran.” While he believes that “Marxism is more than foolish in its essence,” he acknowledges the history of the Tudeh party of Iran not only as “the intellectual history of the leftist discourse, but also the intellectual history of Iran”.

As already mentioned, the period described coincides with the boom of Existentialism in France after World War II. In this period, Sartre and Existentialism were introduced to Iranians both through translations and indigenous writing.

3. Sartre's Reception from 1941 to 1953

During these 12 years, five fictional works by Sartre were translated and published in Iran and a book entitled Makateb-e Falsafi: Existancializm [Philosophical Schools: Existentialism] was written in 1948 by Hossein Kasmaie. The number of articles published on Sartre and Existentialism was small. Table 1 provides a complete list of Sartre’s works translated in this period.



Date of publication
of the translation

Persian title

Date of publication
of the original

Original title

Sokhan Journal

Sadeq Hedayat




“Le Mur” in “Le Mur” collection

Mardom Journal

Abdul-Hossein Noushin


Ruspi-ye Bozorgavar


La putain respectueuse

Farhang-e Iran

Amir-naser Khodayar




“Érostrate” in “Le Mur” collection


Mustafa Farzaneh




Huis clos


Jalal Al-e Ahmad


Dastha-ye Aludeh


Les mains sales

Table 1: list of translations of Sartre’s works 1941-53

During this period, it seems that Sartre’s works were selected and translated in a rather unsystematic way. However, a closer look at the list of translators and publishers suggests that Sartre was imported with specific political and cultural agendas. Unlike later periods, in this period the translators of Sartre’s works were mostly intellectuals or writers with clear socio-political orientations. A study of the professional profile of the translators and other agents will clarify the motivations underlying the importation of Sartre’s ideas, and provide a better understanding of the conflict between Existentialist discourse and the Marxist-Leninist discourse propagated by the Tudeh party, a conflict which becomes clearer with the wider translation of Sartre’s works after the Coup. It also responds to the recent calls in Translation Studies to focus on translators, e.g. Pym 1998. In his book, Method in Translation History, Pym (1988: ix) argues that “the central object of historical knowledge” should be the translators not the texts of the translations or the contextual systems “since only humans have the kind of responsibility appropriate to social causation”.

Sadeq Hedayat (1903-1951) who is regarded by many as the father of modern Persian fiction, was the first to introduce Sartre to Iranian readers by translating one of his short stories called “le Mur”. Amenkhani (2013 ) sees the kinship of Hedayat’s thoughts with the writings of existentialist writers and the popularity of existentialist writers in European intellectual circles during Hedayat’s life as the main reasons underlying Hedayat’s attention to existentialist writers, including Sartre, and says: “So it should not be a surprise that the most modern author of our country isn’t indifferent to the works and writings of the most modern writers and philosopher of his time” (Amenkhani 2013:46).

The socio-political situation in which this translation was carried out as well as the professional profile of Hedayat and his association with the Tudeh party, leads us to attribute some other motives to him. There are various accounts of the relationship between Hedayat and the Tudeh party, but in almost all of these, there is agreement that despite his initial sympathy with the Tudeh party, Hedayat was never a member of the party, regularly criticizing its leaders and policies. In his book called Chehar Chehreh [Four Portraits], Khamei (1989: 167) says:

In those years, from 1941 to 1946, Hedayat was somewhat inclined to the Tudeh party and the Leftist Movement and was at the same time mistrustful of Fascism and Nazism, hence his celebration of the victory of the Allies in the war. In spite of huge pressure from the Tudeh party leaders to join the party, he did not do so. He did not join any party or group in all his life. He hated everything related to political parties and refused to compromise his individual freedom whatever the cost.

At a time when the hegemony of the Tudeh party attracted intellectuals from a variety of spheres, Hedayat was often considered to belong to an intellectual current that, although very small at that time, had a more philosophical and profound approach to social affairs, a current which was perhaps initiated by Hedayat himself through his translations of works by Kafka and Sartre. So, it is not unlikely that one of his intentions in introducing Sartre was to introduce ideas which could challenge the ruling ideology of the Tudeh party. As Ehsan Tabari[2] (n.d.) argues:

Hedayat was never a member of the Tudeh party of Iran. His philosophical vision was close to those of Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was fond of Franz Kafka, the German speaking Czech writer. He was inherently pessimistic, calling life a kind of biological imposition of nature […] However, due to his hatred of the Pahlavi family, he was interested in our party as a party which was against the monarchy [...] after the failure of the democratic movement in Azerbaijan, some people provoked him strongly against the party, and succeeded in making him write an introduction to a translation of Kafka’s book by Hassan Qa’imian, explicitly reproaching socialism.

The story of Le Mur is full of existential themes such as despair, death and emptiness. Existentialist ideas such as the random nature of life and the absence of causal relationships in the world, as are evident in this story, are strongly opposed to the Marxist- Leninist ideas prevalent at that time.  Even if we doubt that Hedayat’s intention in introducing Sartre was to challenge the communist ideas of the party, his work ultimately came to perform this function. In an article written in the form of a dialogue between a disillusioned intellectual (intended to represent Hedayat) and a party member, entitled Guft-o- gu ba yek Roshanfekr-e Ma’ious [A Talk to a Disillusioned Intellectual], Ehsan Tabari attributes the melancholic thoughts of the disillusioned intellectual who has given up fighting to the pessimistic philosophy of Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and says:

Your thoughts are a collection of those decadent thoughts which have flourished in the old world, the recent deteriorating world. The philosophy of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre […] and so on, all stem from one thing, and that is the belief that the current system of society has fallen into disrepair. Only those who have found the way to a better and superior system, to a better future are optimistic. All those who do not believe in another way and who remain in the prison of today, since they do not see anything except chaos and futility around them, believe in futility and chaos. These thoughts are not the truth, but a reflection of the state of the present time (Tabari 1978: 266-7).

In the article, the author refers to the classifications and changes of the human society based on definitive party formulas; a future which, according to Tabari (1357/1978), is not contemplated in the absurdist philosophies such as Existentialism, due to their excessive attention to the current disrupted state of society. In Tabari’s view, only a better and superior system, such as the Marxist-Leninist intellectual system, can help people out of the current situation. The party member speaking in the article then invites the disillusioned intellectual to abandon Existentialism and convert to Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and says:

Do not adhere to a philosophy which is the child of the same sentimental feelings that have nurtured the parasites of the society and has given birth to many betrayals and much mischief. Follow a philosophy that brings down the wall of despair and ignorance which has obstructed our path towards the future and which creates a truly lovely thing called justice. Let’s walk in this great temple of justice with faith and without any devilish doubt (Tabari 1978: 272).

Tabari was well aware of the challenge that the “pessimistic” philosophy of Existentialism, which he as an ideologue of the Tudeh party attributed to Hedayat, posed against partisan thinking. In fact, Tabari’s stance against Existentialism was the crystallization of a deep-rooted conflict between Marxism and Existentialism in general, the former enjoying a hegemonic status in Iran during that time and defining the latter in terms of its own formulas.

The publication of the translation of Le Mur in the journal Sokhan confirms the hypothesis that Existentialism was introduced as part of an effort to challenge the ideology propagated by the Tudeh party. The aim of the journal was to help promote the development of Persian literature, literary criticism, literary research, and to introduce foreign writers and poets through translation (Sadeqzadeh-Ardobadi 2013). Specifically, the journal Sokhan, which was published for 27 years, showed an increasing interest in Existentialist philosophers and thinkers as the modern writers of the era. Khanlari, a professor of Persian literature at the University of Tehran, established the journal in 1943. In contrast to the Tudeh party’s periodicals, which mostly promoted Russian socialist realist literature, Sokhan mainly promoted French literature. Khanlari seems to have been attracted to the Tudeh party until the events of Azerbaijan in 1946, but he was never a member of the party.

An examination of the content of this journal with its emphasis on French literature in a period in which Russian literature and the Soviet communist system were praised and promoted by many Iranian intellectuals reinforces the previously mentioned hypothesis that the introduction of existentialist writers in this period was also initiated in order to pose a challenge against the dominant ideology of the Tudeh party. In 1946, the journal published an article entitled “Sartre va Falsafe-ye Jadid” [Sartre and a New Philosophy]. Written by Fereydoun Hoveyda, the article was probably the first article on Sartre and Existentialism in Iran. The title of the article reflects the author’s attempt to introduce Sartre as the initiator of a new philosophy. Although the article is apparently not written to contest leftist discourse, it does challenge it. The article begins as follows:

In France, more than any other country, new literary and philosophical trends have always followed the great revolutions and social transformations. After the extinction of feudalism in the late 16th century, the classical style was popularized. After the 1789 revolution, romanticism flourished; realism arose in the aftermath of the war of 1870 and the Commune revolution, and after the 1918-1914 war, surrealism appeared. Now, in a period of peace, a new philosophical and literary style has appeared which the French call the philosophy of existence or Existentialism (Hoveyda 1946 :58).

From the very beginning, the author suggests that France has a great potential for the development of great intellectual schools when compared to other countries, and perhaps creates an opposition in the mind of the reader between France as a Western European country and the Soviet Union, which was a promised land to many intellectuals of that time. The emphasis on the emergence of these great schools after the great revolutions and transformations is also a reminder of the socio-political conditions in Iran at that time. Hoveyda (1946) speaks of the passion and emotion that Sartre had created in France and other countries, including the United States, Western and Asian countries, and adds “there has not been such a significant literary movement since the rise of Surrealism in the 1920s and philosophical discussions have not been so intense since Bergson’s ideas were first published” (Hoveyda 1946: 58). It can be argued that this article tends to promote rather than just introduce Sartre and his philosophy at a time when the Marxist-Leninist discourse was the dominant intellectual discourse in Iran.

La putain respectueuse was the second work by Sartre which was translated into Persian in 1946. The play was translated by Abdul-Hossein Noushin, a playwright, theater director and a leading member of the Tudeh party. He was one of the first to import Western theatrical works into Iran, and his translation of Sartre was part of this initiative.

However, considering the association of Noushin with the Tudeh party and the attitude of Party officials towards Existentialism and Sartre, the publication of this play in the official journal of the party may seem strange at first. An examination of the Party’s activities in the early years sheds some light on this issue. It seems that, in the early years of its activity, the party would resort to any conceivable means to promote its cause. Mirabedini (2001:132) speaks of the collaboration of certain people with the Party who previously were “proponents of Reza Shah’s Ideas”:

Of course, intellectuals are not alone in violating the principles, the party also, in the first years of its activity, offers the pages of its periodicals to anyone willing to cooperate.

Although the Tudeh party advocated socialist realism in literature and art from the outset, it did not boycott the poets and writers who followed other artistic currents, even writers such as Sartre and Kafka, who, at that time, were banned and considered decadent in the Soviet Union (Khosropanah 2010).

After the split in the Tudeh party in 1948, this literary pluralism was gradually abandoned, so much so that in 1948 Ehsan Tabari and his followers denounced the artistic and philosophical schools which they saw as capitalist and decadent. They did this through a series of aggressive essays published in Mahname-ye Mardom [People’s Monthly], the Tudeh party’s main literary and political journal. The titles of some of these essays are revealing enough: for example, Inqilab va Enhetat-e Honary (1948) [Revolution and Artistic Decline], Tozihati Chand Darbare-ye Maghale-ye Engheleb va Enhetat-e Honari (1948) [Some explanation on the essay “Revolution and Artistic Decline”], Jebhe-haye Inqilabi va Enhetati Honar (1948) [The Revolutionary and Decadent Fronts of Art]. In these essays, Sartre and his philosophy of Existentialism, which were previously introduced and advocated in the Tudeh party periodicals, were harshly criticized.

As was mentioned, in the early years of the party’s activities, the Tudeh publications, while placing emphasis on Russian literature and the Marxist-Leninist discourse, also embraced other discourses, though on a smaller scale. By doing this, the Party pursued two goals: to attract a variety of intellectuals from different fronts, and to co-opt other influential discourses to advance its goals. The latter seems to have been one of the reasons underlying the translation of La putain respectueuse by Noushin and its publication in the party’s periodical. The selection of this particular book for translation, and the translator’s preface suggest that the translator’s goal was not to promote Existentialism but to promote the political ideas of the Tudeh party. Unlike many of Sartre’s works which have a clearly philosophical theme, showing the general condition of mankind in the world, a theme which did not appeal to the Tudeh party, La putain respectueuse, has a very clear political theme: American racism. So, not only did the content of the play not challenge the anti-imperialist ideology of the Tudeh party, but it also helped to promote its cause. Nevertheless, Noushin (2537/ 1978) does not mention this in the preface of the translation; rather, by exploiting Marxist discourse, he claims that Sartre’s aim is to scorn bourgeois ethics, an ethics that is also heavily criticized by Marxism.

The third work by Sartre to be translated was a short story in the Le Mur collection entitled “Érostrate”. Amir-Nasser Khodayar (1923-2005), a translator, writer and journalist, translated it into Persian in 1948. Like many intellectuals of the time, Khodayar was initially interested in the Tudeh party, and worked closely with people like Abdul Hossein Noushin and Khalil Maleki. Later, due to further contact with Khalil Maleki, he joined Niro-ye Sevvom [Third Force], a group led by Maleki that broke away from the Tudeh party, and became a critic of the Tudeh party’s policies (Rasoulipour 1384/ 2005). The selection of a short story from the Le Mur collection previously introduced by Hedayat signals the significance of Hedayat as an initiator of a discourse on Sartre and Existentialism, a discourse which was gradually developed by other intellectuals of the time to both challenge and help define the dominant discourse of the Tudeh party.

The fourth work by Sartre to be translated into Persian was Huis clos in 1948, the same year as “Érostrate”. Unlike the other translators of Sartre, the translator of this work, Mustafa Farzaneh, was a young and novice translator who had the opportunity to meet and co-operate with Sadeq Hedayat. He later wrote a memoire of his friendship with Hedayat entitled Ashenaie ba Sadeq Hedayat (1988) [My Acquaintance with Sadeq Hedayat]. Being a disciple of someone who introduced Sartre into Iran encouraged Farzaneh, who translated short texts for different periodicals at the time, to translate a play by Sartre. According to Farzaneh (1988), Hedayat reviewed the translation and the translator’s preface. Although Hedayat only managed to translate one of Sartre’s works, by introducing Sartre to Iranians for the first time, he created a path for other translators to follow. The name of Hedayat and Sartre were linked so closely at the time that following Hedayat’s disputes with the Tudeh party, Ehsan Tabari attacked The Blind Owl - Hedayat’s most famous novel - and the French Existentialists. This attack clearly shows that at that time the Tudeh party identified Hedayat with the Existentialist movement, a movement which his student and close friend, Mustafa Farzaneh, also aligned himself with by translating Huis clos.

Farzane’s introduction to the translation can help us clarify the conflict between these two discourses. Like Hoveyda, Farzaneh (1948) identifies Existentialist philosophy with Sartre in his introduction, and from the very beginning tries to emphasize its novelty, which he sees as a privilege. By emphasizing the “newness”, “uniqueness” and “popularity” of Sartre’s philosophy he was challenging the dominant Marxist-Leninist intellectual discourse. Farzaneh goes on to say that Sartre does not believe in “Art for Art’s sake”, a remark which was intended both to guard against possible attack from the ruling discourse, which saw literature and art in the service of ideology, and to introduce another discourse favoring a committed from of literature. Farzaneh then introduces and interprets the play, raising a series of points that are clearly in opposition to the dominant Marxist-Leninist discourse.

The translator’s emphasis on the experiences of the individual, portraying him in a hostile society surrounded by other people who not only limit his freedom but also see each other as objects creating a hell-like situation from which there is no escape, was in sharp contrast to the historical materialism supported by the Tudeh party. Historical materialism has a different approach to the relationship between individual and society and sees mankind as an inherently social being. For Marxists, the individual is a kind of abstraction, and all human achievements are the result of collective action, and as a result of this collective effort society can reach its final stage after going through different temporary phases (Novack 1966). In his book entitled Darbare-ye Seresht va Sarnevesht-e Ensan [On the Nature and Fate of Man], Ehsan Tabari (n.d.)  refers to Existentialism as a pessimistic philosophy which depicts a tragic destiny for man and argues that, “Marxism dismisses these pessimistic views and believes that man is not an absurd, despicable, inferior creature with a tragic destiny, but […] the peak of the evolution of the organic world, possessing a huge capacity for growing and evolving to overcome difficulties, to pave the way for victory” Tabari (n.d.:18-19).

The fifth and the last work by Sartre to be translated into Persian before the 1953 coup was Les mains sales. This play was translated by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, a writer, intellectual and a former member of the Tudeh party. Following the events of Azerbaijan and the split in the Tudeh party, Al-e-Ahmad also separated from the party in 1948 along with Maleki and became one of its severest critics. One of the reasons he left the Party was its support for the Soviet Union (Al-e-Ahmad 1978). According to Amenkhani (2013: 48) the reason for Al-e-Ahmad’s interest in Existentialist ideas was his frustration with the Tudeh party and – any kind of collective activity:  

One of the main characteristics of Existentialism is its emphasis on individualism. Though, the “other” is also considered, [...], it must be admitted that Existentialism, especially its French branch, begins with individualism, and if it pays attention to the other, it is for the sake of studying the individual. Al-e-Ahmad also turned to individualism after his frustration with the Tudeh party and collective activities. For this reason, after he left the party in 1947, he translated many works by Existentialist philosophers such as Camus and Sartre, and writers who deal with Existentialist ideas, such as Dostoevsky and Gide, because their individualism appealed to him. 

Despite what Amenkhani claims, after leaving the Tudeh party Al-e-Ahmad did not completely dismiss politics and collective activities, but he first joined Hezb-e Zahmatkeshan (the Party of the Hardworking) and then Hezb-e Zahmatkeshan-e Melat-e Iran (the Party of the Hardworking People of Iran).  It was after leaving this last party in 1953 that he withdrew from all political activity. So, in 1952, when he translated Les mains sales, he had not yet abandoned political activities and was active in a party opposed to the Tudeh party.

Les mains sales is one of Sartre’s political plays which explicitly criticizes and attacks left-wing parties, especially the pro-soviet Communist parties. Considering the political orientations of Al-Ahamad at the time it is reasonable to suppose that his decision to translate an anti-communist work by Sartre was at least in part motivated by a desire to challenge the dominant ideology of the Tudeh party.

As we have seen, the importation of Sartrean Existentialism into Iran can be interpreted in three ways: First, it can be considered part of the uninterrupted effort by Iranian intellectuals since the Constitutional Revolution to import the knowledge, philosophy and literature of the West into Iran (as it is true of almost all other Western writers). Second, it can be regarded as an attempt by non-leftist intellectuals to confront the dominant Tudeh discourse by introducing an assumed non-left-wing Western discourse (as in the case of Hedayat, Farzaneh, Khanlari and Al-e-Ahmad). Third, it can also be seen as an attempt by intellectuals and advocates of leftist discourse to advance their goals by appropriating another emerging discourse (as in the case of Noushin, and other Tudeh intellectuals).

4. The Role of Translations and Translators in Creating a Pessimistic Image of Existentialism in the 1940s in Iran

Susam-Sarajeva (2006) argues (and rightly so) that the selection of texts (not) to be translated, the timing of the translations, and the professional profiles of the translators are among the factors influencing the reception of foreign discourses and writers.

 The translations of Sartre published in this period, the professional profile of the translators and the indigenous material written on Sartre and his philosophy in Iran show that his reception was more focused on the social and political application of his thinking than on its philosophical implications. The arrival of Sartre’s works in Iran in the 1940s coincided with a phase in his development in which he was re-elaborating his original Existentialist ideas, under the influence of such nonmaterialist thinkers as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, as a challenge to Marxism. It was in the late 1950s that Sartre changed his mind and embraced Marxism, declaring that Existentialism had become a subordinate branch of Marxism with the aspiration of enriching and renewing it (Novack 1966). From his early reception in Iran in the 1940s to his later popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, this paradoxical development of Sartrean Existentialism allowed intellectuals from different political currents to focus on those aspects of his philosophy which best suited their purpose. It could be argued that Sartre was a thinker who consistently provided Iranian intellectuals and literati with that which they had been seeking over the course of decades and in various social and political conditions: first, a philosopher who wrote stories; second, a novelist who was also a philosopher; third, a famous philosopher who was a critic of Marxism; fourth, a non-Marxist intellectual who had Marxist tendencies; fifth, a Marxist-affiliated  intellectual who had turned away from Marxism; sixth, a philosopher who supported revolutionaries. Each intellectual group illuminated and appropriated one aspect of Stare’s thinking, in line with their literary or socio-political agendas.

In the period under study, Existentialism was mainly understood as an individualistic, nihilistic and pessimistic philosophy. This image was created by the working together of different factors, the most important among which were the efforts of the Tudeh party. By reducing Existentialism to a pessimistic and disillusioning philosophy which merely sought to maintain the status quo and serve capitalism by addressing “subjective and unrealistic issues” and strengthening “anxiety, despair and defeat” in man (Tabari 1948b: 5), the Tudeh party tried to define its own identity in opposition to it. In rejecting Existentialism, the Tudeh party was merely echoing soviet and Western criticisms of Existentialism. This was mainly done by translating anti-Existentialist articles in Mahname-ye Mardom [people’s monthly], the main literary journal of the Tudeh party.  The anti-Existentialist ideas translated in this journal soon found their way into the indigenous material. One of the main translated articles published in the Mahname-ye Mardom in 1948 was entitled “Existancializm yek Falsafeh-e Zed-e Democracy” [Existentialism: An Anti-democratic Philosophy] which introduced Existentialism as merely a vogue which was nurtured by Imperialism and supported by the bourgeoisie, an idealist philosophy which led to ignorance, immorality, decadence and suicide, an anti-Marxist philosophy which deceitfully sought to replace Marxism and finally a populist philosophy which tried to align Marxism with Fascism (Angran, 1948). The ideas propagated in the article were immediately picked up by Iranian intellectuals and writers leading to the publication of a series of indigenous articles in the subsequent issues of the journal. The selection of anti-Existentialist articles for translation played both an indicative role, showing the local concerns and the prevailing attitudes towards Existentialism, and a formative role, shaping and transforming the images of Sartre and Existentialism. Translations of anti-Existentialist writings mainly by the Tudeh party created a strong narrative which was both adopted and criticized, in the following years, by variously affiliated intellectuals and writers, ranging from Marxists to Islamists. As was discussed earlier, during this period some largely unsuccessful efforts were made to change the reductionist narrative of the Tudeh party, efforts which were resumed in the later phases of Sartre’s reception in the post-coup period.

The image of Hedayat, the first translator of Sartre in Iran, as a “disappointed intellectual”, created mainly by the Tudeh party, and finally his much-discussed suicide had an undeniable effect on the reception of Existentialism as a nihilistic philosophy. As Susam-Sarajeva (2006) contends, “Translator’s identity and agenda can easily put a mark on the reception of the work(s) they translate – especially, in cases where they have a certain acclaim as writers, scholars, and critics other than being ‘just translators’.” This is exactly the case for most of Sartre’s translators in Iran, especially Hedayat, in the period under study. Hedayat’s translation of Sartre, though merely a short story from a collection of stories, linked his name to Sartre in the intellectual circles of the 1940s in Iran, when there was little information on Sartre and Existentialism.   For more than three decades “in Iran, both lay people and the specialists, have repeatedly considered Hedayat’s suicide to be the outcome of his Existentialist beliefs” (Katouzian 1993:176). Ehsan Tabari and many of the writers affiliated with the Tudeh party divided Hedayat’s life into three periods: hopelessness, hope and disappointment, and attributed his disappointment to his growing interest in “desperate” and “devious” writers such as Sartre. Undoubtedly, Hedayat was influenced by many writers whom he had studied or translated and Sartre is no exception, but a bio-bibliographical survey of Hedayat prevents us from adopting a narrative that attributes Hedayat’s despair, pessimism and suicide to his acquaintance with Existentialist philosophy. Nevertheless, the Tudeh party’s narrative of the influence of Existentialism on Hedayat, due to its undisputed domination in the intellectual arena of Iran in the 1940s, and relatively less in the following decades, became a repetitious narrative in the works of Iranian critics. Hedayat’s suicide after a period of severe depression helped strengthen the narrative. The Tudeh Party, which, following the Soviet Communist Party, described Sartre’s works as degenerate, absurd, and hopeless, found the best example of this degeneration and despair in Hedayat who, by translating Sartre for the first time, had opened the gates of the country wide to this “decadent” philosophy. This was how the Tudeh Party was able to first introduce and then condemn Hedayat as the ultimate product of the “pessimistic “ philosophy of Existentialism, a product that represented its alleged producer for more than a decade. It could be argued that it was Sartre’s image in Iran who, haunted by his first translator’s image, appeared more pessimistic to the Iranian intellectuals of the time (see Katouzian 1993; Tabari 1948b).

The pattern of books (not) translated in this period was another factor influencing the reception of Existentialism as a nihilistic and pessimistic philosophy. By 1953, Sartre had published almost 20 books (15 fictional, 4 philosophical and 1 critical book), 5 of which (all fictions) had been translated in Iran. Sartre’s reputation as a nihilist writer was, to a great extent, the result of his fictional works which mostly depicted melancholic characters. To defend himself against the charge of pessimism in his fictional works, Sartre wrote:

If people condemn our works of fiction, in which we describe characters […]as weak, cowardly and sometimes even […] evil, it is not […] because those characters are base, weak, cowardly or evil. […] the existentialist, when he portrays a coward shows him as responsible for his cowardice. (Sartre, 1960: 42-44)

The fact that the only works by Sartre translated in this period were his works of fiction can, to some extent, account for his reception as a pessimistic writer. This translation pattern, which created a pessimistic image of Existentialism strengthened the defensive attitude of its opponents, mostly Marxists, in Iran by supplying them with material which was clearly opposed to the socialist-realist ideas propagated by them.

Among the works not translated in this period, L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946), a book originally delivered as a lecture, could have contributed to defy the image of Existentialism as a pessimistic philosophy. In this book, Sartre (1960: 23) “offers a defense of Existentialism against different reproaches that have been laid against it”, one of them being that Existentialism invites people “to dwell in quietism of despair” and states:

[…] You have seen that it cannot be regarded as a philosophy of quietism, since it defines man by his action; nor as a pessimistic description of man, for no doctrine is more optimistic, the destiny of man is placed within himself. (Sartre, 1960: 42-44)

The non-selection of this book for translation in this period, a book which was later translated, retranslated and reprinted more than any other Sartre’s books in the 1960s and 1970s, had implications far beyond the translations. This book was first translated into Persian in 1344 (1965) with a time-lag of almost 19 years. It could be argued that this book was left untranslated in this period because its translation would defy the dominant image created partly by the achronological and highly selective translations of Sartre’s works.

5. Conclusion

It would seem, then, that discourses are not transferred and received as simply and as innocently as might appear. Discourses are not transferred to merely fill a gap in knowledge or produce something that the target language and culture lacks, but are often transferred to serve given purposes. By breaking off the prior intertextual relations and forming a network of new relations, discourses often find new meanings and intentions in their new destinations, which may contradict their original meanings and purposes. Translation, together with other forms of rewriting, plays a very important role in the transfer of discourses. As Susam-Sarajeva (2006: 1) points out, translation plays both an indicative and a formative role, that is, it both allows insights into the workings of a given system and influences the receiving system. The early reception of Sartrean Existentialism clearly shows this dual role of translation. Translator and translation patterns of Sartre’s works both revealed the forces at work in the receiving system and at the same time shaped and transformed the receiving system’s image of Sartre and Existentialism to serve political agendas.  

With the fall of Reza Shah’s dictatorship in 1941, a new chapter in the political and cultural life of Iran began which promised a better and freer future. During this period, many newspapers and periodicals were established and many parties and organizations were formed. The Marxist-Leninist discourse of the Tudeh party became the dominant intellectual discourse. However, the Party’s support for the Soviet Union soon led many intellectuals to leave it. It was during this period that Sartre and Existentialism were introduced for the first time.

The confrontation between Russian Marxism and Sartrean Existentialism, which was evident in the position of the Soviet Communist Party towards Existentialism and in the early works of Sartre, was used both by the Tudeh Party members (such as Noushin and Tabari) to promote Marxism and by anti-Marxist intellectuals and translators (such as Hedayat and Al-e-Ahmad) to challenge it. The symbiotic working together of the different factors (including the pattern of translations and the profile of the translators of Sartre and the attempts of the Tudeh Party to establish itself as an unrivaled discourse) constructed an image of Sartre and Existentialism which continued into the following Decades. In this Period, Sartrean Existentialism was mainly received as a nihilistic and imperialistic philosophy which posed a threat to the then dominant Marxist Ideology and its revolutionary ends. The images of Sartre and Existentilism constructed in this period served as a foundation for later receptions of Sartre.  Although Sartre had successfully defended his philosophy against the accusation of being nihilistic and had revealed his Marxist tendencies by the late 1940s, in the 1950s Iran, a nihilistic image of Existentialism and a narrative of the contrast between Marxism and Existentialism constructed in the 1940s were still holding sway. It was only in the 1960s that some efforts were made by the translators of Sartre’s works to both acquit Existentialism of the charge of being nihilistic and pessimistic and establish a more peaceful, yet complex relationship between Marxism and Existentialism to use Existentialism as a leftist political ideology to challenge the Shah’s regime.

The professional profile of the translators of Sartre and other agents in this period and the political ends they pursued prevents us from assigning the fragmented picture of Existentialism in 1940s and the contradictory purposes it served to its poor application in Iran. The translators of Sartre’s works in this period were mostly intellectuals or professional writers who actively engaged in the translation of Sartre’s works or works on Existentialism as a sort of political activism to challenge or endorse the dominant political ideology of the time, Marxism. In fact, Sartrean Existentialism was mainly discussed and translated for purposes other than its mere understanding and introduction.


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[1] All translations from Persian are by the author unless otherwise stated.

[2] In Didar-ha va Guft-o-gu-haie Man ba Sadeq Hedayat [My Visits and Talks to Sadeq Hedayat]

About the author(s)

Marzieh Malekshahi received her BA in English Language Translation from Shahid Chamran University of Ahwaz in 2007 and her master’s degree in Translation Studies from Shahid Beheshti University of Tehran in 2009. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad. Her academic interests include literary Translation, Translation History, and the modern history of Iran.

Ali Khazaee Farid is associate professor of translation studies at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran. Dr. Khazaee Farid has been the founder and editor of the quarterly Motarjem (The Translator) published since 1993. His major interests are the practice and theory of literary translation.

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©inTRAlinea & Marzieh Malekshahi and Ali Khazaee Farid (2019).
"Discourse against Discourse: The Early Reception of Sartrean Existentialism in Iran", inTRAlinea Vol. 21.

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