Translator’s Paratextual Visibility:

the case of Iranian translators from 1906 until 1926

By Zahra Atefmehr (Allameh Tabataba’i University, Iran)


The present study is an attempt to find out whether the Iranian translators whose translations were published during the twenty years before the fall of the Qajar dynasty – from the establishment of Constitutional Monarchy in 1906 until the end of Qajar dynasty in 1926 – were visible or invisible with respect to paratextual elements. That is to say, how much the translators used paratexts and how much their presence is felt in paratextual elements of their translations. 106 translated volumes published during this period have been examined in terms of their paratextual elements which, for the purposes of  this study, included the translators’ prefaces and the presence of translators’ names versus the presence of authors’ names on title pages. The study will show that the translators were visible, mainly due to their high social and educational status. The study also proposes a model termed Network of Visibility, which is used to represent the connections among those who were involved in either the production or publication of translated books – i.e. the translators, the publishers and the patrons; and also the original authors.

Keywords: invisibility, paratextual elements, Iran, Constitutional Monarchy, Qajar dynasty, translators

©inTRAlinea & Zahra Atefmehr (2016).
"Translator’s Paratextual Visibility: the case of Iranian translators from 1906 until 1926", inTRAlinea Vol. 18.

This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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I would like to express my greatest thanks and indebtedness to my dear professor, Dr. Farahzad, without whose encouragement, constant support and generous guidance the present research would not have been possible. It is also a genuine pleasure to express my deepest sense of appreciation and profound gratitude to Dr. Rundle for his valuable comments and suggestions that led to a substantially improved version of the paper.

1. Introduction

The history of translation in Iran arguably begins in the 6th century BC when the first Persian Empire, the Achaemenids, was established. The main evidence of translation activities during the Achaemenid Empire are the documents and royal inscriptions that have been found, mainly in the languages of Old Persian, Akkadian and Elamite.[1]

From the Achaemenids until the present day, the long history of translation in Iran has witnessed three major translation movements.[2] What makes these movements different from individual translational activities is that they involved producing series of translations on certain subjects in order to achieve certain goals, and which were commissioned and supported by the ruling governments. These translation movements were mainly triggered by the personal interest of a king.

The first translation movement began after the establishment of the Sassanid Empire, the last pre-Islamic empire in Iran, in 224AD.[3] With the support and encouragement of the Sassanid kings many books especially in the subjects of philosophy, medicine, astronomy and mathematics were translated from Indian, Latin and Greek into Middle Persian. The movement reached its peak during the reign of Anushiravan (501-579AD) when first the Academy of Gondishapour, an advanced medical school, was established and later the schools of astronomy and mathematics, nearby. The Academy, which was one of the major scientific centers of the time, took in scientists, students and teachers from around the ancient world who translated the influential works of their civilizations into Middle Persian.

When the Muslim Arabs conquered Iran in 651AD and the Sassanid Empire fell, Arab Caliphates took control of Iran for around two hundred years.[4] The second translation movement in Iran was part of a massive translation movement that occurred in the Islamic world during the reign of Abbasids (750-1258AD), the third Islamic caliphate.[5] During this movement, the Muslim translators translated numerous works in various branches of science mainly from Greek, Syriac and Latin into Arabic. As mentioned before, during the Sassanid era and especially in the Academy of Gondishapour the most influential works of the ancient world were translated into Middle Persian. The second translation movement in Iran involved translation of the invaluable heritage of Gondishapour into Arabic by Iranian translators who had converted to Islam.

The third translation movement in Iran occurred during the Qajar dynasty. The Qajars reigned over Iran from 1785 to 1926. In the Qajar era, diplomatic relations between Iran and the West expanded. Political relations were established between Iran and the three great powers of Russia, France and England and these led to significant developments. The first postal service, the first telegram line, the first railways, the first printing press and the first newspaper were some of these advances. The Qajars’ lofty aspiration for the modernization of Iran resulted in a translation movement through which the Iranians became acquainted with many of the technological, cultural and intellectual achievements of the West.

Following the defeats of Iran in the Russo-Iranian wars (1804-1813 and 1826-1828), Abbas Mirza, the prince of Iran as well as the military commander of the Iranian army, decided to modernize Iran’s military forces.[6] Therefore, under his command, many books about military science were translated into Persian. Moreover, Abbas Mirza dispatched groups of students to European countries to learn the latest European sciences and to become familiar with European culture. After returning to Iran, many of these students turned into translators who translated numerous books in various subjects from English and French into Persian.

This translation movement reached its peak during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896) who felt a deep fascination for the civilization of the West following his journeys to Europe. His interest in keeping abreast of the news and events of the European countries and in reading foreign novels played a crucial role in promoting the translation of foreign books and newspapers into Persian. Another important factor in encouraging an increase in translations was the foundation of the first Western style school in Tehran, called the Dar ul-Funun, by the order of Amir Kabir, the chief minister to Nasir al-Din Shah. This school was established for the purpose of training Iranian students in modern sciences. The teachers of Dar ul-Funun were mainly from France, Austria and Italy and the lessons were taught in French. The translation of various scientific books into Persian for students of this school, the building of a theatre in the school and the subsequent translation of dramatic works, as well as the establishment of Foreign Language courses all meant that the school of Dar ul-Funun had a significant impact on the number of translations being carried out in Iran.

However, despite the government’s efforts to modernize the country and despite many advances, Iranians were not satisfied with the Qajar kings. The intervention of foreign powers in the domestic affairs of Iran and the incompetence of the Qajar kings in addition to some other internal difficulties, mainly the increasing poverty and inflation, provoked widespread discontent among the people. Gradually, the discontent gave rise to massive protests and a series of protest movements from 1905 to 1906, collectively called the Constitutional Revolution of Iran. This revolution led to the establishment of a Constitutional Monarchy in 1906, which marks a crucial turning point in the history of Iran. Many consider the establishment of Constitutional Monarchy to be “the end of the medieval period in Iran” (Rashidvash 2012: 183).[7]

This paper will look at the 106 translated volumes that were published from the establishment of Constitutional Monarchy in 1906 until the fall of Qajar Dynasty in 1926. These translations will be analysed with respect to their paratextual elements, in particular the translators’ prefaces and the presence of the translators’ and authors’ names on the title pages with a view to establishing how visible Iranian translators were at the time. In addition to revealing the status of translators (in terms of their visibility), these paratextual elements also provide a valuable insight into the history of translation in Iran in the period from the constitutional monarchy until the end of the Qajar dynasty.

2. Paratexts and Paratextual Visibility

The term paratexts was first used by Genette in 1987. As he states, “a literary work […] is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by certain number of verbal or other productions, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, [and] illustrations” (1997: 1). Genette believes that such “accompanying productions” that “constitute […] the work’s paratext” are the elements that enable “a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public” (1997: 1-2).

In reference to translation, the term “invisibility” was originally used by Venuti to “describe the translator’s situation and activity in contemporary Anglo-American culture” (1995: 1). Koskinen believes that “at least three distinct kinds of visibility” exist, which are the “textual, paratextual and extratextual visibility” (2000: 99). Among the three, the paratext seems to provide a useful way of gauging translator visibility across a large number of translations and over an extended period of time.

3. The Iranian Translators’ Prefaces (1906-1926)

The Iranian translators who published their translations from 1906 until 1926 had a tendency to write long prefaces even for the most ordinary novels. In their prefaces, the translators discussed issues related to the production and publication of their translations, as well as going into more personal detail concerning their own lives. Some of the translators used their prefaces to make complaints about some cultural practices and habits or some of the social problems they observed in Iran. Others used the prefaces to express their admiration for the new age of development and growth in post-Constitutional Revolutionary Iran.

In what follows I shall examine a number of these prefaces with the aim of showing how the translators used prefaces, and of shedding light on some aspects of the translators’ lives and activity during that period.

Ha’eri Sadr al-Maʿāli

We begin with the preface written by Ha’eri Sadr al-Maʿāli for his translation of George W. M. Reynolds’s The Bronze Statue, Or, the Virgin's Kiss, published in 1907. The preface is quite autobiographical and contains valuable information about the years before and after the establishment of Constitutional Monarchy. In his preface, Sadr al-Maʿāli not only reveals Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar’s interest in translation but also his tyrannical behavior and the strict censorship he imposed on translations. Sadr al-Maʿāli recounts that:

Around 1307 AH (1890 AD), when Nasir al-Din Shah was about to depart for Europe, he ordered that while he was away, each of the translators who worked for the Royal Translation House should find a remarkable and beneficial book, translate it and then offer his translation to him [Nasir al-Din Shah] on his return to Iran. (1286/1907: 4)

As we said before, the Qajar translation movement reached its peak during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah. In addition to the school of Dar ul-Funun, the Royal Translation House of Nasir al-Din Shah played a crucial role in the considerable increase of translated books in this era. The expansion of diplomatic relations between Iran and European countries, the avid interest of Nasir al-Din Shah in reading foreign newspapers and books and the process of modernization of country that necessiated the production of translations in various branches of science impelled the government to establish an official organization for translation. This organization, called the Royal Translation House enabled the government to hire translators and to have control over the publication of the translations. The translators who worked for the Royal Translation House were either foreigners and ambassadors who resided in Iran, or Iranian translators who graduated from Dar ul-Funun or were sent to European colleges and who became translators after their return to Iran. The determining factor in choosing a book for translation was the subject. In most cases, Nasir al-Din Shah would commission translations of books on his favorite subjects (mainly history and historical novels) or on any topic he deemed to be beneficialto the Iranian people. It was then the responsibility of the translator to choose an appropriate book whithin that topic. As Afshar reports, during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah “more than five hundred books” on “military science, technology (such as photography, telgraph, agriculture), medicine, geology, physics and chemistry, geography, history, law, literature and fiction” were translated (1381/2002: 90). However, in some cases, a translator himself chose a book because he considered its subject to be beneficial for the Iranian people. Although the choice of which text to translate might be left to the discretion of the translators, they could not be published without the approval and authorization of Nasir al-Din Shah. As seen above, in 1890, before departing for Europe, Nasir al-Din Shah commissioned the translators of the Royal Translation House to find and translate a remarkable and beneficial book of their own choice. Yet, as the translator Sadr al-Maʿāli explains, The Bronze Statue was strictly censored by the King, even though he considered it to be beneficial for people. Sadr al-Maʿāli believed that this “political and historical fiction” that “recount[ed] corrupt behavior and scandalous deeds of the oppressors” could make Iranian people aware of the tyrannical behaviour of their rulers (1286/1907: 1).

Following the direct order of Nasir al-Din Shah, Sadr al-Maʿāli, an “Indian and Arabic translator” in the Royal Translation House, started searching for “a proper book” to translate and found The Bronze Statue, Or, the Virgin's Kiss (1286/1907: 4). After “reading some lines of the book”, he regarded it as having “hidden treasures” and as beneficial as a “panacea” for Iranian youth (1286/1907: 4-5). Nonetheless, he believed that “the tyrannical ideas of the king” would not let him to publish the book without “any harm to [his] life and wealth” (1286/1907: 5). Reynolds’s The Bronze Statue is a novel about protesting against the Catholic Pope and against the monarchy so naturally, as Sadr al-Maʿāli says, it could be interpreted as an attack “against the ruling monarchy of Iran” (1286/1907: 5). Yet, notwithstanding the risks, Sadr al-Maʿāli, who was fascinated by the book, started his translation and it took him “four years to finish the translation of the first volume and one-third of the second” (1286/1907: 6). Meanwhile, he met and consulted some powerful people but all of them believed that publication of his translation was “impossible” because of “the tyranny of the King and the impossibility of changing the [troublesome] sentences of the book” (1286/1907: 6).

Nasir al-Din Shah extolled European civilization and he enthused over the modernization of Iran, yet he regarded freedom of the press, which was a perfect means of transference of Western liberal thoughts, as a threat to his absolute monarchy. Therefore, he imposed strict censorship on the press and on translated books. The Bronze Statue was one of the novels that could not obtain the approval of Nasir al-Din Shah. It was banned and Sadr al-Maʿāli was “sent to jail for a time” (1286/1907: 1).

In 1896, after reigning for forty-eight years, Nasir al-Din Shah was assassinated. Ten years later, during the reign of Mozaffar al-Din Shah, son of Nasir al-Din Shah, the Constitutional Monarchy of Iran was established and the first National Parliament of Iran was opened. This Parliament “passed laws” that guaranteed “freedom of the press”, which in turn “brought about a sudden flourishing” of the press and of publishing (Keddie & Amanat 1991: 204). Sadr al-Maʿāli’ points to this improvement in the political climate when he finishes his preface by saying, “Thanks to this King [Mozaffar al-Din Shah] came the day that the situation of the country changed, tyranny and oppression were overthrown and at last the Constitutional Monarchy was established, justice and fairness made our country a paradise” (1286/1907: 6). Finally, the climate of freedom after the establishment of Constitutional Monarchy enabled Sadr al-Maʿāli to publish his translation.

Mirza Baqer Khan Tabrizi

Another interesting preface is that found in Mirza Baqer Khan Tabrizi’s translation of Henry Kalleli’s A History of the Far East or the Russo-Japanese War, published in 1909, in which Tabrizi, refers to the historic bombardment of the parliament in Iran. He states that “the tragic event of the bombardment of parliament and the subsequent incidents hindered publication of the complete translation” of A History of the Far East (1288/1909: 3). This bombardment happened in June 1908 after serious disputes between Mohammad Ali Shah, the second Qajar king after the Constitutional Revolution, and the constitutionalist members of the parliament. Apparently, the subsequent incidents in Tabrizi’s statement refers to the events that followed the bombardment of the parliament, which brought about a period of repressive dictatorship, referred to in Iran as the Lesser Autocracy or the Lesser Tyranny. During this period, many journalists and writers were killed or exiled and the “leading members of the Press fled or were captured” (Avery 1991: 840). The suppression of the press and constitutionalists continued until July 1909, when Mohammad Ali Shah was dethroned and his son Ahmad Shah ascended the throne. Once more, newspapers “proliferated” and book publishing revived “to ensure that Iran’s first steps towards democracy would not be forgotten and would be retrieved” (Avery 1991: 841). The fall of the Lesser Autocracy and the subsequent revival gave Tabrizi the chance to publish his translation of Kalleli. Tabrizi finishes his preface by saying that he “humbly” offers his translation to Ahmad Shah, “as a sign of gratitude to [that] auspicious year” which was “the first year of coronation of the Just King who is the Supporter of the Constitution” while hoping that “the King would accept [his] unworthy present” (1288/1909: 4).

Ali Dashti

In the preface to his translation of Gustave Le Bon’s Les Lois Psychologiques de l'Évolution des Peuples, Ali Dashti implicitly points to the censorship of his translations and works. Dashti explains that he “strongly desired to translate this book” but due to “non-publication” of his previous “translations and works”, he suffered a feeling of “disappointment” that initially “deterred [him] from translation of the book” (1302/1924: 1). Dashti (1894-1982) was a well-known journalist and a political activist who, especially after the agreement of 1919 between Iran and Britain, published articles in the press that were critical of the government. This provoked the government into first imposing a ban on his works and then sending him into exile for some months.

The Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, according to which Britain gained control over Iran’s military and financial affairs[8], fomented revolutionary activities and political unrest throughout Iran. Following a period of mounting discontent, a coup was plotted by the British leaders to “install a strong Iranian government that would guard against revolutions” (Keddie & Amanat 1991: 210). The two Iranian leaders of the coup were Sayyid Ziya al-Din Tabatabaee and Reza Khan. When the coup succeeded, a new government was established and Sayyid Ziya, the political leader of the coup, became the prime minister of Iran. As soon as he was appointed prime minister, he ordered the mass arrest of anti-government political activists and journalists. Ali Dashti, who had just returned from his exile, was also arrested for the second time. In the preface to his translation of the Gustave Le Bon’s book, Dashti directly points to this imprisonment and says, “At last the idleness of the three-month imprisonment in Sayyid Ziya al-Din’s presidency gave me time to translate the book” (1302/1924: 1). Yet, as he says in his preface, he “could not publish this translation until three years after his release from prison” (1302/1924: 1).

Sayyid Ziya had failed to achieve the goals of the coup and he was removed from the government after ninety days. With the downfall of Sayyid Ziya, Reza Khan, the military leader of the coup who was now the Minister of War, gained power. Soon, political activists were released from prison and “the number of publications increased again” (Farahmand 1381/2002: 360). Yet, Reza Khan was not tolerant of anything that was against his ideas. The opposing voices were suppressed ruthlessly or they “were forced to agree” with Reza Khan “either by money or by coercion” (Farahmand 1381/2002: 360). In 1922, Dashti published an article in his own newspaper in which he sharply criticized Reza Khan.[9] Surprisingly, Dashti did not receive any punishment, yet shortly after the publication of his article, he joined the supporters of Reza Khan and “published many articles stating his approval” until he became one of the most outspoken advocates of Reza Khan (Ariyanpour 1387/2008: 320). Apparently, the publication of his translation in 1924 was one of the benefits of his support of Reza Khan, as his preface to the translation of Gustave Le Bon’s book shows. At the end of his preface, Dashti praises Reza Khan (also known as Sardar Sepah) and says, “Recently […] my translation was shown to Sardar Sepah, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, the great man who is destined to bring prosperity for Iran, and he ordered the publication of my translation” (1302/1924: 1).

*                    *                    *

In general, the translators’ prefaces trace a line between pre and post-Constitutional years. They depict the pre-Constitutional years as a dark period filled with tyranny and convey the idea that the establishment of a Constitutional Monarchy was a promising start to a new and flourishing era in Iran. However, as we have seen, there were periods of tyranny, oppression and censorship even after the establishment of a Constitutional Monarchy.

In addition to the issues discussed above, many of the translators used their prefaces to make complaints about their underdeveloped country and their backward people. These translators believed that spreading the civilization of the West by means of the translation and publication of books written by the Western writers could bring about desirable changes in their country. One of these translators was Mohammad Ali Golshaeian who, in his preface to the translation of Maurice Leblanc’s Aiguille Creuse, says:

One of the means of spreading the glorious civilization of the West in Iran, as the only way of salvation and the sole means of growth for us is to translate new and beneficial European books […] Therefore I translated this book […] so our people can read this book and see the differences between our life and the Europeans’ and thereby think about changes and decide to acquire the European sciences. (1304/1925: 2)

This section has looked at just a few examples of the issues that translators discussed in their prefaces. For many translators, the preface was an opportunity to express their sadness at the backwardness of their country, the illiteracy and ignorance of their people, or the cruelty and tyranny of the dethroned kings, as well as their happiness over the beginning of a new and modern era in their country. Through their prefaces, they also shared their personal experiences and memories with readers.

4. The Translators’ Names vs. the Authors’ Names on Title Pages

Among the translations that were published between 1906 and 1926, the majority of the volumes do not include the name of the original author on the title page – regardless of whether or not they include the translators’ name. However, in many of these translated books that did not carry the author’s name on their title page, her/his name can be found in the translator’s preface. That is to say, in many cases, the author was known to the translator and certainly to the publisher, yet her/his name did not appear on the title page. In general, the publishers did not follow a consistent pattern in publishing the translators and authors’ name. Some of them published both the names of translator and author on title page, while many of them published only the translator’s name.  In a few cases, instead of the translator’s name, the name of commissioner or patron appeared on the title page, along with the name of original author.

Perhaps the origin of such inconsistencies lies in the imperfect copyright laws of the day. The first press law was enacted in Iran in February 1908. Article 1 of the Press Law stipulates, “The publishing house is not allowed to publish anything without knowing the name and social standing of an author and without writing its own name and professional standing at the end of publication” (as cited in Gharebaghi & Asghari 1378/2000: 6). The publishers were thus obliged to publish only works by authors they could identify but they were not obliged to acknowledge the author in the publication. Besides, in Article 1 of the Press Law there is no reference to translators and translations, so publishers could get away with publishing the name of whomever they desired on title pages. Moreover, the publishers were free to grant any title they desired to the translators. For instance, many publishers published written by or in many cases translated and authored by before a translator’s name, with or without the name of original author. In some cases, as explained in next section, publishers bestowed grand titles on the translators.

Such shortcomings in the law were corrected in February 1926, eighteen years after the enactment of the first Press Law. In the fifth legislative period of the National Consultative Assembly of Iran, the following laws were enacted:

Article 245: No one has the right to publish, whether totally or partially, individually or by someone else, an original work of authorship including book, pamphlet, work of drawing and architecture, photographic work or else without the permission of the author or a person who obtained such permission from the author.

The above rule is also applicable to anyone who, in addition to publishing a work of authorship without its author’s permission, makes modifications in the original work and later it becomes clear that those  modifications were made to escape the law.

 Article 248: No one has the right to publish an original work of authorship including book, pamphlet, work of drawing and architecture, photographic work or else as her/his own or as the work of another person. (as cited in Gharebaghi & Asghari 1378/2000: 25)

The above laws could be considered as the first officially enacted copyright laws in Iran. Although still there is no reference to translation or translators, under the new law, publishers were obliged to be mindful of the titles they gave translators. It was no longer possible for them to call a translator the writer or author of a translated book without having convincing reasons for doing so. All the translated volumes that were published during 1926, which is also the last year of Qajar dynasty, contained the original authors’ name, in none of them was the translator referred to as author or writer and the translators’ names were not accompanied with grand titles anymore.

5. Network of Visibility

The paratextual elements of the translated volumes that were investigated in this study revealed that the translator’s visibility could be a multidimensional matter. In this research, it became apparent that from 1906 to 1926, visibility was not peculiar and confined to the translators, but a network of visibility existed among those who were involved in the translations (Figure 1). We call it a network because interrelated connections existed among those we consider to be members of this network – i.e. the original authors, the translators, the publishers and the patrons. These interrelated connections are of two kinds, they are either non-reflective or reflective. In a non-reflective connection, one member becomes the source of visibility for other member/s of the network. That is to say, in such connections, member A imparts credibility and visibility to member B only via appearance of her/his name next to the name of member B on a translated book. For example, since from 1906 to 1926, the translators were mostly among high-ranking political figures or they belonged to the nobility, they were the source of visibility for anyone whose name appeared as the publisher or patron of their translations on title pages or prefaces. Given the high social status of these translators, we have placed them at the core of our network of visibility.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Network of visibility from 1906 until 1926

In addition to the non-reflective connections, a second type of connection was also detected. This connection, that we labelled as reflective, is one where member A imparts visibility (either intentionally or unintentionally) to member B by lavishing praises and compliments on that member; yet, the given visibility reflects off and creates visibility for member A as well. An example of such reflective connections is that between translators and original authors. In their prefaces, many translators make exaggerated remarks about the importance of the book they have translated or the fame of its author. They overstate the uniqueness of the book by using phrases such as the best, the most comprehensive, the most credible, or the most beneficial book ever and the singularity of the author by phrases such as the only philosopher of the century, the most celebrated historian of time, the only scholar of time, and so on. Such exaggerated remarks can perform a double function of producing and reflecting visibility at the same time. These emphatic expressions (whether real or just exaggerations) make the translators visible since they implicitly suggest that the translator has done a great job by translating a great work of a great author. Indisputably, a translator of a great work by a well-known author is far more visible than a translator of an ordinary book by an unknown author.

Moreover, some of the translators referred to the commissioners or patrons of their translations who were mostly among those who either possessed power or an outstanding reputation for their erudition. For example, Tamaddon al-Molk Sajjadi in the preface to his translation of the Blue Book, which is a translation of the letters exchanged between Iran and Britain in 1911, extols the greatness and high social status of Ali-Qoli Khan Bakhtiari who was the compiler of the Blue Book as well as the commissioner of its translation:

Therefore, as His Excellency, The Honorable and The Lover of Knowledge Aqa Sardar Asʿad [Ali-Qoli Khan Bakhtiari], his prosperity and wealth endure forever, willed to compile, translate and publish the Blue Book, which is indeed the most beneficial history book on Constitutional Revolution for Iranian readers, he assigned me, Tamaddon al-Molk, to translate this book. (1291/1913: 1)

It is an example of reflective connection between a translator and a commissioner. Ali-Qoli Khan Bakhtiari, one of the major supporters of the Constitutional Monarchy of Iran, was a powerful and rich tribal leader who, in addition to his political activities, established himself as the significant patron of cultural activities during the late Qajar dynasty.[10] Obviously, the fame and reputation of this commissioner brought credibility and status for the translator as well. It was a great honor for Tamaddon al-Molk Sajjadi to be chosen and assigned by such a significant person to do the translation. Undoubtedly, a translator who is considered worthy of attention by an important, powerful and influential person is more visible than a translator who does not receive such attention.

It should be noted that due to the low number of commissioned translations, the commissioners are not incorporated in the network of visibility. According to the translators’ prefaces, except in few cases, all the translations were chosen by the translators themselves. This is different from the era before the establishment of the Constitutional Monarchy during which the main commissioner of the translations was the King, Nasir al-Din Shah. However, the trend of choosing books mainly based on their subjects, not their authors, remained unaltered. Based on the translators’ prefaces, the translators chose books on subjects considered suitable for Iranian society irrespective of their author; and in the few cases of a commissioned translation, it is explicitly stated that the commissioner asked the translator to find a book suitable for the Iranian people and translate it.

So far we have considered how the translators’ visibility was affected by the way the presented themselves; but several translations also contained complimentary remarks on the translators by the publisher or by some other prominent person that was not directly involved in the publication of the translation. Such compliments are presented either in a distinct section titled Taqriz – a section at the beginning or end of a book written by the publisher or by a significant person mainly in praise of the book and its translator – or within the publisher’s or a third party’s preface.

Besides, on title pages of many translated volumes, the translator’s name is accompanied by his nobility title or official position. During the Qajar dynasty, “ample use of grand titles was a practice not limited to the ruler” as “all the princes of the royal family, members of the nobility, courtiers, government officials, and army officers […] held titles” (Amanat 1997: 11-12). Yet, in many cases, the titles given to the translators by the publishers look superfluous. That is to say, publishing a series of titles and cognomens before and after a translator’s name looks like something more than a sign of respect since neither the law, nor courtesy required such excessive descriptions. An example of such an excessive use of titles can be seen in the translation by Yusef Ashtiyani of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, which was published in 1907. On the title page of this translation, the publisher added nine titles Yusef Ashtiyani’s name. According to the title page, the book is translated by His Excellency, The Highest, The Most Glorified, The Most Beneficent, The Superior, Aqa Mirza Yusef Khan Eʿtesam al-Molk Ashtiyani Mustawfi al-Mamalik. Among all these titles, only Mustawfi al-Mamalik (The Lord High Treasurer) is an official title given to Ashtiyani by the Qajar court. Another example is the way the publisher introduced Habibollāh Hoveyda, the Consul-General of Iran in the Levant and the translator of The Story of New Adam written by Nikola Haddad, which was published in 1924. On the title page of this translation, the translator is introduced as His Excellency, The Highest, The Most Glorified, The Honorable, Aqa Mirza Habibollah Khan Ayn al-Molk. Here again only one title, which is Ayn al-Molk (Eye of the Kingdom) is a title given by the King.

In addition to such titles, which in many cases extend to more than two lines, there are sometimes descriptions after the translator’s name, which identify his/her profession. For example in the translation of History of Islamic Civilization, written by Jurji Zaydan and published in 1911, the publisher introduced the translator as His Excellency, The Highest, The Devout and Religious, Aqa Mirza Ebrahim Qomi, Senate of the second and fourth legislative period of the National Parliament of Iran, May his blessings last forever.

The publishers and patrons’ prefaces in praise of the translators, the publishers’ use of titles and cognomens, and the publishers’ hints at the status of the translators by describing the translators’ profession are all cases of reflective connections in the network of visibility. As mentioned, the translators are placed at the core of this network because they were mostly senior figures in their society. They were either one of the princes, royal descendants, ambassadors, senators, and other high-ranking politicians or they belonged to the nobility. When the number of translators (who published their works from 1906 until 1926) is compared with the number of translations (82 translators for 106 published translations), it becomes evident that none of the translators could be described as prolific. All these translators held official posts that granted them a high status in Iranian society. In what follows, more information about translators’ status during the late Qajar dynasty as well as elaboration on the network of visibility will be presented.

Until 1911, when elementary school became compulsory in Iran, education was exclusive to the children of aristocrats and those who possessed wealth and power. Many of the young aristocrats had the chance to finish their higher education in universities of European countries. Learning foreign languages, becoming familiar with the civilization and technological advances of the West and comparing the life of people in Western countries with the life of people in Iran, made some of these educated nobility keen to improve the quality of their compatriots’ life. They believed that spreading the civilization of the West and making people familiar with the scientific and intellectual advances of the European countries would raise social awareness and consequently would have a desirable effect on the social condition of Iran. So, many of the educated aristocrats became interested in translations of books in popular genres such as novels and history as a way of reaching out to the public mind. However, the popularity of these translations with the public was not the only reason behind the choice of these two genres. For many of these translators, European countries had succeded in developing in various cultural, technological and scientific ways due mainly to the morally edifying role of literature on their people. As Matevous Melikiyans writes on his translation of Avetis Aharonian’s Tearful Land:

One of the best means of moral edification for this nation and population whose ignorance and benightedness destroyed the foundation of their society and brought about the backwardness of their civilization, is novels and dramas […] people of the West are well aware that the main reason for their enlightenment is nothing but the works of gifted writers and patriot thinkers who incorporated moral vice and virtues in novels, comedies and tragedies […] that have made Western people aware of their good and bad behavior and gradually guided them from ignorance and darkness to prosperity and development. (1290/1911: 1)

These translators also believed that reading the history of European countries could eventually provoke the Iranians to reflect on their situation and could act as a spur to cultural and social change.

The social status of the translators also led the publishers to introduce these people to the public and to make readers aware of their position and profession. The publishers either talked about biographies, ideas and status of translators in distinct prefaces or tried to introduce the translators on title pages. In addition to the publishers, in some cases the patrons wrote prefaces to translations in which they praised the cultural services, the virtues and the singularity of that translator. Such attempts not only imparted visibility on translators but also made the publishers or the patrons visible since the high status and reputation of translators brought credibility and fame for them too. Yet, in a few cases, the patron enjoyed higher social status than the translator, which resulted in the reverse direction of visibility. That is to say, in such cases, the translators and/or the publisher wrote prefaces about the virtues and position of the patron or the publishers chose to publish the name of patron on title pages with or without publishing the translators’ name. In these cases, the patrons were the sources of visibility and status for the translator and the publisher.  


The paratexts, especially the prefaces that were investigated in this research are a source of fascinating information about various aspects of the translators’ life and activity. The paratextual elements also allowed us to hypothesize a network of visibility as a way of representing the status of translators.

This study has shown that the high status of the Iranian translators of this period (from 1906 until 1926) is reflected in their high paratextual visibility. In addition, due to their pre-eminent position, these translators were also a major source of visibility for their publishers and patrons.

This pre-eminent position enjoyed the translators came from their high social and educational status. As we explained above, during the Qajar era, higher education was accessible only to the children of aristocrats. They were sent either to Dar ul-Funun or to European colleges where, along with completing their education in a certain field of study, they also became familiar with European languages and Western culture. The young aristocrats, who, in addition to their social superiority, enjoyed educational privileges, were given high-ranking official posts after graduation or when they returned to Iran. Among them, some were seriously concerned about the development of their country. They considered the translation of foreign books, especially histories and novels that depicted European life, culture and technological advances, as the best way of introducing Western civilization to Iran. They believed that familiarizing Iranians with the Western world would encourage them to make the social and cultural changes that might eventually result in modernization, political reform and democracy in Iran. Yet, it seems that for many of these translators, the content of the translated books was not sufficient to achieve progress. They looked for a medium via which they could directly ask their people to reflect upon their situation and encourage them to strive for social and cultural changes. Considering that the only mass media in Iran during the late Qajar era was newspapers, which were published in a limited number of issues and only in a few major cities, we understand the unique opportunity that the prefaces represented for them. Many translators used prefaces to promote their own social and political agenda, which was to make people aware of their miserable condition and to encourage them to make changes in their lives. In their long prefaces, many translators portrayed Western life as a utopian model that the Iranians should try to emulate.

However, with the introduction of compulsory elementary education in Iran in 1911 and the expansion of public education, the number of literates increased and higher education was no longer the exclusive preserve of aristocrats. During the final years of the Qajar dynasty, a few translators arose from non-aristocratic families and their number gradually increased. Consequently, from the late Qajar era, translation as the secondary occupation of some aristocrats turned into the profession of ordinary educated people who held no grand titles or high official posts, who were not of royal descent and who enjoyed no special social privilege. Consequently this new generation of the translators were of a lower status than the previous generation and they were no longer at the centre of the network of visibility.


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[1] See Stolper & Gragg  (1998).

[2] See Karimi-Hakkak (2009).

[3] See Frye (1983).

[4] See Zarrinkub (1975).

[5] See Baker  & Hanna  (2009).

[6] See Shadmohammadi (2005).

[7] All translations from Persian are by the author unless otherwise indicated.

[8] See Ghani (2000).

[9] This newspaper was called Shafaq-i Surkh (The Red Twilight), which was published from 1922 until 1935 in Tehran.

[10] See Pourbakhtiar (1387/2008).

About the author(s)

Zahra Atefmehr received her master's degree in Translation Studies from the Department of English Translation Studies, Allameh Tabataba’i University in 2015. She is currently a PhD student in Translation Studies at Allameh Tabataba’i University. Her main research interests lie in the history of translation in Iran, in particular history of translation and translators during the 19th and early 20th century (The Qajar era).

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©inTRAlinea & Zahra Atefmehr (2016).
"Translator’s Paratextual Visibility: the case of Iranian translators from 1906 until 1926", inTRAlinea Vol. 18.

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