Love and Socialist Realism: Translating Gorky in Iran

By Belle Cheves
Submitted to Session P4958 (Nationalism In and Out of "Translation": Theater, Satire, and Memoirs across the Persianate World, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
The Iranian left in the late 1930s and 1940s, in addition to vast literary production of their own, avidly consumed and translated work across borders. Much of the literature came from the Soviet Union. Maxim Gorky in particular helped bring about socialist realism in leftist literature. How was Gorky translated in Iran – both literally and figuratively? How and where was he read, by whom, and how were his ideas translated into not only leftist literature in Iran, but also into how the left conceived and wrote of itself historically?

The story of the translation of Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother is a fascinating one. Initially written in the US and immediately translated into English, the original Russian manuscript was lost. Several translations and iterations later, Gorky finished a final Russian version in 1922. Reading of Mother was not confined to the US and Soviet Union, however. While not translated into Persian until years later, the novel was widely read in Russian by Iranian leftists. As Bozorg Alavi writes in 53 Persons, Gorky’s work was circulated through prison so the leftist political prisoners could continue to read and learn - acquiring books and reading Soviet literature in particular was one of their primary acts of resistance. How did these leftists read Gorky? How did they “translate” Mother?

In this paper, I trace Gorky’s Mother through its Persian life and afterlife – the literal translation of the novel, but also how socialist realism and conceptions of motherly and familial love came to shape not only the Iranian literary sphere, but also leftist life. While the role of socialist realism in shaping Iranian literary production has been examined, the ways in which the Iranian left molded aspects of socialist modernity into a notion of Iranian nationalism, particularly through multiple conceptions of love – love of the leftist cause, familial love, and the tensions between them – has not yet been addressed. I will trace these translations of love through prison memoirs and literary production of the late 1930s and 1940s. The ideas present in Mother became translated into and shaped the role of the leftist family in Iran. I ask the question of what this implies about the interconnectedness of literature and history, or the “translation” of literature into history, and how we can use both literary sources, along with memoirs, to show how translations of ideology and love come to affect history.