June 27, 2017
Is Literary Iran ready to feel the Berne?
by Chad Felix
Enter a bookstore in Iran and you’re likely to be greeted by countless books that, although penned by familiar writers, you’ve never seen before: works long out-of-print, or never-before-in-print, elsewhere.
Writing in the Guardian, Saeed Kamali Dehghan recounts discovering copies of J.D. Salinger’s 1947 novella The Inverted Forest in plain sight and on sale for just 90,000 rials ($2.75). This is an extreme, envy-spurring example of the situation in Iran: a copy of the Cosmopolitan issue that features that particular Salinger novella would set American buyers back something like half a grand, if not more — if they’re lucky enough to find one at all.
You’ll also notice dozens of translations of works very old, like Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, and contemporary, like Paula Hawkins’s Into the Water and the novels of Haruki Murakami. All of these books, the same but different, together on the shelf, their translators’ names boldly, almost defiantly, spelled out across their respective covers.
This bookstore may sound like a dream. However, according to many in Iran, the lack of copyright law there, which makes this troubling bounty possible, is having a profoundly negative effect on the overall health of nation’s vibrant literary community. The source of the problem, and the reason such a surreal bookstore experience is possible, is the fact that Iran does not yet subscribe to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, an agreement (more often known simply as the Berne Convention) that informs copyright law in 172 countries.
This is a problem, many argue, for readers, authors and publishers alike. And it’s not hard to see why. Without a definitive, fixed version of a book in the marketplace, readers will inevitably acquire editions that vary in quality and content, while authors and publishers are rendered helpless to monitor quality and sales. JM Coetzee, author of Disgrace, echoed this sentiment in a statement he provided to Iranian officials through Dehghan in 2008: “It does upset writers, justifiably, when their books are taken over without permission, translated by amateurs and sold without their knowledge.”
Translators, a passionate bunch who by and large aren’t in it for the money, aren’t to blame. Even in Berne-abiding nations, it’s not uncommon practice to begin a translation, paperwork-free, out of curiosity. The difference in Iran is that there is no legislation to subsequently prevent publishers from acquiring and publishing these translations, which may have been conducted without the author or publisher’s knowledge, consent, or input. It’s easy to imagine how this could go wrong. Bad translations lead to misrepresentations, in quality or ideology — and that’s bad for both authors and the cause of literature.
Iran’s non-participation in this convention, which was first ratified in Berne, Switzerland in 1886, is the problem. It’s the reason you might see, to use another of Dehghan’s examples, sixteen slightly different versions of Khaled Hosseini’s bestseller And the Mountains Echoed on the shelf, as opposed to one (or, in the case of classics, maybe two or three) more definitive version: one that’s been approved, ideally, by the work’s author, or authorities on their work.
Recently, Iranian translators have been reaching out to authors for permission and guidance, and more and more Iranian readers are hip to joining the agreement. Dehghan, who seems to be the English-language authority on the matter, wrote in 2015 that, however urgent the change, it won’t be easy to make:
Iranian publishers usually lack the skills to communicate with the outside world and they don’t have any conventional means of transferring money abroad, especially to Europe or the US. Meanwhile, censorship is rife and all works have to be vetted by the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance before publication, which is an onerous and Kafkaesque procedure.
Translating foreign novels is often not a way to make money and is usually a matter of interest in Iran, where translators spend more time and energy on books than they are compensated for (if they are at all). In fact, Iranian translators are important members of the country’s intellectual community and many of them gain as much fame as the work they have translated. Iranian translators are usually credited on the book’s cover, with their name printed next to that of the author.
None of this justifies the problems with copyright in Iran. Thanks to the statements by the likes of Coetzee, more publishers are trying to obtain the rights before publication, often securing contracts in exchange for nominal payments. The good news is that foreign publishers recognise the difficulty of Iran’s market. Cheshmeh and Mahi, two of Iran’s most prestigious literary publishers, are beginning to respect copyright.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.