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No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani represents a significant text in world prison literature. This narrative unveils the cruelty of Australia’s refugee policy and the atrocities committed by its detention industry. It also exposes Australian culpability and positions readers as witnesses to the state crimes committed by their government against asylum seekers (Whitlock 755). No Friend has received international acclaim and is now taught in universities like Cambridge and Oxford. However, despite the strong interest of many scholars based in Western “First World” institutions in Boochani’s narrative, educators and researchers have yet to address the critical debate around No Friend in Iran, where Boochani published the original Persian text in 2020, two years after the publication of the multi-award-winning English translation. Considering what has been written about No Friend in the country where Boochani was persecuted due to his Kurdish cultural and political activities is pivotal and needs to be central to research on this important prison narrative. This oversight perpetuates the hegemony of Western institutions over the production of knowledge about subaltern Others and erases crucial aspects of the intellectual debate that help us better understand the texts we read and teach.

As a matter of fact, the Iran-based translator, writer, and literary critic Araz Barseghian wrote a very important review of No Friend in which he conducts a comparative study of the Persian original and English translation. Despite its importance and the large number of Persian readers, and despite its potential to change the direction of the literary debate on No Friend, this review has not received any attention in the English-speaking world. Engaging with Barseghian’s ideas gives us a different picture that deepens our understanding of No Friend and allows us to conclude that Omid Tofighian is not only the translator of the English version of the text but rather a collaborator in it. Barseghian notes that the English version of the book has 101,000 words, different from the Cheshmeh Publishing version, which is published in 247 pages with a density of 13 words per line and has 70,000 words in total. Barseghian concentrates on the 24,000-word difference between the Persian original and the English translation. He also brings our attention to the note added to explain the word count difference on the official Instagram page of the Iranian publisher. This note tells potential readers/buyers: “The English version of this book has been translated from the Persian original and the number of pages is different due to the font and printing and the structural features of the two languages” (Barseghian).

These complications explain why Mad Rosendahl Thomsen’s study of world literature leads her to acknowledge that “something is changed, and often lost when read in translation” (Thomsen 10). This position is confirmed by Emily Apter, whose book Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability highlights the difficulties of translating and the impossibility of faithfulness to the original. Untranslatability can account for a number of the differences between the Persian text and its English translation. Yet in the case of No Friend, the discrepancy between both texts is also driven by a number of other factors. These include a) the fact that Tofighian was not trained to be a translator and so practiced a more experimental form of translation, b) the fact that his friendship with Boochani made him collaborate on multiple other projects with him, and c) the element of responsibility which Tofighian felt towards the work of an imprisoned Kurdish refugee.

In many of his interviews, Tofighian repeated that he came to translation by chance and that he considered his translation of No Friend part of his activism. In his Translator’s Note as well as in multiple other articles and interviews, Tofighian emphasized the creative and experimental aspects of the translation process in which he engaged with Boochani. He even describes lengthy discussions not only with the translation consultants Moones Mansoubi and Sajad Kabjani but also with Boochani. These long discussions influenced the translation of No Friend and, surprisingly, made the author part of the translation team.

Moreover, in his talks and scholarly articles, Tofighian explains that this responsibility towards refugees requires an engagement with the epistemologies that drive the activism and can support and empower oppressed epistemic agents. According to Tofighian, this responsibility towards subjugated knowers necessitates a situated scheme for reading and translating No Friend. While Coetzee criticizes Tofighian’s encouragement of a decolonial reading of No Friend as an interference in the reading experience, Tofighian has also engaged in what I call a “decolonial translation.” Tofighian finds the epistemic resources and affective encounters of most of us (non-incarcerated refugees and non-Indigenous individuals) far removed from the horrors of imprisonment in Manus Prison. Therefore, Tofighian underlines the importance of engaging with features that constitute the situation and identity of Boochani, as well as culturally specific symbols and forms that work to build the text. For Tofighian, Boochani’s complex and multi-dimensional connection to Kurdish language, heritage, and Indigenous Kurdish knowledge systems are important elements that structure his interpretation and translation of No Friend (Tofighian “Behrouz Boochani” 537). The emphasis Boochani lays on his indigeneity accentuates the aforementioned responsibility of Tofighian towards his text. This responsibility accounts for some of the additions found in the English translation.

It is this element of responsibility towards subjugated knowers and commitment to producing new knowledge about asylum that accounts for the creative and experimental translation in which Tofighian engaged when he translated No Friend. The Translator’s Note and Reflections that surround Boochani’s piece of prison literature reiterate these ideas. These two supplementary essays highlight the creativity of the translation process as well as the collaborative interpretations and the shared philosophical activity that guided it. The recurrent use of the possessive “our” (Tofighian “TR” 362) in these supplementary essays as well as in the interviews and articles of Boochani and Tofighian assert that the translation was a collaborative academic and activist project that aimed at exposing the atrocities of systematic detention to the general public. Not only is Tofighian’s goal indicative of the responsibility he felt towards Boochani and other refugees and Kurds, but it is also one of the pillars on which the Boochani-Tofighian collaboration and the translation of No Friend rest.

It is for this reason that the philosophical activity which Boochani and Tofighian shared during the translation of No Friend is not merely theoretical. It actually has had concrete activist goals that aim at sensitizing the public to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. This explains why, like me, Anna Poletti sees inextricable links between Tofighian’s translation of No Friend and his transnational practice of intellectual collaboration and activism (Poletti “A Forum” 686). In this respect, Tofighian writes that “the translation process for No Friend is one example of a special kind of collective agency committed to justice and new ways of knowing” (Tofighian “Introducing MPT” 1149, emphasis added). This collective agency is based upon “shared intentionality” that aims to expand new discourses, to maintain the resistance (Tofighian “Introducing MPT” 1149). Based on this, the Boochani-Tofighian collaboration, including the translation of No Friend, is a common intellectual and activist struggle for a shared cause. This common struggle to dismantle the system theoretically and also on the ground aims to produce new knowledge about the border-industrial complex, a new discourse about refugees, one which they participate in forming and which allows the displaced subaltern to speak (Spivak 271).

I would like to conclude this opinion piece by saying that No Friend was published in 2018. Unfortunately, until now most people in the English-speaking world recognize Tofighian only as a translator. If attention had been given to what was written on the book in Iran, the contribution of Tofighian to the English version of the text would have been recognized much earlier. I have a forthcoming scholarly article that analyzes this contribution, but this journalistic piece is an introductory contribution to familiarizing the general public with the complexities of translation, collaboration, and co-creation under extreme circumstances (Tofighian “On Representing Extreme Experiences” 1-9).

Works Cited

  • Apter, Emily. Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability. Verso, 2013.
  • Barseghian, Araz. “Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains.” Metropolatleast. 2020.
  • Boochani, Behrouz. No Friend but the Mountains. Trans. Omid Tofighian. Picador, 2018.
  • Coetzee, J.M. “Australia’s Shame.” The New York Review. 2019.
  • Nashre, Cheshmeh. [Link]
  • Poletti, Anna. “A Forum on Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.” Biography 43:4 (2020), 685-690.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 271–313.
  • Tofighian, Omid. “Behrouz Boochani and the Manus Prison Narratives: Merging Translation with Philosophical Reading.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 32:4 (2018), 532-540.
  •  “Introducing Manus Prison Theory: Knowing Border Violence.” Globalizations 17:7 (2020), 1138-1156.
  •  “No Friend but the Mountains: Translator’s Reflections.” No Friend but the Mountains. Picador, 2018. 359-374.
  •  “On Representing Extreme Experiences on Writing and Translation: Omid Tofighian on Translating the Manus Prison Narrative.” Humanities 11:141 (2022), 1-9. [Link]
  • “Translator’s Note: A Window to the Mountains.” No Friend but the Mountains. Picador, 2018. xi-xxxiv.
  • Thomsen, Mads Rosendahl. Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures. Bloomsbury, 2009.
  • Whitlock, Gillian. “No Friend but the Mountains: How Should I Read This?” Biography 43:4 (2020), 705-723.