When Words Collide 

Dorna Khazeni translates France's literary bad boy.

Xenophobia has a new foe in translator Dorna Khazeni, who bounded around San Francisco's Swedish American Music Hall one night during a recent Icelandic film festival, talking to guests and making instant friends. Introduced as the talented codec behind the first title-in-translation from Believer Books, the SF Mission District-based nonfiction arm of the McSweeney's publishing outfit, Iranian-born Khazeni is equal parts inquisitiveness and ebullience. Talking merrily and quickly that night, she enhanced her natural charisma with several 50-milliliter bottles of Brennivin, billed on its label as "The Original Icelandic Schnapps."

"I took a bunch of those little bottles home with me and drank them one night in my apartment," she laughs now, remembering. "They're mildly hallucinatory, I think."

These days she's promoting her translation of controversial French author Michel Houellebecq's book-length essay H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Originally written in 1991, Against Life is Houellebecq's mission statement as much as it is an essay about the legacy of American horror legend Lovecraft.

Translations, Khazeni believes, are in something of a "literary ghetto." Mainstream publishing houses and university presses have mainly abandoned them for want of profit. Getting large numbers of mainstream readers to pick up foreign-born texts requires a Nobel Prize pedigree or a public nod from Oprah. Even so, Believer Books joins dozens of tiny houses doing smallish runs of serious translations on minimal budgets with maximum moxie. Their cumulative impact redefines what is profitable in publishing while broadening American horizons, and translator and cultural attaché Khazeni is uniquely suited to help.

Born and raised in Iran before the revolution, Khazeni is the cosmopolitan daughter of an architect and a social worker. She spoke fluent French and Farsi by the time she reached junior high school, and attended boarding schools in England and France before starting college -- which included some classes with Jacques Derrida -- eventually earning a BA in French literature and a master's in film.

Discussing her upbringing makes Khazeni slightly uncomfortable about perceived privileges she had over other Iranians. Yet her background and the friends she made led to work translating for the California courts in Farsi, as well as programming never-before-seen screenings of Iranian cinema abroad, writing numerous film articles, and, eventually, writing assignments for Believer Books cofounder Vendela Vida. In 2003, Khazeni learned that Believer wanted to publish Houellebecq, so she wrote a 22-page book proposal in two feverish days outlining why his work was so important to her.

"I'm superlazy at everything," she says, calling herself a "lazy reader." But she was so moved by Houellebecq's 2000 novel The Elementary Particles -- a scathing attack on irresponsible narcissism that blames the Swinging '60s for the virtual destruction of Western civilization -- that she marked up her copy with "annotations to references on the nature of happiness and memory. In a sense he really brought to mind Balzac, who was also a huge observer of social realities. Houellebecq is also extremely funny, both tender and supercynical." In 2002, he sparked widespread outrage and landed in a Paris courthouse on charges of incitement after saying in an interview, "The stupidest religion of all is Islam." He was acquitted, but defended his statement; his 2003 novel Platform features an Islamic terrorist attack on a beach resort.

Khazeni began working on Against Life at the end of 2003, finishing a year later: "I was just ignorant enough to be suitably unafraid, so I just started trying to translate it," she says. "Not a single sentence came easy and I started sweating. Daily progress really varied. You can get stuck."

Nevertheless, the result has come out sounding like Houellebecq himself -- clinical yet impassioned, terse, with black one-liners that would make Chuck Palahniuk blanch. All translators wish they could do a better job, Khazeni says, but a blurred window into another culture is better than none at all. "It sounds hokey to say you do it because of a sense of mission, because you really want to bring something to readers who might not be able to see it in the language it was written in," she says.

Hokey or not, as Believer Books' full-time PR person, Khazeni is cultural exchange incarnate, helping to bring the prickly Houellebecq to America through bookshop events, and to amass publicity for his work without a staff or a huge budget. She is effective, too. The French Consulate in San Francisco donated three thousand euros for the Against Life tour, and Believer Books has coaxed Houellebecq from his Irish home for a first-ever visit to California. He'll be conversing onstage with Daniel Handler at 6: 30 p.m. tonight (Wednesday) at San Francisco's Modernism West/Foreign Cinema.

"Playboy didn't want to send anybody [on tour with Houellebecq] unless it was a famous writer," Khazeni says. "But we got GQ to send Sam Lipsyte to cover the ride down the coast with Michel. Michel's excited too, I think. He asked for a 'big American car' to drive down the coast in."

The idea of France's reigning literary bad boy tooling down Highway 1 with Lipsyte and some of Khazeni's French girlfriends makes the translator go all giddy again. Translation may be a rundown sector of publishing, but a vital new tenant is sprucing up the place.


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