Quay is not a native speaker of Persian (also known as Farsi), but many of her childhood friends in Southern California were Iranian and she loved hearing them speak the language. As a teenager, she attended a community Persian language school run by a friend’s mother.
“It was me and a bunch of five- and six-year-old Iranian kids who spoke fluent Persian but couldn’t read it,” she says. “It was a wonderful, vibrant environment to start learning the language.”
In college, Quay continued with Persian and discovered an affinity for translation. She eventually earned a PhD in classical Persian literature from the University of Cambridge. She has translated poetry and short stories, but this is her first book translation project.
Whatever the source material, Quay finds translation challenging in the best possible way. “There is the perception that a machine could do a translation, that it’s just a word-for-word process, but it’s actually deeply creative,” she says. “You’re adding extra constraints on yourself by having the material underneath you, but ultimately you’re producing another work of art if you’re doing it well.”
For her book project, the “material underneath” is a contemporary novel that follows the life — and afterlife — of an Iranian man, recently arrived in Paris, who finds himself amidst a bizarre group of exiles trying to eke out an existence in the French metropolis. The book intrigued and puzzled Quay upon her first reading. “I thought, ‘Wait, what is going on in this novel?’” she recalls. “That’s actually why I started translating it.”
Quay also liked the voice of the narrator, whose wry humor balances the book’s very dark events. But translating that humor from Persian to English was difficult. “If you translate it literally, you’re just kind of killing the joke,” Quay says.
The judges felt Quay managed that challenge masterfully. “Darting among absurd characters and comical episodes, Dr. Quay’s translation sample is a romp to read, and draws the reader in with ease, while also dropping anxious hints at the provocative political and social questions the novel promises to raise about the immigrant experience,” the judges noted in their comments.