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Giving Words: Translation and History in Modern Iran (Dissertation Abstract)


Based on two years of ethnographic and archival research in Tehran and Qom in Iran, Giving Words recovers histories of violence, secret connections, and political hopes that have brought Iranian state officials, Shi’i seminarians, academics, and activists to read, translate, and write in direct relation to European traditions of political philosophy and social theory. Engaging the insights of anthropology on synchronic forms of difference, and of historical epistemology on diachronic shifts in coordinates of truth, it reads the political history of modern Iran as a contested terrain of translation that is formed at the intersection of Islamic legal and philosophical discourses, Iranian historiography, Persian literary traditions, and currents of European thought. It traces the history of translation to the Perso- Russian wars of the 19th century and to the anti-Western discourses of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Through ethnography, Giving Words demonstrates that the proliferation of translation after the Revolution is at once a manifestation of a political crisis and the travails of cultural regeneration. The post-revolutionary practices of translation issue from, and extend, the conflation of the Shi’i tradition and national politics on the one hand, and struggle to conceive of religious and political belonging anew, on the other.

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