Shirin Ershadi

Shirin Ershadi is an Iranian translator and interpreter. Most notably, Ershadi travels the world with Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts advancing democracy and human rights in Iran. Ershadi spoke with Forward Females about her career path and her experience translating for Ebadi.

How did you end up working as a translator?

When I finished high school in Iran I decided to take the law school entrance exam. My father discouraged me from going to law school because I was a woman. He thought I’d be persecuted in various ways. My mother never took my interest in law seriously because she thought I’d eventually realize that I couldn’t realistically pursue a career as a lawyer. I pursued it anyway. I went on to study criminal law and criminology as a postgraduate. A professor approached me and said that he noticed my English was perfect. He then asked if I would translate for some of the other professors. After graduating in 1972, I worked with the Central Bank of Iran, but in the evenings I continued translating for professors.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

I often translate in court and my job can be stressful when it involves high stakes cases. For example, in a murder case, the slightest translation mistake can change the final outcome and sentence.

Would you recommend what you do to others?

I would recommend it, but it’s not for everyone. It takes a certain personality. You have to be obsessive compulsive about words and their meaning. It takes tremendous concentration and focus.

How do you avoid mental fatigue?

You can’t avoid mental fatigue. At conferences and in court you alternate with another translator every 30 minutes.

Ershadi with the Dalai Lama in 2013 in Chicago.

Farsi has some very colorful idioms/expressions – how do you capture the message with translation and what do you think is lost?

I try to get the overall message across and not simply translate word for word. In order to do this well, you have to be educated enough in both languages to convey the correct meaning.

Do people alter the way they speak when they are using a translator?

When using a translator in court, people become more formal and it’s harder to decipher what they really mean. For example, instead of saying “4pm in the afternoon” people would say “toward the evening.” This ends up being more ambiguous and necessitates further questioning.

How do you think technology will impact your profession?

This may be a dying business in the future. But right now the technology has not been perfected to capture the nuances of Farsi. Computer generated translation has been more focused on the languages with Latin roots. In Farsi the root of the words are not the same as in Latin so the message can’t be conveyed as easily.

Ershadi and Ebadi.

How did you become Shirin Ebadi’s translator?

We were friends in law school. After law school, she became a judge but we continued to socialize with each other. When I came to the states in 1988 I lost track of her as well as many of my other friends from Iran.

In 1998, Ebadi received a human rights award in LA. I went to the ceremony and spoke with her afterward. Following this reunion we stayed in touch and when she won the Nobel Peace Prize, I told her I’d gladly translate for her whenever she was in America (she mainly spoke at universities or at the UN). She agreed and then asked me to travel with her.

What has your experience been like translating for Ebadi?

We are friends who reminisce about our life in Iran and our law school experiences, but we also share many of the same values. I’m a human rights activist and a member of the International Criminal Court Alliance in LA, which is an educational NGO founded in 2002. I believe we need an international criminal court that all countries need to participate in to reduce crimes against humanity, such as slavery and gender persecution.

At a Los Angeles City Council meeting in July of 2018. Ershadi is in the front holding the City Council’s Resolution in support of the International Criminal Court.

Have you ever felt in danger?

Only indirectly. I’ve felt in danger because I’ve heard Ebadi receive many threats. Whenever she engages in controversial discussions her safety is at risk.

What has been a memorable moment with her?

During the peak of the Iraqi war I attended a book signing with Ebadi in a Mid-Western state. She is a peace advocate and at the event she expressed her anti-war views. After she spoke, people lined up to get their copies of the book signed by her. I sat next to Ebadi at the book signing and one Iranian woman came up to her and said, “You really shouldn’t criticize President Bush. You’re speaking in a red state and you’re a guest in this country.” Then another Iranian woman in line came forward and said, “You didn’t criticize President Bush enough. You should have gone into more detail about the horrible things happening in Iraq and how many people have been killed.” Ebadi pointed to the previous critic and said, “You see that woman over there? Go resolve your differences.”

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