What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
I was born in Turkey and translate from Turkish. Raised in a multilingual family, I am not ever sure which language was my native tongue or—unclearer still—my “mother tongue,” since my mother probably spoke Ladino before she spoke Turkish. English is my literary language in which I studied form, style, voice, cadence, and the rest. For my doctoral training, I studied Modernism and its transnational poetics. A decade into my life in the US, I began feeling a growing need to recover my Turkishness. However, because by then English had saturated my professional and personal life—I even dreamt in English—I soon realized that I could only experience this recovery “in translation.” No matter how proficient in any language, the multilingual consciousness almost never inhabits a single language exclusively. Even after thirty years in the States, I still have Turkish emotions that I experience in English, and at times, even the most idiosyncratically American experiences make sense to me only when they find Turkish references. Now I feel that translation is my native language.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslateable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
Because Turkish diction and syntax are radically different from their counterparts in English, something almost always remains untranslatable in the process. In Turkish, words beget words through linked suffixes, and the meaning of each new word naturally echoes that of the others born in the process, as if in a semiotic echo chamber. English probably has the most precise vocabulary in the world, and it is bent toward specificity, concreteness. What Turkish may lack in lexical breadth (its vocabulary is only a fifth of the English), it compensates amply in semiotic depth. What may seem like unsettling ambiguity in English is often part of the allusive poetic substance of Turkish. The Turkish to English translation must therefore entail effort to capture as much of this substance as possible. Let’s take, for instance, “hüzün,” Orhan Pamuk’s by now famous example of an untranslatable Turkish word, which means, very loosely, “sorrow.” If it is untranslatable, it is not because English does not have a one-to-one correspondence, but because it has much too many synonyms–many of which are simultaneously implied in the Turkish–and settling on the wrong one can tragically reduce “Hüzün” to virtual nothingness. While translating, I follow a disaggregation process, exploring the full taxonomy of a given Turkish word or phrase, considering all its properties, mining its sense, sound, syllabic meter as much as its metaphoric depths, translating it in as many ways as it can sustain, then reducing the options while trying to preserve as much of the semiotic range as possible. But it is almost never possible to capture everything. When successful, I’d like my English translation to not only convey the translatable in a satisfying manner but also gesture toward, give the reader a distinct sense of, the untranslatable. In A Long Day’s Evening, it was particularly satisfying to render Bilge Karasu’s impossible phrase “yaklaşmanın uzaklaştırıcılığı” as “being ever near yet never, ever there.”
Do you have any translating rituals?
When I was in sixth grade, we had an English teacher who told us to place our hand close to our mouth, and whisper the foreign words and sentences. Rather than hear the language, he expected us to “sense” it in our mouth—the way the tongue moved the sounds around, pressed a consonant against the teeth or the palate, breathed another out; he asked us to notice how, in correct pronunciation, the cheeks and lips required the least effort to move. To this day, I whisper each sentence I translate, and adjust it until the sounds feel correct in my mouth. No matter how well I might have captured the meaning, unless the sound is right, the translation never feels right to me. Then sometimes particular texts call for particular rituals. Karasu’s A Long Day’s Evening, for instance, consists of the monologues of two Byzantine monks, each climbing up a hill then down. Because Karasu is interested in narrowing the space between experience and expression, his writing approximates the rhythm of the monks’ thinking so much so that the narrative duration of each section appears to correspond to the duration of each walk. In translating this work, I used pencil and eraser for much of the first section in order to slow down and experience physically these durations. And, of course, I must always keep a cat beside me and frequently pet between her ears, while translating Karasu who wrote Neither Without Books Nor without Cats!
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
Translating Karasu particularly feels like walking through a hall of mirrors since Karasu’s own creative process closely resembled that of translation, in terms of both subject-matter and language use. The thematic threads throughout his books unfold in ever-widening networks of meanings, at once distilling and rearticulating any given theme. Getting into the heart of a meaning entails a persistent chain of deconstructions and reconstructions, paralleling a patient search for the corresponding diction, syntax, and ultimately, narrative form.
I also find the hall of mirrors as an apt metaphor for translation itself. Every instance of bringing meaning from one linguistic context to another finds the translator both reflecting and being reflected in the original and, naturally, in the translation. I think the same holds true for the reader, too, who likewise reflects and is reflected in the text being read. This is the only way I know how such a subjective and creative act as translation can at the same time remain faithful to the reality of the original.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.
My current translation project involves an exquisite novel by Murathan Mungan, titled, The Evening Gown. Mungan is arguably the most widely read author in Turkey, with over fifty books of poetry, fiction, drama, and essays to his name. He has a captivating narrative voice, as well, a larger-than-life personality. I have been hoping to translate this particular novel for more than ten years now. Mungan is an incisive reader of the male psyche, and this novel is no exception. I translated several of Mungan’s stories, poems, and two of his plays. Every time I translate him, it is like a wonderful reunion.
As for future projects, at the end of each Karasu project, I swear I will never translate another one of his work because the experience is so intense and exhausting; but I must admit that, only a year since finishing A Long Day’s Evening, and I am already itching to return to Karasu again.
Breon Mitchell's Q: What is your attitude toward footnotes or some other apparatus to explain cultural differences when translating a literary text from the Turkish?
I dislike footnotes at least as much as I dislike critical introductions. Footnotes get in the way of the literary experience; their explications more often than not destroy the essential spell of reading. I prefer a hundred times better the subtle and unintrusive insertions in the text, those that don’t make the reader feel like he/she is being directly spoken to. Even endnotes, with their superscripted numbers throughout the text, inevitably give me a sense of insufficiency, making me feel like I am missing something vital in the text. If there must be explicative material, then a glossary at the end of the work would be the least disruptive.
I also find that literature from less commonly translated languages gets particularly heavy-handed treatment when it comes to footnotes. I have two things to say about that: First, the professors who taught me Anglophone or European literature never missed the opportunity to chide me when I wanted to know the meaning of something but did not bother to look it up. Second, in the era of globalization, feeling a little bit lost in the other’s culture is the vital spark that awakens us to difference.