Translator of Orhan Pamuk’s works from Turkish to English, President of English PEN and the head of the Department of English at the University of Warwick.
You grew up in Turkey—what about the language fascinated you and set you on your journey in translation?
My journey into translation began when my family moved from Princeton, New Jersey to Istanbul in 1960. I was eight. In the international school that was connected to Robert College, the university where my father had come to teach physics, they taught us French every day, but very little Turkish. So for me the language swirling around me in the city itself was not a string of words but of gorgeous musical notes, choreographed by its speakers with gestures of great warmth.
Tell me about your experience of translating Orhan Pamuk’s work. Your translations often go on to define other translations of his work, which is a huge responsibility that you carry out to the world.
Orhan and I have known each other since high school. We lost touch, though, after I returned to the US for university. We reconnected when I found his first novel to be translated into English on the shelves of the Independent on Sunday, London. I was writing for its book pages at the time. In the first years, I gave him lots of literary advice. When he first asked me to translate Snow, I was not inclined to say yes. I was not a professional translator! When I did agree, it was because, having seen a few other samples under consideration, I saw what I could do. My aim was to try to convey in English the music of the Turkish, and also to recreate the narrative trance that I, as a fellow novelist, felt so strongly in his writing. I was working on my own fifth novel at the time, and it was set in Turkey, and I kept bumping into walls with it, and I thought it might be interesting to leave it behind for a time and immerse myself in this extraordinary and extraordinarily Turkish novel. My other aim was to go over my final draft with Orhan, as there were liberties I needed to take here and there that I wanted him to be okay with. And also, he would have a chance to correct my mistakes!
What have been some of your most memorable translations?
If you are asking which translations remain most powerfully in my mind, I must of course begin with Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. This was the first of the five books I translated for him. But I also loved and continue to love Istanbul: Memories and a City, which narrated a city and a generation that was familiar but also so very illuminating. Like The Black Book, which I also translated, it changed the way I looked at my own past. I have
done a number of co-translations. Alexander Dawe and I have translated three classic works of the 20th century: Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Institute, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat, and the collected stories of the great Sait Faik Abasiyanik, entitled A Useless Man. With John Angliss I have translated two novels by the wonderful contemporary novelist, Hasan Ali Toptas: Shadowless and Reckless. There is another
splendid contemporary writer, Sema Kaygusuz, whose stories I have translated alone. I have, additionally, translated several memoirs and oral histories by Turkish descendants of the survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. These, too have changed my life. By translating the works of a writer who was politically controversial, I learned how important it was for writers to be able to compose their thoughts in safety and to
express them openly, no matter what the consequences. How important it was for organisations like PEN to support them.
With so many nuances and much that is said between the lines, how do you make sure a story is found and not lost in translation?
My own approach is to try and be a shadow novelist. Having sunk into the depths of those created worlds beneath the text, I then try to recreate the spatial, emotional, intellectual, and [most important] musical effects that I understand the authors to have deployed to bring their words to the surface, and to life. What I can say is that translation, being highly technical, frees up the imagination in an extraordinary way. It is like daydreaming while driving. So long as you stay on the road, your mind can go anywhere. It travels, and it learns.
Tell us about a translator’s relationship with the author.
With Orhan on a good day, it was as good as it gets. On a bad day, no comment. After we parted company, there were a few years when I definitely preferred authors who were no longer with us. That said, wherever possible, it is important to sit with an author and go through the text line by line, word by word. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Orhan was the importance of writing dangerously.
What is next?
I am halfway through a novel, my fourth to be set in Istanbul. It follows a complicated post-Ottoman family that [while not in taking part in any way in the slaughter] benefitted substantially from the genocide.
Text Soumya Mukerji