Ari Messer — who works at Stone Bridge Press and freelances for the San Francisco Bay Guardian — is going to be covering some West Coast translation related events for us. (And possibly some interviews as well.) Here to kick things off is a write-up of a recent “Lit & Lunch” event put on by the Center for the Art of Translation.
Continuing what has become an invaluable tradition for the literary translation community in the Bay Area, the Center for the Art of Translation held another “Lit & Lunch” reading last Tuesday at the 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco’s SoMa district. Featuring translators Sidney Wade and Erdağ Göknar, “Turkish Writing Today” wasn’t nearly as packed as W.S. Merwin’s “Lit & Lunch” last month — where he pontificated sweetly on everything from the Troubadours to Ezra Pound’s surprisingly positive influence (to paraphrase: “You are too young to have anything to write about yet. You think you do, but you don’t. Go translate.”) — but there was still a sizable turnout, including a handful of people who, judging by a show of hands, actually spoke Turkish. Both translators were grateful for a chance to speak about translation in a public forum. In Göknar’s intro, he said, “Translation is often work that is done in silence, and then . . . remains that way.” We laughed, but it’s unfortunately too true.
Wade, an acclaimed poet, highly musical translator, and professor at the University of Florida, read a striking version of Orhan Veli Kanık’s “I Am Listening to Istanbul with My Eyes Closed,” setting the mood for a string of contemplative, sensory-oriented poetry that seemed to move outward in concentric rings from initial moments of personal perception. Wade, guest poetry editor for the CAT’s next Two Lines anthology (coming soon), closed with three new translations from that book: “With Your Voice” by Zeynep Uzunbay, translated by Saliha Paker and Mel Kenne; “Done with the City” by Gülten Akin, translated by Cemal Demircioglu, Arzu Eker, and Mel Kenne; and “Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds” by Seyhan Erozçelik, translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat. She prefaced the Erozçelik poem (#3 in a series about coffee grinds) with a statement about the prevalence of fortune telling using coffee grinds in Turkey, and while she read the poem there was a palpable sense in the room of being transported to a realm just beyond the everyday (and certainly beyond the chaos of downtown SF).
Wade, who does poetry, and Göknar, who does prose, both noted Western readers’ lack of context when reading Turkish writing in translation, especially Orhan Pamuk’s “revolutionary” and “activist” writing, labels that readers are prone to invoke while ignoring his esteemed (and vast and deeply literary) historical imagination. They also discussed how the linguistic structure of Turkish naturally leads to epic, unfolding lists (even in poetry), making it the job of the translator not to keep these unravellings engaging — they usually are already — but to organize them in a way that feels natural in English, uncluttered but full of surprises.
Göknar read from his award-winning translation of Pamuk’s My Name is Red, noting how Pamuk plays with “the linguistic genealogy of a 16th-century novel,” then gave a sneak preview of his translation of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s A Mind at Peace, coming in August from Archipelago. He noted that in the face of numerous inquiries he receives for doing new translations, Archipelago was the first press to ask him which book he thought should be translated. Good thing they did. Even the brief excerpt from the novel, which Pamuk has called “the greatest novel ever written about Istanbul,” already felt magical and haunting, and it was cool to have a sneak preview, since Göknar had just noted that Tanpınar (1901-62) was known more as a poet during his lifetime, his novels mainly existing in serialized form until after his death. International film festivals get their snazzy previews — we want our literary ones!
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