Is the poet of his job
I am the God
Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca
Turkish literature beyond the country’s borders tends to be represented by a handful of well-known names, obscuring the far richer literary landscape that exists here. Falling between the bookshelves’ cracks are myriad novelists, poets, academics, short story writers, and journalists whose names and works are part of Turkey’s imaginary – and many who, though important, are largely forgotten even in Turkey.
Imprint Press, a small publishing house founded in the US by Turkish academics, is working to change that. By bringing lesser-known but brilliant Turkish authors of all forms and eras into English, Imprint intends to widen Turkish literature’s international audience and make the English-speaking world more aware of the complexity of the Turkish canon. Imprint’s first title was a collection of Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca’s poetry, Defense Against the Night, released in 2014. A second title is due out this year. Efe Balıkçıoğlu, poet, Harvard PhD student, and one of Imprint’s co-founders, spoke to Independent Turkey about the press, the fate of Turkish literature in English, and the difficulties of translation.
Can you tell me about Imprint press, in particular why you called it imprint?
In Ottoman Turkish as well as in Arabic, nature is the imprint of god. And when you print a photograph you also use the same word – tabii’ah means nature, tab means to have an imprint. Fotoğraf tab etmek in Turkish means to take the negatives from your camera to a photo shop where they print them out. The Turkish word for printing press, matbaa, has the same root.
Why did you choose Dağlarca’s work to be your first book?
For us the translation is important. So, for instance, Oğuz Atay’s Tutunamayanlar is the most phenomenal Turkish novel about the youth; the ‘70s generation, the lost generation. We had the translation of this phenomenal book, but then we didn’t think it was good enough so we didn’t publish it.
Talât Halman, the doyenne of Turkish poetry in translation, he’s one of the first who translated Turkish literature into English. He published a book of Dağlarca’s poetry in 1969 and he was also on our board, he’s been doing this for the past 60 years and he’s well established. He said he might want to do a second printing of the collection. In the 1970s, Dağlarca- the poet, won an international award at Pittsburgh University and Halman was commissioned to do a translation. Supposedly Dağlarca in 1972 gave a hand-written letter to Talât Halman saying that he can publish wherever he wants, so there were no problems with copyrights. It was a very straight shot.
Our next title is a Kitab-ül Hiyel (The book of ingenious devices) by İhsan Oktay Anar, a post-modern novel about Ottoman bureaucracy and innovation in mechanics. The author wrote the text in 16th-century Ottoman, which is very funny. The language itself is very well-researched, but we had to find many people to translate it.
Can a regular Turkish-speaker understand 16th-century Ottoman?
His novels are intellectualised, but at the same time he’s smart enough to find ways within the language where a good Turkish reader who doesn’t have any knowledge of Arabic and Persian words could understand it. So it’s a pseudo-16th century Ottoman.
Is the intention to try and get more people to read Turkish literature in translation? Or are you interested in particular types of literatue whether people read them or not?
Both and neither. Our idea is to publish really good translations so that they can be studied or used in comparative literature classes. There was a recent blog post about small presses only publishing literature that has been translated into English, and I think there were 25 or 30 just last year. Russian, Latin American literature, no Turkish. There’s definitely no good venue for Turkish literature, that’s for sure.
And Dağlarca’s poetry seems to resonate with many different people – this seems like a very deliberate choice.
Exactly. This is what we have realised. The problem is that I always feel guilty about this book because it’s not the real Dağlarca. Firstly, his corpus is really large – he has 120 poetry books and all of them are good. But at the same time he has different periods, and I don’t like his nationalistic poetry, some of his pseudo-mystical things. But we really liked, for instance, particular books that are totally surreal or written only for children. In this collection you don’t see them all, so I feel guilty. First I felt guilty because I wasn’t able to represent Dağlarca perfectly as it is, but you can’t at the same time because he has so many periods, a really large amount of verse. But the collection has resonated with many different people.
Is there any particular writer or poet who you’d love to translate?
Yes, there was this poet called Mustafa Irgat. He was a friend of [the poet] Ahmet Güntan. His father was a jeune of 1940s Turkish films; a village man who became famous through cinema, and then he was a poet. But he was very different from Mustafa Irgat, more of the poetry of love and so on. Irgat’s father was a heroin addict. His mother Mina Urgan was one of the first Communist women in Turkey, a professor of English literature at Istanbul University. She was a very aristocratic and educated woman who went to the American College for Girls [now part of Robert College]. She briefly became famous ten years ago – before she died at the age of 90 she wrote her memoirs, and so she was famous in the 40s and 50s, fell into oblivion, and then became famous again before she died. She never mentions a word about her son, Mustafa Irgat. He idolised the poet Ece Ayhan, who was a sort of anarchist, never had a home, lived in other people’s houses, made a couple of them commit suicide, had a bad influence, basically was a kind of a leech. And Mustafa Irgat, all of his life, became a disciple to this guy, and never had a house, lived in hotel rooms. He never finished a poem all of his life. There were poems that he edited so much that they turned into very different poems, work that he would start in 1972 or ‘73 and then work on until his death in 1994 or 1995. And there were still poems unfinished. He has around thirty poems and thousands of notes. Before he died of cancer, they forced him to publish whatever he had, and these thirty poems that he had been editing for over twenty something years were published. For five years Güntan looked over all the leftovers of Mustafa Irgat, pieces written on pieces of scrap paper, or on napkins, and then he did a second book of poetry.
There are whole poems written in these notes?
Yes. And the name of the book is It’s hard to finish, which was a note that Mustafa Irgat took for himself in one of the poems. Hard to finish. I want to translate that guy.
Is there anybody who writes nowadays who you think is of that caliber?
I want to translate Murat Uyukurlak. I think he’s really good. Both of his novels they are in German and French and maybe a few other languages but they are not in English, definitely. I have short story writers. We want to publish 1950s experimental short story pieces by female writers like Sevim Burak, she was very interesting. She worked as a tailor and then she kind of tailors all her prose. She would have a set-up where she just pinned them down, and tried to put pieces together – that was a technique she called tailoring. She has an amazing book called the Dance of Africa, Afrika Dansı, which is totally bizarre. She was in South Africa. Her husband was Ömer Uluç – he was a great painter who died five years ago. Uluç was working in South Africa for two years and Sevim Burak went there.
Marina Warner argues that the rate of translation is so tiny compared to the rate of new publications each year, and that on average it takes something like ten years for a book published in Arabic or Turkish or Persian or anything to be translated into English. So even when a book does get translated, it exists in isolation without the whole world – the stories and myths and legends, like those in Ibrahim Al Koni’s New Waw – that inform that book. There are of course universal human things in each book, but how do you understand a book that sort of comes out of nowhere?
That is one of the ideas of Imprint, to create a context for good literature. That’s the problem – Turkish literature doesn’t have any representation in the English language world. There are two options: one is the university press. Austin Texas and Syracuse University Press and special Middle East sections, and Turkish was there, in Syracuse more than in Austin. But it was mostly Arabic dominated. And the second option is other publishers. Some of them are commercial, and there are only a handful of Turkish authors that have been translated and are prevalent, such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak.
Who have become very famous.
Which reduces the whole Turkish world to two names because you don’t know the other contemporaries who were part of that scene, or who created the context. Or some of the classics like Ahmet Tanpınar and Sait Faik. Yaşar Kemal was, I think, famous in English in the ‘70s, ‘80s. He’s more famous in France because I think his first wife was a Jewish-Turkish intellectual. Münevver Andaç was his translator [into French]. They published with Gallimard, one of the most prestigious presses. Orhan Pamuk dominated most of the English-speaking world. But one good translation is Bilge Karasu, an amazing novelist. Thanks to Aron Aji, his devoted translator, he found his real venue with New Directions publishers, and I think Karasu’s work will also come out at City Lights. But still I think for the context there has to be, like Twisted Spoon Press, one place that publishes good translations and more obscure names to be discovered. And the other main reason is that there aren’t that many good Turkish language translators as well. Again, Arabic is more dominant. So I think Persian and Turkish literature, they suffer the same fate. I could say one last thing – that guy I wanted to translate, Mustafa Irgat, because he revised his poetry over 20 years, all of the initial words have changed over a hundred times, and his end product is such a weird, cacophonous anti-lyrical poetry that it has its own sacredness. This is what I believe. To a common reader maybe it’s just bullshit. The weird thing is it’s all through free associations, or associations with some context, but at the same time they all end up being un-free because how could all those words have come to be in that combination? In the book that Güntan put together he also put in previous versions. So if you translate into English, is it just the end product as you understand it or should you translate the whole process?
Imprint became part of Koç University Press in 2015. The president is Professor Cemal Kafadar of Harvard’s History and Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the board members are Suna Kafadar, Cem Akaş (novelist and the head of Koç University Press), Cemile Marşan, and Efe Balıkçıoğlu.