Aron Aji is the Director of the MFA program in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa. A native of Turkey, he has translated works by Bilge Karasu, Murathan Mungan, Elif Shafak, Latife Tekin, and other Turkish writers, including three book-length works by Karasu: Death in Troy; The Garden of Departed Cats (2004 National Translation Award); and A Long Day’s Evening (NEA Literature Fellowship, and short-listed for the 2013 PEN Translation Prize). He also edited Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction. Aji is also the incoming president of The American Literary Translators Association. Assistant Editor Alex Niemi interviewed him for M-Dash.
M—: So, let’s start at the beginning.How did you get into translation?
Aron Aji: This is going to sound like a convenient story, but I was raised in a household where four languages were being used regularly.
AA: So there was Turkish, which we spoke, but my grandparents, especially my grandmother, spoke Ladino and insisted that we learn it because she refused to speak to us in Turkish. And then Hebrew was used for prayers and religious holidays. My grandfather was educated to become a rabbi. And then French was the lingua franca for the minorities in Turkey, during the Ottoman Empire, so, as a result, my grandparents and my parents spoke with other minorities in French.
In a way, translation was always part of my life. When I came to the United States in 1982, I carried with me some books from Turkey that I thought I’d like to translate. I began actively translating—calling myself a translator—in the early 1990s when I felt a deep need to reconnect with my language. By then I had been in the United States for more than a decade and, because I was teaching in English and married to an American, my life in Turkish had become very impoverished. Translation was my way of getting back to Turkish. So that’s how it started.
M—: What was the first thing you translated and published?
AA: A very interesting story there. The author, Bilge Karasu, who I wanted to translate, I discovered through his obituary, in 1995. (It’s one of my biggest regrets that I never got to meet him in person.) I wrote to his editor in Turkey—who I later discovered was a former classmate of mine—and she said that Grant Street, a fantastic international arts and literature journal at the time, was looking to publish some Karasu and she told me to contact Jean Stein, this great editor. So I did and Jean Stein and sent me three Karasu stories, asking me to write literary reports about them. I wrote back and said, if you’d like, I’d also be happy to translate!
This is a very common example of what it takes to introduce a great writer from a less commonly translated language. As a translator, you are also expected to function as a literary critic who can make aesthetic judgments concerning what is significant in the original and what would make a significant contribution in translation. You have to cultivate a certain ethics, if you will, because you are making decisions about what or who should be promoted through translation.
M—: How do you think Orhan Pamuk became the poster child for Turkish literature?
AA: At first, I was upset that the entire literature of Turkey was being reduced to one author, but if you think about it, we do this pretty much with every culture. Ask people if they can name three contemporary Italian, or Polish, or German, or even Canadian, Chilean, authors—most wouldn’t be able to.
In a way, I don’t fault either the American market or the particular author that becomes the iconic representation. What matters is what follows afterwards. I personally owe my translation career to Orhan Pamuk. When Orhan Pamuk came out with The White Castle (1992) in Victoria Holbrook’s brilliant translation, I was determined to ride the current and to introduce other Turkish authors. Of course, one or two translators cannot do it alone.
I think we have to be much more systematic about how a nation’s literature can be introduced. It is very important that people who are translating, let’s say, from Polish or from Romanian, or from Korean, to work together and ask, how do we get from three authors to thirteen, fourteen authors? Not necessarily with all of their oeuvres, but how do we populate the market with these different voices? I want to believe that by introducing Karasu into the international literary market, I was able to alert publishers to the wider aesthetic range that defines contemporary Turkish literature, a range inside which editors and publishers could and did seek out other Turkish authors.
Two decades ago, there were only three Turkish authors who had multiple books translated to English. Now many more authors are known, and there are many more translators from Turkish—essential conditions to understand a culture.
M—: When it comes to cultural understanding, how do you feel about all of the things that go along with a translation? The footnotes and the explanatory notes and the introductions?
AA: I’ll give you an example. I translated a short story for a collection and the editors wanted to insert a footnote about a name—that of the prime minister during the 1971 military coup. Aware that the reader would not know what to do with just the last name, Erim, I had already added a stealth gloss and translated it as Prime Minister Erim. When the proofs came with the footnote, the footnote provided a whole paragraph about the military coup and all that happened and didn’t happen and who did what, etc. I thought that the footnote suddenly overwhelmed the story itself. Certainly, the story had a political undercurrent, but when you put a footnote you’re almost flagging something that really casts an entire shadow over the story (undercurrent becomes an overshadow!). I asked them to remove the footnote and inserted another stealth gloss, this time, the date of the coup. I said, you know, we’re living in the age of internet, if anyone is interested in understanding the background, they have three clues; they can get all the information they want. I don’t have a particular animus against footnotes, it’s just that I try not to use them. In this day and age, if you know how to insert those clues, stealthily, the readers who want to know will find out.
Though I do love prefaces. The experience of reading literature is very particular, almost mystical: how you enter into a text and how you inhabit that for the duration and how it inhabits you afterwards. I think the preface to a literary work has to work like a prelude to a musical piece; it must engage the reader on a literary level so that the experience of reading it carries over to the experience of reading the actual literary work. Obviously a preface has to cover some basic information, but you do it without becoming too expository or didactic. I was asked to write a preface for A Long Day’s Evening (by Bilge Karasu), the last book I translated. I called it “By Way of a Preface” and offered a series of ‘flash’ essays that ranged from one paragraph to three paragraphs. The organization was closer to prose poetry than to a regular essay, again, to keep the reader at the imaginative, metaphoric level rather than the intellectual or critical.
M—: Interesting. I remember hearing you talk about A Long Day’s Evening once and you mentioned that, throughout the entire book, there was no use of the word “and.” Could you tell us a little bit about the significance of that?
AA: Here is another topic that I think isn’t sufficiently appreciated. So there was a language revolution in the modern Turkish Republic, beginning in 1926. The Latin alphabet was introduced, Arabic letters were banned, Turkish schools—from elementary to university level—adopted the Latin alphabet, and a Turkish Academy of Language was established, to purge Turkish of all borrowed material and to reintroduce the authentic vocabulary of the original Turks. Of course, nobody knows who the original Turks are. When you start with a mythic origin like that, it is certainly easy to remove elements that don’t belong. It’s not as easy to determine what had been left out and to put them back in. So the purification process really became a major period of language experimentation. Imagine the impact on daily life.
Karasu took language invention very seriously. He avoided using borrowed vocabulary—including the Arabic ve, which means “and,” but, in doing so, he didn’t simply inject new vocabulary inside old syntactic or grammatical forms; he also invented new forms that could deploy more fully the acoustic and semiotic properties of the new words. So, when I tried to convey this in translation, I did remove the “ands,” but, when you remove the ands, you are left with comma splices. So I deployed the comma splice as an acoustic device in order to create in English a bit of the cadences and rhythms natural to Karasu’s Turkish. I tried to go beyond removing the pollution, so to speak, but also tried to make English gesture towards some of what he was actually inventing.
M—: Can you give us an example?
AA: Sure. Here is a very brief passage from Karasu’s A Long Day’s Evening, first in the original then in English, to illustrate the acoustic/semiotic equivalencies I attempted to create:
Şimdi, / yürüdüğü, /etlerini, /eklemlerini, hafif bir yorgunluk esrikliği bastığı, /basmaya başladığı için, /bütün çabasını bacaklarıyla kollarına yüklediği için, /dışarılardan içine doğru bir sıcaklık akmağa başlaması, şaşılacak bir şey değil.// İçinden dışına doğru çıtırtılı birtakım kıvılcımlar gibi sıçrayan ürperti de uzun zamandır bildiği bir duygu. // Ama güneş Aventinus’un ardına çekildikçe, /yürüdüğü yolda gölge koyulaştıkça,/ ilerideki ağaçlığın biraz seyrelmiş ama hala yemyeşil duran dalları arasında, /yaprakları arasında, /hışırtı artıp sertleştikçe, /dağılan ışığın yumuşaklığı katmerleşiyor, /kabarıyor.//
• 73 words, 532 characters
• pauses: /-/-/–/–/—//——-//–/–/–/—/-/-/-// (notice the near symmetry)
• repetition of “ch” sounds, the word “için”, countered by “sh” sounds, and the repetition of same suffixes.
Now, /after walking for some time, /after experiencing exhaustion/—its light drunkenness—in his joints,/ his flesh, /the burden of exertion in his arms, his legs, /he isn’t surprised by a wave of heat seeping through his skin, /to the interior of his body. //The flush of inner chill, /like crackling sparks, /is also a familiar sensation.// But as the sun descends Aventius, /the shadows deepen along the path he’s been walking, /the rustling grows louder, /sharper among the leaves, /among the branches/—somewhat sparse yet still green—in the woods ahead of him, /as the soft, /diffuse lights swells /then redoubles.//
• 102 words, 505 characters (considering that English translation is commonly 25% longer than the Turkish original, this is quite close)
• pauses: [/-/-/-/-/-/—/—–][//–/–/–//][—–/—/-/-/—/-/-/-//] ( a different–nevertheless– symmetry)
• repetitions (words; “k,” “b,” “d” “p” sounds countered by ‘s,” “sh” sounds) complemented by comma-splices.
M—: You’re also running the translation program at the University of Iowa and you’re the incoming president of ALTA (American Literary Translators Association). How does your translation life interact with your academic life?
AA: My translation practice is inextricably tied to my work as program director, and my commitment to our translation community and our practice—sort of advancing translators to advance translation and vice versa. I’m thrilled by the opportunity to run the program at Iowa; it’s been an incredible experience—this chance to direct the country’s oldest translation workshop, to collaborate with extraordinary groups of students, in order to introduce readers in English exciting new writing from all corners of the world. I feel lucky.
When all is said and done, during the semester, my chief preoccupation is the students, but I continue to translate. If what’s interrupting my translation practice is also helping me refine, clarify, crystallize my sense of how translation works, then I’m still translating. If you’re translating while also carrying out other tasks on the side, you should make sure that translation doesn’t become what you do on the side. So that’s some good advice that I should follow too! It’s easier said than done!
M—: As are all wonderful pieces of advice! Since you mentor so many emerging translators, what sort of trends are you seeing in this generation of translators and what are your hopes for them? How is the translation scene different from when you first started?
AA: You know the Guardian piece about how in Great Britain foreign literature is outselling domestic literature. It’s phenomenal! International writing in translation is closer to the mainstream than it ever was. We are experiencing among the translators, editors, bloggers, reviewers, and so on, a renewed urgency about what we do. There is a much larger conversation happening among literary texts, as well as among translators. We’re able to now defend our practice and advocate for rights and advocate for better pay and all sorts of things that we didn’t feel like we could do in the past.
In 2000, when I had my first book-length translation contract, a dear friend/mentor pulled me aside one day and said, “Quit your administrative job, cut down your teaching. Just focus on translation.” I said, “You’re crazy. There’s no way I can.” That was sixteen years ago. Now, more people are able to incorporate translation practice into their lives than I thought was possible at the time.
The students (at Iowa) are also asking for more hands-on experience opportunities, internships, more professional guidance. This fall we’re starting a translator in residency program; each semester, a translator will be here for five weeks so students get to interact with an artist ostensibly living on translating and what her life is like.
M—: Okay, the last two questions that we always want to ask. First, what have you read recently that we all need to read?
AA: You know, there are two books. One is Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading by Clive Scott. I think everybody has to read this book! Scott argues for reading as experience rather than as an interpretive medium. He beautifully argues that the practice, of literary translation, in attempting to inhabit a text from within and as fully as possible, intersects with the very rich and complex experience of reading. It just blew my sense of both translation and reading wide open.
The other is Motherless Tongues by Vincente Rafael. It’s about language in this day and age and how all of our monolingual paradigms of language, the way we understand and talk about language and how it functions, have to be replaced by much more complicated and messier multilingual and translingual paradigms, that languages are in a dynamic relationship with each other by virtue of coexisting in an extensively networked global reality. Language is both the medium and the substance of our art. It is necessary that we understand the workings of languages and how we translate in and across them today?
M—: And the final question: What are you working on now?
AA: I’m working on two projects concurrently. One is a novel by Murathan Mungan. I hope it will come out in 2017. The other one, for which I received an NEA grant, is a translation of a collection of poems by, again, Mungan. I’m doing that in collaboration with another translator and good friend, David Gramling. This is the first time I’m collaborating and I’m loving it. In fact, so much so that I feel stripped down when translating on my own now. That’s exciting. That also should come out in 2017.
M—: Well, we’re looking forward to reading them.
AA: I hope as much as I am to finishing them! Thank you.