Interview with Aron Aji

by Samantha Kirby


Most translators into English have English as a first language, but you’re a native Turkish speaker. Does this change the way you approach your translations?

When I started translating into English, I assumed it was the right thing to do since, for several decades, English had been my literary language in which I developed all my critical readerly sensibilities concerning style, narrative form, voice, aesthetics. As I have been frequently asked this question, I began to approach it more critically, discovering that, in fact, being a second-language translator is crucially significant to my translation practice.

I ... seek to force English out of its comfort zone, become foreign to itself and, in the encounter with Turkish, gain in greater expressive capacity.

I am, to use the commonplace distinction, a foreignizing translator. But, for me, foreignization is not only about bringing the reader closer to the text so that the latter can be experienced in its own cultural, linguistic terms. I also seek to force English out of its comfort zone, become foreign to itself and, in the encounter with Turkish, gain in greater expressive capacity. Foreignization is something enacted in the target language, not just by bringing foreign cultural markers or lexicon into it, but by foreignizing the target language at the level of grammar, syntax, diction, as well as its habitual aesthetic assumptions.

For example, in translating Bilge Karasu’s A Long Day’s Journey,  I did not use the conjunction “and,” making over five hundred alterations, some quite complex, in the English text. I initially decided on this strategy because Karasu himself refused to use the Arabic-origin “ve” in his writing as he was aiming to develop a modern Turkish literary vernacular, purged of its imperial past. But my strategy, I’d like to think, also calls for a critical and reflective interrogation of “and”—one of the most commonplace reflex words in English. So, consider what happens when “The sun rises between the sea and the sky,” is recast as, “The sea, the sky, the sun rising in between.”

Murathan Mungan’s poem “Dreams of a Princess Awake,” which appears in issue 7 of the Arkansas International, is co-translated by you and David Gramling. Can you talk a little bit about what this process of co-translation is like? What are the benefits of translating a single piece with others?

Translation always involves conversations with imagined subjectivities (the author, the original reader, the target reader, etc.) enacted in and through language. Certain authors also write in or from such deeply intimate spaces that they cannot be read at arm’s length, and maybe not even alone!  For me, Mungan has been such an author. (I also co-translated his epic play, Deer Curses, with Victoria Holbrook.) 

I asked David to collaborate with me because some of the more intimate, confessional substance of Mungan’s voice and tone have been hard to access for me. David had also produced an amazing translation of Mungan’s “The Tears of Love, or Rapunzel and the Raven,” a feat of language that, in David’s own words, deliberately “exacerbates the translatability of gendered social identities.” Co-translating Mungan’s My Heart’s East (forthcoming, City Lights, Fall 2020) involved the familiar rituals of collaborative translation, producing drafts, asking the other to revise, paying attention to recreate Mungan’s voice as authentically and consistently as possible, etc.

Certain authors ... write in or from such deeply intimate spaces that they cannot be read at arm’s length, and maybe not even alone

In the case of the more challenging poems, each of us ended up producing more than one version before gathering them into one coherent version. But David and I also held a parallel conversation in person or by email, though not about particular poems or pesky lines or images, rather about our reading experience of the volume, its themes, questions, geography, politics, aesthetics. Most memorably, we spent 11 hours in the car on the way to and from the ALTA conference.

The aim of translation practice embedded in our conversation was to make the reader’s experience of the poems in English as resonant and expansive as our own experience while translating.  In “Dreams of a Princess Awake,” who is this princess, for instance? Is she a sultan’s daughter? Is she a Shirin from the romance, Farhad and Shirin? Or an actual female interlocutor? Is she our contemporary or a vestige of time past?  Hopefully, our translation does not limit her to any one of these.

Place and history seem to be central in Mungan’s poems, and elements of both are apparent from the first verses of “Dreams”: “O glass mansions, speak of sultans, / which of the mountains tell the oldest tales, / which trail do the White Riders forge?” Could you take a moment to characterize Mungan’s work in these terms? Do you see Mungan’s poetry as engaging in political dialogue through an exploration of history?

What an amazing opening, is it not?  A dizzying array of allusions and intertextualities that illustrate what I was trying to say just above. These lines are harbingers of the polychronicity sustained throughout the poem, and answer your question right away: The “dreams” are linked with the fairy tales of “glass-mansions” (and, incidentally, Mungan’s much-loved short story, “Muradhan and Selvihan or The Tale of the Crystal Mansion”); with the history of the Ottoman past possibly all the way back to the White Riders, the original Turks who arrived in Anatolia in 1071 (although the White Riders may also refer to the fantastic and ominous horsemen we meet elsewhere in the volume); with the “serpents” and “mountains,” arguably the most recognizable iconic images of the multi-ethnic Southeastern Turkey; soon we get “the peshmerga,” the Kurdish fighters on those mountains; and two lines below show up “Farhads,” referencing the great Persian-Ottoman romance, Farhad and Shirin, a story of forbidden love between a Sassanid king and an Armenian princess, celebrated to this day across all ethnic communities that call the Southeastern Turkey home. Welcome to Mungan’s kaleidoscope.  

In an interview with Maureen Freely, Mungan notes (through an interpreter) that “our identities should not be our prisons … we have to go beyond them and transcend them.” Do you see this transcendence of identity as tied into Mungan’s meditations on place? How do you approach rendering both place and identity into English?

Place and Identity are stamped on the very title of Mungan’s volume, My Heart’s East, and permeate every poem in it. I think Mungan would agree with me that each human being possesses a greater capacity of freedom than his/her social existence often allows.

One’s identity, shaped as it is in relation to traditions, customs, histories, places and social norms, can be freely exercised only by transcending them

One’s identity, shaped as it is in relation to traditions, customs, histories, places and social norms, can be freely exercised only by transcending them—neither by abandoning them nor by surrendering to them. If freedom depends on the incessant interplay of place and identity, then freedom is expressed/experienced as persistent struggle, rather than as a state reconciliation.

To render this struggle into English, we resisted either domesticating the markers of place and history or explicating the deeply personal, inaccessible references. Even if it means the reader must struggle with the poet. Yet, at times, the levels of unintelligibility woven into our translation are meant to create equivalent effect rather than lexical equivalence, for the simple fact that what is or isn’t intelligible to the Turkish reader is not the same to the English reader. 

Tonally, Mungan’s poems seem to speak to a value system that might come off as old-fashioned to contemporary English speakers. And yet formally the poems are quite modern, and the imagery is very visceral and real. How do you approach translating tone and other poetic features that may fall outside the familiar poetic standards of your target audience?

Tone, form and imagery. It’s wonderful how you’ve read the poem with such keen attention to its subtler operations. Indeed, Mungan constantly triangulates among these three poetic dimensions in the Turkish originals.  We tried to create a corresponding triangulation in the English. Notice how the elevated tone is carried on the back of vivid imagery. How excesses of sentiment or the invocative are counteracted through his relatively disciplined, recognizably contemporary use of lineation, enjambment, blank space, etc. Or how we’re willing to wrestle with the unintelligible imagery or cultural markers because the poet’s tone compels us, holds us in, or his form—familiar, intelligible—shows the way to understanding.

“Dreams of a Princess Awake” is not an easy poem to read in the Turkish; we arrive at much of what it means by patiently gathering sense, sensation, acoustic reverberations, small crystals of image or insight.

Finally, what are you looking ahead to in your work? Are you working on anything now?

David and I will soon return to Mungan’s volume, My Hearts East, to complete the last round of revisions before it goes into production. We are also collaborating on two other Mungan projects, both works of fiction. A person of uncommon industry, David has two scholarly monographs in progress. I have other translation projects, but the start of the academic year usually brings them to a halt. I try not to fight the interruption since I very much enjoy working with emerging translators in the program.   

ARON AJI is the Director of MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa. A native of Turkey, his translations include three book-length works by Bilge Karasu: Death in Troy; The Garden of Departed Cats (NTA, 2004); and A Long Day’s Evening, (NEA Literature Fellowship; short-listed for the 2013 PEN Translation Prize). He teaches courses on retranslation, poetry in translation, theory, and contemporary Turkish literature. He is the current president of The American Literary Translators Association.