Voller Poesie und Gefühl

Voller Poesie und Gefühl: Co-translating Selim Özdoğan’s The Blacksmith’s Daughter

by Ayça Türkoğlu

And so we lent our words, our English, to the text. In went ‘skinny malinky’ and ‘bobbins’, in went quiet references to Marsha P. Johnson and Garth Marenghi, in went the terms of endearment that resonated with us because they reminded us of our own loved ones…

When Katy Derbyshire emailed to ask if I’d be attending the London Book Fair in the spring of 2019, I was intrigued. A mystery chat with Katy Derbyshire, translator extraordinaire? Thrilling, I thought. Could a collaboration be on the cards? Strap in, Ayça, it’s translatin’ time. From Katy’s blog, lovegermanbooks, I knew she was desperate to translate Selim Özdoğan’s Die Tochter des Schmieds. The book was sitting on my TBR pile, but I hadn’t read it. I didn’t dare read something I had long suspected I would love, only to be unable to translate it. As far as I was concerned, it was Katy’s baby. I mentioned this to her when we met up and she shook her head. ‘It’ll be our baby,’ she said.

Die Tochter des Schmieds, or The Blacksmith’s Daughter in our translation, tells the story of Gül, a young girl growing up in Anatolia in the 40s and 50s. The eldest child of a fiercely loving father, Timur the blacksmith, Gül grows up feeling compelled to look out for her younger sisters in the wake of her mother’s early death. She marries young and moves in with her in-laws, before ultimately following her husband to Germany as part of the Gastarbeiter generation. It was these ‘guest workers’ whose labour contributed to the wealth and development of West Germany following the shortage of workers sparked by the ‘economic miracle’ of 1961.

When I finally read the book, I found a quiet, gentle story filled with long summers, family mythmaking and that loving melodrama I knew from Turkish films and music. I read it, and the following two books in the trilogy, clutching my chest. Its stories could be my family’s stories, the characters my own relatives. I grieved the fact that I couldn’t share the book with my father, who would be perhaps a decade younger than Gül, and whose own upbringing in a rural Turkish town seemed to leap from its pages. And I identified with the experience of Turkey reflected in the book more than anything else I’d read. I wonder if this is because Selim captures so well that visceral childhood world glimpsed through summer visits, a place where what matters most is fruit, the scent of an aunty wrapping you in a hug, and how things feel.

But what about the day-to-day business of co-translating a book? Katy and I had little experience of co-translation, so we asked around. Some co-translators split the text down the middle, one doing the first half, the other the second. Some take alternate chapters. We considered this, but quickly realised there were only really two chapters: before Gül’s father hears of his wife’s death and throws the spoon at the wall, and after. Instead, we chose to divide the text into chunks of 1000-2000 words and took it in turns to translate alternating sections. Once either of us had translated a section, we’d send it off to the other, who would read through making suggestions, querying certain points, or perhaps highlighting a line and leaving a little heart in the margin. This edited section would then be returned to its translator, who would read it through again, accepting some suggestions, rejecting others, before leaving the text clean and ready to be added to the official first draft.

From time to time, we would consult Selim on a word choice, or a picture we couldn’t quite conjure. Sometimes, we actively overrode Selim’s approach to the use of Turkish in the book. Selim chose to leave out Turkish words, instead translating literally unfamiliar items, sayings and terms of endearment into German, and it is this, in part, which gives the book its dreamy, fairytale feel. His other intention here was to avoid foreignizing or orientalising the text. I think he wanted his reader to be able to picture whatever they read, without unfamiliar words getting in the way. Katy and I could see his point – like him, we had no desire to create in the translation a world bristling with ‘eastern promise’, whatever that means. The Blacksmith’s Daughter is woven through with memories and second-hand stories, but the book’s Turkishness is not the point; it’s about the story and the people. Considering this, Katy and I decided to take a different approach, possibly influenced by ongoing discussions among the translation community. We decided to put some terms back into Turkish. To explain the less familiar terms to our reader would, we agreed, seem like overexplaining. It would assume the setting of the book was alien to the reader in a way that seemed inherently exoticizing, and would place us, the translators, in the role of cultural guides, holiday reps, charged with offering up the book neatly packaged and easy for the reader to swallow. Though our approaches differed, our aims were the same. In writing the story, Selim was content to present and observe, not to judge. We would do the same. So Sesamkringel became simit, Opa became dede, and getrockneter Traubensaft became köfter.

As translators, we may not be a text’s first authors, but we are authors nonetheless. Just as Selim’s German text is a product of his and others’ experiences, and what language means to him, our translation is a product of who we are as people. We put ourselves into the text and we do so with joy. Gül’s experiences in Central Anatolia made their way into English by way of translators for whom words gained their meanings in summers in a town on the Menderes plain, Western Turkey, in the 90s, or who learnt about Eid in a West London primary school in the early 80s, whose language continues to be shaped every day by geography and class: Berlin, London, a little village in North Hampshire. And so we lent our words, our English, to the text. In went ‘skinny malinky’ and ‘bobbins’, in went quiet references to Marsha P. Johnson and Garth Marenghi, in went the terms of endearment that resonated with us because they reminded us of our own loved ones. Katy and I shared a love of the richness of colloquial and spoken language and took great pleasure in unleashing it on the book’s chattier characters.

I suspect the extent to which a co-translation succeeds depends on the relationship between the two collaborators. Without much discussion, we soon developed an easy rapport that made working together a joy. Neither translator insisted too fiercely on the superiority of her choices, and both of us were quick to allow the other to preserve choices that meant something to them. When Katy sent over her translation of the spoon-throwing scene, during which ‘a trickle of plaster falls to the floor’, my comment reads: ‘Perhaps a bit too liquid-sounding? Crumbled or flaked?’ Katy replied thanking me for my suggestions as ever but said she would keep ‘trickle’; it was a darling she wasn’t prepared to kill. A year on from submitting the final text, I read this passage again and it occurs to me that it not only sounds right, it has shaped the way I picture the scene. In my mind, the walls of the blacksmith’s home are a pale, turquoise blue; when the spoon hits the wall, the glossy paint flakes off, the loose plaster beneath it spilling to the floor like sand in an egg-timer.

It’s important to acknowledge the pitfalls a co-translation project can present for an emerging translator, particularly when it comes to the clear imbalance of power between the two collaborators. I was familiar with a number of cases where an experienced, older, often white translator would team up with a younger translator of colour, and the younger translator would essentially translate the whole text, after which the older translator would edit the text and receive the same credit, if not necessarily the same fee. This surely amounts to exploitation masquerading as professional support. The older translator gets to look magnanimous while doing less of the work, perhaps even taking advantage of the younger translator’s closer relationship to the language (they may have lived in the country more recently, or spoken the language from childhood). Why was my case different? I am half-Turkish after all, and I might describe myself as a Turkish speaker from birth, albeit with a gap of over a decade, renewed by studying Turkish at university. But for the most part, it wasn’t my knowledge of Turkish that primed me for working on this text. This is a German text, after all. What helped was my familiarity with the cultural background of the book – and not ‘Turkish’ culture, if such a thing exists, but more specifically the culture of a working-class family in a small, rural Anatolian town.

Potential pitfalls aside, I was inexperienced and I needed money. Even if I had thought the pairing was problematic, I wouldn’t have been in the position to pass up an opportunity to work on a book about the Turkish diaspora in Germany, a long-term interest, with a translator I admire. In that respect, like many other emerging translators, I was vulnerable. But I had no need to worry. Katy was an exemplary collaborator. She was careful to ensure we worked together as equals and were treated as such. We each contributed our own expertise. She encouraged me to critique her work harshly, imbuing me with a confidence that benefitted both our translation and our relationship as collaborators. Her generosity seemed to be a conscious choice.

I speak with Katy about this again once the book is out in the world. ‘Why did you pick me?’ I ask. With publication initially slated for autumn 2020, she says she knew that, acting as both publisher and translator for her press, V&Q Books, an imprint of Voland & Quist, she wouldn’t have time to translate the book on her own. But more than that, from discussions with Selim, she knew that the book resonated on a different level for Turkish speakers, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to bring that across. We discuss the translation of Amanda Gorman’s work: who gets to translate? Was that a consideration, we wonder? We agree it wasn’t, but looking back, our collaboration feels like a positive step. Our text – perhaps any text – is richer for having two contributors, two voices.

The comments we leave in the margins of one another’s translations serve many purposes. Sometimes they are questioning, sometimes praising, sometimes advising, sometimes scolding (the characters, not each other). Gül goes to ask her father for money for passport photos while he’s busy working in the forge: ‘Ja’, the blacksmith says, ‘gleich’. And when I translate it, ‘Yes,’ I write, ‘just a tick.’ I am pleased with this translation; it’s one of those instances where the words just seem to fit, distilling that well-meant need to put someone off for a minute or two. Reading over my section, Katy puts a little heart in the margin next to this sentence. Triumph! The joy of sharing work you’re proud of, of having your choices validated, can’t be overstated.

The margins serve as a place of meaningful connection at a time of growing isolation. As the pandemic accelerates in the background, our emails are peppered with lines like ‘Last night felt like the last time I’d ever be able to drink outside my home’ and ‘Hope your birthday isn’t shite’, and ‘I might return after the weekend with a shaved head’ (spoiler: this didn’t happen). Katy sends her first section on the day after the shootings in a shisha bar in Hanau, Germany, and on this day, the text feels defiant. The book’s nostalgia and melancholy leave their mark on its translators too, and we begin to share stories. Katy sends me a picture of her primary school class, I send a painting by Nuri İyem of two figures that look just like Gül’s parents do in my mind’s eye. Bit by bit, we swap family histories, music clips, pop culture from our childhoods. We grieve with Selim’s characters, and we share how happy we are, amidst all the uncertainties, to be able to sit down with this text and be borne away.

Ayça Türkoğlu is a literary translator from German and Turkish. Her translations include The Blacksmith’s Daughter and the forthcoming 52 Factory Lane by Selim Özdoğan (with Katy Derbyshire for V&Q Books) and Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich (forthcoming, Granta).

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, August 10, 2021

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