INTERVIEW: Ekin Oklap on translating Orhan Pamuk into English
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Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, “The Red-Haired Woman,” is a complex tale blending realism with ruminations on ancient Greek and Persian myths. The Nobel laureate’s 10th novel centers on the relationship between a traditional well-digger outside and his young apprentice outside the expanding megalopolis of Istanbul. This ostensibly simple central story develops into a symbolic parable with social and political undertones, coming to a gripping denouement.
At 250 pages, “The Red-Haired Woman” is a relatively slim book, following the 600-page epic “A Strangeness in My Mind,” published in English in 2015. Both novels were translated into English by Ekin Oklap, who took over from Pamuk’s long-time collaborator Maureen Freely.
Oklap spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about translating Pamuk, including some of the technical and political difficulties she has experienced so far. The conversation has been edited for concision.
How did you start out as Pamuk’s English translator?
I’m actually a literary agent in London, working at the agency that represents Orhan. Initially I started out there as a receptionist. But a few years ago, shortly after I started, my boss - who is Orhan’s agent - said he was looking for a new translator. Because I happen to be Turkish he asked me to help out, so I suggested that he might also consider me. I translated a sample, Orhan liked it, and it went from there.
Did you have a background in translating or did it just come out of the blue?
I don’t have a background in translating. I’d never studied it or even done it before. But I speak three languages. I was born in Turkey and grew up in Italy. So I’ve always lived with more than just one language and in a way I’ve always translated things throughout my life - in a much less difficult, more day-to-day context. The idea of translating a thought or a text into another language is something I’ve always been familiar with.
“The Red-Haired Woman” is the second Pamuk novel you have translated, after “A Strangeness in My Mind,” which was published in English in 2015. How were the two experiences different?
I also translated a catalog that Orhan wrote five or six years ago called “The Innocence of Objects,” about his Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. But that was a comparatively short text and very different to the novels. In terms of comparing the two novels, one is half of the length of the other. That corresponded almost exactly to the amount of time it took to translate them: It took just over four months to translate “A Strangeness in My Mind” and two months to translate “The Red-Haired Woman.”
But apart from the length, they are very different books. “A Strangeness in My Mind” contains a multitude of characters and voices that pop up throughout the novel. It is almost Dickensian in terms of detail, which presents a different sort of challenge. “The Red-Haired Woman” had its own challenges. It is more philosophical in a way; I suppose you could consider parts of it almost a thought experiment. So the two are completely different kind of books.
Talk a bit about the translation process. What order does it take place in? Do you wait for it to be published in Turkish first or do you get cracking as soon as Pamuk has finished writing?
It depends. With “The Red-Haired Woman,” the book had already been published in Turkish when I started translating it. So I had a physical copy alongside me. But with “A Strangeness in My Mind” I was already halfway through translating it when Orhan finished writing it. But that is accidental really, it’s a matter of publishing schedules.
Pamuk’s previous translator Maureen Freely has spoken about long, argumentative sessions translating alongside him on Büyükada, an island off Istanbul, arguing over almost every sentence. Do you also work alongside him or are you left alone?
I work with Orhan very closely. His English is very good so he’s able to read the entire translation and comment on it. I haven’t found him to be too argumentative, perhaps I’ve just gotten lucky. We tend to find something that works at the end of the day. In this kind of context the author knows best what they want to say. So unless the suggestion is somehow incorrect I usually find it has merit.
What are the main areas of disagreement?
English has so many more words than Turkish to express similar concepts. So one of the things that comes up fairly frequently when I talk to Orhan about translation is whether a particular word that is repeated in the Turkish version may be replaced with something else in English. That’s a natural consequence of the differences between the two languages and their vocabulary.
I’ve heard that he tends to try to maintain the Turkish grammatical structure as much as possible. Turkish comes from a completely different language family than English, originating in Central Asia, so the way words and sentences are constructed is completely different. So if Pamuk wants to maintain that structure as much as possible it must be very challenging.
We don’t tend to get into sentence-by-sentence detail in our conversations. It tends to be occasional words in a particular section. So I haven’t been in a situation where we look at a situation and he asks to put a verb at the end because that’s how it is in Turkish. As a translator I think it’s important to stay faithful to the structures as well as literally what the text is saying, but there’s only so much of that you can do. If you do it too much it just sounds odd.
I suppose that’s the big debate in translation: Accuracy vs. fluency.
Yes this is one of the biggest debates. I have no academic background in this subject, but I go by my preferences as a reader. When I read a translated text, if possible I’d like to forget that it’s a translation. I’m aware that in itself is actually a controversial position.
Translated fiction has a merit or value deriving from the very fact that it is translated. To sound cliched, it is a bridge into another world for readers. So saying that you should forget you are reading a translation almost seems to suggest that is irrelevant. So I’m aware that saying you should “forget” that a text is a translation is perhaps oversimplifying things. But at the same time when something sounds like it wasn’t written in the language you’re reading in, you quickly can be thrown from what you’re reading.
So my unacademic and personal approach is to try to ensure that what I do as a translator stays as faithful as possible to the original text but reads almost like it could have been written in English.
Maureen Freely got embroiled in a lot of the political controversy that swirled around Pamuk during the 2000s. Do you ever concern yourself about this stuff or try to keep it at arm’s length?
As I’m Turkish I have no choice but to worry about this stuff. All of this worried me even before I started translating Orhan Pamuk’s books. I’m not more worried or more involved now. I haven’t experienced anything negative in particular in the past few years related to this. That may be because Orhan’s perhaps less in the news in Turkey compared to around 10 years ago. So I’ve been lucky so far.
Some in Turkey claim that Pamuk’s English translators “improve” or “Westernize” his words, the implication being that he is not so good in Turkish. What do you make of that criticism?
I was aware of this kind of comment that he receives. I don’t think it has any bearing on the truth. There’s no way a translator can “improve” an author’s work without changing it, and changing an author’s work is not what a true translator should do. The author’s role is the key role. Orhan’s work is translated into so many languages, all over the world. So to suggest that he’s only popular because his English translators have been good is misleading. It also wipes away the work of all his other translators, who work on his books in Chinese, French, German, Italian and dozens of other languages. I think there’s a political element to that criticism and it tends to be rather disingenuous.
And of course there are plenty of people who find him difficult to read in English - probably the same proportion as readers in Turkish. So it’s not like he’s becoming transformed into a very broad popular novelist in English.
I think there are certain reasons behind it that have nothing to do with the actual writing and more to do with positions he has expressed in the past that have not gone down very well.
Is translating your main focus at the moment or do you have other irons in the fire?
I work full time as a literary agent and every couple of years, whenever Orhan finishes a book, I take some time off to translate it. I wish I could go home from the office and translate at night but that’s not something I can do. I need to take time off and devote myself to translation, returning to work after it’s done. Orhan is currently writing a new book but I haven’t seen a single word of it yet, so we’re just patiently waiting.