Poetry and translation: The art of dead men writing to each other
“Things do not connect; they correspond … that is how we dead men write to each other,” 20th century American poet Jack Spicer noted on the art of translating poetry in his early collection of works “After Lorca.”
Almost half a century after the publication of “After Lorca,” Turkish poet, translator and essayist Murat Nemet-Nejat called upon Spicer’s observations on shifting ideas and objects across language in a commentary on the particular challenges he faced when translating the late poet Seyhan Erözçelik’s two part poem “Gül ve Telve” (Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds).
A poetic masterpiece widely hailed as one of the major works of Turkish poetry in the last two decades, “Gül ve Telve” took Nemet-Nejat close to six years to translate.
Speaking at an address at İstanbul’s Boğaziçi University on Tuesday evening, Nemet-Nejat, a pioneering figure in modern Turkish poetry, who has over the years afforded non-Turkish speakers a cherished glimpse into the poetic genius of writers including Orhan Veli, Ece Ayhan and, more recently, Seyhan Erözçelik and Birhan Keskin, said he first happened upon “Gül ve Telve” while browsing Beyoğlu’s Pandora bookshop in search of material for his 2004 collection “Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry.”
This was to be Nemet-Nejat’s introduction to the works of Erözçelik, and after meeting at a poetry reading in the months following, the two became firm friends. Nemet-Nejat would regularly stay at the İstanbul home of the Bartın-born poet and his wife, Belgin, on his trips back from the US. “Seyhan and Belgin’s home is a very special place. Everywhere you look there are knick-knacks -- pebbles, clocks that ring on the hour, odd books, differently shaped pencil sharpeners. When I stayed there we would always stay up talking until 3 or 4 a.m. Seyhan was a magical person,” the US-based poet recalled fondly.
A mesmeric double volume, the poem’s first part, “Telve,” consists of 24 enchanting Fal (fortune telling) readings, whilst the second part, “Gül,” is, in the words of Nemet-Nejat, “repetitive, minimalist, a poem of obsessive variations around the Islamic Sufi symbol the rose.”
The task of translating “Gül ve Telve,” however, was to pose the vastly experienced Nemet-Nejat unprecedented challenges in the exercise of translation. “In many ways I prefer ‘Telve’ to ‘Gül’,” the poet explained. “I love the voice of the fortune teller. It is an old voice yet Seyhan somehow managed to capture this in the language of our time. ‘Coffee Grinds’ is faithful to the original -- in fact, I didn’t change a single phrase. Translating ‘Gül,’ however, was a different story because of the obsessive nature of the poem; it functions with very few words and certain word constellations occur and reoccur.”
A phenomenon that Nemet-Nejat deems possible in Turkish due to the narrow sound range of the language, the poet lists the primary recurring word constellations that haunted him in “Gül” as ay (moon, or the expression “ah!”), ayı (the animal bear), aya (to the moon or holy) and ayva (quince); gül, which means both rose and to smile; and kırağı (frost), which can be broken down to a number of meanings, including “meadow,” the verb “to break,” “poison” and “web.”
“It is much harder to sustain obsessive aural sequences in English, so it is impossible to literally translate a piece such as ‘Gül,’ which plays off the multiple meanings of words, because without the obsessive quality of the language you don’t have a poem. This is an issue I spent two-and-a-half years grappling with,” the poet recalled.
Constellations and compromises
The solution Nemet-Nejat eventually came to was to find his own constellations of words in English with which he could manipulate and work with intimately the way Erözçelik did in his original. The poet listed the pairs of words “heart” and “hearth,” “earth” and “death,” “leaf” and “leave” and “rose” and “rose” in the sense of the past tense of “to rise,” as central to his long-awaited breakthrough in the translation of the poem.
“What this allowed me to do in a sense was to create a wormhole to the original verse by using words that are parallel yet different to the original constellations and that generate their own space,” Nemet-Nejat explained, adding: “‘Rose Strikes’ is thus a poem created in the corresponding parallel space of the poem ‘Gül’ and reflects the original in a splintered space. In a way this is a dangerous thing to do, but it was forced on me due to the reality of Seyhan’s language.”
Reflecting on Erözçelik’s thoughts on “Rosestrikes,” Nemet-Nejat said the respect that the two had for each other’s work and the close affinity between them, as friends not only socially but also in poetry, had been fundamental to the project.
“When you are translating poetry you are not only dealing with two different languages, but two different universes and in turn their respective rules and obscurities. Without breaking down the original poem, translation is impossible. Seyhan never tried to intervene; in fact, he once said to me when we were talking about ‘Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds,’ ‘poems are like children, once they are born they are on their own’,” Nemet-Nejat related.
Paying homage not only to a great friendship but also to the often underestimated art of translation, “Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds” stands as a masterpiece in its own right; a testimony to the correspondence of great poetic minds.