In America, he is a well-known poet, critic, essayist and editor whose works have been translated into many languages. He is also a professor of history and associate dean for administration in the College of Arts and Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology and a former visiting professor at Drew University Graduate Faculty and Beykent University (İstanbul) and was a Fulbright lecturer at Hacettepe University in Ankara and at İstanbul University.
I recently interviewed this modest man about his work and ongoing fascination with Turkish literature.
How would you describe yourself to a Turkish audience unfamiliar with your work?
I guess that would depend on the circumstances. In the US, I’m best known perhaps as a poet and as a publisher of poetry, yet most people at my university would think of me primarily as an academic and a critic, and as such, I have published a number of scholarly books. My association with Turkish universities has been as an academic also, but a few of my poems have been translated into Turkish, and I have done poetry readings in İstanbul and Izmir. In addition my publishing company has also published a number of Turkish works in translation, and more are planned.
What were you like as a child?
I grew up in a small village in the hills of western Massachusetts in New England. The village is now mostly a suburb and country residence, but when I was young, it was fairly isolated and largely woods and farmland (there is only one working farm left). We were rather poor. Our father died when my brother and I were quite young, but we had a very caring mother, and though we had few of the things that our neighbors took for granted (a car, for example), we were not particularly unhappy when we were little. Since our mother worked long hours, we were free much of the day to explore the woods and the countryside. I’ve never lost the love of nature that I learned then.
So when exactly did you begin writing? Did you write when you were young?
Both parents were great readers, but my interest in poetry was mostly a gift from my grandmother, who had memorized many poems and would recite them at family gatherings. When my father died when I was 7, I was in the next room writing poems.
Can you tell us a bit about your experiences with Turkish literature and studies?
My initial enthusiasm for Turkish literature and culture was virtually an accident. I had a Fulbright to teach in the Soviet Union, but a few weeks before my family and I were supposed to leave for Moscow, the Fulbright office called and (for reasons too complicated to summarize here) asked if we would go to Ankara instead. This was in 1978, which was a difficult time in Turkey, and yet I think that my love for all things Turkish was deep and enduring within a few weeks of our arrival. A second Fulbright in the 1980s in İstanbul confirmed that love, and it has never wavered.
My first acquaintance with Turkish literature was Yasar Kemal’s “Mehmet My Hawk” and the second was Orhan Veli, whose poetry became a passion for me and has remained so. Over the years, Turkish writing, especially poetry, has been an ongoing fascination.
This may be an issue much too complicated to discuss here, but I think that there are true parallels between aspects of Turkish culture and aspects of the culture of New England, and that may in part explain my enthusiasm for Turkey. These two worlds are rooted in radically different traditions, and yet the similarities are strong. I’m not the only one to think this, by the way. There are resemblances that both Turks and New Englanders have noted. It has to do with matters of sensibility, I think, in which life becomes a very serious, spiritually inflected, process. It’s not because one has influenced the other; the two worlds have travelled very different routes, after all, but they seem to have reached similar ends at key points.
Tell us about Adalet Agaoğlu’s novel.
Actually Agaoğlu’s “Summer’s End” is a good example of what I have been talking about. The central figure in that novel has suffered enormously, but rather than plunge into self-pity, she has become stoic and determined. She is not fatalistic but accepts her suffering as integral to the life she has been given, and she is strengthened by it. If you compare her with Hester Prynne (truly a New England type of character) in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” you can see what I mean. In the end, neither woman becomes simply dour or tries to escape the realities of the lives they have been given (which, I think, is exactly what most people elsewhere would try to do). There are strengths in the Turkish character and in the character of New Englanders that are much like each other.
What is the relationship between translator and author?
They are quite unalike. A translator is like an actor who has to assume and project a character that someone else has imagined. The translator somehow has to put on the author’s skin and try to become him or her for the duration of the translation.
Tell us about the biggest challenges for a translator.
Well, I suppose the most important thing is simply, as I’ve said, to become, or become like, the author. The translator is not writing his or her own book, after all, but writing the author’s book in a language that he or she may not have known.
I don’t think, by the way, that it is necessary for the translator to know the language in which the original work was written if he or she has a reliable trot to work with and can turn to someone who does know the original language to check the translation for accuracy. The important thing is to recognize the sensibility embodied in the original work and convey that in the target language.
Are there writers in Turkey who are not being given the attention they deserve?
I apologize, but I don’t think that I’m really the right person to comment there. After all, I am and always must be an outsider. Some works, such as Lale Muldur’s “Waking to Constantinople” have struck me immediately as poetry of the highest order, but other works have taken much time to grasp, largely because I am an outsider and can easily miss the nuances that define one work as superior to another.
How would you comment on the relationship between literature and society in Turkey today?
Again, I apologize, but that’s not really a question that I could answer adequately. I must always be the outsider, trying to learn as much as I can, and like all outsiders, I can also be easily mistaken. You know, you can come to the United States, become a citizen, learn to speak the language fluently and yet never really know, in any great depth, what it is that differentiates, say, a New Englander from a Virginian. That distinction is actually critical in American history and life, but it is something more easily felt than described. The problem is even more serious, I think, for a foreigner like me in Turkey, constantly amazed and always learning and very much in love with what I’ve found. It might be easy to pass judgment, but it wouldn’t be adequately informed. I learned long ago simply to observe and be grateful that I have been given the opportunity to do so.
What is your next project?
I am working on a book about Americans in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. The Ottoman Empire and İstanbul in particular held a great fascination for 19th century Americans. Whether overseeing ship building, founding schools, contributing to the agricultural economy or advising the sultan, American engineers, businessmen, missionaries, diplomats and tourists were deeply involved in the life of the city, wrote about it at much length and left a lasting mark on its history.