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Arts & Life

Turkish writer and poet Fahri Oz translates works of American literature into his native language

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Image courtesy of Fahri Oz.
Fahri Oz

Since 1967, about 1,500 writers from more than 150 countries have spent time in residence at the University of Iowa International Writing Program. A group of 18 established writers from around the world took part in the 2021 fall residency in Iowa.

Fahri Oz is a writer, translator, scholar and poet from Turkey. Ben Kieffer spoke with Oz on River to River on Oct. 2021.  

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Kieffer: "Let's start off by telling us a little bit about your writing and the themes you like to explore."

Oz: "I am a poet and I have published my first collection of poems in 2019, and I explore, so to speak, the limits of human breath. Our ability to read longer lines, although one might get breathless in the meantime. And I am of course, interested in building connections with previous poets and writers in Turkish literature."

"Breathing long lines. You mean actually, physically able to, as a poet, read long lines without taking a breath? That's something you and I have in common, because broadcasters have to think about that, too, when we're writing scripts."

"Yeah. So to this end, I found certain samples, some examples, from Turkish poets, and I reproduce them using different words but sticking to the same sentence structure, in the same syntax, so to speak.

"I understand as a translator, you've translated British, American writers into Turkish?"

"Yeah, that's right. I have translated Bob Dylan, William S. Burrows, Christina Rossetti. I have started translating the complete poems of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Walt Whitman is a huge project, and his poems will appear in Turkish in four volumes. My second project, my huge project, involves Emily Dickinson. She wrote, roughly, about 1,800 poems. Of course they are short lyrics and so on, but it's a huge project. It's about a 750-page-long book, and that will come out in three volumes in Turkish."

"Of the writers you mentioned, the American and British writers — Dickinson, Whitman, Dylan — when you translate them, is there a difference in terms of degree of difficulty? And who would you put at the top of list?"

"I find Emily Dickinson rather difficult, sometimes, to translate, because her syntax is rather convoluted, bent out of shape. Sometimes she writes very emphatic poems. You have to sometimes spend weeks to figure out what she's really trying to say. With Whitman, I had some difficulties with finding Turkish equivalence for certain terms that are specific to the 19th century New York. With Bob Dylan, the use of slang could be sometimes a problem. But I think Emily Dickinson is the, well, the most difficult I have, so far, translated."

"It is a very satisfying activity when you feel that you've come very close or exactly matched the intent of the writer. You feel that as a translator, right?"

"Definitely. I mean, you may try to attempt to translate a poem, and later you come back to it and you say it doesn't sound right. So you change certain pieces, you change the rhythms on the lines. Finding a voice is important, but, while doing this, you should not damage the poet's voice or the things he or she foregrounds."

"If you could answer a few questions apart from your writing: President Biden has described the world as split between autocrats and Democrats, and he's called your president, the Turkish president, Erdoğan, an autocrat with absolute power over the state. What's it like to be a writer in Turkey today? Forgive me if I'm getting into territory where, you know, I don't want you to say anything that endangers you."

"No problem. I am one of the victims of the Erdoğan government myself, because I was dismissed in 2017 simply because I signed a peace declaration calling the government to stop violence against civilians in the southeastern part of Turkey."

"You were dismissed. You were fired from Ankara University?"

"Exactly. President Biden definitely used the euphemism."

"A dictator is what you're saying. So what does that mean for writers? Because that has changed under this ruler compared to previous rulers in your lifetime as well?"

"Exactly. I mean, there are I don't know how many authors, poets and politicians in prison at the moment. But there are people who are in prison without any tangible allegation. Unfortunately, the international community cannot create a certain amount of pressure pressure on the government — Turkish government — because Turkey harbors about 4 or 5 million refugees. Erdoğan is using this as a as a as a threat. He is saying 'if you are not good to me, I will let all these refugees go to Europe.' So the European Union is keeping a low profile in terms of criticizing the Turkish government and the anti-democratic practices of the Turkish government."