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On Translating Deniz Tarsus’s “The Canary”

by Ayça Türkoğlu

Image of On Translating Deniz Tarsus’s “The Canary”


Ayça Türkoğlu’s translation of Deniz Tarsus’s “The Canary” appears in the October 2017 issue: What Unites Us: Turkish Short Stories​.

Taken from Deniz Tarsus’s collection İt Gözü, “The Canary” presents an intimate portrait of a Turkish mining village doomed to endure one disaster after another. I was drawn to the story by Tarsus’s representations of Anatolian people, the quiet familial interactions, and the ever-presence of the natural world.

It is difficult to read “The Canary” and not think of the Soma mining disaster, which occurred in Western Turkey in 2014. The explosion and subsequent fires claimed the lives of three hundred people, prompting a national outcry and three days of mourning. Tarsus has since said that she began writing “The Canary” just days before the disaster occurred and found herself unable to return to the story for a year afterward. Indeed, the similarities are stark: like the mine in the story, the fire at Soma burned for three days.

While translating this text, I began to consider the translator’s role as both reader and writer. In the second half of the story, the miners descend into the pit. Once they are underground, confusion reigns and the men’s perception of the world around them becomes muddled. The layout of a working mine is central to the plot, yet it is unlikely to be familiar to the average reader. The translator, approaching the text at first as a reader, must be a step ahead like the writer, possessing a greater understanding of the world of the story than that which appears on the page—i.e., a comprehensive understanding of the physical space that the characters inhabit. To this end, I consulted numerous images and graphics of mine layouts to better grasp the tunnels, shafts, and chambers that make up the miners’ world.

The importance of this sense of space only grows as the miners begin to hallucinate from the effects of the toxic gas spewed up by the mine. As the men’s surroundings shift according to location, and later perception, this clarity is essential for ensuring that the translator does not follow the miners down the wrong path. As the miners hallucinate, the world around them becomes unpredictable and the translator must again be one step ahead, inhabiting the writer’s imagination. Here, I contacted Deniz to ask if she could draw or describe the scene in greater detail.

I also spent some time wrangling with the final sentence. In the original Turkish, this is the moral of the story, which resonates all the more for its brevity:

İnsan canı çizgi kadar ince, sonra kemik kadar soğuktu.

This sentence could be rendered literally as “human life was thin as a line, then cold as a bone.” This, of course, has none of the weight of the original. In the Turkish, the sentence is one of two equal halves, each side mirroring the other with repetition and alliteration, its rhythm evocative of a nursery rhyme or a proverb. I concluded that the only way to convey this would be to unpack the sentence:

A human life is faint and thin, like a line drawn in the dirt, until it turns cold, like the bones buried beneath.

Here, though longer, the sentence reflects the balance and mirroring of the original. With some minor elaboration, my translation hammers home the same sense of finality and inevitability, reminding the reader that the village’s fate is only darkness and death.


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