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Translating A Life Between in Mely Kiyak’s “The Gold Watch”

In 1961, Germany and Turkey signed a recruitment agreement to fill job vacancies in Germany's booming post-war economy while also providing Turkey with benefits. Young, healthy, preferably unmarried Turkish men would be enlisted to work in German factories and mines. Transportation to, and housing in, Germany for these Gastarbeiter, guest workers, would be paid for, and at the end of two years, they would return to Turkey, taking their earnings, as well as new skills, back to their home country. Then the next group would come and the cycle would repeat. Immigration was not part of the plan. But it proved expensive to train a new batch of workers that often, so in 1964 the agreement was changed to allow workers to stay longer than two years. Initially, they were prohibited from bringing their families, but this policy was later liberalized, too. Over time, roughly half of the guest workers became de facto immigrants. Germany now has around two and a half million inhabitants of Turkish descent, the country's largest migrant group of non-German ethnic background. The realization that they are indeed “migrants” and not just "guests," however, has been slow in coming. No longer bound to Turkey, not really a component of a German melting pot, and not even part of the European Union, they constitute, both legally and culturally, a group apart.  

For this Words without Borders issue on migrant labor, I translated a portrayal of one of these guest workers/accidental immigrants, taken from Mely Kiyak's nonfiction book Herr Kiyak dachte, jetzt fängt der schöne Teil des Lebens an (Herr Kiyak Thought the Good Years Had Finally Come). The worker is her father, Hasan, who spent a few decades lacquering wire for the aeronautics industry in a landlocked part of Germany.  At long last retired, he'd planned to return to Turkey and live by the sea. But a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer changed that plan abruptly. What now? He reacts meekly, ready to accept the inevitable. All he wants to do is go back to Turkey and wait for death. Mely can't accept that. She wants him to fight, and if he can't, she'll fight for him. She asks questions of his doctors, she pushes and demands. A newspaper correspondent and columnist, she asks for deadline extensions and cancels engagements to bake him cakes and bring him olives and sit with him at chemo sessions. Though she herself is terrified, convinced he's slipping away from her, she has no patience with his weepiness. When he laments that his life is nearly over and he's never been happy, she tells him: Nonsense. You've forgotten, that's all. Tell me the stories.

So interspersed with Mely telling the present-time story of her father’s cancer are Hasan’s own stories: an outlaw grandfather, blood feuds, “kidnapped" brides. We see Hasan as obedient son, soldier, reluctant bridegroom, and, through Mely’s memories, Hasan the Gastarbeiter and loving father.

The author has a lot of threads to weave together in her book, but she wouldn't be the award-winning journalist she is if she didn't have things under control. Her prose is clean, spare, and (mercifully) devoid of the subclause-within-a-subclause sentences and comma splices so common in much of German writing.  This style helps keep her clear-eyed while she relates some very poignant memories of her father, a guest worker caught between cultures; Hasan spends the prime years of his life working at a mind-numbing job to support his family, but one of his own children is ashamed of that lowly job. When Hasan's own father dies in Turkey, he's unable to get work off to go to the funeral, and later, when he does finally visit the grave, we see that the Turks who went abroad to try to get ahead are disdained as having “peddled their labor abroad" by those who stayed behind.

She further streamlines by cutting out details like names. Of course, when her father tells his stories, everybody is named. That's part of what makes his stories so colorful. But in her own narrative, both past and present, she's very choosy about who's named, even when it comes to her own family. Her mother (divorced from her father now anyway) is hardly mentioned. Brothers and sisters? She only refers to “a sibling," or “the sibling.” He? She? More than one? We're never told.

The gendered German grammar makes it easy to leave a sibling, Geschwisterkind, without a sex. The German (sibling) is neuter. So, of course, a neuter noun, das Kind (the child) = a neuter pronoun, es (it).  But to refer to a sibling as “it" in English? No. I considered using the gender-neutral "they," but it didn't work everywhere. Plus, I felt it was at odds with both the spareness of the prose and the relationship portrayed: Mely Kiyak is writing about her and her father; siblings serve only to show what kind of parent Hasan is. To keep that distance, I rearranged some sentences to be able to use "child" more, instead of a pronoun reference. Where there was no convenient escape from a pronoun, I chose the traditional "he," as I felt it drew less attention to itself than “she."

Another problem in translating grammatical gender can arise in a deliberately wrong article/noun combination. This crops up immediately after Hasan learns that his father, back in Turkey, has died. Shaken to the core, he says: Weil meine Papa tot ist, verstehst du mein Kind? Ich hatte auch eine Papa. Not one but two references to a papa using a feminine ending, a jarring grammatical mistake in German, one no native speaker would make.  And as if that's not enough, Mely Kiyak quotes him immediately after that, even using quotation marks in a book where they're few and far between: ''Weil meine Papa tot ist'', followed by the assurance that he had indeed used German, not Kurdish or Turkish.  A linguistic reminder that this man has by now spent most of his life in a country not his own; he is quite literally a “guest," even when it comes to the language.

I couldn't think of a way to capture this mistake without reaching into the ridiculous (e.g. “My papa she's dead“), but since it's emphasized, I thought I'd at least give it a nod, so I used a generic non-native-speaker sentence: “My papa he's dead." Not that great, I know.

More than fifty years have elapsed since the first guest workers from Turkey arrived in Germany, and they, their children, and grandchildren have shaped the social fabric and policies of both countries in ways that were never imagined. Similarly, Mely Kiyak takes her father's cancer as a starting point, but her book evolves into much more than a chronicle of cancer treatment. Simply saying that Herr Kiyak Thought the Good Years Had Finally Come is “about a Turkish guest worker in Germany who gets lung cancer,” while accurate, seems hopelessly inadequate. There are so many universal themes contained within it—memory, prejudice, immigration, modern medicine, the bond between parent and child, illness and looming death.  Whatever my translation's shortcomings, I hope it successfully conveys what a fine man Mely Kiyak's father is and how deep her feelings for him are. We all have a history we take with us wherever we go. We are all more than just a demographer’s statistic.