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Translating Kemal Varol: The Challenge of Cultural References

By Dayla Rogers

Dayla Rogers’s translation of Kemal Varol’s “The Angels Who Wiped My Fate Clean” appears in the July 2017 issue: Divided Countries.

We translators often get so caught up in capturing meaning and tone that we forget how we felt when we first encountered the work as readers. Did we laugh? Cry? Did we get attached to the characters? While rendering meaning and tone are the foundations of our mission, there is also the dimension of what Sharmistha Mohanty calls “retaining the dynamism of the encounter.” Mohanty famously translated Rabindranath Tagore’s Broken Nest and Other Stories from Bengali into English. In the preface she explains that our mission is not so much to create a text that sounds like it was written in English but to render the author’s voice in the other language, even if it means bending the host language and sacrificing “a certain smoothness.”

There are several instances in which I “bent” English to capture Kemal Varol’s style. What I found more challenging, however, was translating cultural references in a way that would facilitate a dynamic encounter with the text. The go-to strategy for translating cultural references is to use a footnote to explain the foreign word/concept, which can be disruptive to the reading experience. Though I find footnotes occasional necessary, I used the following strategies in order to avoid using them.

Kemal Varol’s novel Wuf, from which the piece in WWB is excerpted, is the tale of a dog named Mikasa who lives in a Kurdish town in southeastern Turkey and is forced to work as a minesweeping dog in the Turkish army, fighting the Kurds. The heroes of the story are dogs, all of who have names and unique personalities. They can be crude. They can be eloquent. They can be funny. As an animal lover, I winced at scenes describing their suffering, and felt dread in the pit of my stomach as I felt danger approach them. I strove to make the characters just as charming in English as I found them to be in Turkish to make the tragedy of war hit closer to home.

Let’s begin with a scene from Mikasa’s early life, when his mother rejects him for letting a human pet him:

She bared her teeth at every maneuver I made for her nipple . . . No matter how I begged and pleaded, she wouldn’t let me near. Though I made a couple attempts to join [my siblings], it was no use. She shooed me off. My siblings unstuck themselves from her teats and glanced, unconcerned, at the yafta tacked onto my fate before burrowing back into her fur.

The Turkish word yafta in a general sense means “stigma.” However, it refers more specifically to signs that criminals had to wear around their necks describing their crimes as they were paraded through town. Being that Varol has taken the poetic step of making fate into something physical that can be seen, it didn’t seem right to describe this sign using an abstract concept like “stigma.” The first thing an American reader thinks of, naturally, is the Scarlet Letter. Here was the change I made:

My siblings unstuck themselves from her nipples and glanced, unconcerned, at the red letter tacked onto my fate before burrowing back into her fur.

I had to explain the reference to Varol. The Scarlet Letter is not a widely read text in Turkey, but he enthusiastically supported the choice.

Later on Mikasa finally joins a pack with whom he carouses about town:

We were a scourge. We were troublemakers. We had our run of the town. Sometimes we chased the yellow-bellied cats, who, heaving with panic, would seek a hole to slip through. Other times we roamed the streets looking for strangers to spook.

Does the meaning come across? Sure. But taking a look at the Turkish, one can see how it falls a bit short of our goal of retaining the encounter:

Belaydık. Bitirimdik. Tuttuğumuzu koparırdık. Bazen ödek kedilerin peşine düşerdik. Nefes nefese kaçacak bir delik ararlardı.

The first two sentences are nothing but single words. To my mind, this staccato structure gives them a more strident quality, while the fact that they both start with “b” suggests a certain musicality. The original translation just didn’t feel snappy enough. I took a step that other translators may or may not agree with:

We were bad. And we knew it. We had our run of the town.

Clearly a Michael Jackson reference. To me this captures the staccato of the Turkish and hits the English reader in a similar way that it does the Turkish reader. Besides, Michael Jackson is a global sensation. Would it be too far-fetched for Mikasa to know about him?

Later on, it’s winter and Mikasa’s pack are going hungry. The leader of the pack asks Old Latif, the sagacious storytelling dog, to fill their bellies with tales. Mikrob, the wise guy of the pack, gives Latif a new nickname:

Taking this cue, Old Latif ran from one story filled with a thousand-and-one morals to another, stuffing us with words in the absence of bread. Mikrob, head swollen with tales, could no longer resist the urge to give Old Latif the new nickname “Lafo.”

Why is this new nickname funny? At first glance I could see it was wordplay on the Turkish word “laf,” which means “empty talk,” “bullshit,” etc. I wasn’t sure how I could get English readers to see the humor in the name change. I considered changing his original name to “Yakub” and having his new name be “Yako.” As I was about to propose this during one of our Skype calls, Mr. Varol pointed out that this was a subtle reference to Jean de La Fontaine, the renowned French author of animal fables. The dog even has curly forelocks that mimic La Fontaine’s eighteenth-century wig.  So it was both wordplay and a cultural reference! Clearly, I couldn’t pull off both. I decided that wordplay had to be sacrificed, so the “Yako” idea was out. Here’s the new version of the sentence:

Mikrob, head swollen with tales, could no longer resist the urge to give Old Latif—self-styled La Fontaine that he was—the new nickname “Lafo.”

As you can see, I’ve buttressed the text to clarify the cultural reference in a way that I hope doesn’t disrupt the narrative and fits with Varol’s voice.

The next sentence in the same passage offered yet another challenge—again involving Lafo.

Old Lafo picked up his saz and told the tale of the dog who once faced the bitter dilemma of having to choose between two beloved masters.

A saz is a stringed instrument used by Anatolian bards. The dog doesn’t actually have a saz. Rather, “pick up one’s saz” is an idiom used to describe the action of “taking the stage” or “taking your cue.” Here I was unsure what to do. What English idiom could I replace it with? Should I cut it out altogether and just say “he began to tell the tale . . .”? That would mean losing the reference to Anatolian storytelling, which is a contour of the dog’s character. Here was the solution I came up with:

Old Lafo picked up his imaginary saz, instrument of bards, and told the tale of the dog who once faced the bitter dilemma of having to choose between two beloved masters.

The use of the word “imaginary” here makes Old Lafo into a dog that not only tells stories but sees himself as a full-fledged bard, which fits with his character. The little relative clause at the end is inconspicuous and keeps readers from having to delve into a footnote.

I have to emphasize how critical constant dialogue with the author has been throughout the translation process. After the rough translation of each chapter, we had a Skype call in which we sought solutions to the challenging bits. Mr. Varol was apologetic at times. “I’m an old poet,” he would say sheepishly as an explanation for the meandering, rhythmic elements of his sentences. Wanting to make life easy for me, he always gave me permission to cut things out or to use whatever English idiom fit. I often had to stand my ground and insist that he unpack references and idioms so that we could up with more creative solutions. I applaud Mr. Varol on this. It’s not easy being subjected to scrutiny, having to explain your choices—especially if much of your voice stems from spontaneous, poetic intuition.

Published Jul 26, 2017   Copyright 2017 Dayla Rogers

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