The Blacksmith’s Daughter: Author and Translators in Conversation

©Lucie Ella

with Selim Özdoğan, Katy Derbyshire

Selim Özdoğan’s The Blacksmith’s Daughter was translated by Ayça Türkoğlu and Katy Derbyshire. The translation having been a collaborative process, we decided to conduct our interview in a similar way, in this case via Google Docs. This interview was first published in Jahrbuch Türkisch-Deutsche Studien.

Selim: When did you two notice that the written word was more important to you than for the average reader? Do you remember how and why your interest in translating started? 

Katy: I’m not sure it is more important to me than for other readers. I do know I had internal monologues as a child in which I narrated my life like in a book: “‘This car smells bad,’ she said to herself as she gazed forlornly out at the passing fields.” Maybe that’s a perfectly normal thing to do, though – perceiving the world through the windows we see it framed within, the way people said they dreamed in black and white during the early days of cinema, and switched over with the advent of Technicolor. I don’t remember imagining myself in a film or on a stage, though, so perhaps that’s a difference.

My interest in translation came much later. I grew up monolingual so languages other than English were a mystery to me, albeit an enticing one. We had swearwords at school from other kids’ languages, mostly Jamaican Patois and Hindi, which we thought our teachers didn’t understand. I learned French, then Latin, then German, then a tiny bit of Russian, and my first translations were in Latin classes. It was a fun exercise, nothing more. It wasn’t until I understood German well enough to translate it that I realized it was something *I* could do – I didn’t know any translators (or any writers). And then I was living in Berlin and reading a lot of second-hand books from junk shops. I read Bruno Apitz and found an English translation of Nackt unter Wölfen, which I gave to my dad. I thought it was a terrible translation, done in the 1950s, and I was convinced I could do better. I probably couldn’t have, actually, because it took years to get good at it.

Selim: I can totally relate to the I can do better part. I am a big fan of Orhan Veli. His poems are translated beautifully into German by Yüksel Pazarkaya but when I was about 20 I was sure I could do a better job. So I tried. And failed. I realised it right away that I failed. That was before I really started writing. And it didn’t stop me from writing. For some reason I had the same feeling with writing: I can do better. Maybe I am not good but I can easily beat the boring stuff I’m reading while looking for writers with that special spark. 

Orhan Veli statue, Beşiktaş. Photographer: Homonihilis

Ayça: Growing up with two languages around might have added to my curiosity about words and the way language works, but it certainly didn’t feel like that at the time. I do remember trying to decipher the lyrics sheet from one of my Tarkan cassettes, but I came unstuck quickly because Turkish is agglutinative and none of the words, as I saw them, were in the dictionary. I think there are a few reasons why translation turned out to be ‘my thing’, though. I’ve been writing since I was little and I’ve always really enjoyed mimicry. I love copying accents and tuning into peculiar aspects of people’s speech. When I was little, I would entertain my mum by reciting whole skits from definitely-not-age-appropriate comedies, doing all the accents. I think that’s why I took to French and German at school, not because I wanted to communicate, but because I wanted to copy the sounds. I think translation can be a kind of mimicry, an attempt to recreate a text as you hear it. And sound is an important part of that, of course.

On a nerdier level, I like noticing patterns and I like rules. At university, I realised that translation allowed me to combine writing with solving fiddly word problems: my idea of a fun time, basically.

There’s a degree of close observation required for translation that I feel is something I’m doing all the time: observing the rules of a social interaction, the moods, the tones, the class dynamics, etc. It just gives me great pleasure to inch closer to language that ‘fits’ all that.

Speaking of sound, a question for you, Selim: You can be found on social media @wortmachtklang and you created an Anatolian Blues playlist for The Blacksmith’s Daughter (available on Spotify). How do sound and music influence the way that you write?

Selim: Everything started with sound, that’s why we call it the Big Bang. That’s why some Yogis believe that the sound of om is the origin of the universe. What turned into literature was once tales and stories and myths which were passed on orally. So when I sit down and write, in a way I try to write music, I try to give the words a rhythm, a melody, a flow. I envy singers because they can sing something like I love you and make it really sound like they love the person. When you write down: And he said I love you, there is no emotion in it. You have to create the context in order to deliver what you are trying to say. So the words are my voice, my way of expressing music. Rumi says: Poems are rough notations for the music we are. We could say that everything the three of us do is translating one music into another. I know that Katy enjoys music, maybe she could tell us about her taste and if there is a connection to translating for her. And know very little about your preferences, Ayça … ?

Katy: My taste has evolved over the years, probably like many people’s. From mainly listening to Jamaican music (starting with ska then acknowledging the existence of reggae) to a slightly broader range, especially 1950s and 60s American RnB (which was what a lot of ska was built on, so maybe my nerdism is just bleeding at the edges). 

Whatever the case, music for me has always been about dancing, it’s always been something physical for me, I have to at least nod my head. Rhythm! Such an important part of writing and translating! A translation has to sound right beyond just the fitting word choices, and a lot of that is down to rhythm. I once attended a translation workshop on tapping out sentences, in the Ginger Rodgers sense. OK, I don’t do that in my everyday work but it’s something I try to be aware of, and little things like the final sound in a paragraph or a statement – is it stressed or unstressed, drum solo or fade-out? It’s good when that matches the original. 

I also feel like rhythm is important for bringing out humour. Translating Olga Grjasnowa’s Gott ist nicht schüchtern, which works with very dark humour, I tried to preserve her bathetic chapter endings, plunging from high drama to irony. In German, of course, a lot of writers play with putting the key information, the punchline if you will, at the end of a long sentence, which is fun to reconstruct and not actually all that difficult in English. It’s a very stretchy language.

Something a bit silly that I do – and I think a lot of other translators – is sneaking in personal favourites, for me often snatches of lyrics or song titles that can’t possibly have been in the original. I imagine readers might recognize them and smile. Or maybe just readers with similarly narrow musical horizons to my own.  

Ayça: It’s all about singing, for me. I’ve always sung constantly, from when I was very little, and my mum’s side of the family, the English side, sings all the time. I remember one summer in Turkey where we spent numerous evenings driving around with my little 80-year-old nene in the front seat and my mum and me in the back belting out Careless Whisper. I wonder what she made of it. Singing is catharsis; it’s like Selim says, there are emotions you can express through music that you can’t in writing. If I’m feeling fed up, I can sing for an hour or so and know it will soothe me.

I like all sorts, though I have a soft spot for folk music. There’s a lot more folk music in the mainstream in Turkey, so I was always exposed to that. I especially love Kazım Koyuncu, Sezen Aksu, Kardeş Türküler, Selda Bağcan, Fikret Kızılok, Ahmet Kaya… I spent almost every summer of the 1990s in Turkey, which, to my mind, was a golden age of Turkish pop. My dream is to curate a 90s/00s soundtrack for the last book in the Anatolian Blues trilogy (hint hint).

Sezen Aksu. Photographer: E4024

I also love a lot of the music that came out of the folk revival in England in the 1960s. I love how deeply radical a lot of it is, how it’s made to be played live rather than recorded; there’s an intimacy to that that I like. I love that it centres the act of playing and singing, as opposed to the finished product, it invites participation and enjoyment regardless of personal talent. I also love the weight it gives to simple stories about ordinary people’s lives, which is part of why The Blacksmith’s Daughter chimes with me so much.

I can’t listen to music at all when I write or translate, though. For one thing, it’s too emotional, and I feel I need to be listening to what the sentence sounds like, repeating sounds and rhyme and so on. I want the sentence to move me the way music moves me, I want my sentence to stir the same feelings in me as the original does.

Selim: Yes, some music is clearly about participation, about connecting and bonding with people, about resistance and resilience. I think this is inherent in music, you try to resonate with others. Immediately. Literature tends to be much slower and takes another route.
I consider myself lucky because I can listen to music while writing. Except for German rap, because I tend to pay attention to the words then and can’t concentrate.
I’ve picked up a lot of hobbies during this pandemic. One is taking singing lessons, which I did before, more than a decade ago until my teacher said: You’re hitting the notes now, we can start singing next. Maybe a big part of my life has been looking for my voice and what I can do with it. And that always starts with mimicking others. But I don’t think that finding one’s own voice metaphor really fits when you are translating? 

Katy: Not really, no, it’s more a question of finding someone else’s voice. My turn to ask a question: What about role models? Do you have them, in life, in writing, in translation? In The Blacksmith’s Daughter and the whole of the trilogy, Gül has it harder in life because her mother was no longer there to set an example for her. Her father guides her throughout, but their lives are very different. I don’t think she has role models, as such.  

Selim: Yes, I agree. Some role models are very basic and important at the same time. If you can’t learn how to be a good mother because you didn’t have one, it can be very hard to satisfy your children and yourself later in life I guess. It isn’t necessarily about stepmothers but about learning about nurturing relationships at a young age.
So first you have role models that you can’t really choose, then you start looking around for yourself, to determine the direction you are headed in. I wanted to be able to write like Philippe Djian when I was in my early twenties. But I wanted the spiritual quality in my work that I saw with Leonard Cohen. Nowadays I feel too old for role models but I admire certain qualities and traits in some people. 

Ayça: I’m not sure I’m great with role models; I can do idols, but that’s probably not as healthy. A person I’d love to be is Sarah Moss, who seems to be able to hold down a full-time academic job, before heading off on her annual rainy summer holiday somewhere in the UK and producing a thrilling novel out of it, generally one that manages to be hilarious while spearing British class dynamics and having a great sense of place. And she’s a fellow knitter – what a hero. I’d love to be that hard-working, but I like gardening too much.

That aside, I think Gül is a role model herself, really. She’s not showy like Fuat, so you might wonder at first what she’s actually achieved. But she does good in the lives of the people she loves. She’s not naturally brave, but she’s brave when it counts. She bears things, and sometimes that’s just what’s needed. She reminds me of a lot of the women who I love, and who I hope to be more like when I’m a bit older and less concerned about my ego. The other day I was translating something really lovely, something that slips effortlessly into equally lovely English, and I found myself wondering, ‘Is it really me doing this?’ Am I involved in the process at all? I’m not sure if it’s good for my ego, or bad.

Selim: Why should it be anything for your ego when it didn’t contribute to the job?

Ayça: I don’t understand, Selim, are you suggesting that the ego’s not involved in the translator’s work? That is very complimentary, if so, but I am a lot more smug than that!

Selim: If it goes smoothly like that I’d say it isn’t involved. But it likes to take the credit.

Ayça: Interesting. What about when you’re writing? And what do you think, Katy?

Katy: I take the credit even when it feels easy.

Selim: Sometimes I write and get into a flow and after I stop, it’s like: That’s good, how did I do that? I don’t know how I did it, if I knew I would do it more often. It just happens. I don’t really take the credit. It’s more like life wants to express itself in this way. And I happen to be the way. And I’m happy about that. Bob Marley says: Jah gave me song to sing.

Cologne, Berlin, London, June 2021