[interview with Nazmi Ağıl]
by Monica Manolachi
It is June 2023 and we are at the University of Bucharest, where the 24th edition of the Annual International Conference of the English Department of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures usually takes place. The small two-floor building in Pitar Moș Street, which has hosted the event throughout the years, is not so much crowded at this time of the summer. Turkish poet, translator, and scholar Nazmi Ağıl is one of the participants who joined the conference onsite. Since he has been part of it for several years now, we have decided to do an interview about his poetry, translations, research, and teaching. Our conversation has continued online after he returned to his home country.
How many times have you been here, Nazmi? What are your first memories of this city?
I have visited Romania six times so far, all on the occasion of conferences, five were in Bucharest and one was in the city of Iași. I did not know much about Bucharest when I first came here and, therefore, a few things surprised me. For example, assuming that streets in communist countries were all very wide, I could not guess that you would experience gridlock too. Then I was charmed by the coexistence of old buildings alongside the new ones. I felt like I was watching the city while it was changing skin. Since I already had a friend here, everything was very easy for me, but even without that, all the university people have been so friendly that they have never made me feel I was a stranger or a foreigner. And I think that caused the addiction. Yes, I always remember this city and the warm Romanian people in general.
The topic of our conference this year is humour and pathos. What was your presentation about?
You too have tales of Nasrettin Hoca (or Nastratin Hogea) in your culture. He is said to have lived in Anatolia. These tales are often learned during childhood and adults rarely tell them again later, but only use punch lines or proverbs on suitable occasions. For example: “He who pays the money blows the flute.” I wanted to bring these tales and also the old tradition of storytelling back to life. So I re-wrote them in verse, using many sound effects, alliterations, assonance, unusual images, juxtapositions, and some anachronisms to relate them to modern life. The second part of my talk was about another book of mine, Modifiye Masallar (Modified Fairy Tales), a subversive verse retelling of fairy tales, in which I have added some humor. I even translated a few of these pieces into English for my audience. I can share the Nasreddin Hodja one here, hoping that our readers would enjoy it too as my audience did. But I recommend they read it out loud, and they could even attempt to read it like a rap song.
Hodja and the Thief
When the moon is full like a fat bull
and millions of stars, like busy bees, tirelessly whiz and buzz,
the night of that day, when his wife is away,
to take her mother a Starbucks vegan cake in a recyclable box,
the moment Hodja is turning a corner while returning
from prayer with relief, he notices a thief
just before his house door. Hodja’s bed on his shoulder,
the man is walking without a dread, and instead, with a whistle
and cadence, unheeding the high-tech surveillance cameras.
Hodja feels a pain, deep as if he has fallen from a steep hill,
the remembered thrill of all the sweet joys in it
with his wife, in cold winter nights – though long in the old –
becomes a knife or a dart arrow stabbed in his heart.
Still, he does not allow his anger to win over him,
but calmly gets in, grabs a pillow and begins to follow the fellow
unsuspecting the shadow behind him.
Before long, the man stops and knocks on a door.
As he walks into the building, Hodja sneaks in too.
Who shall the thief see when he turns back?
He asks in disbelief:
“What the heck are you doing in this house
that belongs to me and to my spouse?
Rush out or I will crush
your head and turn it into a potato, lush!”
– We have no idea why this illiterate guy
spoke in rhymes, like a poet, yet maybe in past times
every person did so. – “O, o, o! Hush!” says Hodja,
“Why are you mad, dear friend?” – and shows the bed
still on the man’s shoulder – “There must be a mistake,
cheer up, haven’t I just moved here?”
Wow, it’s very playful and funny! You have been a literary translator from English into Turkish for more than three decades now. What are you translating at the moment?
True. I have quite a long history as a literary translator. I started with The Canterbury Tales and went on with some canonical English works including Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Rape of the Lock, The Prelude, and others, all in verse. Beginning a new translation project is very hard for me. I am very much scared of the trouble I am taking, not knowing what difficulties will be there for me, on the way. That makes me very anxious, but I feel that I have to continue if somehow I engage with such texts. So, I cannot say I am a happy translator and I do not always have something to translate, but at the moment I am trying to write a book on Emily Dickinson’s poetry, which will include my translations of more than a hundred poems, accompanied by translation decisions and some interpretive comments.
You have translated many Anglophone poets, ranging from Chaucer to contemporary poets. Given that they belong to different epochs, and they write in different styles, with the English language having different features from one epoch to another, how did you approach these differences?
This question occupied my mind a lot when translating Chaucer as it was my first work, and belonged to an earlier period of time and an earlier phase of English. In the end, I decided to write in ordinary, modern-day Turkish, considering my audience. But I occasionally used some archaic words too, just to give that sense of a distant past. When I came to Beowulf, I fell into the same dilemma: shall I tell this epic tale in a language and style reminiscent of the old Turkish stories? Seeing Seamus Heaney’s modern version gave me a big relief and, like him, I rendered it in today’s language, with some little stylistic borrowings from old epics. And for all other works, I have always tried to observe a balance between the style and language of the author and my audience, and that still is my principle.
Apart from translating poetry, you have translated fiction too. How do you navigate between these two genres?
Honestly, I don’t enjoy translating prose very much, but I have translated three novels because the publishers insisted and the books were very poetic in language. As a result, I often reject proposals to translate a work of prose. I feel that poetry gives me more space to be creative, and that is what I like about translation. When I have to invent a new word or a phrase or a proverb or make a cute wordplay, I feel happy, thinking that I am making some contribution to my language and culture as well as enriching the original text. It is almost like declaring it not a local work but a global one, belonging to all humanity. It is there for all people to read it, get inspired, and rewrite it to multiply its resources.
Could you mention some of the translation challenges and joys you have encountered throughout your career as a literary translator?
Almost every word and every line is a challenge, you know. But I remember some of them in particular. First, learning Geoffrey Chaucer’s language took me some time and practice as I translated him from the original book. Some words that sounded modern turned out to be old, with a different meaning, which, after some stumbling, made me look up every word before making a decision about it. I did not have a computer and there was no Google engine back then. I did my best with the decent ones, but I felt very shy with the bawdy stories, like “The Miller’s Tale”, so I hesitated about some obscene words. I must add I also had great difficulty with the religious terminology in the prose sermon parts. The Penguin Edition and some other modern translations just ignored these prose tales and were content with only a short summary. Foreseeing the difficulties, I asked my publisher if I could do without them too. Unfortunately, they said: you must translate the full text. Anyway, I am now happy that it was so. I think I made a very loyal and successful translation for which I had to do extensive research so that my wife said: “It is a shame that you know more about Christianity than about our religion!”
In Turkish, we use two different words for “you”: the casual “sen” and the respectful “siz”. This caused some language issues when translating Sir Gawain. You know, the Green Knight dashes into Arthur’s court and teases the knights with some humiliating address. When he is calling Arthur, does he say “sen” or “siz”? Again in the same story, there is a passage about the butchering of a deer. That gave me a hard time, I could not figure out what was being done. I tried to remember how my dad used to butcher the sheep and first, disregarding the original, I wrote it afresh before I came to a true understanding of the text, and only then I made a loyal translation.
Similarly, in The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope describes a card game in war terminology. I don’t play cards and had no idea what was going on on the green table. That passage almost made me give up, though I had done well up to that part. I had the courage to continue after a pause of six months. How can I forget? There was something else there. You know that one of the cards is a King, which in Turkish is translated as Papaz (Priest). How could I drive a Priest into the war field in front of the soldiers? Well, I did it, but using a footnote to explain the difference.
In his sonnets, Sir Philip Sidney personifies and addresses some abstract nouns like “Virtue”. But the word for virtue in Turkish is “Erdem” and it is a boy’s name too. So, it sounds hilarious, but there was nothing to do, I had to trust my readers’ common sense.
Finally, in The Prelude, William Wordsworth’s long sentences were difficult to understand and translate into Turkish, because of the syntactical difference. We use the subject+object+verb word order as opposed to subject+verb+object in English and, therefore, if you make a long sentence, the relation between the subject and the verb is lost to the reader.
There are countless other challenges as in every translation, but that is part of the joy of doing this job, right? Talking of joy, when I sent my sample translation of The Canterbury Tales for a contest in order to be commissioned as the translator of the whole text, the jury head said: “You have captured Chaucer’s soul!” What else can a 26-year-old translator want?
Besides, I was translating a British poet, who himself spoke Turkish. When I sent him a poem for his approval, he replied: “I meant something else here, but you put it so well. With your permission, can I translate my line into yours?” What joy for a poet, though the situation showed me a poor translator.
In 2019, you gave a lecture entitled “Translating Poetry, Transforming Myself” at Istinye University in Istanbul. Could you share some of the main ideas included in that talk?
The main idea in my presentation was that translation is a learning and maturing experience. You learn about other languages and see that there are different ways of seeing and saying things, other than you already know. That brings a better understanding of the Other. As you encounter difficulties in expressing the original in your own words, you come to a better appreciation of the author who moulded the language so skillfully. You also learn about yourself. You learn to be patient and to work in a disciplined way. You learn to always check your knowledge and doubt your cocksure attitude, as even an uneducated person or a child can come up with a word you are searching for and it is always possible to misread a text. I gave examples of my own mistakes in my published translations too. In fact, I have published an article about my faults in a literary magazine, some caused by my ignorance, some by my absent-mindedness, and some because I did not feel the need to check the words in a dictionary.
If you were asked to quote poetry that has stayed with you over the years, what would you choose and why? What specific lines do you have at heart?
“I know a woman lovely in her bones” by Theodore Roethke, as it is so musical and a novel way of describing a woman’s beauty.
“Let us go then you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table” from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because I heard it first in my undergrad years when it was read out loud and fell in love with Eliot’s music.
“There was nothing in the town below / Where strangers would have shut the many doors / That many friends had opened long ago” by E. Arlington Robinson, so touching and so true in the modern day.
“Something there is that does not love a wall” by Robert Frost, as it applies to many occasions, not only to the actual wall mentioned in the poem. I borrowed it too in one of my poems about love.
Finally, “Thus though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we can make him run” by Andrew Marvell, for the strong imagery and the deep passion.
What other activity would you compare the art of translation with?
Planting a tree in different soil, maybe. That is what comes to my mind immediately, as I come from a family of farmers. I am now in the countryside for the summer holiday. This is where we planted some fruit trees just a few months ago. And I think I don’t need to develop the metaphor as it should be clear to everyone how it operates, and they can continue the conceit as a metaphysical poet would do.
Do you need different conditions when you translate literature and when you write your own poetry? What do your working places look like?
My desk from home and that from my university office are the places where I have written most of my poems and have done most translations. I need to spend time in isolation, free from interruptions, like when my family is asleep late at night or early in the morning. I don’t play music but love to hear the silence of the room or the dogs barking or the crickets and the birds singing. I translated Chaucer with a pencil and a notebook and had to type it on a computer as soon as I could afford one with the money I got when I half finished it. Now, I feel more focused in front of the screen and at a desk that is not crowded, but clean.
You have published several poetry collections in Turkish so far, the most recent being a bilingual one, entitled Bangladesh Blues. What inspires you to write poetry?
My poems are half autobiographical. I mean they are born out of my life experience and, since reading too is part of life, out of my readings. What inspires me is a desire to give a deep meaning to what I am experiencing, to see its different layers and implications. If I look at a bird and see only a bird, then I feel impoverished. Here is a line I wrote years ago to lament such poverty: “Now, close your eyelids and tell me what you see. My eyelids.” Poetry is the process of turning that raw metal of experience into an aesthetic object. At times, when I am not looking at the world through the eyes of a poet, I feel like swimming on the surface of the sea, when there is a whole colorful and rich universe beneath. In this context, poetry is my pair of goggles. Moreover, poetry is a way to discover new sensibilities, it makes you aware of feelings that you did not know existed until you write them down. It is a discovery, following the flow of words and arriving at some place you did not plan. I love that. Bangladesh Blues is a good example. It is inspired by my one-week visit to the country and tells about my observations almost like a travel book, similar to your river poems from Journeys in Europe, which I have enjoyed reading a lot. At the same time, it is an adventure in and between languages as I wrote the poems in English first, and then roughly translated or rewrote them in my native language so that I could better use and reflect the potential of the Turkish language and culture.
How did you become a poet? What was the context when you realized this was your path? Was there anybody who encouraged you? What kind of literature did you grow up with?
I wrote my first poems in primary school just to entertain my family. In secondary school, I won a contest with a poem and was given a book of folk poetry. I loved the rhymes and the rhythm and the fact they reflected our rural culture. I filled a notebook with imitations of these poems, which still stands on my bookshelf. I continued to write over the years as I got to know other poets and other ways of writing poetry. As a teenager in a military high school, I certainly had the chance to go to the university and study English literature and become a language instructor instead of going to the war academy. I think it was during those university years that I thought I could be a real poet, publishing in literary journals, and, why not, writing a book of my own too. The breaking point came a few years later though, at the same time when I was translating Chaucer. My friends even joked about it and said that I became a poet through translation. Well, there must be some truth in it. I can’t remember any encouragement though, except from my school friends who laughed at my humorous poems and sometimes asked me to write love poems for their girls. Good poetry is not popular with everyone, not even in academia, so you need people who have a certain taste, take poetry writing seriously, and appreciate what you are doing. I was rather inspired by the poets in the books as I got into conversation with them and wrote in emulation.
As part of your work as a researcher of literature, you published a book on ekphrasis. How did you become interested in the subject and what is your take on it? Do you write ekphrastic poetry?
I have an interest in painting, not that I paint myself, but I love looking at pictures and reading about visual art. Of course, I had read some poems on paintings and sculptures before, but finding out that this was a special genre called ekphrasis made me more curious about it. I discovered that, although there was an abundance of publications on it in Europe and in America, this field of academic study was not known much in Turkey.
As a result, I wrote this book aiming to introduce the subject to our academia with the hope that others might take an interest in it and advance the research. I used Western critical sources and referred to their literary works, but my intention was also to apply the ekphrastic theory to Turkish writings. Therefore, I read several novels, poems, and short stories through this theoretical lens. While doing this, I explored if Turkish writers, who were familiar with the styles of Western painting due to certain social, political, and religious reasons, could produce ekphrasis that enables today as rich a reading as that of their Western counterparts. My conclusion is affirmative, and they did it in comparatively very little time.
Some ekphrastic theorists approach the relationship between the two arts – painting and writing – as amiable, one trying to imitate the other out of appreciation, while others see the two as rivals in their attempt to describe the truth. I especially like this idea of rivalry and enjoy reading it from this perspective. To my pleasure, I came up with quite novel and exciting ways of seeing these canonical writings.
And yes, while I was working on my book, I noticed that I had already written several ekphrastic poems. Then, I embarked upon creating a new, completely ekphrastic poetry volume, which I later named Bu Sessiz Cümbüş (This Silent Revelry). I paid attention to selecting famous paintings from abroad and from Turkey. Moreover, I wanted my poems to speak with those by poets who looked at these works before me. You might find it interesting that my Mona Lisa is married to a Turkish man and the speaker of the poem is her mother-in-law, gossiping, saying that she does no housework at all, always staying with her hands tied in front of her as in the picture. I am not a very political poet, but it is intriguing how one is led into political and social references while writing about works of art. Maybe it is because ekphrasis provides an indirect route which otherwise you would not take. Thus, in the same poem, I refer to the recent Gezi Park protests (people reacted against the uprooting of some trees from the city center) when looking at the scenery behind the early sixteenth-century model.
How does music shape your writing and the voice in your poems?
I envy everyone who can play an instrument, sing or even whistle a tune. But I think, and people say that too, there is a lot of music in my poems. I don’t know, maybe they are two different skills. I like listening to music and going to some concerts too, but do not play it very much, except on the car radio. I see people jogging or walking in parks with headphones, which I would never do, as I love hearing the authentic sounds of life coming from the trees, from the birds and the dogs, or even from the cars. When I listen to music, though, I generally prefer Turkish classical music, folk songs, and jazz pieces.
Which of the themes of your poetry do you think have had an impact on the readers and why?
It must be my Boşanma Dosyası (Divorce File) book that touched people’s hearts the most. It is supposed to be a document of the daily experience of a couple, implying the imminence of a divorce, though I call it a guidebook for a happy marriage, warning couples to be more careful about the issues handled in it. I remember a letter from a couple thanking me for the book, mentioning that, after long years of being together, they began to read poetry to each other. Another book with some impact might be the one about my relationship with my then-adolescent son.
Do you write confessional poetry?
No, my poems are not totally confessional. I have never had a divorce and have not been that bad with my son either. I just tried to push some incidents and occasions to the extreme, to gloomy ends, to sustain a coherent mood in the whole book. My son read these poems while I was writing them and that made the whole difference. He came to understand me and I also came to soften my sharp views as I was thinking about our relationship, and we have been such good friends since then.
Turkish culture is a blend of many influences. How is that reflected in your poetry? Could you give an example?
Like fish being unaware of the water they are swimming in, I really don’t know the answer to this question, because all these influences have made me and my poetry and I cannot identify what comes from where in my writing. For example, some Islamic religious practices are indeed inherited from pagan times. We have national foods that were passed on to us from the ancient Anatolian civilizations. Like this, I take in every cultural element without really wondering about its origin. All is my culture now and all is me.
If aspects like nationality, ethnic origin, or accent matter anymore nowadays, in what ways do they?
I think all these will continue to matter, and they should indeed. I don’t mean that people should be treated differently because of their origins, but because these aspects are a source and a sign of cultural richness. Every poet brings his own treasure and writes his own people’s experiences in his own accent. That is ideal. Influences are fine and acceptable, and standardization is not good in everything. Local taste must be preserved, especially in literature and the arts.
How would you describe the poetry scene in Turkey at the moment? Are you part of a local community of poets?
In the 1990s, there were some eminent critics and editors who used to shape the literary scene. And there were a few poetry journals that selected promising poets. These critics were not replaced by new ones, and we don’t have a strong voice to influence the poetry scene at the moment. Besides, there is a proliferation of journals both electronic and printed. That is why you are faced with a sea of published poems of little taste, which makes new readers or aspiring poets feel lost about what to pick. Maybe it is the same everywhere, poetry books are printed in limited numbers and most often go without getting critical attention. Poets are not getting together in certain cafes or pubs as they did in the past, but everyone lives in his own world. At least, this is how I see it. So, I don’t belong to any group of poets but try to weave my own cocoon, sharing my fresh poems with a few colleagues and my family before they get published.
If not a poet, what would you have been to manifest your freedom of expression?
I would love to practice some job that would allow me some creativity. I would love to be an inventor of some tools that make people’s lives easier. Not that I have any talent in this direction, but I think I would feel quite good as a carpenter or maybe a chef or even a medical practitioner.
What creative projects are you working on at the moment?
Apart from my Emily Dickinson project, I am busy writing a book for children. It will be a book of verse fables teaching kids the qualities of a good leader. I want to make it a book to be read in the classroom with the guidance of a teacher as each poem is followed by a few questions that delve deeper into some linguistic and thematic aspects. Some poems will also have a “Mom, I am a poet” corner where they are asked to write the relevant leadership secret in a rhyming couplet.
Wonderful idea! Do you have any favourite authors whose work you like teaching? Give some examples.
Sure, there are always those that have a special place in your syllabus. Since we are talking poetry, let me name a few poets. I love teaching Chaucer for his humor and the ease he tells his stories, Sidney for his lighthearted playfulness, John Donne for his shocking directness, Robert Frost for the rural life he describes, e. e. cummings for his play with the language. I love teaching them because their poetry excites my students too for the reasons I have just mentioned.
How do you see the difference between being guided and guiding others on the path of writing?
I love being guided by great writers through their works, and by small writers as well, since there is always something we learn from others. And I would feel very happy if some find inspiration to write in my own writings. I feel happy in both cases. Learning is fun. And if I have discovered something good, why not share it with others so that it may multiply as we need more and more good things in the world? Therefore, as long as it is a willing exchange, I don’t see a difference between the two, they are both satisfying.
How do travelling and migration inform your writing?
I cannot say anything about migration as I have no direct experience, but travelling inspires me significantly. My first book is about my visit to an Aegean Island, which in only three days filled my mind with so many images and led to so many associations of ideas. I wrote the book within only two weeks after returning home. The same is true for my Bangladesh book.
What do you miss about Turkey when you go abroad?
Turkish language, first. Then, my friends with whom I can talk in full confidence that I will be understood. And, if I stay abroad a bit longer, the baklava.
Let’s say tomorrow you could meet poets of the past. Who would they be, why and what would you like to find out from them and how would you spend your time together?
I would love to meet Chaucer in a bar, and ask him how he could be so brave to tell such obscene stories and attack the Church so openly then, while centuries later we still have taboos and censorship. I would tell him about my translation of The Canterbury Tales and see his reaction. Then I would ask him to tell me about how the stories he left incomplete in the book would continue. I would also invite Shakespeare to a traditional Turkish breakfast, and just let him speak about anything (because I think of him as someone who is in love with talking), while I keep wondering if there is a stable person in him that I can catch, as I see him so evasive. Ha-ha! And I would surely invite Emily Dickinson to a Zoom meeting – since she probably would be too shy to meet me in person – and ask her to clarify some of her poems and make my life easier these days.
If you were to answer a question that I haven’t thought of, what would that be and what would you say?
Another question could be: “Since you also write poetry for kids, would you tell me about how that passion began, what have you written so far and what are you aiming at?”
Alright, let’s talk about that. Writing poetry for children can be both challenging and rewarding.
I always wanted to write for children, but somehow, whenever I attempted to do it, I found myself turning too serious and imagined adults as my readers. One day, I was asked to give a talk on teaching English through poetry and I wrote ten funny poems in English, with great ease. I think English sort of served as a mask for me under which I could express myself more freely. Then, I said why shouldn’t I try to write some in Turkish too and that was how it began about six years ago.
I have so far published five books and still have two volumes in print. It is so much fun to write for kids, to visit schools, and see how they react to my poems with all their innocence! I regret not doing it before. Children’s books are also more fun to look at, I love the illustrations and appreciate them more than my poems. I wrote a book on thirty kinds of birds in the form of riddles, there are stickers for kids in it, a painting page and kids can also hear the sound of each bird through a barcode. I wrote a second book in the same format, which is about kinds of fish. Another one is a book of fairy tales. Other books consist of funny poems about the daily life of children. In fact, all my poems have some element of humor, as I love to see children laughing.
In Turkey, poetry is the stepchild often forgotten when talking about children’s literature. Parents put it back on the shelf when they see that it is poetry and children are not such fans. I hope to create a wave of interest in this direction. I like imagining my books not necessarily in the school curriculum, but being circulated among the children during the break. I want them to enjoy and feel inspired to write their own poetry. I have books that teach – though, again, with some humor – but the poems I love writing are far from what is usually available on the market, do not have a didactic agenda, are light-hearted and intended only to entertain the kids, make them enjoy the sound and rhythm of the language.
Thank you for your time and interesting views, dear Nazmi. Good luck!