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In Conversation with George Messo

Posted by Arc, 18th April 2013

To celebrate the launch of And Silk and Love and Flame by Birhan Keskin, I asked the translator (poet himself), George Messo, a few questions about the process of translating the book.

You say in the introduction to And Silk and Love and Flame after you read Yeryüzü Halleri you went on to read all Birhan's books over the next two years. What was it about this book that caught your imagination?

It's full of surprise: unexpected images, unusual language. As readers, we all know those moments when a poem suddenly jolts us from one state to another. In this book the poems are startlingly honest and intimate in ways that made them alive and relevant.

You also talk, in the introduction, of how through Birhan's corrections her poems emerged in your 'new language'. Can you expand a little more on this idea of a new language?

When I worked with the Turkish poet Ilhan Berk he'd always say "Yorgo, they're my poems in Turkish and your poems in English." He trusted me, enough to give me a kind of absolute freedom. What you do with it is another thing. But it was important to feel the fullness of those keys. In everything I did with Ilhan I could always recognize versions of my own language use. I knew exactly which key I'd used to unlock, say, this particular door. With Birhan it was very different. She was keenly involved in the details of the poems as they appeared in English. Often she was insistent about syntax, the way her grammatical structures mirrored back through the translations. So, when I talk about a new language, I mean new to me, rather than versions of my own voice. There were many times during the translation process when I felt utterly and completely naked, as if every resource of my own language had been stripped away, thrown out, deleted. Birhan wanted gerund for gerund, article for article, tooth for tooth. I'd never worked that way before. I bowed to it. I bent my neck. And then the inexplicable magic as the poems brought me back to life and gave me a voice.

As you say, Birhan's poems "inhabit a space between cognition and remembering". Once the poems have been translated into English, how much do you think the memory has changed? How much does the language affect the essence of the memory?

Memory is personal, by its nature, but in poems it can't stay that way, hermetically sealed in its own private world. Or if it did we probably wouldn't call it a poem. Birhan's poems often recall fractured states, moments of emotional tension, expressed very minimally in simple, uncluttered language. It was important for me as a translator to keep those pathways into memory clear, and to reflex her stylistic clarity even when the memories themselves are complex. But we don't own languages: the words aren't mine or hers, or yours or ours. We partake for a certain duration in this communion of common experience, where words are nothing if not shared. So, while they are Birhan's memories, already in Turkish they've taken up residence in language, and that is no longer private. From that moment on I think there is no essence unique to the memory that cannot be shared.

Birhan's use of line breaks is tremendously invigorating and you talk of punctuation being the key to giving you the flexibility to open up the poems. For those of us who don't read Turkish how much do you follow her line breaks? And to explore your thinking more, how did you make decisions in the English versions for the line breaks?

Unlike in English, Turkish doesn't follow any hard and fast punctuation rules. It's an odd idea to fully understand but it allows poems to be fluid and exact at one and the same time. It can sometimes be difficult to isolate lines and units of meaning in Birhan's poems. Not following the command of a comma or full stop allows a reader to carry sense holistically through the lines, into the verse, and into the poem. In this way Birhan's poems think and feel simultaneously and that moves the reader unexpectedly through several registers at once. It's difficult at first. But there's never a sense of being separated and then reconnected. It was important to closely tempo my lines to those of Birhan's in order to carry this across in English. Without the "dictatorship of the full stop", as Berk once called it, nothing really comes to an end. The poems change direction, expand and contract, and either fade away or blend into new beginnings. It sounds strange, and perhaps it is initially. But it doesn't take long before it starts to pull you in.

What would you say was the most difficult aspect of translating Birhan's work?

When an author turns to their translator and asks "In this part here, can you try to be a little less you and a little more me?" then you know that much of the task will involve a degree of introspection that goes far beyond the two languages. It was rewarding to work so intensely with Birhan's poems, but it was exhausting. With only the smallest revision, the things I'd tried so hard to make visible could suddenly disappear in a flash. It was difficult sometimes to get the rabbit out of the hat. But I think we did it eventually.