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Ruth Christie on Translating

Posted by Angela, 29th March 2012

To celebrate the publication of Bejan Matur's How Abraham Abandoned Me, Sarah Hymas talked to Ruth Christie about her approach to translation.

SH You have now translated two Bejan Matur's books for Arc, how did you come across her work originally, and what drew you to it?

RC As perhaps you know from the translator’s preface to 'In the Temple of a Patient God', Bejan appeared unexpectedly at my door with her first book of Turkish poems. I’ve always thought of her as 'sent', and was very soon attracted by the undercurrents of myth and legend that ran through her strange narratives.

SH What do you enjoy about translating, and Bejan in particular?

RC I’ve always been interested in 'translating' ever since at school when I was tinkering with homework, trying to write more than straight renderings of bits of Homer and Virgil because I thought they lacked something important though I didn't know what it was. Also I had a painter father who read poetry and was busy translating Chaucer's 'Troilus and Criseyde' into modern English and reading it aloud to anyone who cared to listen, and that might include his daughters. So there's a background of poetry and translation from away back.

The attraction of translating Bejan? I think it's in figuring out the difference between language that often seems simple and direct (sometimes like a child's questions to a mother) and the tremendously powerful concepts it presents. There is a 'gravitas', as in the voice of a prophet. Other voices in the poems are bizarre, surreal, sometimes naïve, and in the later book also very feisty. The reader and translator is always wondering where are these voices taking us?

SH You talk in your introduction to 'How Abraham Abandoned Me' that it's a hugely different book to 'In the Temple of a Patient God'. What difference did this make to your translating?

RC I think the big difference between the books (they are ten years apart) lies in a sense of resolution reached, of possibilities hinted - like an anchor cast. Names are named, the poet even defining herself. She said in an interview (and in one of the poems) there was a process of 'growing-up'.

The metre is similar, the language still shifts between abstract and concrete, the fairytale atmosphere of the early work becomes the better-known stories of the three monotheistic religions. There's a creation story, the familiar personae of Adam and Eve and the serpent, the garden, Abraham and his son, angels with flaming swords; we think we know where we are, then the poet whirls us off to a ritual of 'turning', so that an interviewer asked if she’d become a sufi - a question she laughed off, 'I'm no mystic'. But new concepts appear, words like 'compassion', 'love', 'peace'. Perhaps the poet's declaration (again in an interview) that she admires Mahatma Gandhi will begin to throw light on this enigmatic poem. I would hope the translation succeeds in reflecting this change of mood.

SH You worked with Selçuk Berilgen on this translation, how does this collaboration work?

RC 'Collaboration' can take many forms. When I collaborated with Richard McKane on two major Turkish poets we worked both separately and together – to explain – we separately translated the poems of our choice, read them to each other and exchanged interpretive suggestions, calling on speakers or readers of the source language when necessary. Just occasionally we worked a longer poem together: fortunately we shared an emotional sense of the original. I don’t know how many collaborators work like this.

Selçuk Berilgen, who is sympathetic to Bejan's work, was a meticulous reader of every draft and an invaluable source of information on Turkish idioms, customs and traditions, which considerably lightened the load when it came to final decision-making. It has been a pleasure to work with him. We have also worked together on another, very different Turkish woman poet where we were amost excavating every word and phrase like archaeologists on a site, referring often to the poet as source, sharing every perception. At present we are working on a book of prose narratives by Bejan, where Selçuk 'leads' by virtue of his expertise and his own particular area of work.