Translation/Creation: What Translation Means to Me

By Doa Acikgun

Calling on my part-Scottish heritage, I believe that translators are a wee bit selfish. This is a very general statement, of course, but when it comes to translators of literature, I draw on my own experience to make this bold declaration. To clarify, unless one is working on a scientific or legal document, i.e. something quite technical, they are very unlikely to employ a literal, word-for-word translation of a text, and so I do not view translation as simply transferring the work of an author or poet from one language to another. A work translated becomes a stand-alone piece created by the translator: as the renowned Italian translator, journalist, and writer Fernanda Pivano elegantly expresses, “Translation can only be creation.” I think it is this desire to take a text and make it one’s own that renders a translator selfish, but I do not use that word in any pejorative sense. 

It is the act of creation that makes translation so enjoyable because it means that there are no wrong answers. Of course, one translator may disagree with the linguistic choices of another, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a wrong choice (unless you are translating the French word mère as ‘tree’, for example, which could be considered an incorrect translation. Context is important, however; perhaps it is an idiom of some sort? Or a translator’s interpretation of what mère represents? Another example of the endless possibilities of translation). This is a very liberating feeling: to be able to take a text and do what you want with it, to manipulate it so that it reflects what you as a reader and translator understand and interpret from it. It is also a useful creative exercise: understanding the meaning of a word, finding its equivalent in another language, thinking of the subtleties in the meanings of various synonyms until you land on what you consider to be the perfect word, and then repeating this exercise for each word in the text, adapting your method to apply it to other linguistic aspects such as grammar and syntax. The creativeness afforded by translation makes it a great starting point for writing as well. I have always loved the idea of writing but coming up with interesting and original ideas can be challenging. With translation, I find that half the work is already done for you because there is no pressure to come up with an idea – you just have to write, although this is easier said than done!

When I think of what translation means to me, I turn to my own translation of the poem Vasiyet (Last Will) by Nâzım Hikmet for the Stephen Spender Prize. I have always felt a disconnect from my Turkish culture mainly due to my shaky command of the language. I can converse easily, but I lack a strong grasp on the literary language which has always made it difficult for me to read in my mother tongue, something I find upsetting given the wealth of Turkish literature.  When deciding to translate this poem, I initially struggled with making sure I fully understood it, but looking back, this struggle is what made the end result so gratifying. 

What stayed with me once I had finished translating the poem was the real, emotional connection I had with it, a connection that transcended language, or which was perhaps simply amplified by language. Hikmet wrote Vasiyet in exile and in Turkish, while I translated it in my home in Scotland and into English: although our situations at the time of writing and the language through which we expressed ourselves may have been different, there was a common feeling of longing, homesickness, and coming to terms with our love for a beautiful country that was and is far from perfect. I recently came across the Welsh word hiraeth, loosely signifying a deep yearning for home, tinged with grief, one of those “untranslatable” words adored by language blogs, and I feel that if I were to use a single word to describe the emotion evoked by Hikmet’s poem, that would be it. This is what I love not only about literature generally but also about its translation, as through this process you are made to feel things that you can only describe through “untranslatable” foreign words. 

I had entered the same poetry translation competition the previous year with two translations of poems in French and Spanish, with no luck. Yet, with my translation of Vasiyet, I managed to win my category. There may be no correlation between the two, my previous translations were most likely just not good enough, but there is a part of me that feels that my second attempt succeeded because it came from the heart and because I had a deep, personal connection with this poem which I believe translated into my work.

Featured image: Blue Girl Reading by Auguste Macke 

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