Meet the Translator

What Ekin Oklap can tell readers about translating Orhan Pamuk

An interview with the translator of three of Pamuk’s recent books.

Orhan Pamuk writes about conversing souls. And the backdrop, the spine of his narrative, is invariably Istanbul – or the countryside around Istanbul. His last novel, The Red-Haired Woman, is about the past confronting the present and the present interfering with the future. What seems to be a “male-driven” story, at least more than halfway into the novel, is in fact premised on an almost inconspicuous woman whose overwhelming intervention toward the concluding pages challenges the dominant patriarchal voice.

The Red-Haired Woman is Ekin Oklap’s second novel as Pamuk’s translator after A Strangeness in My Mind (2014), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. She has also translated his non-fiction work,

While A Strangeness was a boza (a fermented wheat beverage) seller’s unheard mournful cries in a fast-paced, modern Istanbul, The Red-Haired Woman is narrated by Cem Celik, an aspiring writer, who grieves a missing father in his life and stumbles upon a well-digger in whom he tries to find another father.

In her translator’s afterword to Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book (1990), Maureen Freely writes about the lack of verb forms like “to be” and “to have” in Turkish, and the complexity of using other tenses and the active-passive voice. In an email conversation, Oklap recounted her expeience of translating Pamuk’s works, her favourite portions in the novel, her expectations from literary awards for translators, her advice for aspiring translators, and, most importantly her next project with Pamuk. Excerpts from the interview:

What are your favourite portions in the book as a reader and then as the translator of The Red-Haired Woman?
As a reader, but also as a translator, my favourite part of The Red-Haired Woman is the last section, where the narrative voice changes to that of the titular red-haired woman, and a lot of what you thought you understood about the plot and the characters turns out to be wrong. I like the theatrical tone that surfaces in some parts of this last section. It’s as if the red-haired woman were up on a stage, delivering a soliloquy, and somehow getting the final word.

After A Strangeness in My Mind, what were the challenges that you faced translating The Red-Haired Woman?
The Red-Haired Woman is about half the length of A Strangeness in My Mind, so it was an easier task to face – but it also presented challenges of its own. The three sections of the novel are each rather different in tone and pacing, and I had to convey these shifts through the translation – while at the same time making sure it was still evident that these were three parts of the same whole, that the world of the novel was one.

“I had wanted to be a writer. But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineering geology and became a building contractor. Even so, readers shouldn’t conclude from my telling the story now that it is over, that I’ve put it all behind me. The more I remember, the deeper I fell into it. Perhaps you, too, will follow, lured by the enigma of fathers and sons.
In 1984, we lived in a small apartment deep in Besiktas, near the nineteenth-century Ottoman Ihlamur Palace. My father had a little pharmacy called Hayat, meaning “Life”. Once a week, it stayed open all night, and my father took the late shift. On those evenings, I’d bring him his dinner. I liked to spend time there, breathing in the medicinal smells while my father, a tall, slim, handsome figure, had his meal by the cash register. Almost thirty years have passed, but even at forty-five I still love the smell of those old pharmacies lined with wooden drawers and cupboards.”

— From "The Red-Haired Woman"

According to a few reviews, the title of the book was changed from The Well to The Red-Haired Woman. What was going on Pamuk’s – and your – mind while thinking about possible book titles. Was Gülcihan’s (the “red-haired” woman) narratorial voice an afterthought?
This is the first I’ve heard about this title change. I wasn’t aware of any other planned title other than The Red-Haired Woman, so I can’t really answer this question. Sorry!

Cem wants to become a writer, the son becomes one, or so we hope. Do you think The Red-Haired Woman could be read as a book about a writer’s struggle and dreams?
What’s most interesting to me about The Red-Haired Woman is how it seems to be about so many different things – and the answer to the question “What is this book about?” seems so much to depend on the reader. Until your question came I hadn’t given too much thought to the fact that Cem is an aspiring writer – but of course you are right, and in fact this relates also to one of the key themes of the novel: identity, and related to that, self-expression, particularly within an authoritarian, patriarchal context.

Are you working on any of Pamuk’s forthcoming books?
My first translation of Orhan Pamuk’s work was The Innocence of Objects – a book-length catalogue of his Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. Then came A Strangeness in My Mind and The Red-Haired Woman. I am currently working on a short book titled Hatiralarin Masumiyeti (The Innocence of Memories) – which is tied to the documentary film of the same name [a 2015 British documentary by Grant Gee].

“This is the story of the life and daydreams of Mevlut Karatas, a seller of boza and yogurt. Born in 1957 on the western edge of Asia, in a poor village overlooking a hazy lake in Central Anatolia, he came to Istanbul at the age of twelve, living there, in the capital of the world, for the rest of his life. When he was twenty-five, he returned to the province of his birth, where he eloped with a village girl, a rather strange affair that determined the rest of his days: returning with her to Istanbul, he got married and had two daughters; he took a number of jobs without his pause, selling his yogurt, ice cream, and rice on the street and waiting tables. But every evening, without fail, he would wander the streets of Istanbul, selling boza and dreaming strange dreams.”

— From "A Strangeness in My Mind"

Are you hopeful of another Man Booker International nomination? An award dedicated to translators, how does that make you feel?
Prizes like the Man Booker International, where the award is shared equally between the author and their English language translator, are particularly important, in my view, for two reasons: they recognise the work of translators, and they raise the profile of translated literature in the anglophone world. Any prize that helps to spread the word about writing from other parts of the world, and written in languages other than English, can only be a good thing.

Your advice for aspiring translators?
Think very carefully about what you would want, as a reader, from a translated text – and try to apply that to your own translations.

What books are on your bedside table?
The collected stories of Lydia Davis, and Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.