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.— From "The Red-Haired Woman"
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.”
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.