Mustafa İsmail Dönmez on Translating Hoda Barakat and the Status of Arabic Literature in Turkey

Mustafa İsmail Dönmez’s translation of Hoda Barakat’s award-winning Harith al-miyah (Tiller of Waters) recently appeared in Turkish as Akdeniz Sürgünü:

The translator and academic — who teaches at Selcuk University — talked with ArabLit about the obstacles to seeing more Arabic literature in Turkish translation, how Hoda Barakat (finally) came to Turkish, and what he would do with a million Turkish lira.

The wonderfully layered & textured Harith al-miyah appeared in 1998, and after it won the Naguib Mahfouz Literature Award in 2000, it was translated to English as The Tiller of Waters by Marilyn Booth. What made you choose to take on this novel now? How did this come about?

Mustafa İsmail Dönmez: It is possible to say that there is a more American- and European-centered structure in publishing. Therefore, the interest of publishing houses in Arabic literature is still not sufficient. In recent years, however, we can say that there has been a movement in this direction. Delidolu Yayınları( @delidolukitap), which published my translation, Akdeniz Sürgünü, is a publishing house that decided to bring quality Arabic works into Turkish in 2018. They decided to start this journey with Hoda Barakat and Khaled Khalifa, whose works have been translated into many languages. They told me that they had to wait for a while to find the right translator, even though they got the copyright for the work I translated by Hoda Barakat.

The idea for the book’s translation came from @delidolukitap. They asked me if I wanted to translate the text. I said I would like to translate Harith al-Miyah, one of the powerful texts of the influential writer Hoda Barakat. Publishers may prefer to start with the award-winning works of award-winning authors. In the next step, they will turn to other works that they find worth publishing.

What did your process look like? Were you in touch with Hoda Barakat at all?

MİD: I am an academic. Since I love translation, I try to translate by creating free time outside of my working hours. It might take 3-6 months for the translation of an average work. I received this translation in the first months of the Covid-19 outbreak in Turkey. Of course, this period had its own difficulties. For me, it was a text that I translated with pleasure during this difficult period.

If the authors whose works I translate are alive, I usually prefer to meet them when I start my translation process. After signing the translation contract, I asked the publishing house to provide Hoda Barakat’s e-mail address. I sent an e-mail to Hoda Barakat and met with her and stated that, if necessary, I wanted to be in touch during the translation process so that the work could reach the reader in the best way possible. And she gladly accepted it. As a matter of fact, when the translation was finished, I contacted her to consult about the Kurdish words she used.

Did you look at any of the other translations, to see how they solved particular issues?

MİD: My editor reviewed the English and French translations of the translation. After submitting the translation, we exchanged views on their comments during the editing process.

What were the most challenging aspects of translating Harith al-miyah to Turkish?

MİD: I can say that the text is built around a multi-layered, hallucinatory, poetic structure containing rich symbols and mythological elements. The author is a well-equipped person who expresses her belief in knowledge and culture. This is evident in the text indeed.

What made you decide on the title Akdeniz Sürgünü, which at least according to Google translate means something like “Mediterranean Exile”?

MİD: Publishers reserve the right to determine the name of the work in the translation contract. For this reason, the titles of the works may not always be translated word-for-word. In her novel, Barakat not only tells about the civil war in Beirut, which has gone through a certain cycle over and over again through different periods, with the destructions caused by earthquakes and wars, and its psychological effect on individuals, but also gives place to its rebirth every time, by articulating the history of fabrics and Mediterranean culture. She layers her work with mythological stories and the creation of civilizations. While the family of the hero of the novel, Nikola, had gone to Egypt with the warning of his grandfather, his father’s return to Saturn’s city Beirut with his mother, and the unfortunate fate of Beirut in the same cycle, reflects an exile. Together with the publishing team, we spent a lot of time thinking about the title of the work in Turkish. Since the Mediterranean and its culture on the axis of Beirut is a very prominent theme in the novel, with the approval of the author, the Turkish title was decided on: Akdeniz Sürgünü.

What happens to the book now? What are your hopes for its reception by Turkish readers? (Literary prizes, reviews, book clubs, seeing it taught in universities?)

MİD: I have received very good feedback from people who have read the book and whose taste in literature I trust. In the upcoming process, there will be more promotional and evaluative articles about the novel in general magazines, newspapers, literary-criticism magazines, and other platforms. And as a translator, I evaluated the novel for a daily newspaper and its weekly supplement for books. It will be published soon.

I know that, after the book was published, @delidolukitap suggested Hoda Barakat be invited as a guest writer to a literature festival held in Istanbul every year. In addition, the publishing house plans to invite the author to Turkey and bring her together with readers, although this is dependent on the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. If this is not possible, the publishing house plans to do this with an online event for now. This novel is Hoda Barakat’s first work translated into Turkish. Only two of the author’s articles have been translated into Turkish before. When I shared the author’s articles on my twitter account, I got very good comments about the author from the readers. Therefore, Hoda Barakat will be better known by Turkish readers through Akdeniz Sürgünü. Academic articles and dissertations can be written on the novel by different disciplines. I believe that the work is an influential text, and I hope it will be deemed worthy of various awards.

Might you translate more of Hoda Barakat’s novels after this?

MİD: @delidolukitap first plans to publish Barakat’s works titled The Kingdom of This Earth and The Stone of Laughter. In the next step of the process, they plan to increase the number of the author’s works to be translated. They told me that they wanted me to translate these other works. I think another novel will be published in 2022.

What Arabic literature would you most like to see translated into Turkish?

MİD: I wanted to translate the trilogy by Ahlam Mosteghanemi, an author I admire for her poetic language, into Turkish. Zakirat al-Jasad, the first of her trilogy published in 1993, had a symbolic value for Arabic literature as it was the first novel written in Arabic by a woman in Algeria. In 2018, I made attempts to translate the trilogy into Turkish with my own efforts. When I reached out the publishing house in Beirut, I learned that the copyright belongs to the author. Although it was very difficult in the next phase, I got the phone number of Ms. Ahlam, met her, and conveyed my desire to translate her work. In the meantime, I learned that the author was not represented by an agency in Turkey. I prepared a summary of her trilogy and some of her other works and sent it to a copyright agency in Turkey. They stated that they forwarded the files to some publishing houses, but they could not make any progress. Thereupon, I sent the files I had prepared to another agency and stated that I wanted to translate these works into Turkish. I gave them Ahlam’s information and got them to communicate. In the next stage, they signed a contract with the author and agreed with a publishing house to translate Zakirat al-Jasad into Turkish. After a long journey, I completed the translation of this work and submitted it to the publishing house. I hope it will be published in 2021.

How does the process generally work, for translations of Arabic into Turkish? You as a translator would decide on a project, make a sample, contact the publisher? Or do publishers sometimes contact you?

MİD: I started to answer this question in my previous reply. But let me try to answer it by giving a place to another sort of process I have lived through. In 2017-2018, upon an offer from a publishing house where I had previously translated a work from Arabic to Turkish, I translated Sudanese writer Amir Tag Al-Sir’s novels — The Grub Hunter and Ebola 76 — and submitted them to the publishing house. Although the typesetting of the books was finished, their covers were prepared, and they were already at the printing stage, the publishing house decided to stop its activities, due to financial problems. My translations were not published. After this, I learned that the author is no longer represented by an agency in Turkey. I shared my translation samples with another agency, and they took the representation over by meeting with the author. I heard from the agency that they are about to make an agreement with a publishing house for the publication of my two translations. I hope they will be released in 2021 as well. Unless the translation proposal comes from a publishing house or agency, the process progresses with difficulty. You do not get the financial and moral rewards for your efforts. In addition, each publishing house may have different criteria for the works to be published. Therefore, it can be difficult for the translator to deliver the works to the right publishing house. It can also take a long time for publishers to review the publication for translation. This slows down the process.

What are the main obstacles to seeing more Arabic literature in Turkish translation?

MİD: As I answered above, because I had wanted to translate the works of Ahlam Mostaghanemi, I prepared a summary for her trilogy and some of her other works and sent them to the copyright agency and some publishing houses. However, the process of obtaining the copyright mostly proceeds through copyright meetings of publishing houses, such as Fellowship Istanbul, international book fairs, or negotiations with copyright agencies.

Mostly, the agencies that I am represented by reach out to me or the publishing houses for which I’ve translated before, saying they want to work with me, and they send me their translation requests. There is no publishing house where I am an active editor or on the editorial board. However, some publishing houses ask me to read the Arabic works they are considering for publication in translation, and I prepare a report. According to that report, the editorial board makes the final decision about the work.

For a while, the perception and pressure of the publishing-house bosses was that Arab writers do not sell. This idea was dominant, I suppose. But in recent years, we can say that this has begun to break down. Now, relatively more works from Arabic literature are translated and published in Turkish.

If you had a million Turkish lira to start a project to support Arabic translation into Turkish, where would you start?

MİD: Frankly, I was a little surprised to see this amount in an interview where we are talking about literature and literary translation. The sums you get, especially in literary translation, are not worth your effort. When taxes are added to this, the numbers get a lot smaller. Such translations are not things to do without love. If I had such an opportunity, I would form a team to identify and publish the most powerful texts of contemporary Arabic literature. As a translator, I contribute to the recognition of Arabic literature by Turkish readers with the translations I do fondly. With such a project, I would try to identify and present the best texts to readers and create a more positive perspective on Arabic literature.