Translator Hakan Özkan: Immigrant Translators in Germany ‘Don’t Get a Chance’

Hakan Özkan, who translates from Arabic into both Turkish and German — in addition to translating from Spanish and Greek — talks about the difficulties of translating with a non-German name, of the problems faced by Arab writers in Germany, and writers he’d like to see in German:

By Leonie Rau

Hakan Özkan is Senior Research Fellow for Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Münster/ Germany. He holds an MA in Oriental Studies, International Law and Indo-European languages from the University of Cologne and received his PhD from the University of Provence (Aix-en-Provence) and the University of Cologne in Classical Arabic Literature.

Translator and scholar Hakan Özkan

Hakan has taught Arabic literature, narrative theory, cultures of the Middle East, Arabic dialects and dialectology, Arabic language, and grammar at the Universities of Provence and Münster. In late 2019, he completed his second monograph (The History of the Eastern zajal) and was awarded the venia legendi for Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Münster. Currently, he works on the integration of dialects in Arabic language teaching and the Eastern zajal-tradition of Mamluk and Ottoman times.

He is also the translator of Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada, both into Turkish and into German.

How did you get started with Arabic literature and with Arabic translation?

Hakan Özkan: I studied in Cologne and Bonn and was primarily interested in language and, at the time, also had a theological interest in Islamic questions. Later I turned to literature. Since graduating school, I had been interested in stories and narratology, which I then pursued in my studies. I translated especially older literature a lot for my research and modern literature just happened to come into the mix, because it is alive. This fascinated me, and I wrote my Master’s and PhD dissertations on literature, which I really enjoyed.

I came to modern Arabic literature and its translation because there was an interest at the time in grappling with other countries and the circumstances of the people living in them. I lived in Syria from 2000–2001, that’s why I feel especially attached to this country.

When I met [the Syrian writer] Fadi Azzam, I felt an instant connection and we had a long conversation. Meeting him happened by chance, really, but it brought back many memories of my time in Syria. Before translating his novel into German, I first translated into Turkish.

How do you see the current scene for literary translators in Germany?

HO: I haven’t been actively translating for quite some time—this is a general problem for full-time literary translators, because you basically can’t live off of it.

I think that there is a large community of translators who speak German as their native language but who are second- or third-generation immigrants who just don’t get a chance. There are big asymmetries, a crowding-out by the top dogs who share the few opportunities out amongst themselves.

I worked with Hans Schiler, a small publisher, where we collaborated closely. Big publishing houses usually work with established translators. Maybe they fear that a translator with a non-German sounding name would bewilder the readers?

This is all a shame, because I think that people with the same cultural background are much better positioned to understand writers and their texts and to thus provide good translations. They know the communities, have the necessary cultural knowledge, and can also deal with slang or certain phrases that are hard to acquire for outsiders.

What’s it like translating from various languages into various languages?

HO: The methodological approach is the same. I know my way around Turkish religious phrases, for example, which makes translations easier in other languages of cultures that are related culturally and share a religion. My translation process is the same, but on the sentence level, Turkish is entirely different structurally.

With poetry, Turkish also has a different ring, so I need to find different words, see whether to try and approximate the original phonetically or not. It’s a different approach, especially if you want to stick very closely to the original.

I wouldn’t recommend translating into a language that isn’t your native language. I also think that you should have experienced living in a country where the language is spoken.

Most of the modern texts I translated were translations into Turkish, since I curated the Arabic section of the International Istanbul Poetry Festival.

Which kind of text do you most enjoy translating?

HO: Poetry. I like the genre of poetry; it suits me well and I also write it myself. It is, however, quite challenging, since you sometimes spend hours on just one line. With a novel, yes, there is the length, but still, you find a flow—with a poem, you need to find it anew in every verse.

I wrote my habilitation on strophic poetry from the 13th to 16th centuries and would like to translate those, too. I want to make old literature as accessible to the public as possible, because there is already so much newer literature. Arabic literature isn’t a wallflower any longer. Publishers do have established programs, even if they are still fairly weak.

Old texts, however, are basically unknown, though they are still relevant. Human problems are universal, and they are depicted in earlier literature in often surprising ways, with topics you wouldn’t expect in an Islamic society.

Poetry reflects an entirely different image. I translate dialectal poetry that could best be compared to hip hop—it is rhythmic, with candid and explicit language. I have previously performed those poems and would like to start a series of readings, that’s my current project. These texts have hardly been studied, even though they are so valuable. Even in the Arabic-speaking world they are scorned, since they are satirical and celebrate sex, drugs, and homosexuality. Scatology, fecal language, but very funny. I think it is important to show this aspect, to break with stereotypical images of Islam on an artistic level, too.

This is my pet project at the moment and the reason why I haven’t been engaging with modern authors as much. My last German translation was for the 2017 Berlin International Literatur Festival, where I contributed to a collection.

Which works of classical Arabic literature are too little-known in Germany?

HO: So much—the entire canon is so huge, it would need to be identified first. Abu Nuwas and al-Ma’arri have been translated quite a lot, but there is so much more, and the poets’ diwans are so large. I’d say a selection of some pre-Islamic writers, some “brigand-poets,” some of the Mu’allaqat, ‘Umar ibn Abi Rabi’a and his love poetry, al-Mutanabbi, al-Ma’arri, Mamluk poets—who are hardly known at all—and Ibn Nubata. Also, some strophic poems from the East, which belong to popular literature; they are written in the vernacular and were very popular but were hardly ever written down. In my opinion, they should be granted much more space, because they reveal so much about people’s actual, everyday life. Many of them were composed by regular people who remain largely unknown or hidden.

Qasida literature should take up a lot less space. I think literature from neglected eras and epochs especially deserves much more attention.

Besides, Sufi poetry should be translated more—there are a few Sufi women poets, such as A’isha al-Ba’uniyya who was translated into English by Homerin and who should also be made available in German. Her poems are beautiful, they express a deep love for the Divine.

What does your typical translation process look like, from discovering a text to its publication?

HO: For modern texts, I have a strong connection to and great love for Syria and therefore more interest in texts by Syrian writers. In Fadi Azzam’s novel, the historical aspect appealed to me a lot.

Sadly, it’s still the case that only already well-known books are translated, for example when there is already an English or French translation, or when an author has won a prize. There aren’t any literary scouts as is the case for Latin America, even though the Arabic-speaking world is just as large, and literary agencies aren’t profitable.

Important for me is the impression a text makes on me and that I also get along with the writer as a person. I don’t care much for marketing reasons. With Fadi, I did think that other people would be interested in what he had to say, too, which particularly attracted me. That’s the first step.

When I start a translation, I first read the entire text multiple times, take notes, and mark difficult passages. After the second or third round, I write a rough draft, preferably by hand, because that way I develop a more intimate relationship with the text and can work on it anywhere.

I properly write up the draft about every ten pages or about every other day, because if I don’t, the feeling for it and the close link with the original is lost and I’m in danger of moving too far away from the text. I re-read the second draft several times and clean it up stylistically, always with a focus on keeping the reader engaged, keeping the suspense. Once that is done, I read it aloud to other people and then pass it on to the editors. Their comments are sometimes problematic, since they often want cultural translations, too, whereas I want to just keep potentially incomprehensible parts in so that the text retains its special touch. I like translating Arabic phrases in a literal way, it’s good to sometimes just be overwhelmed by such figurative language. There needs to be a balance, however, the text must not be structurally incomprehensible. Metaphors are often intelligible, especially between neighboring cultures, since they are often affected by cultural transfer. For example, “cold breaks/cuts fingers” in Arabic as well as in Turkish.

What kinds of texts, what topics, what countries of origin are en vogue or in demand? Do you see any kind of development in the last few years or decades?

HO: There has been an interest in texts from Syria ever since the crisis started, ever since the Arab Spring, but there is no in-depth grappling with the country as such. Writers who are “difficult to read” don’t get translated.

For the Berlin Literature Festival, texts were solicited on the theme of “Arriving,” which I see quite critically. I wasn’t thrilled with this festival; I was interested in the actual writers, whereas at the festival, there was this demand for them to expose themselves in order to then pity them. I want for people to write whatever they want to write and for translators to translate this and bring it to the publishers’ attention and to promote it. The German cultural machinery really isn’t a very humanist one, it is very capitalistic.

What problems does the German market for translated literature face, in your view?

HO: I had generally good experiences with German publishers, since they adhere to certain standards, but I also have some horror stories. Everything is marketing, the payment is ridiculous, like 2­–3€ per hour. As a translator, your only motivation is your passion for the text. You need a different day job, at least if you’re not one of the top translators who get invited to big festivals and get paid well.

The big newspapers also aren’t interested in small publishers. There is Stefan Weidner who writes a lot and has worked hard to earn a space as a critic. We need a network of freelancers working for the big newspapers who also cover the Arab-speaking world.

There is too little consistent interest in the Turkish- and Arabic-language regions. I have observed in particular a north-south divide with a severe asymmetry between translated literatures: While the Global North hardly takes any notice of the Global South, lots of the former’s literature gets translated into the latter’s languages.

Which Arabic book in German translation would you recommend to everyone?

HO: Everything and anything by Ghassan Kanafani, because it shows so brutally, from a literary perspective, what makes up Palestine and its peoples. Also, Sahar Khalifeh, because her works are so eye-opening, providing a non-male gaze away from stereotypes about Arab women. Everyone knows Amos Oz, but who knows any Arab writers? There is no difference in literary quality, they are just less well-known. I would recommend Mohamed Choukri’s “al-Khubz al-hafi” to everyone; there is a good German translation (“Das nackte Brot,” tr. Georg Brunold).

And then anything by Fatima Mernissi, who problematizes Western feminism in particular and critically analyzes exoticizing views of Arab women. How often is she received here? I think it says a lot that she has hardly been discussed in Germany.


Leonie Rau is a Master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and hopes to pursue a PhD after her graduation. She is an aspiring literary translator with a particular interest in Maghrebi literature. She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.

More on Arabic Literature in German Translation:

An Introduction: Arabic Literature in German Translation

Translator Sandra Hetzl: On the Difficult Balance of Making a Living and Translating What One Loves

Publisher Stephan Trudewind of Edition Orient, on How the Translation-support System Should Be Restructured

Translator Larissa Bender: On the Clichés and Media Interest that Overdetermine Arabic Literature in German Translation

A List of Arabic Literature in German Translation