in the hoarseness

"i am fine but this is east" - Translating Seyyidhan Kömürcü's poem "Sena" from Turkish into English

Cover Image: In late August 2015, Kurdish woman guerilla Ekin Wan was raped and killed by the Turkish army and her naked, bleeding body was purposely left in the central square of Varto, Muş (Turkey). This image is created by the artist Serpil Odabaşı, based on this event of state brutality becoming visible in a woman’s body. This incident was not covered by the official media, instead people learned about it through social media and artistic work. 


This is an attempt to write a lyrical essay, but not necessarily an autobiographic one, even though it draws some materials from the essay writer’s life. This is a long shot attempt to communicate a very specific kind of sentiment embedded in a particular time and geography and obviously also embedded in some particular minds and bodies. This is a question a creative writer has to ask herself: When does a story, a poem, a novel, a line resonate within the reader? Why does that unique combination of words resonate? What causes the resonance between the writer and the reader? And of course, what is resonance?
There is a moment when a writer steps beyond that invisible but concrete threshold in creative writing when her writing is not a diary anymore but pieces that reveal the essence of the time and place that she is living in. Because these days, I feel like I stepped over that threshold. I broke free into another landscape of writing. I have started to realize that I can sense a shift in two ways, one external, the other internal. Externally, the audience reception changed of my writing (or maybe I started finding the right audience). I started seeing people responding to my writing, bringing quotes from my writing to our conversations to capture the moments of daily life, and from a variety of nuanced responses I started sensing that somehow my words became less disposable then before. And I have started witnessing that people keep my combination of words only if it somehow resonates with their own experience, and that is why my writing stayed more with the international people in our academic/artistic communities rather than monocultural Canadians. The second shift was an internal one: when I am writing now I feel that I am standing somewhere between rationality and instinct. Sometimes I tend towards one side more but I feel that I have a more solid sense of my own mental flow now. Before I passed this threshold I had always written dominantly based on one side or the other; if it was the rational side the writing would generally end up being dry, and if it was the more instinctive side it would be too fragmented for anyone to understand, and also too personal. When, usually by chance I had a good combination of these two, I produced a good piece of writing, however this balanced combination was not always accessible. It is not always accessible right now either, but (somehow) it is a more developed skill now – comparable to the threshold a musician passes when she becomes one with her instrument.
I will try to read my experience of maturing into my own tone of writing through a poem that has resonated very strongly with me, and pushed me into translating it into English. Seyyidhan Kömürcü (1979) is a Kurdish poet from Southeastern Turkey who writes in Turkish. There is very little information about him online other than the fact that he has published two books (Hasar Ayini [Damage Ritual], 2004 and Dünya Lekesi [Mark of the World], 2012). Furthermore one of the former legendary poets (Ilhan Berk, 1918-2008) mentioned his work as one of the very few new bright pens in Turkish poetry. Kömürcü is a painting teacher in a high school in Diyarbakir, Turkey right now. These bits of information about him I gathered from the informal but extremely well updated Turkish online forum “eksisozluk” [well known free translation of this online forum is “sourtimes” but a more literal translation of it is “sour dictionary”].
I got to know Seyyidhan Kömürcü’s writing by coincidence when a friend of mine sent me a few lines of his poem "Sena", that resonated with our current situation strongly. Later I found the complete poem of “Sena” in sourtimes; one of the anonymous forum writers got really excited about this poem (just like me and my friend) and published the entire poem online so everyone would have access to it. (The poetry book was also sold out when I checked, so this anonymous dictionary writer actually has done a great favour for everyone.) I copied the poem into a word document and had to reformat it because the copy-paste process stripped the poem of its poetic format and turned it into something more like poetic prose when destroying the necessary breaks of the lines. Later, on a long and very depressive Sunday afternoon, I slowly and passionately translated the poem into English. I kept this translation as it was, once I decided that it was finished.
There were some significant difficulties when translating this poem because Kömürcü had very skillfully broken the rules of syntax and punctuation as they apply in Turkish language in order to create multiple layers of meaning in each line. In addition, there are no articles (the, a, an) used in Turkish and all the pronouns (he, she, it) correspond to one third-person singular pronoun which is “o” in Turkish. In this linguistic landspace, Kömürcü bent the gender of the poetic persona and the anonymous person this poetic persona is calling for. Also he managed to refer to all the objects and physical landscapes that appear in the poem in a way that is both definite but also random. The name of the objects in the poem refer to the actual unique objects that the poet has tactile experience with, but also to the idea of those objects. I followed the layers of meaning as closely as I could and I decided to chose gendered pronouns of English for this translation, because using the gender-neutral “they” would have corrupted the intimacy of Kömürcü’s poetic tone. To be able to keep the fluid nature of how Kömürcü addresses objects and landscapes, I sacrificed the majority of the “necessary” articles in English. Then there was the problem of punctuation – Kömürcü rarely uses punctuation and thereby achieves a wide range of different potential readings. The problem with translation is however, that the normative syntaxes of Turkish and English are quite different. For example, the verb finishes the sentence in Turkish while it comes right after the subject in English. Without the punctuation, when I translated into the normative syntax of English nearly nothing made sense. Therefore I bended the syntax of the English a little and maybe only in one or two cases added a comma. In some places I needed to add the words which were actually included in Turkish meaning-wise, through the suffixes added to the verb; I put these additional words in square brackets: […].
Beyond these grammatical issues the most important problem was the meaning – I wanted to reproduce the meaning of the poem as much as possible without making it a “free translation”, or an adaptation. I wanted to translate the essence, the meaning because these significant lines, in this significant moment in time and space, was actually capturing my reality and I didn’t want to change it – I wanted to keep it. Of course, as anyone who ever thought about translation would know, this is impossible. The words do not cover the same connotations even when dictionary cites them as correspondents.    
For example Kömürcü uses the word “çukur” in Turkish which has meanings like pit, hollow, hole, dent, excavation etc. None of these words corresponded to the sound and meaning layers of how Kömürcü uses this word though. So I used the word “well” in correspondence to “çukur”. I couldn’t use “hole” because there were references to another hole in the heart of the person the poet is inclined towards and also in the heart of the poet himself. Words like dent or excavation were out of question because they didn’t make sense in the soundscape of the poem. “Well” on the other hand, included the imagery of still water which wasn’t there in the original poem, but it both captured the range of meaning layers and suited the total meaning of the poem more than any other choice. Another choice I made was translating the word “farz” which refers to godly rules that mortals should follow in Islam. Word “farz” directly corresponds to word “fard”, but word “fard” in English also is the name of a cosmetic material. I didn’t want that connotation to be there at all, so I went to a similar word “sunna” which in Islamic paradigm is similar but not exactly fard. I made that choice considering the English reading audiences, and the fact that word “sunna” would keep the original range of meanings more than “fard” for the alien audience. Only in one place I gave an additional meaning in square brackets:
            I beg you please don’t get me involved with [infected by] the world
The reason for doing that is because the direct translation of this sentence is actually “don’t get me involved with the world” but the Turkish verb “bulaşmak” (appears as “bulaştırma” in the poem which means “you don’t get [me] involved” because of the suffixes) also has the side meaning of "getting infected" which the word “involve” does not cover. Since I thought this was a very important part of the imagery, "getting infected by the world", I wanted to keep it as an undercurrent meaning in square brackets. Later I found another version of this line in a soundcloud document of reading of this poem by Ahmet Mücahit Bülbül. In this version the line is like this “I beg you please don’t get us involved with [infected by] the world”. But I stick with my main source here, which is the sourtimes forum writer’s digitalization who writes under the nickname, “bre konsantre polis bre”. I examined these examples because these are some visible choices that I made over the directly corresponding dictionary words but clearly there are other nuances that my translation created which would differ from another person’s translation of the same poem; since anyone who is translating is actually always rewriting an interpretation.
Then there was of course the problematic of translating the cultural references where I can do very little about other than hoping the reader would have a slight bit of knowledge about the culture. For example Kömürcü insistently comes back to the same time reference: “five times a day”. This is a reference that anyone who is born and raised in an Islamic country would understand, it is the prayer times of the day which is known to public through call of the azan which is sung from the minarets of the mosques. The azan also was used in pre-modern era as the signifier of time based on the sun’s place on sky. Today it functions more like an internal time, everyone living in an Islamic country has the paradigmatic knowledge that they would hear the prayer call, the azan, five times a day no matter what. (It can be compared to church bells to some extend in a predominantly Christian country.) So when Kömürcü’s poetic persona, who seems to be wandering in this magical realist landscape, insists on he doesn’t do five times a day but then he decides to look at the person he is inclined towards five times a day instead of doing nothing; and through this act of looking five times a day he shifts the meaning of the world. He doesn’t only change the character of praying five times a day but make it more anthropocentric instead of metaphysical, he also makes it about the rebellious nature of love – it is a signifier of the rebel against god and all the other oppressive forces. This unfocused gaze of the poetic persona, this particular gaze which can only focus on the lover, captures the nature of a trauma-struck generation who knows that life is not about superficial institutional patterns because they can be destroyed within the blink of an eye. That is why this disorganized, fluent and wild gaze does not try to domesticate the person or the objects that it interacts with – each and every time it is a tactile and unique experience. Here, the gaze acts like the touch which is very different than the gaze that is defined by Western consumerist culture and the definition of gaze based on the long line of Western philosophers from Guy Debord, to Michel Foucault or Richard Sennett.  
All the five senses in Kömürcü’s poetry is full with the sense of this particular and unique landscape in a synesthesia-like mixture, sight and hearing relates to touch, smell and taste. So the central senses that the “modernized” society uses to interact with each other are the “public” senses which are sight and hearing. The hierarchy of the five senses in modernized society is based on the distance needed to stimulate that sense, the further the distance gets the higher the rank of the sense. According to this hierarchy sight is the most important sense, hearing is the second, smell third, taste and touch can share the fourth place since they need both bodily intimacy to be stimulated. Kömürcü’s synesthesic poetic universe has nothing to do with this “civilized” hierarchy. All the objects and people are understood by the poet persona within this mixture of senses which eventually melts the poet persona into this landscape and into his lovers presence. That is how these lines make sense:
            the herbalist who called those things which leave their voice behind were spices, told
            it is a curse to be whole
            it is a sin to think of becoming whole

As the spices leave their voice behind (and voice is a very strong allegory reappearing in poem multiple times) we learn from the herbalist one of the core philosophies of Islamic cultures, only god can be whole, nothing is finished and it is impossible to finish things. That is why everyone is broken and tormented without any cure. Interestingly though, Kömürcü’s references to Islamic culture never have the fatalistic effect of letting go of everything – he rather uses these references to intensify this significant liminal zone of unexplainable things which are known but are simply outside of the web of linguistics and analytical rationality. This metaphysical nature of events in the more narrative parts of the poem expands the painful patience and the state of “stopping and waiting”.
The numbers in poem are quite significant also, just like “five times a day” refers to the prayer times, “seven times to its mountains” or “the east which I slept forty sleeps of / the street that I walked on in forty ways” are important numbers echoed in idioms of Turkish and the tales of 1001 Nights. Forty for example, is used as the biggest tactilely graspable number in daily usage, one can easily hear a mother scolding a child by saying something like “I have told you forty times!” in the geography of the poet (and the translator). Or in many stories of the 1001 Nights the protagonist faced seven doors to choose from, or Sinbad is the traveller of seven seas. Kömürcü bends these cultural motifs into referring things that they are not related to directly so that these motifs would expand and give a wider sense of the action involved to these phrases. Sleeping in forty ways, walking on the same street in forty ways suddenly mean having seen all potentialities of the circumstances. Or snowing “seven times to its mountains” suddenly refers to an obstacle that is semi-chosen. 
Kömürcü also writes in an intertextual communication with Ece Ayhan’s poetry. The line where he defines his poetic persona as being asked by life to come forth to the blackboard is actually a subversion of Ece Ayhan’s famous poem “The Monument of the Anonymous Student”. Also from the scratches of other poems of Kömürcü I can reach online, I can say that he is in a continuous intertextual dialogue with Ece Ayhan. Ece Ayhan was a very important poet (one of the core people in the revolutionary poet group known as “Second New” along with Ilhan Berk who praised Kömürcü) from the former generation who was from the Western side of Turkey. In the intertextual dialogue Kömürcü sets, his poetic persona takes on the character defined by Ece Ayhan, and gives back an unexpected answer:
            one morning when life asked me to come forth to the blackboard
            the pencil that I wrote world is cold was broken
Through this reference, Kömürcü transforms the imagery of Ayhan, into a tactile obstacle. It reminds the reader that he (Kömürcü’s poetic persona, through Kömürcü’s mortal body) is still alive, even though he is broken. If looked into more, the poem “Sena” can be found parallel or in intertextual dialogue with many other poets' works. One can immediately think of the imageries, details and magic realism of Bejan Matur, another poet from the Southeast Anatolia from approximately the same generation with Kömürcü but slightly older than him. (How Matur’s womanhood changes her imagery of the same place and time compared to Kömürcü’s manhood, is of course a very important question that needs to be asked, which I won’t get in here.)   

So why did this poem so deeply struck me? Why did I feel the deep earthquake-like desire to translate this poem, making it known to the monolingual Anglophone audiences in a way (or to my beloved second language English speakers)? At the moment I got this poem from a friend, it explained our common sentimentality shared by me and my friends; which got me excited like a crush in first sight. Later somehow, the meaning of the poem kept on getting more and more relevant both to my ongoing life experience and things going on in my country. On the day Tahir Elçi, a Kurdish human rights lawyer, was assassinated by the state in Diyabakir, Turkey; I have also learned that one of my friend's -who has already been through more than anyone should ever go through- father was diagnosed with fatal cancer. I found out about this news in Theories of Performance History course which has no non-Western or feminist literature in its curriculum. It suddenly very physically got difficult to breathe. I desperately tried to define the meaning of “sublime” for me in that class, through showing the trailer of Iranian Mehr Company’s play “Timeloss”. I found what was implied by this trailer quite sublime, a form of catharsis syndrome where the person who has a sense of things is doomed to be not-believed and therefore forcefully watches (nearly like "A Clockwork Orange") the disasters that come which were actually stoppable. 
Later, on Friday, I found myself quite unexpectedly on street waiting for a cab and unsure of the address I will give to the driver, when I was ill and surrounded with all the four luggages (each full with clothes and short-term necessary books) I got. Quite placeless in the universe, the single line from this poem echoed in my mind: “i am good but this is east”. And once again I slowly realized that I brought east with me, just like my accent and my dark hair. [Later I also felt as if I was stuck in the diasporic film universe of Fatih Akin. Oh well, eventually I can break free from a movie too, right?] After settling the crisis situation and re-establishing some kind of order to start studying, I recorded my own reading of the poem “Sena” both in Turkish and English when my voice was already way too hoarse. I pushed every word through my mouth with some pain. I had energy to do these recordings only once so there are times that my voice is ultimately gone or cut with coughing. But this hoarseness of my voice captured the spirit of the voice allegories of the poem:
            my grandmother who said east ate its mountains
            made my sisters drink water so they won’t notice everything they see
            made them eat wind so they won’t speak everything they know
            so my sisters whose hearts are full of swallowing
            how can this be possible
            they started talking from their hair

When these two recordings are compared to each other, one can hear that I am having significantly more trouble with the English version. The feeling that I have while surviving in English is like chewing broken glass, and the recording of the translated “Sena” read in my hoarse voice gives that very particular impression that I have been seeking - as if words are cutting my mouth.
Later I remembered this metaphor of hoarse voice or loss of voice in some of the movies related to the geography of Seyyidhan Kömürcü (which is southeast of Anatolia and north of Mesopotamia). The first scene is from the famous 1996 movie, “The Bandit” [Eşkıya]. Baran, the famous bandit of unnamed Kurdistan, goes out of jail after 35 years and finds his childhood friend who betrayed him and made him go to jail. His betrayer also got married to his eternal love, Keje. Later in the movie, after many things, he finds his betrayer and his eternal love and learns that Keje had been an obedient wife but she has never spoke a word in 35 years. And this is the moment that these two lovers see each other for the first time, after 35 years:

There is a hoarseness in Keje’s voice that she acknowledges herself. She says she feels as if someone else is talking and she is listening. What does it mean? And why can she only say an extremely metaphorical statement when she first talks: “When bandits die they become the moon and the stars.” It makes sense considering that her entire silence was a metaphor of her unconquerable side, her side that is not open to anyone if she herself does not open the door. Another important metaphor of loss of voice was used in Fatih Akin’s last movie on Armenian Genocide, "The Cut". The main character’s throat is cut but he doesn’t die, he loses his voice. In a landscape of many lost languages loss of voice resonates deeply with many people. And in Kömürcü’s poem “Sena”, the poetic persona asks for words so he can say “horrible” and “terrible”.     

The magic realism echoing in Kömürcü’s poem has been echoing in my life too while I was doing this project. After dealing with a good amount of crisis the evil-eye protection bracelet my mother gave maybe eight years got broken. In superstition culture surrounding the evil-eye protection beads, this would be read as a sign that someone’s evil eye damaged the bracelet instead of me. (But of course, I burned my hand in the oven right after the bracelet fell down so this must be a pretty insistent evil eye.) Or through the coffee cup images I send to a friend in Istanbul (via Whatsapp), she foresaw my cathartic breakdown for example, before it was foreseeable for me. None of these things are real, of course. But they are not plain manipulation either considering that, generally people of Turkey have a sense of the non-reality (or the dream-like reality) of these beliefs unlike the new age culture of the West. But these patterns help us (people of that region, people of my region) to tame a reality that is almost unbearable and insistently out of logic. It makes sense that one starts talking from her “hair” or other from his “eyes” for example as Kömürcü has put into words for all of us. And it resonates deep down in me when Kömürcü’s poetic persona explains my situation to me:
            I have seen it
            wherever I went on this world I was straight and my shadow was hunchbacked
This sense of surviving when there is a significant bodily defect that you can feel but cannot be seen by others (cannot be proven in institutional measurements), explain my situation and sense of self as it is. I drag my hunchback in the streets of Toronto when there are simultaneously massacres going on in my country. I, as person with urban planning degree, live with the knowledge that if the earthquake hits the 75 million country, countless people will die because of unsafe urban spaces. I know I will witness many more assassins and wars and even genocides in my life time, if I live. There is a sublime Cassandra complex in this situation, a forced spectacle of pain of others. But then, there is also the hunchback I have, which continuously translates others’ pain into my pain. This creates the slowness in my heart, the tendencies of stopping and waiting, and staring blankly at people for long times as if I would discover them through my tactile gaze – this translated pain, corrupts my mind.
But I want to finish this essay with a hopeful note. I have sent the translation of “Sena” to a friend some days before my stress reached its peak. Later, as I was dealing with life on the edgy side on the last few days, the same friend, who actually had no idea what I had been going through (like a coffee-cup fortune teller) wrote a poem for me, and again by coincidence, I have encountered it online. And she told me:
            You are not            
            Alone in this. 


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