Translation as a Condition of Life: The Millions Interviews Aron Aji

September 19, 2019 | 17 min read

Before I took the translation workshop with Aron Aji at the University of Iowa, I had translated two novels from English to Chinese. Literary translation struck me as hard labor, often times low paying. But Aji’s class turned out to be a life-changing experience for me.

When I began translating from my native Chinese to English for his class, I thought I must be “faithful” to the original text (words, phrases, and sentences) so I wouldn’t lose or distort the work’s meaning. But my initial translations were too awkward to resonate with any of my English-speaking classmates. I had a meeting with Aji in which he asked me to read him the Chinese text. I did. And I was astonished to see that he—someone who doesn’t speak Chinese—could correctly point out the rhythm, cadence, and emphasis of every sentence. He showed me that sometimes I could move away in order to get closer.

I had always wanted to share Aji’s brilliance with more translators, readers, and literary tourists in between languages and cultures. So we had the following conversation shortly before I left Iowa in July.

In this interview, he points out problematic nature of the words “mother tongue:” the phrase is itself a social/ideological construct that serves the power of modern nation-states. One’s command of language is not determined by birthplace, but by practice. He also speaks about our current “Age of Translation,” when myriad speakers can skirt the many gatekeeps in the publishing industry and find new voices, forms, and ideas to enrich our literary world culture.

The Millions: You were raised in a household where four languages—Ladino, Hebrew, Turkish, and French—were spoken. What was that experience like? How has that upbringing shaped you as a translator?

Aron Aji: I was born and grew up in Izmir, the second most cosmopolitan city in late Ottoman period and the early Turkish Republic. A port city, Izmir was home to several Levantine communities, including Greek, Italian, French, Armenian, and others. Practically speaking, many residents of Izmir interacted in a rich translational space because quotidian life, from basic commerce to business, brought them into contact with people outside their respective language communities.

TM: What was a typical day like in a multi-lingual city like that? For example, what language did you speak when you bought groceries?

AA: Our multi-lingual house was located inside the larger multi-lingual city, although by the time I was born Izmir saw an influx of newcomers from the provinces, and Turkish became the language of small trades, say, while buying groceries. Before I attended elementary school, I had significant exposure to Ladino (the Spanish spoken by the Sephardic Jews who had arrived in the city in 1492, after they were expelled from Spain), French (the lingua-franca practiced among the Levantines), and Hebrew (our liturgical language). My grandmother did not like speaking in her broken Turkish and insisted that we all learn and speak Ladino. In my childhood, though, there were still Jewish vendors who paid home visits and spoke Ladino as well. I still remember Sabetay, the plump kosher-wine vendor, who carried the bottles in the many pockets of his large poncho. Of course, our holiday dinners, especially Passover, involved readings and commentary in Hebrew, Ladino, and, for the benefit of the young, Turkish. When relatives visited from South America, we all spoke in Spanish and French. Through formal schooling, Turkish became my primary language but, in retrospect, I think the other languages already had strong formative influence in my life. And beginning with middle school all through college, I attended schools where the primary language of instruction was English. It is fair to say that I always experienced a language in relation to (an)other language(s) since my meaning most often took shape in one language and I needed to express it in another language. In short, translation as a condition of life.

TM: A decade into your American life, you started translating Bilge Karasu as a way to reconnect with Turkey. Why is that?

AA: In my first decade in the U.S., English became my almost exclusive language—in which I taught American students, conducted research, wrote scholarly papers and my own poetry, and cultivated social relations; it nearly overwhelmed my other languages as it gradually worked itself deep into my arteries of cognition. I still remember crying one morning when I woke up having dreamed in English!

TM: It took over your subconsciousness!

AA: Yes. I decided to translate back to Turkish because, without the active presence of another language in my life, I felt I was becoming less critical, less creative, less expressive, in short, a narrower and impoverished version of myself.

TM: Why Karasu?

AA: The author himself is a language artist, a semiotician, a translator from six or seven languages, and a writer with an expansive cosmopolitan vision—the ideal interlocutor I needed at the time. Karasu is credited for pushing the boundaries of the Turkish language and for inventing an authentic literary vernacular with greater capacity to interface with world literatures. His writing is characterized by what I’d call a “translational aesthetics” and therefore naturally lends itself to translation, you could even say, calls itself to be translated. For me, recreating him in English necessitates reconstituting those translingual, transcultural relations that have shaped his work in the first place.

TM: Did you feel you were enriched by translating Karasu? In what ways?

AA: In my ostensibly monolingual environment in the U.S., Karasu’s cosmopolitan voice felt intimately familiar. He drew from literature and languages that had shaped me and that I no longer had natural access to, except when studying literature. While translating him, I think I became much more aware of how I used language, what of my experiences were lost or enriched when expressing them in different languages. The multi-lingual brain has its own reflexes and switches among languages with great ease, but understanding the leaps and stops that happen during these switches helped me get better at controlling them and, I’d like to think, putting the snarl of languages to richer expressive use.

TM: Once you talked in class about the difference between the translators who work from their mother tongues and those who work into their mother tongues. What are the respective strengths and weaknesses of the two types of translators?

AA: Let me reiterate my views on this topic. There are hundreds of bilingual translators who translate into their second language, including English, especially when translating from languages that native English speakers don’t. The so-called minor languages are crucially dependent on bilingual translators. In the end, quality is the best measure of successful translation.

covercoverOne’s proficiency in a language has little to do with one’s birthplace. Proficiency requires training, study, and practice. What do we make of people who have been professionally functioning in a second-language environment for many years, even if they happen to have been born elsewhere? I would even argue that English, one of the most absorbent languages in the world (because it is in constant contact with myriad languages, flexed and morphed as it is by myriad speakers across the world) obtains much of its richness also because of its capacity for diversity. It would be good to read up on the topic of native-language in order to re-examine our assumptions about the so called mother tongue, which is really a political/ideological construct that has been utilized to defend stratified societies by designating people as insiders and outsiders. For translators—who are dedicated to listening to the world’s voices—such designations should be anathema. I’d recommend two award winning scholarly studies: The Invention of Monolingualism by David Gramling, and Beyond the Mother Tongue by Yasemin Yıldız.

My point is that translation into one’s mother tongue would not by itself lead to excellence any more than translating into one’s second language would by itself lead to deficient translation. As much as I, too, love the poetry of feeling my mother tongue in my bones and blood, I would not be able to translate into it for the very fact that my literary knowledge/experience (the four decades of studying literature and writing about it) has been in English. I owe my proficiency as a literary translator to the considerable command I have obtained of a range of aesthetic and linguistic strategies by immersing myself in—and critically examining and reflectively internalizing—literary works written in English, both historical and contemporary. Likewise, I would venture that someone who translates beautifully into one’s mother tongue does so because of the mature sensibilities and skills one has developed in that tongue (by perfecting it as an instrument and as the substance of art) and not because one was born with it.

Our artistic sector is already plenty regulated by the so-called gatekeepers (publishers, editors, reviewers, award juries, etc.) who consider it their job to let awfully little of the world’s voices to be heard widely, especially in English. So, I say, let a thousand translations bloom. Our hard and often insufficiently understood work is the only way we will widen the reception of world literature in English, not merely because we translate them but because in doing so we also lend English greater capacity to express, and express well, the diverse voices of our world.

TM: In the literary translation workshop at the University of Iowa, we only read and discussed the English translations, in the same way we assessed works that are originally written in English. Is this how translation is traditionally taught in the States? What are the upsides and downsides of this approach?

AA: Your question is one of the most-commonly asked questions for us. Only on the surface, we may seem to read and discuss the English translations in the same way we assess works that are originally written in English. However, our pedagogy has greater ambitions than making translations read as if they were originally written in English. We encourage students to understand literary translation as discipline that combines creative art and critical, reflective practice across both the source and the target languages and poetics. By critically reflecting on the English translation, we always direct the translators back to the original text, back to the relationship or the so-called equivalency they have construed, in order to critically examine their effort, to reflect on the instances of semantic shifts, stylistic inconsistencies, sonic fluctuations, etc. Inconsistencies in register or diction or syntax—which we observe in the English—often reveal a misinterpretation of a characterization or point of view or style in the original. So, for example, when a sentence in the English translation feels overworked, if the rhythm of the clauses feels mechanical rather than natural, or if the diction fluctuates across registers, we notice these as literary inconsistencies, as interferences in our reading experience. And when we ask the translator to walk us through the same sentence in the original, we—and the translator—can detect the causes of these inconsistencies. These causes almost always derive from imperfect decisions in translation. Back and forth, back and forth, we go. The aim is to help the translator to improve consistently in the discipline of translation, which is often practiced in solitude and requires strong and refined skills of self-criticism and self-reflection.

As you’ll recall from your own experiences here, the workshop also affords the emerging translator the unparalleled opportunity to work side by side with equally dedicated practitioners who are as invested in their peers’ development as they are in their own development, since these two are pedagogically interlinked at all times. Because translation always entails negotiating between pairs of languages, one student’s strategy to resolve incommensurability when working, say, between Hindi and English, can provide unforeseen solutions to another student who is working, say, between Italian and English.

TM: What are some of the translational terms that you think we need to redefine or reassess nowadays? What is your view on domestication and foreignization?

AA: As with translation practice, terms and theories, too, need to be approached critically and reflectively largely for two reasons: first, because they emerge in a given time, in a given cultural space, and they would well benefit from reassessment when applied elsewhere; and, second, because, over time, terms and theories themselves can undergo a kind of domestication, assuming a deceptive over-familiarity, that may belie their original intent. Venuti’s terms, domestication and foreignization, are perfect examples, and are seldom appreciated for their original complexity. Whenever someone labels a translation as domesticating or foreignizing, I prefer to ask them to explain what they mean exactly. Translation terms and theories are, to borrow a term from Buddhism, useful means, and without critical reflection, they lose their usefulness.

Let me work with an example. When a translation retains certain words in the original language, is it a foreignizing or a domesticating translation? Often, it is labeled as foreignizing. But which words are retained in the original? Are they truly foreign? Or are they chosen because they are relatively familiar because they can be deduced relatively easily? Because their unintelligibility does not affect the general sense of the text? Or because they have been cleverly glossed in the translation? And how many “foreign” words should we retain so that the translation is sufficiently “foreignized?” There are other, more crucial questions: does the foreignization strategy succeed in bringing the reader closer to experiencing what is truly foreign in the foreign text? Or does it end up creating greater distance? Are the foreignizing elements in the translation foreign to the reader in the target language but perfectly familiar to reader in the source language? Cultural markers—say, names of foods, kinship relations—most frequently retained in the original language to foreignize a translation, are arguably the most familiar to the readers in the original. Any translation strategy—foreignizing, domesticating, feminist, or other—needs to be determined critically, reflectively—in light of the literary characteristics intrinsic to the original and the need to translate them as successfully as possible.

TM: When we talk about translation, we often focus on how “faithful” it is. In your opinion, what does “faithfulness” mean in literary translation?

AA: “Faithfulness” is a very problematic term in relation to literary translation, or any translation, for that matter. For starters, it has a dogmatic character, designating either the original text or a third (often illegible) source or maxim as the sole, fixed, and perfectly transparent source that can authorize a translation. There is no such source. “Faithfulness” is also linked with the general assumption that something always gets “lost in translation.” Well, on one level, something gets “lost” in reading, too, or as any creative writer can attest, in writing as well. Take, for instance, Wordsworth’s famous adage, “spontaneous overflow of emotions recollected in tranquility.” Wouldn’t you wish you could ask him just how much of the “spontaneous overflow” got lost in the “recollection?” This is in the nature of expressive, interpretive arts, whether creative writing or translation. But anyone who has known an accomplished translator will also know that the risk of “loss” is never a license for unfaithfulness; on the contrary, it is the very force behind our disciplined vigilance to achieve the closest approximation possible in translation. Instead of asking, is this the correct translation?, we ask is this translation the result of correct effort?—the result of a disciplined, critical and reflective practice.

TM: This may be a silly question. But readers always want to know which translation is better, especially of classics and renowned works. In your opinion, how can people assess the quality of literary translations if they don’t speak the source language? How do you judge whether the translator’s effort is “correct” if you have no more information than the English translation itself?

AA: As you know, I am deeply suspicious of the terms “correct” or “better.” I’d like to think that no self-respecting, professional translator sets out to translate sloppily. While it is true that the book publishing market seldom gives us enough time to complete translations, I think most literary translation that gets published in English is still very good, thanks to the serious efforts on the part of translators and editors. And, to be honest, judging translations by their “correctness” or “newness,” is also a function of the book trade rather than translation practice. Much of what is perceived as translation criticism takes place in the narrow confines of book reviews, which are part of the book trade and marketing. Likewise, if publishers want to revive sales of a classic, or want a share of the market, they will claim that their edition is a “new” or “better” or “authorized” translation—god knows by what criteria.

The task of appraising a literary translation requires a patient and methodical investigation of the translation process, the decision-making, the re-creative strategies, the intellectual and aesthetic considerations that shape and inform the translation. Such higher-order concerns cannot be addressed through sound-bite size quips in book-reviews; they deserve space and a full-fledged critical discourse similar to literary criticism.

In terms of classics or renowned works available in multiple retranslations, one of the best forms of appraisal would be comparative analysis. When set side-by-side and read with care, the retranslations can reveal the different strategies that each translator employed and to what end. Perhaps, one translation prioritized sound and rhythm while another aimed at contemporizing diction or foregrounding a particular thematic thread in the original that had not been adequately acknowledged. When reading comparatively, we also learn to recognize our own expectations, our own reading preferences. We become reflective about how translations should be read.

TM: I remember the day you taught me to translate “My Poor Girlfriend” by Zhu Yue. After you showed me how much liberty I could take as a literary translator, I suddenly realized that only by being “creative,” was I able to grasp the soul rather than the frame of the original work. But people don’t really talk about the creative side of literary translation. In your opinion, how important is that? How much liberty can a translator take to be creative?

AA: Oh, I loved reading Zhu Yue’s story in your beautiful translation. I think your translation succeeds because you balance creativity with a keen understanding of the original language in the story, especially the humor—which itself holds a slanted gaze at the language in the first place. When translating a text, we don’t only ask, what it means, but also how it means what it means—how it sounds, how it’s shaped, how it evokes feelings, how it brings about its intended effect, how it wants to be read, and so on. Investigating these how questions requires, on the one hand, close reading, careful critical analysis, and, on the other hand, creativity and imagination so that we can attempt to recreate the text, reimagine its body and soul, in the new language. We do so by bearing on the expressive faculties of the new language that are often incommensurable with those of the original language; by reconstituting metaphors, by transplanting the original idiolect in the soil of a new language; by tuning the new language to sing the music of the original. All these operations and more require a great deal of creative intervention, reimagining. Without creativity—measured, justified, skillfully deployed creativity—literary translation would be like whistling an opera.

I should also add that creative license is not a substitute for understanding a text fully and recreating it correctly. A creative solution to a problem we don’t fully understand often exacerbates the problem rather than solves it.

TM: I am constantly enthralled by the many “magic powers” that you possess. One of the most fascinating powers is that you can capture the sound of a language, whether you speak that language or not. How do you do that? How important is the sound? Perhaps many people’s attention goes straight to the meaning of the text. What are other linguistic aspects that we tend to ignore but that affect the aesthetics?

AA: You are much too generous. I wish I had magic powers. Mine are probably well-practiced skills combined with years of literary study. As you recall from our workshops, we approach language on at least five levels—semantic (lexical meaning), phonetic/sonic (sound), grammar and form (physical, visual, durational properties of language), pragmatic (the intended effect), and emotive (mood, tone, pathos). A literary work reveals how it wants to be read on all these levels simultaneously. Focusing only on lexical meaning risks missing out on much of what constitutes the poetics of a literary work. Any unit of text—be it a paragraph or even a sentence—is like a little dramatic play. It has a beginning, rising action, climax, denouement, and end. It packs a great deal of emotion to elicit our response. We must pay attention to its duration, to the event of its unfolding. Understanding its meaning/message, while obviously good and useful, is only part of experiencing the language fully.

It is fair to say that I am quite obsessed with sound. Sound as a total embodied experience. Hearing is probably the most reflexive, persistent, autonomous of our senses. Hearing is also highly evocative. Sound experience entails, often at once, our physio-neural, intellectual, visceral, intuitive, emotional faculties. This is what I mean by sound as a total embodied experience. It is a complex site of meaning-making. We experience sound in three interrelated dimensions: either epistemically, that is, by interpreting sound as signifier of previously stored information in our mind; or acoustemically, that is, by responding physically or emotionally to such auditory/acoustic properties as timbre, vibration, rhythm, pitch, ratio, harmony, and so on; or synestethically, that is, by involving all the other senses in simultaneous associations across visual images, smells, tastes, tactile memories. This last one often is spontaneous and intuitive. A text sounds itself out through vowels, consonants, syllables, punctuation marks, syntactic cadences, and so on. Here is one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

I want to experience this poem as a soundscape, by reading it out loud, by paying attention to the movement of my lips, the hollow of my mouth, to where in my body, in my musculature, I experience certain cadences, by imagining tastes, images, memories that correlate with the sounds I hear. My task as a translator would be to create not so much a similar sound texture but a texture that can produce close approximations of the total embodied experiences of sound I had when reading and experiencing the original. I find this work especially fruitful since I am translating from my native tongue (the sounds of which are still rich, embodied experiences for me) into a language in which I’ve studied poetics.

For me, all the levels of language I mentioned earlier converge in sound. Learning to read for sound takes time and patience, but it is a competence that, once obtained, made dramatic difference in my translation practice and, I’d like to think, my teaching.

TM: What is your ideal picture of “World Literature?” What do you think translators can do to contribute to that picture?

AA: In the current era of globalization, we are experiencing a renewed interest in translation since virtually every form of global circulation–goods, information, human beings—depend on translation. Circulation of international literature, too, has gained great momentum as well as circumference. Works travel faster and more widely. An author’s sphere of influence—both the influences on and those of her writing on others—has widened considerably, too. More and more of the writers who hold International Writing Program residency in Iowa City are self-professed global writers rather than identifying with any particular national literature. They read extensively foreign works in translation more than they do works in their national canon. Consequently, literature is emerging and experienced in a persistent state of “border” and “movement,” actual or imagined. There is a dynamic exchange and interchange of styles, genres, narrative norms, the effects of which can be seen not only at the level of diction, sentence, syntax, but also in how they perceive, interpret, and express/represent reality. Times of great movement like ours are always difficult to understand from within, when we are ourselves part of the movement. While David Damrosch and others speak compellingly about “world literature,” works written with keen awareness of the global context, I am not sure that we are experiencing a categorically different kind of literary and artistic production. Certainly modernism and post-modernism were international in orientation and influence, albeit in a narrower “world.”

TM: In your opinion, is there an aesthetic standard of great fiction that is shared universally?

AA: I am happy to leave the question for the critics and writers to resolve. As a translator, I am overjoyed by the energetic circulation or literature. In the dynamic, global context translation has obtained greater significance as a medium through which we are immersing ourselves in the language of the other, in the way languages interact with each other. We are making rich discoveries about other cultures and our own; we are observing how languages/societies shape meaning, concepts of selfhood, otherness, how they negotiate ambiguity and difference, how they manage and adapt to change. And consequently, I’d like to think that we are encouraging cross-fertilization and new creativities. In Bhabha’s famous dictum, “newness” enters culture through translation.

TM: In New York Review Daily’s article, “Your English Is Showing,” Tim Parks points out the growing trend of European novels that are written in a kind of “international vernacular, shorn of country-specific references and difficult-to-translate wordplay or grammar” so that they “would be easily digestible in an Anglophone context.” The same can be said of China and I presume most of the non-native English speaking countries. How do you feel about this current writing trend? What lessons should translators draw from this phenomenon?

AA: To some extent, I agree with Tim Park’s assessment, but, again, I am not sure that the problem he diagnoses is unique to our contemporary era. Every era has had its lesser works that enjoyed wider purchase and circulation. In our era of hyper-circulation, perhaps the great works are, at times, being overshadowed by the lesser and more “digestible” ones. But I’d like to believe that great literature outlasts the vicissitudes of its time, and ours will, too. I am more interested in (and excited by) the new challenges that global literature presents the translators. There is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek question that I use in my public talks: How do we translate a Syrian novel written in Arabic, by a refugee author who cites the Japanese novelist Murakami as her main influence, whom she read in English translation, in Germany? How do we translate the growing number of multi-lingual authors—refugees, emigres, expatriates—writing in more than one language, often coming to literature in their second or third language? How do we meet the growing need for translations across borders, within regions, especially those with histories of conflict and forced silence? In a period when we are witnessing the evisceration of foreign language training in U.S. universities, who should (who can) translate the world’s voices? How do we support the emerging wave of bi-lingual translators (heritage speakers, transplants, etc.) who are no longer the odd minority that I certainly was 25 years ago when I dared to translate into my second language? What are the new forms of translation—collaborative, author-translator, translator teams, etc.—that we should actively encourage and train for? And, as importantly, how do we cultivate a learned, critically discerning readership for literature in translation so that we widen the discourse community around our work and the work of world authors? One of the exciting developments in the U.S. is the growing number of undergraduate-level courses, tracks, and programs in translation and global literacy with the aim to foster this kind of learned readership and more rigorously trained translators. These questions illustrate the magnitude of the challenges before us, yes, but they are also indicative of the crucial relevance of translation in determining the future of global circulation of literature.

TM: Would you give some suggestions for aspiring literary translators?

AA: As with all forms of art or vocation, literary translation, too, requires a great deal of learning, a great deal of practice. Think of a skill that you learned to practice well. It probably took patience, many failures, slow and steady progress, and, as importantly, learning from others who are masters of that skill, whether it is cooking, woodworking, or playing an instrument. Literary translation, too, involves a process of maturation. Don’t be impatient to see yourself in print. Read great literature, read great translations. Take time to deepen your sense of the practice, to widen the intellectual and aesthetic space in which you practice it. Your relationship is not with words, but with languages, with the cultures and traditions that continuously give shape to those languages, and to you.

Image credit: Unsplash/Jelleke Vanooteghem.

is a staff writer at The Millions. She has published four books in her native language Chinese. In English, her works have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, The O. Henry Prize Collection, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from The Iowa Writers' Workshop and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.