Canan Maraşlıgil’s world has always been a multilingual one. Currently based in Amsterdam, she was born in Turkey, spent her childhood in Belgium, and, as a student, lived for a short time in Canada. Today, as a freelance writer and literary translator, she often travels internationally to deliver workshops and presentations, and works in no less than five languages: English, French, Turkish, Dutch, and Spanish. Always involved in several inspiring projects at once, Canan explores literature through writing and translation, but also photography, video, podcast, and digital media. You can therefore easily imagine our joy when, in addition to all of her brilliant projects, she kindly agreed to schedule an interview with Asymptote’s team member Lou Sarabadzic.
Lou Sarabadzic (LS): You work mostly in French, English, and Turkish, and are regularly involved in projects dealing with multilingualism. What does multilingualism mean for you, and why is it so central to your work?
Canan Maraşlıgil (CM): Multilingualism is my reality. I grew up in a family who came from Turkey to Belgium. We spoke Turkish at home, I went to school in French, then I learned Dutch at school (Belgium is a trilingual country if you count German, but the second language we learned at school was Dutch). I was also hearing a lot of German in our living-room through TV and our cousins living in Zurich and Hamburg—I also have family who migrated to Germany. I started to learn English through friends of my dad who was working in a hotel as a night receptionist, and through popular culture—films and music. However, English only became part of my formal education much later. Now, I start my sentences in one language and end them in another. In my mind, everything is multilingual. Certain feelings come to me in one language, and others in another language. I also work in Dutch a lot, but I don’t really feel in Dutch, nor in Spanish, which is also a language I know, but use much less.
Multilingualism means seeing the world through many different lenses. You can try and understand issues and current affairs through different media in different languages. I think that’s a huge advantage in today’s world.
LS: You have translated several books from Turkish into French for French publisher Publie.net. How do you choose the writing you translate?
CM: It was an urge for me to translate: Growing up in Brussels as the daughter of immigrants from Turkey, I have always seen many stereotypical depictions of the geography and culture we came from. And I usually didn’t recognise those depictions. Since childhood, I have always felt the need to challenge those views. As I grew older, I realised there were many stories written by people in Turkey which were unknown in Europe. So that’s how I started to translate certain authors, and focusing on them for years and years. There are only a few writers from Turkey I am passionate about and whose work I want to focus on. I am not a translator who does many translations. I am very picky because I actually also do a lot of work off the page. . . which I enjoy a lot.
Translating a book can be very painful, I feel the characters and the stories in my bones, because I pick those stories out of urgency, and the writer also wrote them like that. So it’s not an easy experience for me to translate. And I always have this feeling inside me: “oh, this isn’t good enough!”, but then I need to let it go at some point…
If you take Ali and Ramazan for instance, by Perihan Mağden: those two kids, gay orphans, in the 1980s, beginning of 1990s, falling in love and dying (no spoiler here, you know from page one that they are going to die), they entered my dreams. Perihan Mağden too was shaken by their story—it’s a true one, un fait divers.
LS: Ali and Ramazan is such a haunting story. . .
CM: It is! It says so much about Turkey, but it is also a love story. When I translate writers from Turkey, it is true that I want to challenge depictions of Turkey’s many realities. But it isn’t a way to present culture from Turkey either. It is fiction, it is literature that I am interested in. Stories. Writers from Turkey also have a right to imagination. I strongly believe in imagination.
LS: You certainly do challenge certain realities in your work. In particular, you regularly write about your intersectional feminism and being strongly committed to equality and diversity. How does this influence your work as a translator?
CM: I don’t really separate my work and who I am. To me, it all goes hand in hand. What I translate, write, create, how I schedule events and workshops, the talks I give. . . Everything I do comes from that belief in equality and diversity: we need to still fight for social justice and equality, against racism and xenophobia. I don’t believe I can afford not to care about those issues, and I am very privileged to be in a place and position from where I can do all of this. I have experienced my share of discrimination growing up as a Turkish, Muslim girl in Belgium, but that’s nothing compared to so many other injustices happening. I am now in a good place. I am doing good work with interesting people, I have access to a lot of opportunities. My parents had to work hard for that, so I am using this privileged place to do good things with my work. My father’s name is Abdullah, so imagine looking for a job with that name. . .
I also believe in linking issues globally: I don’t think we can point certain places anymore and say, oh, things are so bad over there, far away. . . It is happening everywhere. If we let nationalist discourses spread, no matter in which language and in which geographical area, we all lose. These discourses know no borders, they keep feeding each other. Brexit feeds Trump, who feeds Wilders, who feeds racists in Sweden, who feeds Orban, etc. And these all link to issues of inequalities. Those discourses create more inequalities and discriminations, exclusion, and direct violence! We all have a responsibility to fight against it all. I don’t have the luxury not to care. I don’t think any of us have.
LS: Speaking of inequalities, are there any specific challenges you have encountered as a female translator, workshop leader, and writer? Do you have any tips for women who start working in these fields? What personally helped you on this journey?
CM: I don’t really face challenges with the people I work with directly, because most of the time I am lucky enough to work with like-minded people; many women in the cultural sector fight the same fights I do. I have faced more challenges associated with where I come from—my “Turkishness”—in French translation circles, not in English ones. For instance, this idea that I can’t write in French because it isn’t my mother tongue. I don’t even want to talk about this, because it’s a topic that bores me now. I find it so backwards. . . As a woman, everyday life is still challenging though. Trying to express yourself, express your desires etc. is always a challenge in these societies. But this might be another interview! One thing, though: I translate women. I do make that choice.
LS: You also seem particularly interested in collaborative approaches, especially working with other women and people with an experience of migration, for instance with Laura M. Pana in your podcast “Not Loud Enough”. Are these collaborations particularly important to you?
CM: They are extremely important. I believe we can create so many things with other people. Firstly, translation is a sort of collaboration, you seem to work on your own on a text, but you are never truly alone: you have the author. If the author is alive, you can get into a conversation with them. There is also a whole community of people who can always help when you ask a question on social media. I find this extremely helpful, actually! I also love having more pairs of eyes on my translations. That’s why I love translating for Publie.net, where I work with two editors who read and comment on everything in a very productive way.
Secondly, there are the projects “off the page”—workshops for instance. They all need many people to exist!
And of course, there is my collaboration with my dear friend Laura M. Pana. She is a strong believer in equality and the need to shake things up to change the discourses under which we are currently living. That’s why we called our podcast “Not Loud Enough”, because we feel you can never be loud enough about the issues you care about. All these things that matter to us, we discuss them. What I find important is to talk from a personal place: sharing what you know, writing from what you know, expressing yourself with sincerity, authenticity. This is what I am always looking for in my own creative activities, and in the works I translate. It makes me vulnerable in many occasions. It can thus be scary, but it is worth doing. For instance, there was one episode with Laura when we focused on how patriarchy was embedded within our own families. That was a tough episode to record because we thought: “Wow, people we know will listen and know about it.” But then, how can we fight for issues we find important if we don’t put ourselves out there? I’m sure it is possible, but I don’t know how to do that. This is the way I know how to do things.
LS: That’s why your podcasts, just as your presentations—and I’m sure your workshops—, are so engaging! Now I know that you do a lot of work “off the page”, as you said, but I read on your website that you were currently writing a book on the act of translation for a French publisher. I am sure our readers would love to know what aspects it will explore. . . Anything you can share with us at this stage?
CM: I sent my first draft a while ago and am waiting for feedback, so I don’t know yet when and how it will exist. Hopefully as a book. In my manuscript, I have focused on the idea that you write with your life story. This is something I had heard translator Aline Schulman say: “On traduit avec sa biographie”. I have always known deep down that this is how I translated, but I had never heard anyone say it this way. It was an A-HA moment for me. So the book explores translation through my own life story: who I am and why I translate, and why it matters that I translate, not just to me but to the “canon” I am contributing to, and building. I don’t want to sound pretentious of course, but I do want to challenge that canon: I want my voice in there, and the voice of the writers I translate, the stories of the people that surround me and that I don’t see represented in works of art—whether literature, or film, or TV, or comics. . . That’s why I touch on so many different things as well. I don’t take myself too seriously in life, but I do work that I believe matters, so I want it to matter to other people too.
Another important inspiration for this project on which I am working is a book by Fatima El Tayeb, European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe, which also inspired me to write poetry! This quote from the book is kind of a starting point too: “The national often is the means by which exclusion takes place; minorities are positioned beyond the horizon of national politics, culture, and history, frozen in the state of migration through the permanent designation of another, foreign nationality that allows their definition as not Danish, Spanish, Hungarian, etc.” Because of these different layers of stories I want to tell, through the lens of translation and the act of translation, I have also included some poetry in between chapters. . . Let’s see where this adventure will take me!
Canan Maraşlıgil is a writer, literary translator, editor, podcaster, and curator based in Amsterdam. Her interest is in challenging official narratives and advocating freedom of expression through a wide range of creative projects and activities, from literature to film and comics. She is the creator of City in Translation, a project exploring languages and translation in urban spaces, and a co-host of the Not Loud Enough podcast with migrationlab founder Laura M. Pana. Canan has worked with cultural organisations across wider Europe and has participated in residencies at the Free Word Centre in London (2013), at WAAW in Senegal (2015), at Copenhagen University (2015), at La Contre Allée in Lille (2017) and at Lancaster University (2018).
Lou Sarabadzic is Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) at Asymptote. She is a French bilingual poet, blogger, and novelist living in England. She has published two books in French: a novel and a poetry collection. In January 2018, she received the Dot Award for Digital Literature for the #NERDSproject, to which you can contribute by following the project on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. Lou’s poems, in French and English, have appeared in a range of publications including Gutter, Morphrog, and A) GLIMPSE) OF).
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