Tarabya Translation Prize

2011 Prize-giving

You received the Tarabya Translation Prize at the end of October for your translations from Turkish to German. How do you measure a translation's success?

I now think that it's possible to tell if it's a good or bad translation simply by reading it - independent of the original. For example, there's a new translation of "Don Quixote" out. I don't speak Spanish, but I find the translation simply outstanding.

How can you tell?

Despite its length, while reading it I always had the feeling that if Cervantes had spoken German, he would have written the book exactly like this. When I have this feeling, I assume it's a good translation. And the opposite is also true - when reading a poor translation, I can always tell that the translator didn't manage to break free from the structure of the source language enough to do justice to the structures of the German language.

That means that translators have a significant influence.

There is a discussion among translators as to whether a translator can make a book better or worse. Any improvement would be marginal at best, but a translator can make a book much, much worse. They can kill a book with a bad translation. A translator should always translate a book the way it is in its original form. That's where the term "faithfulness" comes into play.

How do you interpret this word in relation to your own work?

Sometimes translators exhibit a false understanding of faithfulness, and as a result, they adhere too closely to the structures of the book's original language. I understand faithfulness to mean something else - not faithfulness to the structures of the original language, but faithfulness to the content of the book itself. For example, in German, important information is usually found at the end of the sentence, while in English it's usually in the middle or at the beginning. If a translator adheres too closely to the structures of the original language, important information might end up in an unimportant place.

Can sales figures and reviews also be considered criteria?

Reviews sometimes briefly mention the translation. Often critics will pick out a word and criticize its translation as inaccurate. But this just shows that the critic didn't really spend much time examining the translation - because sentence structure, for example, is a much more important element. When it comes to sales figures, the fact is that sometimes poorly translated books sell extremely well - and well-translated books not at all.

Why is that?

If a production company can get a well-known actor to star in a movie, the cost of producing the movie goes up, but it also reaches a larger share of the audience as a result. The actor's high salary can be recouped through increased ticket sales. This doesn’t work with books. Normal readers don't know translators at all. So it doesn't make any sense for a publishing company to hire a certain translator and pay them extremely well.

How important to you is contact with the author?

So far I have personally met the author of every book I have translated. I seek out this contact. And when I'm translating, I remain in touch with each author by e-mail in case I have questions.

Turks and Germans living together in one society is an oft-discussed social issue. Do you see yourself as someone who builds bridges between the cultures?

Translators most certainly act as intermediaries. A German reader without a Turkish background will change their view of Turkey after reading Turkish literature. The media always reports on the same issues, such as Turkey's entry into the EU or Islam. They often create an exotic view of Turkey. But anyone that's able to read Turkish literature will find a variation of the same pleasures people enjoy and hardships people face in Germany and other countries. My goal is for readers to see what a "normal" country Turkey actually is.

How do you view the development of Turkish–German literary translations in recent years?

In 2008, Turkey was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But a trend similar to what happened with Latin-American literature in the eighties only develops from that in rare cases. At the moment, Turkish literature is most certainly not in vogue, and it never has been. Around the time of the book fair, numerous translations were released onto the German market. But this large selection overwhelmed potential readers of Turkish literature more than anything else. As a result, several books that received good reviews simply got lost in the shuffle. That's why I believe that the book fair didn't really do much to promote Turkish literature in Germany. Besides Orhan Pamuk and the old master Yasar Kemal, not one other Turkish author has succeeded in making a name for themselves.

Do you see an opportunity to change this fact?

There are a number of books I would really like to translate. When I approach German publishing companies, one obstacle I face is that no one at the firm speaks Turkish well enough to form an opinion. One thing I can do is translate the first 30 pages so that the publisher can get an idea of what the book is about. But that's not the same as an editor that can read an English or French book themselves. For many languages this is a barrier that is difficult to overcome.

Are you irritated by the low level of public awareness of translators?

Deciding to become a translator also means deciding to not always stand in the spotlight. In fact, the highest praise a translator can receive is not being mentioned in a review at all. That's enough for me. But obviously it's also nice to be honored. There are only a handful of literary translators that can make a living from translating alone. Most of them either have a second job or are supported by their spouse. Financial aid in the form of scholarships or prizes can also increase the quality of the translations.

(Interview by Klaus Voßmeyer, October 2011)
Gerhard Meier was born in 1957, grew up in Landshut, Germany, and read Romance Studies and German Studies in Munich. He acquired a degree in translation for French and Italian at the University of Mainz/Germersheim. In his spare time he also learned Turkish. Mr. Meier has lived in Lyon, France, since 1986, where he translates French literature (Amin Maalouf, Henri Troyat, Jules Verne, Jacques Attali) and Turkish literature (Hasan Ali Toptas, Orhan Pamuk, Murat Uyurkulak). He is married and has two daughters.

Picture Gallery

Photos: Sedat Mehder
Gerhard Meier received the Tarabya Translation Prize for his translations of Turkish literature into German
Kămuran Şipal received the Tarabya Translation Prize for his translations of German literature into Turkish
2011 main prize winners Kămuran Şipal and Gerhard Meier