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Quotes From Istanbul: the Writers and Literary Translators International Congress

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So I ostensibly live in Indiana at the moment, but this funny thing happened earlier this month where I was in Istanbul with a bunch of literary translators.

The Writers and Literary Translators International Congress (WALTIC) began as a brainchild of the Swedish Writers Union and inaugurated in Stockholm in 2008. I was there with my boss, the Mongolian Writers Union Director Khaidav Chilaajav, to present a paper on Mongolian poetry on his behalf. (Just when I thought my Henry Luce year couldn't get better, I was in Stockholm meeting Philip Pullman in the gold room where they give out the Nobel Prize for literature. I was 23, and it rendered pretty much everything that's happened since then lackluster in comparison. I nerded Pullman hard. I nerded so hard the poor man actually ran away from me.) The Congress identified several goals and priorities, among them the international safeguarding of freedom of expression and increasing literacy.

This year WALTIC was held in Turkey, with key note speakers including Maureen Freely (Orhan Pamuk's literary translator) and Ko Un (the prolific Korean writer). I presented the story of exiled Chinese writer Tumen Ulzii Bayunmend to an audience including the secretary of International PEN and the director of China's Independent PEN Center. It couldn't have been a more incredible and sobering experience, from the backdrop of Instabul to the program itself, which including heartbreaking and inspiring panels with exiled journalists and poets from Iran, South America, and China who had undergone imprisonment and torture, sometimes multiple times for many years on end.

In terms of writers' freedom of expression and literary translation, the annual congress of PEN Centers was the only regular convention of wonderful and industrious people who get things done around these issues. Activists and independents who are not members of PEN in their home countries are not privy to the inner workings of that particular Congress, though, which is what makes WALTIC such an exciting movement, where veteran international PEN members and random young independents like me could meet and talk about these issues. I was blessed to be part of it (easily 60 people contributed to the fundraising to get me out there) and share the story of Tumen Ulzii's bravery and the plight of his family. I think I met one other American at the whole conference, where over 200 people from 27 different countries convened for three days in Turkey.

I tend to write down interesting and funny things people say. This year's WALTIC was no exception, so below please enjoy a smattering of quotes taken during WALTIC proceedings from everyone from Maureen Freely to Olov Hyllienmark, Sweden's foremost literary translator. (In the interest of one of WALTIC's main concerns, authors' digital copyrights, I am happy to provide who said what in the comments, but found it interrupted the flow to do so after the quotes).

"Freedom of expression is the mother of all human rights."

"One language vanishes every 2 weeks...{it's like} a gaping hole in the center of our body through which wind is passing through us."

"Translating Orhan's incredibly long sentences is like carrying groceries without a bag."

"I have a recurring fantasy that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the free access to imagination."

"I approach translation the same way I approach novel-writing: when I get up in the morning and translate I find the emotional center of the work."

"The problem of identity is huge -- huge now."

"Freedom of expression is not just about prisons and killings. It is about the right to be heard."

"We need to cooperate with the publishers, but we must not let them fuck us."

"Translators are writers, and writers, translators."

"We were practicing art together..now that Orhan is a political figure our relationship became one subject to comment and criticism...it's hard to have an artistic relationship under those conditions."

"Language is one of the centrifugal expressions of the universe."

"There are no public lending rights in America. Why not? If it can happen in the United States, it can happen everywhere..."

"France has a complicated model--"
"Of course," says the Frenchman behind me.

"Most of us are in this becase we know that books have power."

"I wanted to make beautiful Turkish into beautiful English. I wanted to do a literary translation. I thought he should have the control.... Silence of the snow, said Orhan. No no no, silence of snow, I said...some of the best conversations I ever had in my life were when we argued...I felt like we were exploring fictive space together."

"People fascinated with money don't become literary translators."

"To have a whole life, one must have a possibility of expressing private dreams, thoughts."

"I met with a young female lawyer who had been imprisoned for 2.5 years for defending an enemy of the state. 'How do you feel?' I asked her. 'You know,' she said, 'in this country, all decent people end up in prison.'"

"Every act of creative writing is a first translation, and every translation a second act of creation.
When a work is translated it has its first year as its second original in the region where the original is born anew."

"I taught myself Turkish, which has virtually no verb for 'to have', 'to be', and English has nothing to match the Turkish 'have unto of', which is beautiful."

"I hated myself. I'd cornered myself--an exploited translator in a cynical, narrow minded, you know...I got depressed and thought, to hell with all this! But you cant just get mad. If the sufragettes had only gotten mad and nothing else they wouldnt have gone anywhere."

"Hrant Dink was assassinated in January, 2007...100,000 people attended his funeral. There were more police than demonstrators at the vigil a year later."

"We have lots in common with writers. We create texts."

"Are you organized?"

"To have a language is to have a heart. When a language vanishes, a cultural nucleus vanishes."

"A literary text is not chess. The creative act is fundamental in translating. You can't get a computer to do a creative act."

"Anything to do with clouds I am taken by it. I'm from a monsoon country. I'm very attracted to rain...Bangladesh is a country of free thinkers. It is not meant to be otherwise."

"I'd have 800 words to describe the history of Turkey and freedom of expression in Turkey in a nutshell, so unfortunately he's a character in my nutshell."

"Part of my work is a translator, part is defending the right of other translators to express themselves."

"Translators are often very shy and humble people....there's nothing to be ashamed of, taking up space! Translators are often more interesting than writers."

"With my dying breath I will be defending--speaking against the Nobel for Orhan as some sort of political prize."

"Freedom of expression for writers is a persistent challenge of humanity."

"I know his popularity has gone down, but I did find it very inspiring a few years ago when Obama said, 'yes we can.'"