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Human Landscape From My Country &
Selected Poems of Nazim Hikmet

An Interview with translator and poet Randy BLASING

A Translation Journey...

by Bircan ÜNVER

"Over the years we have learned more and more about Nazim's life, thanks to the numerous biographies published on him, and they have helped us understand the circumstances of many of his poems that had been a mystery to us.  For example, the revelations about his mistreatment in the former Soviet Union, which came out after the KGB files were opened in 1994, clarified a number of late poems for us and rendered them translatable at last

Nazim HIKMET's, "Human Landscape From My Country" and "Selected Poems of Nazim Hikmet" books revised and new editions were published in April 2002 in New York by Persea Books. Randy BLASING and Mutlu KONUK are the translators of the books.

We proposed our questions to Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk via e-mail who live in Rhoden Island.

Below is Mr. Blasing answers to our questions based on their translations journey and contributions from Nazim Hikmet's poems and his books into English and American culture.

Randy Blasing: I'll try to answer your questions in order, speaking for Mutlu--who's been in Turkey since mid-May and who gave me permission to do so--where appropriate. Here goes:

_ When did you move to the United States? What was the primary reason?
_ Mutlu Konuk came to America in 1963 to attend Carleton College in Minnesota.

_ Were you familiar with Nazim Hikmet's poems prior coming to the States?
_ She had never heard of Nazim in Turkey, even though she majored in literature at the prestigious American Girls' School in Izmir.

_ How and when did you meet Nazim Hikmet's poems first?
_ In the fall of 1965, when I started graduate school as a poet in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Chicago after returning from a three-week honeymoon with Mutlu in Turkey, I was curious about Turkish poets, but when I went to the Near Eastern and Oriental Languages Library, the only book by a Turkish poet I could find was in French, a 1964 translation of Nazim's selected poems called ANTHOLOGIE POETIQUE.

_ What did struck you in his poetry?
_ As I said, Mutlu had never heard of Nazim, but we both liked what we read with our college-knowledge of French, especially his fresh imagery and spirited tone.  For my part, I wanted to translate him to see what he was saying, my French being only adequate, and Mutlu wanted to see what he would sound like in English.

_ What were your first initial reactions?Do you remember the title of the very first poem you translated?
_ We began translating Nazim in the fall of 1966 when we returned from a summer in Turkey with the only Nazim book we could find, an edition of 9-10 P.M. POEMS edited by Memet Fuat.

_ Where and when was Nazim Hikmet's first poem published in English? What journal or magazine?
_ Our first publication of Nazim's poems was in THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW, March-April 1974. Ten of our versions were published there as a "Special APR Supplement," complete with photographs.

_ What attempted you to translate his poems into English? And how was the distribution channels?
_ A week after the issue hit the stands, Michael Braziller of George Braziller, Inc., called us from New York City and asked us to translate a book-length selection of Nazim's poems, which he would use to inaugurate his new literary press, Persea Books, in 1976.  The book, THINGS I DIDN'T KNOW I LOVED, appeared in both cloth and paper editions and sold out in a year and a half. I don't know the print run of the book, but I do know it was distributed nationally and in Canada by George Braziller.

_In general, what impressions or reactions did you receive from poetry lovers or poets about Nazim Hikmet poems?
_ The response to these poems was so enthusiastic that the 30,000 copies of the issue quickly sold out and soon became a collectible among poetry lovers. The book was met with rave reviews in the LOS ANGELES TIMES, BOOKLIST, LIBRARY JOURNAL, and KIRKUS REVIEWS.  It featured blurbs by Denise Levertov, Stephen Berg, W.S. Merwin, David Ignatow, and Paul Zweig.

_What was the time frame from first translation to publishing first edition of the HUMAN LANDSCAPES & SELECTED POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET?
_In 1978 we published another selection of Nazim's poetry, THE EPIC OF SHEIK BEDREDDIN AND OTHER POEMS, also with Persea Books and also in both cloth and paper.  This book was also greeted with universal praise and sold out in three years.  In 1981 I was awarded a $12,500 Translation Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts to complete a translation, begun in 1977, of Nazim's 17,00-line epic verse-novel, HUMAN LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY, and in 1983 Persea brought out our abridged version of it under the abbreviated title of HUMAN LANDSCAPES and only in paperback.  It received rave notices in PUBLISHERS  WEEKLY, THE HUDSON REVIEW, and the VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW, and Raymond Carver gave it a Writer's Choice Award sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.  With Nazim's two selected poems out of print for five years, Persea issued SELECTED POETRY in 1986, which reprinted poems--some of them revised--from the two earlier selections and added new ones.  In the meantime, in 1985, Nazim's RUBAIYAT appeared in a limited edition from Copper Beech Press in Providence, RI, with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and was reprinted in 1989 with the support of grants from the Rhode Island  Arts Council and the Rhode Island Foundation. Five years later this book was also out of print, and in 1994 we put all three selections together, plus some new translations, and called the collection POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET, which went into a second printing in 1998, as HUMAN LANDSCAPES had done in 1994.

_ Any changes of your perception of Nazim Hikmet due to translating his poems? And in what time frame?
_Over the years we have learned more and more about Nazim's life, thanks to the numerous biographies published on him, and they have helped us understand the circumstances of many of his poems that had been a mystery to us.  For example, the revelations about his mistreatment in the former Soviet Union, which came out after the KGB files were opened in 1994, clarified a number of late poems for us and rendered them translatable at last (see my essay "History and Translation" in THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW, May-June 2001).

Over the years we have also become more confident in our abilities as translators, just as I've become with experience a more versatile poet, so that we've tackled more formal poems by Nazim--"Rubaiyat," for example—and kept his formal markers, believing as we did from the beginning that a translation should be faithful to the form as well as the content of the orginal.

Mutlu KONUK & Randy BLASING are translators of Nazim Hikmet's books "Selected Poems Of Nazim Hikmet" & "Human Landscape From My Country" from Turkish into English for 25 years in America.
(Photo by Bircan Unver, Cesme - Izmir, 1998)

_In other words: Do Nazim Hikmet's poems still convey some subversive meaning and concept against TODAY's world system in favor of humanitarian issues?
_Insofar as Nazim's poems take a stand against, as he says in "To Vera," "bossing, boasting, and whining,"  and insofar as he holds out the hope, as he says in "Optimism," that someday "people"--not "governments" or "money"--will "rule," his poetry retains something of a subversive political charge even today.  But I don't see his poems making any attacks on any contemporary political systems that are any more effective than they were when he first issued them as, essentially, propaganda. In other words, once agitprop, always agitprop.

_Which period do you consider was his best period in terms of international evaluation?
_Nazim's prison period is his best, both because his incarceration led him to simplify his style--to become more direct because his immediate audience was common people rather than Istanbul intellectuals, and to be more serious, i.e., more inward and less satiric--and because he wrote his masterpiece in prison, HUMAN LANDCSAPES FROM MY COUNTRY. No poet I know of today can compare with Nazim, in terms of the scope, range, and quality of his achievement, but there are, here and there, poets trying, as Nazim did, to keep it real--that is, to get down on paper just how it feels to be alive and to remind people life is a gift, not only your own but other people's lives as well.

_ Which other Turkish poets would you consider worth to be recognized internationally but not introduced well on the international platform yet?
_ Mutlu and I have no knowledge of contemporray Turkish poets whatsoever.  For better or worse, we have given all our time and energy to Nazim.     

_ Some says that Nazim became internationally famous due to his imprisonment and his political point of view than than his poetry! What is your opinion?
_ Since more people can appreciate politics than poetry, I'm sure it's true Nazim became world-famous first because of his imprisonment, but as times change, certain politics matter less, and what matters in the end is poetry, so that Nazim's fame today rests on his artistry as a poet, not on his politics or imprisonment.

_ What are the most powerful poems of Nazim Hikmet? If you have to choose 10 of them from all of his 30 books!
_ After HUMAN LANDSCAPES, Nazim's Top Ten poems are, in chronological order, "The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin,""Letters from a Man in Solitary," "9-10 P.M. Poems," "Rubaiyat," "Since I Was Thrown Inside," "On Living," "Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison," "Straw-Blond," "Autobiography," and "Things I Didn't Know I Loved."

_ How do you evaluate and compare his poetry to current World poetry?
_ As Mutlu Konuk has written, Nazim revolutionized Turkish poetry by introducing free verse and colloquial diction and by combining modern poetic techniques with traditional and even folk poetry.  His international importance today derives from the way he presents, directly and unflinchingly but with the highest degree of formal sophistication, the varieties of human experience, i.e., of feeling; as the American poet Ezra Pound remarked, "only emotion endures." 

For my part, I value most his emotional directness and his fresh, down-to-earth imagery, e.g., "you must live with great seriousness / like a squirrel"; "one red apple: / my heart"; "the evening star / sparkling like a glass of water." No poet I know of today can compare with Nazim, in terms of the scope, range, and quality of his achievement...

_ What are the most striking aspects of his poetry and his life? 
_ The most striking "aspect" of his life and work is the way he followed his heart wherever it led him, whether in his life or in his work, without regard for how he appeared to others or the world at large. He didn't keep up appearances but acted on his feelings in his life and put his feelings into poetry, no matter how he looked.

_ How do you evaluate UNESCO's declaration for Nazim Hikmet's 100th Birthday Celebration internationally?
_ If UNESCO's declaration of the Year of Nazim draws more readers to his poetry, it's a good thing.

_ New editions of HUMAN LANDSCAPE and POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET arrived mid-April. Are there any differences from the previous editions? What are the basic revisions and expansions in comparison with the previous editions?
_ The second edition of POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET (Persea, 2002) enlarges the first with 21 new poems, for a grand total of 100, and presents significantly revised versions of more than 20 others. HUMAN LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY (Persea, 2002) is the first complete English translation of Nazim's epic novel in verse.  It  revises, from beginning to end, the abridged edition of 1983, restores all the sections that had to be cut then for reasons of economy (about a third of the whole poem), and adds almost ten pages that, until very recently, were censored and banned from all Turkish editions of the book. 

_ What initiated the idea of new editions? Did Persea Books propose to you for the new editions? How did the procedure of new editions proposal develop?
_ Early in 2001, Persea Books invited us to expand and revise POEMS  and to translate HUMAN LANDSCAPES in its entirety for the centennial of Nazim's birth in 2002.

_ How wide were (or will) the distribution will take place?
_ As always, the print runs of their books is Persea's business, but both Nazim books are distributed world-wide by W.W. Norton. 27) What initiated the idea of new editions? Did Persea Books proposed to you for the new editions? How did the procedure of new editions proposal develop?

_ After some research; I was not able to find some of Nazim poems translated into English written between 1950-60, in particular related atomic bombing, Hiroshima, "Kiz Cocugu", "Stransium-90", "Japon Balikcisi", "Nereden Gelip Nereye Gidiyoruz", etc.!
Did you translate some of these poems reflecting his concerns about atomic bombing or nuclear danger?

_ Mutlu Konuk and I have not translated any of Nazim's poems against the atom bomb.

_ What is your poetry teaching experience in Brown University? Did you cover some poems from Nazim in your classes?
_ Mutlu Konuk teaches American poetry at Brown University; she has never taught Nazim there.

_ In general; how do you evaluate young generation's interest in poetry? Are they aware of Turkish poetry?
_ She finds students more interested in poetry now than they ever were, and just as uninformed about Turkish poetry as ever.

_ How do you evaluate Remembering Nazim" event in terms of introducing Nazim Hikmet as first time to such a wide audience in New York?
_ Mutlu was delighted and honored to participate in "Remembering Nazim Hikmet" and was particularly pleased with the subsequent coverage of the event in an article in THE NEW YORK TIMES*. There.  I can't really speak for Mutlu beyond this.  I hope my answers are of interest.  Here are our bios:

_ Would you also briefly touch on your participation as well as your impression about the event, "Poets on Poets" which was realized on May 23, 2002 in New York City?
_ I greatly enjoyed participating in the "Poets on Poets" night of Nazim in New York on May 23.  I met so many fans of Nazim and our translations that I was grateful I could be there, because once a book of translations is published, you don't know how readers will react until you come face to face with them at events like the Poetry Society and Moon and Stars Project's night with Nazim.  I'm thankful to both organizations for their sponsorship of such an evening.

_ (Randy) Did you study Turkish? Would you explain us your experiences in Turkish language? Such as, where did you study, for how long, do you speak Turkish? Was learning process difficult? What did you find the most unique part of the language? etc.
_ I learned Turkish translating Nazim.  I religiously studied Turkish grammar by using his poems as examples, and I learned vocabulary, and memorized it, by drawing on Nazim's poems.  I had a lot of help from my co-translator, Mutlu Konuk, and I picked up more Turkish during the summers when I went to Turkey and worked on translations.  But I reached a plateau and could never become  fluent in the language, either because it is so difficult or because I'm just not very good at foreign languages.  In any event, I can carry on in Turkish at a fairly basic level, with shopkeepers and so on, and can manage even to begin to translate some of Nazim's simpler poems before I run into trouble and need help, but I can't make out too much in Turkish newspapers, which are often cryptic and colloquial.  I know enough, though, to be in total awe of the resources of Turkish, which, like English, draws on any number of other languages to contribute to its richness.  And I can hear its sounds, which Nazim so clearly exploits in his poems and I can only barely begin to approximate in English. 

_ . _

Brief biography of the translators:

Randy BLASING was born in Minneapolis and was educated at Carleton College and the University of Chicago. 

He has published eight books of translation--most recently, POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET, Second Edition (Persea, 2002) and HUMAN LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY (Persea, 2002)--and six collections of his own poetry, including SECOND HOME (Copper Beech, 2001).

A professor of English at the Community College of Rhode Island, he has received a grant in poetry from the Ingram Merrill Foundation and a Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mutlu KONUK, a native of Istanbul, graduated from the American Girls' School in Izmir and was educated at Carleton College, the College of William and Mary, and Brown University.  She has taught American poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Pomona College, and Brown, where she is a professor of English. She has published eight books of translations most recently, POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET and HUMAN LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY and three critical studies, including AMERICAN POETRY (Yale, 1987) and POLITICS AND FORM IN POSTMODERN POETRY (Cambridge, 1995).

About the Persea Books' contribition of Nazim Hikmet's books into English:

Persea has published Nazim Hikmet in translation for over twenty-five years. The complete Human Landscapes from My Country
- Hikmet's masterwork about turmoil and humanity - and the revised Poems of Nazim Hikmet - his one hundred best shorter poems - is the culmination of this long associtation. Each book contains a striking new foreword by a distinguished American poet-sholar: Edvard Hirsch for Human Landscapes from My Country, Carolyn Forche for Poems of Nazim Hikmet.

The publication of these books commemorates Hikmet's centennial, which is being observed in the U.S. and around the world by a variety of literary and cultural institutions. There is currently an enormous interest in Nazim and the middle-eastern culture.

Also a brief introduction of Nazim Hikmet and his Human Landscapes from My Country:

"Hikmet, (1902 -1963), called poetry "the bloodiest of the arts," and this magnum opus is, in a crucial sense, a war poem. Hikmet is one of the great poets of social consciousness. He is a figure comparable to Federico Garcia or Pablo Neruda. To read Hikmet deeply is to be stirred up and confronted by unabashed emotion, connected to something mortally, even nakedly human. It is empowered by the idea of the poet as a singer of tales telling the tale of his tribe. Hikmet's epic poem is filled with social information usually reserved for novels, but it is animated by lyric feeling, by human wishes.

Hikmet's life is the content of legend. He spent 13 years in prison on political charges, and during his 13 years in exile, he won the World Peace Prize. These hardships and the trials of WWII provided the raw material of adventure and suffering that informed and inspired this great work. There is now an effort in Turkey to get Hikmet's citizenship re-instated, and in 2001 The New York Times reported that half a million signatures have been collected on a petition toward that end.

In the perfect oneness of his life and art, Hikmet emerges as a heroic figure. He was a revolution in life & literature, flouting Ottoman literary conventions and introducing free verse and colloquial language. As his incredible career dramatizes, poetry is a matter of life and death.

_ . _

Related Links:

Persea Books web site
For more info about the books:
NAZIM HIKMET: National Poet,
International Figure, But Not A Turkish Citizen

by Julie MARDIN
To Many More Millennia Dear Nazim
* "A Turkish Poet Whose Struggles and Art Touch a Universal Cord"
by Stephen KINZER
April 20, 2002, New York Times,

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