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  • What’s Going On: Poems by Aras Ören with a Translator’s Introduction
  • Tom Cheesman

These first English translations of poems by Aras Ören are from German translations of the 1970s and 1980s, as republished in 2017 in Wir neuen Europäer. The translators from Turkish to German are: H. Achmet Schmiede and Jürgen Theobaldy (The Eight Hundred Thousand,” “Fazil Usta,” “Halime,” and “Kázim Akkaya’s Answer,” taken from the second volume of the Berliner Trilogie, first German publication: Der kurze Traum aus Kagithane, 1974); Gisela Kraft (“Germany, a Turkish Fairy Tale” and “What’s Going On in Naunynstrasse,” first German publication: Deutschland, ein WINTER-MÄRCHEN, 1978); and Helga Dağyeli-Bohne and Yıldırım Dağyeli (“The Man Who Changed Europe,” first German publication: Das Wrack, 1986). My translations reproduce Turkish spellings as given in the German texts.

I know no Turkish. Translating translations—“pivot” translating—is a game of “kulaktan kulağa” (ear to ear) to “stille Post” (silent post) to “Telephone.” How much to trust prior translators? I must and do. They all worked with the poet and share his commitments. Ören writes in an undogmatic Marxist, internationalist, Modernist realist tradition. His poetry is designed, above all, to promote critical social thought. First of all, therefore, it is designed to be clearly intelligible, even for hearers who might be illiterate. This poetry does not show off with subtle allusions, recherché vocabulary and ‘clever’ play with language’s capacity for ambiguity. It aims to include as many as possible in social conversations about power, justice, exploitation, resistance, and liberation.

These poems fall into two groups: the verse narrative reportage of the early 1970s, directly inspired by Nâzım Hikmet and Bertolt Brecht (as Ela Gezen has shown), and later, more varied experiments. The earliest poems here are excerpts from the second book of the Berliner Trilogie (1974, republished in 2019): Der kurze Traum aus Kagithane (“The Short Dream from Kagithane,” which is a formerly working-class district of Istanbul). It is subtitled Ein Poem, meaning a book-length verse narrative. Its interwoven vignettes [End Page 675] of proletarian migrant lives are based on first-hand knowledge, with a strong dose of criticism of states, employers, and religion. In many ways it recalls Hikmet’s masterpiece, Memleketimden İnsan Manzaraları (Human Landscapes from My Country, 2009), which was composed while he was a political prisoner in the 1940s and published only in the 1960s.1Hikmet’s text is a hybrid poem-novel-drama-filmscript, with multiple voices of strongly individualized social types, richly various in tone, and so is Ören’s trilogy, with its large cast and its shifting moods, by turns melancholy and hilarious, politically didactic, suspenseful, tragic, satirical, enraged, or lyrical. Like Hikmet, Ören structures long poems into sections focused on characters, broken into irregular stanzaic units composed of mostly short irregular lines. Like both Brecht and Hikmet, Ören writes to witness, document and advocate internationalist worker solidarity: the Berlin Trilogy shows immigrants and natives (represented by Niyazi and Horst) coming together “as actors—rather than passive bystanders—in the continuation, revival, and transformation of German [and international—TC] traditions of labor protest” (Gezen 383).

As Gezen also argues, Ören uses “formal techniques which induce critical stances in the reader and disrupt passive, unquestioning absorption of the narrative material” (382). Brecht’s formulation, “rhymeless verse with irregular rhythms” (1964 [1939]), aptly describes both Hikmet’s and Ören’s verse. In 1939 Brecht advocated this form for radio broadcasts from exile into Nazi Germany and to Germans scattered abroad. He called it “gestic” verse, meaning that the basic unit is not metrical but the phrase, the short line, or sequence of short lines, which performs a social “gestus,” such as making relations between persons and groups visible and criticizable. This verse avoids self-contained regularity, smoothness, “art for art’s sake,” so precious to bourgeois poets. Its rhythms mimic the heightened, interruptive speech of the street— demonstrators’ chants, vendors’ cries, advertising slogans. Brecht claimed that the form was also “reasonably invulnerable” to enemy jamming of the radio signal (202). It aims at “more or less hammering something in” (200), by “projecting...


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