Nermin Mollaoğlu is the founder and head of the Kalem Literature Agency based in Istanbul responsible for representing Turkish authors abroad and foreign authors, publisher and agencies in Turkey. She very kindly invited me to speak with her in her office in Galata. We talked about translation, Turkish literature and the business of publishing Turkish books abroad.
Luke: How did this agency start up?
Nermin: I established the agency ten years ago; it was our anniversary last year. Before that I used to work for Yapi Kredi Publications (Yapı Kredi Yayınları) one of the biggest publishing houses in Turkey.
After three years I decided to leave and establish my own agency. It was quite a crazy idea because there was only one other agency that was promoting Turkish literature. There wasn't a culture of selling Turkish books in other languages. So, it was quite a brave decision at the time. But I don't have any regrets at all, except perhaps at the beginning because it was quite tough, trying to sell stuff, paying the bills and other expenses. After ten years I’m so happy that I made that decision.
Luke: What do you do at Kalem?
Nermin: We do several things, representing Turkish authors sometimes only for foreign rights. For example Ece Temelkuran we only represent her translated rights, or for example Hakan Günday we represent him both in Turkey and internationally. We provide what authors need from us but mostly we represent both their Turkish and non-Turkish rights. We are quite famous for this. When you look at the numbers of Turkish translated books before Kalem Agency started, since the foundation of The Republic there were only 300 translated titles, in 10 years we have sold 1700 titles.
Luke: Is this a major part of your business?
Nermin: No this is only 10 percent of our work, 90 percent of our work is representing foreign authors, publisher and agencies in Turkey. We do fiction, non-fiction, children’s and young adult fiction. We have different agents in the office to deal with these jobs.
I’m very proud to represent less well known countries, I can talk for half an hour about Romanian or Polish literature. We try to get literature from less well known countries, their rising stars or their classics translated into Turkish.
I was born in Bulgaria, so I’m an immigrant. Just out of curiosity, I tried to find out which Bulgarian writers have been translated into Turkish. There weren’t any books from contemporary Bulgarian literature in Turkish. So that gave me the idea, why not cover these less known countries in Turkish.
Luke: Is publishing more obscure literature profitable?
Nermin: This is not making money. If you translate a book from lets say, Polish it doesn't make money because the advances are so low, they don't sell much. It is an emotional thing, when you try to sell your book. I think it's a shame that their versions of Orhan Pamuk, Elif Şafak or Tanpinar don't get recognition; I don't want to use … to use a stupid phrase, The American system [of publishing] that only thinks about the profits that can be made.
We travel a lot and go to lots of book fairs. In a year, we have more than 20 international trips and that's the main reason that we can make so many deals in ten years.
The third thing is ITLF [Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival].
Luke: I was going to ask you about that later.
Nermin: Just an hour ago we put up an open call for the fellowship program, which is part of the festival. We invite twenty publishers and have an open call. Last year we received more than 250 applications for people who would like to be invited. We visited a lot of Turkish publishers of all sizes and also left and right wing companies. It's a difficult time in Turkey. It’s [the festival] an opportunity for publishers to learn about the Turkish market. Turkey is always in the headlines and the political pages so they [publishers] so the have a negative image of Turkey and don't know anything about Turkish literature except for Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak so it's a prefect chance for them to learn what is happening here. They can learn about the pre-translations, how we do business here, what the distribution problems are, how we promote our books. I like the program a lot.
Luke: So it's a chance for publishers from abroad to meet with the Turkish literary community?
Nermin: Yes, publishers, agents, translation support coordinators and we sometimes invite journalists.
Luke: How do you select works to be published abroad ? Do you select something that you think is going to be popular abroad or do you select what is popular in Turkey?
Nermin: Ok. In the beginning, I asked to represent the big names in Turkey Ahmet Ümit who sells like one million copies a year and Harkan Günday. I also went for young writers whose writings I liked Harkan Biçakçi, Çiler Ilhan you know young writers and some very established writers, Oya Baydar, Inci Aral. Now I receive more requests to be represented after every interview published in newspapers we receive tens of emails. Basically, I’m closed for new representations but sometimes a title or a book, or a cover, or a story hits me. For example, last year there were two books like that. One of them was Peace Machine by Ozgur Mumcu, he’s a quite well known journalist and academic, his debut was called ‘Peace Machine’. When I heard the title I thought this must be something and I read the novel and I really wanted to represent it.
Luke: You actively approached him?
Nermin: Yes, the book launched on the 2nd of June. In half a year there has been quite a lot of interest, for example, Puskin Press in the UK, he’s their first Turkish writer. It was quite a success it’s a debut novel and to start with we didn't even have a full English manuscript, which was good luck. The second title that I loved was ‘The Pasha of Cuisine’ [Saygın Ersin]. Acutaly Pir-i Lezzet was the title of the book.
Luke: At this point we had a bit of technical trouble and we restarted by talking about ‘The Pasha of Cuisine’.
Nermin: We translated the title of the book [Pir-I Lezzet] to The Pasha of Cuisine because the main character is a master of cooking, the smells and the taste of the food. It’s not very well known. Even in Turkey, some very good literary journalists don't know about it. I love the story I think its one of my favorite books that I’ve worked for. So far we have had lots of interest from Germany and I’m sure that in March at the London book fair we will sell more.
Luke: Is it sometimes the case that a book that you sell the rights for abroad will turn out to be more popular there than it is in Turkey?
Nermin: Yes, there are some. For example, people know Burhan Sönmez but the sales are like 5000 copies here [in Turkey] so far we have sold his novel to exactly 29 countries, that's a huge number for a Turkish writer. He made a lot more from this than he did from the Turkish royalties. Although, this isn’t very common.
Luke: Tell me about translating and publishing Tanpinar, how did that come about? And why hadn’t it been done before?
Nermin: Well as I was saying before the Kalem agency there where only three hundred titles translated into English. Before us he’d only been translated once into French. I think Tanpinar was lucky because most of the translators and Turkologists have studied Tanpinar before. From Finnish translators to Chinese translators they all knew about Tanpinar. Especially the slightly older translators, they are all great lovers of Tanpinar. It was easy to find people who wanted to translate Tanpinar but doing the translation was difficult.
Luke: Because it’s an older style of Turkish?
Nermin: Yes, but so far we’ve got forty-six languages from Mongolian to Spanish. So far he’s our most widely translated author, I think that's because the translators love him. Also Tanpinar is loved by people on the right wing and the left wing. So, getting him translated was quite easy and lucky for us.
Luke: It feels like Tanpinar is a very important part of Turkish literature. Are there any other important Turkish authors like Tanpinar that deserve to be translated?
Nermin: Nazim Hikmet used to be available in many languages.
Luke: He’s the poet?
Nermin: Yes, but translators living abroad make selections from Nazim Hikmet. This is sometimes an advantage and sometimes a disadvantage. If you’re widely available in anthologies publishers are unwilling to publish your complete titles. It happens to Nazim Hikmet a lot and also to Sait Faik, a quite well known short story writer. He is in so many anthologies. My strategy has always been to not give permission to publishers to select them for anthologies. If possible I want to translate one title or separate volumes. For these big poets and short story writers it is a bit difficult.
Luke: Are there any modern writers?
Nermin: Yes, Ayfer Tunç. I really like her writing a lot. I feel like she is the daughter of Tanpinar in a literary way. We sold her rights in about twenty languages but I feel she deserves more than that. I don't feel satisfied with the success of Ayfer Tunç. On the other hand, I’m very happy with Hakan Günday he received a translated fiction awards in France [Turkish-French Literature award and the Prix Medinces] and has been published in the US and was very highly reviewed in the New York Times. We have sold about one hundred thousand copies. He is an underground writer like Chuck Palahniuk but more of a storyteller. His book [In 'More,' Dispatches From Hell by a Human Trafficker] was published three years ago it tells the story of human trafficking from the perspective of a nine year old kid who is helping his father who is the trafficker. I haven’t read any other books or watched any movies that tell the story of human trafficking from the perspective of the people who are doing it. It’s always told from the perspective of the victims.
Luke: One of the problems with translated fiction is the subtle nuances of language. How do you capture the feeling and the sound of Turkish in translation?
Nermin: In the beginning, I didn't pay so much attention to it. When we were starting out Turkish literature was sort of new to the world and the translators weren’t very experienced so we had to sacrifice some things. It had to be this way. You can’t be sure about a translation from Turkish to Serbian from a first time translator. I’m sure that it wouldn't be perfect but you have to sacrifice that and hopefully the Serbian publisher will learn something and get some criticism and the translator will improve himself or herself and then it will be better next time. I think that now we can really focus on the quality of the translation.
Of course I always give advice to editors but it wasn't my priority. My priority was to create a separate section in the bookshops for Turkish literature and not just market it as Arabic literature.
Luke: I think that’s everything. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. It’s been very interesting.