By Sarah Caporelli
On Nov. 20, Derick Mattern, a second-year student in the M.F.A. Literary Translation program and an Iowa Arts Fellow, won a National Endowment of the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship grant for his project. His project is a translation of poems by Turkish poet Haydar Ergülen.
The NEA grant is a prestigious award that only 22 received this year, totaling $300,000 for literary translation. Mattern received the highest amount given to an individual at $25,000 for his project.
Mattern will choose a selection of Ergülen’s work, translate the selection, and create a book that includes a critical analysis.
Turkish is a deserving language, Mattern said.
“This award is also about supporting underrepresented languages and languages that are not as prominent in the American eye,” he said. “This is about a strain of Turkish letters that is important just because it’s good literature.”
Ergülen is one of the most prominent poets of the recent generation in contemporary Turkish literature.
“I went to the bookstore and bought one of Haydar’s books that had these cute little poems in it,” Mattern said. “I thought they would be really easy, and they weren’t, and so I started working on them.”
Translating Ergülen wasn’t completely random, Mattern said.
“I have a pretty strong commitment to working with contemporary and living Turkish poets,” he said. “I think the really interesting literary conversations to have is with one’s contemporaries.”
Ergülen and Mattern have met on several occasions and correspond regularly. Mattern plans to use some of the grant money to go back to Turkey and meet with Ergülen again.
The reason Mattern prefers translating living poets is to see the impact of his work on both sides. After reading his first Ergülen book, Mattern started working on translating.
In 2012, the British Council had a contest for Turkish literary translation. The prompt for the poetry track of the contest was a poem by Ergülen. Mattern translated the poem and submitted some additional poems he had translated and ending up winning the contest.
After the yearlong mentorship with the British Center for Literary Translation, which was part of the prize, he decided to return to the United States and work toward an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He then came to the University of Iowa for the Iowa Translation Fellowship Program at the urging of program director Aron Aji, who is also a Turkish translator.
Aji and Mattern met at the American Literary Translation Association conference in 2014 while Mattern was working on his M.F.A. in poetry. Aji also mentored Mattern through the NEA application process and continues to mentor Mattern through the writing of his thesis.
The Iowa Translation Workshop is multilingual, and students translate from 14 different languages to the English language. In any given week, the group workshops four to five manuscripts in four or five different languages.
Aji, Mattern said, is one of the more prominent Turkish translators in the United States.
“It was incredible [working with Mattern] … It’s very rare for anyone translating from Turkish to have a mentorship relationship because there aren’t too many of us to begin with,” Aji said.
Mattern’s database of Turkish translators found there are only between 15 to 20 people of recognition in the world that translate from Turkish to English.
The NEA award has traditionally been regarded as a mid-career achievement. Mattern is just emerging in the translation world and has already received one of the most prestigious awards available in his field.
“[Mattern] knows what a good poetic line is,” Aji said. “I get to a good poetic line by engaging my critical mind, and he actually knows it by the sound of it, by the way a poetic line is supposed to be.”
Sarah Caporelli is a junior studying journalism and mass communication and Italian. She works at the Language Media Center, located in Phillips Hall, as a studio assistant. Part of her job is media outreach, and this was a project to highlight the achievements of a Division of World Languages, Literature, and Cultures student. The reporting and research was done outside the training of the DI.