The HyperTexts

Attila Ilhan: Modern English Translations

Attilâ İlhan (1925-2005) was a Turkish poet, translator, novelist, screenwriter, editor, journalist, essayist, reviewer, socialist and intellectual. He was born in Menemen in İzmir Province, Turkey. At age 16 he enrolled in İzmir Atatürk High School, where he ran into trouble for sending a poem by Nazım Hikmet, a famous dissident communist Turkish poet, to a girl he fell in love with. İlhan was arrested, taken into custody for three weeks, dismissed from school and jailed for two months. After his imprisonment, İlhan was forbidden from attending schools in Turkey. Following a favorable court decision in 1941, he received permission to continue his education and enrolled in Istanbul's Işık High School. During his senior year, his uncle entered one of his poems in a poetry competition without telling him. The poem, "Cebbaroğlu Mehemmed," won second prize, beating poems by famous poets. İlhan graduated from high school in 1942 and enrolled in İstanbul University's law school. However, he left midway through his legal education to pursue his own endeavors and publish his first poetry book, Duvar ("The Wall"). He also wrote 11 novels and screenplays for around 15 movies.

Ben Sana Mecburum: “You are indispensable”
by Attila Ilhan
translation by Nurgül Yayman and Michael R. Burch

You are indispensable; how can you not know
that you’re like nails riveting my brain?
I see your eyes as ever-expanding dimensions.
You are indispensable; how can you not know
that I burn within, at the thought of you?

Trees prepare themselves for autumn;
can this city be our lost Istanbul?
Now clouds disintegrate in the darkness
as the street lights flicker
and the streets reek with rain.
You are indispensable, and yet you are absent ...

Love sometimes seems akin to terror:
a man tires suddenly at nightfall,
of living enslaved to the razor at his neck.
Sometimes he wrings his hands,
expunging other lives from his existence.
Sometimes whichever door he knocks
echoes back only heartache.

A screechy phonograph is playing in Fatih ...
a song about some Friday long ago.
I stop to listen from a vacant corner,
longing to bring you an untouched sky,
but time disintegrates in my hands.
Whatever I do, wherever I go,
you are indispensable, and yet you are absent ...

Are you the blue child of June?
Ah, no one knows you—no one knows!
Your deserted eyes are like distant freighters ...
perhaps you are boarding in Yesilköy?
Are you drenched there, shivering with the rain
that leaves you blind, beset, broken,
with wind-disheveled hair?

Whenever I think of life
seated at the wolves’ table,
shameless, yet without soiling our hands ...
Yes, whenever I think of life,
I begin with your name, defying the silence,
and your secret tides surge within me
making this voyage inevitable.
You are indispensable; how can you not know?


Ben sana mecburum bilemezsin
Adini mih gibi aklimda tutuyorum
Büyüdükçe büyüyor gözlerin
Ben sana mecburum bilemezsin
Içimi seninle isitiyorum.
Agaçlar sonbahara hazirlaniyor
Bu sehir o eski Istanbul mudur
Karanlikta bulutlar parçalaniyor
Sokak lambalari birden yaniyor
Kaldirimlarda yagmur kokusu
Ben sana mecburum sen yoksun.

Sevmek kimi zaman rezilce korkuludur
Insan bir aksam üstü ansizin yorulur
Tutsak ustura agzinda yasamaktan
Kimi zaman ellerini kirar tutkusu
Bir kaç hayat çikarir yasamasindan
Hangi kapiyi çalsa kimi zaman
Arkasinda yalnizligin hinzir ugultusu

Fatih'te yoksul bir gramofon çaliyor
Eski zamanlardan bir cuma çaliyor
Durup köse basinda deliksiz dinlesem
Sana kullanilmamis bir gök getirsem
Haftalar ellerimde ufalaniyor
Ne yapsam ne tutsam nereye gitsem
Ben sana mecburum sen yoksun.

Belki haziran da mavi benekli çocuksun
Ah seni bilmiyor kimseler bilmiyor
Bir silep siziyor issiz gözlerinden
Belki Yesilköy'de uçaga biniyorsun
Bütün islanmissin tüylerin ürperiyor
Belki körsün kirilmissin telas içindesin
Kötü rüzgar saçlarini götürüyor

Ne vakit bir yasamak düsünsem
Bu kurtlar sofrasinda belki zor
Ayipsiz fakat ellerimizi kirletmeden
Ne vakit bir yasamak düsünsem
Sus deyip adinla basliyorum
Içim sira kimildiyor gizli denizlerin
Hayir baska türlü olmayacak
Ben sana mecburum bilemezsin.

by Attila Ilhan
loose English translations/interpretations by Michael R. Burch


The night is a cloudy-feathered owl,
its quills like fine-spun glass.

It gazes out the window,
perched on my right shoulder,
its wings outspread and huge.

If the encroaching darkness seems devastating at first glance,
the sovereign of everything,
its reach infinite ...

Still somewhere within a kernel of light glows secretly
creating an enlightened forest of dialectics.


In September’s waning days one thinks wanly of the arrival of fall
like a ship appearing on the horizon with untrimmed, tattered sails;
for some unfathomable reason fall is the time to consider one’s own demise—
the body smothered by yellowed leaves like a corpse rotting in a ghoulish photograph ...


Bitter words
crack like whips
snapping across prison yards ...

Then there are words like pomegranate trees in bloom,
words like the sun igniting the sea beyond mountainous horizons,
flashing like mysterious knives ...

Such words are the burning roses of an infinite imagination;
they are born and they die with the flutterings of butterflies;
we carry those words in our hearts like pregnant shotguns until the day we expire,
martyred for the words we were prepared to die for ...


What I wrote and what you understood? Curious and curiouser!


Please note that I call my translations "loose translations" and "interpretations" because they are not literal word-for-word translations. I begin with my personal interpretation of a poem and translate accordingly. To critics who object to variations from the original texts, my response is that there are often substantial disagreements among even the most accomplished translators. Variations begin with the readings because different people get different things from different poems. And a strict word-for-word translation will seldom, if ever, result in poetry. In my opinion translation is much closer to an art than a perfect science and I side with Rabindranath Tagore, who said he needed some leeway in order to produce poetry in another language when he translated his own poems into English.—MRB

The HyperTexts