An interview with TED Translator Meriç Aydonat

Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED

Meriç Aydonat was born in Turkey, educated in Turkey, the US and Canada, and she currently lives in Chicago. With several years as a prolific TED Translator under her belt, we figured it was high time to get to know Meriç a bit better. Read on to learn more about her translation work, why she regards herself as a global citizen, Hünkâr Beğendi and what she’d do with her TEDPrize wish.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Izmir, Turkey, on the coast of the Aegean Sea. However, thanks to my education and career, I’ve lived in seven different cities in three different countries in the past decade. Because of this experience it’s easy for me to feel at home just about anywhere, and I’ve come to consider myself a global citizen. But Izmir is definitely my favorite place in the world, and I’d love to live there again in the future.

As for my passions and interests: I’m quite a bookworm and news junkie, and I can’t get enough of documentaries or TED Talks. My love for learning and sharing what I learn with other people was why I began translating TED Talks, and it’s why I don’t plan to stop translating anytime soon.

You studied engineering and business. What drew you to these fields?

I became interested in electronics and computers at an early age; I loved to take things apart and put them back together. When I got older, I decided to study electrical and computer engineering so I could learn both the physics that make electronics work and the algorithms that make electronics useful to us.

At the same time, I wanted to try to figure out why (beyond obvious design factors) only certain electronics and software products succeed, so I also decided to study business.

My current job has a foot in both of these worlds, and I love it.

What is the Turkish translation community like?

It’s a very strong and vibrant one. Turkish volunteer translators are always eager to produce new translations as accurately and quickly as possible. If anyone needs help with their work, they don’t hesitate to reach out to more-experienced translators for assistance. Sometimes, speakers will contact the Turkish translation community directly and request a translation for one of their talks, and in these cases I’m always amazed by how fast the volunteers respond.

You currently live in the US. How does that influence your relationship with the Turkish translation community?

Fortunately, current technology makes it easier than ever to communicate over long distances, so I’m constantly in touch with Turkish translators via Amara, Facebook, Twitter and email to help mentor them and solve their technical problems. These exchanges are often very fruitful for both the volunteers and myself. I consider all the translators I’ve worked with friends, no matter how far away from me they might live.

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d offer to a new TED Translator? And to a veteran TED Translator?

I’d advise a new TED Translator to focus on conveying the tone and “feel” of the speaker and her talk. This may require swaying a bit from a literal translation, but that’s fine: viewers will follow more seamlessly a translation that’s attentive to fluidity and engaging language.

To a veteran TED Translator, I’d suggest remembering that you’re a mentor to novice translators, so keep courtesy at the forefront of your feedback and corrections; this way, newer translators will be more inclined to learn and grow from their mistakes.

Have recent political events in Turkey, like the attempted coup, impacted the Turkish translation community?

Unfortunately, recent events in Turkey have been turbulent to say the least, and it seems almost every day brings upsetting news from the country. Even if the turbulence doesn’t directly impact the Turkish translation community, it takes a psychological toll on all of us. But I think we all try our best to not let the bad news steal our joy; yes, we each process what happens, in our own ways, but we eventually return to doing what makes us happy—namely translating TED Talks and spreading ideas.

Your TED profile says people don’t know you’re good at cooking. What’s your favorite dish to cook? How do you make it?

Yes, I love cooking. My favorite dish to make is a Turkish one called Hünkâr Beğendi, which translates literally to “The Sultan liked it.” It’s a traditional dish that originated in the kitchens of Ottoman royalty. As such, Hünkâr Beğendi takes a while to prepare, since dishes with short preparation times were considered an insult to the Sultan. Generally, though, Hünkâr Beğendi consists of a dairy-based eggplant paste served with lamb stew.

Is there a work of art (a book, film, painting, sculpture—anything) that’s resonated with you recently?

I just read Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I loved it. It’s the story of a woman—Lacks—who died of cervical cancer in the 1950s, and her tremendous legacy. After Lacks died, doctors harvested cells from her body for future study without her family’s permission—cells which eventually yielded amazing breakthroughs in the field of genetics. Needless to say, the Lacks family was stunned when it learned the fate of Henrietta’s cells.

One of the many powerful ideas the book conveyed to me, through the Lack family, is that recognition is sometimes more important to people than monetary reward: Henrietta’s family is proud of her contribution to medicine and science, to humanity, and only asks that Henrietta be credited for it. Funny enough, this reminds me of TED Translators everywhere: we don’t seek an award for our contributions, just due recognition. And TED does a great job of recognizing our efforts.

What would your TEDPrize wish be?

It may be far too big of a wish for TED (or any other organization) to realize, but I’d like to see the borders we’ve drawn between countries dissolved. I think these borders are arbitrary constructs that do more to divide than unite us: they separate people into nationalities and races, categories which obfuscate the fact that we’re all human beings. This in turn leads to dangerous and irrational group psychologies, like nationalism, racism, xenophobia and, sadly, so many more.

But if we were somehow able to do away with borders, I think we’d take a huge step toward preserving and strengthening our collective humanity, as we’d begin to free ourselves from the physical and psychological divisions that borders impose on us. And no, I don’t think this would lead to a migration “crisis”: plenty of research shows that people around the world prefer, whenever possible, to stay in or near their birthplaces, with family and friends. In the end, I believe we’re all obligated as global citizens to make the world as livable and accessible for each other as we can, and dissolving our borders would be a giant commitment to fulfilling our duty. Easier said than done, perhaps—but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

5 thoughts on “An interview with TED Translator Meriç Aydonat

  1. To a degree only the way you look and feel is to me able to overcome the powerful thinking that attitudes in your childhood had instilled in you often by family.A universal attitude unfortunately tends to confuse groups.

  2. I do agree with Meric that we are all human beings regardless of our ethnicity, religious belief, or socioeconomic status. It begins and ends with respect of self and transcends to others.

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