“[Translators] are witnesses, with tales to tell. We are writers, with our own voices. Whenever we see literary culture distorted for political advantage, it matters very much that we speak.”—Maureen Freely, from “Misreading Orhan Pamuk”
In her essay “Misreading Orhan Pamuk,” from In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Maureen Freely discusses translating the works of Pamuk and how her role as translator changed after Pamuk became embroiled in a political controversy. In this excerpt, Freely considers the importance of the translator in contextualizing as well as defending the work of an author:
When Snow went out into the world, I again revised my job description. A translator did not just need to find the right words, stay in close conversation with the author, and run interference for him as the book made its way through the publication process. She also had to do everything she could to contextualize the book for readers who were not familiar with Turkey—not inside the text but outside it, in journals and newspapers, and at conferences, symposia, literature festivals, and a long sequence of very frustrating dinner parties. As I made the rounds, I was at first encouraged by those who said to me, “I knew nothing about Turkey until I read Snow, you know, but now I can see it’s a really fascinating country so I’d like to know more about it.” I thought the most important thing was that they were interested. Only good could come of that, I thought.
I was wrong.
Because now it was 2005 and Orhan Pamuk had provoked an ultranationalist firestorm after making an off-the-record remark to a Swiss journalist about a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds having been killed “in these lands.” His life in danger for having broken the state-imposed taboo on discussion of the Armenian genocide, he fled the country, going briefly into hiding. Not long after returning, he was prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness.” Though the coverage abroad was extensive, even excessive, and though every story mentioned his famous statement, most of his readers in the Anglophone world—at least, most of the hundreds and thousands of readers who shared their views with me&mdsah;did not understand that he was being pursued by ultranationalists sponsored by a shadowy group inside the military known colloquially as the “deep state.” Lacking any knowledge of the deep state and its workings, most readers outside Turkey assumed that Orhan was being prosecuted by Islamists on account of his Western ideas. Now, Turkish politics is hard enough to understand for those of us who’ve lived in Turkey. But it should, I thought, be possible to get across a few essential facts. I’d had twenty years’ experience as a journalist. I knew how to communicate, to reach my readers and start from where they were. But though I did take every opportunity offered to me, it was like writing in the sand during a hurricane. The clash of civilizations may not exist, but it has a powerful grip on the collective imagination. Just as powerful is the romance of the dissident writer—the lone star who dares to speak truths that his nation cannot stomach, who champions Western values in the East….
By now I was not just translating his books, and putting them into context, and telling the story of his shameful prosecution and persecution—I was part of that story. I was attending trials, walking through funnels of riot police, and coming face to face with deep state thugs. Wherever I happened to be in the world, a day rarely went by without a very strange person crossing the room with a boxy smile to offer me a very strange calling card. I was myself treated to a tiny media disinformation campaign, which caused me no real harm but promoted a version of my friendship with Orhan that he cannot have failed to find insulting and denigrating. There was a time when hardly a week went by without some literary or public figure saying that he wrote his books for one person and one person only. That person was his English translator. Poor Orhan would write his books and bring them to me and I would tell him “what to do.”
I would prefer to think that we are often a match for each other. Our arguments have only served to deepen my understanding of his work. There has never been a day when I’ve sat down to translate a page by Orhan in which I haven’t been taken by surprise and learned something. But after I became a pawn in the hate campaigns against him, I was again obliged to expand my understanding of a translator’s job. It was not enough to find the right words, and defend them, and work on the literary peripheries to provide some sort of context, and .ght to protect the author as he was attacked on all sides in the name of 1,001 political agendas. I also had to fight for room to breathe—not just for the writers and translators of fiction, but for literature itself. When the President of the Swedish Academy introduced Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel lecture, he quoted the previous year’s winner, Elfriede Jelinek, who spoke about how important it was for writers to retain the right not to talk about politics. It seemed to me that many of Orhan Pamuk’s well-wishers in the West were often, without knowing it, conspiring with his enemies in Turkey to take that right away from him….
To Orhan’s mind, a translation should be “perfect,” by which I think he means it should follow the author’s intentions so precisely that it exerts no influence over its readers whatsoever. But I have known since childhood that translation is never neutral. It is politically charged at every stage. Over the last eight years I have learned how much it costs to engage in literary experiment in this fraught terrain—though the cost to the translator is nothing like the cost to the author. I have come to understand what Turkish writers are up against as they enter the global age, how they are misrepresented both at home and abroad and their words misconstrued.
But there’s more to it than that. My understanding of cultural exchange has been profoundly affected by what I’ve seen during my work as a translator. It has given me a chance to stand outside my own world, to be on the receiving end as its ivory towers decide who outside the West should be read, and how. If I have the confidence to assert that translators are best placed to make these practices visible, it is because I have yet again changed my understanding of what it means to be a translator. Our work might begin on the page, but it rarely lets us stay there. It sends us out into the world, to take words across borders only rarely breached. Along the way, we witness strange and ugly things that illuminate to us the grammar of politics. So that even when we are home again, sitting in our armchairs and wrestling with sentences, we are never just translators. We are witnesses, with tales to tell. We are writers, with our own voices. Whenever we see literary culture distorted for political advantage, it matters very much that we speak.