Found in Translation

Maureen Freely on the trials and tribulations of Turkish-to-English translation

Maureen FreelyPhotograph by Andre Avanessian

Turkey has seen no shortage of political upheaval and cultural shifts in the 70 years since Sabahattin Ali first published Madonna in a Fur Coat, a story of doomed love in 1930s Berlin, reflected through the protagonist’s personal diary. An outspoken leftist who mysteriously died at the Bulgarian border while trying to flee Turkey in 1948, Ali has proved to be an enduring symbol of anti-government resistence, and after dancing in and out of Turkey’s bestseller lists over the years, Madonna is now considered something of a cult classic. In the wake of the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and the attempted coup in 2016, international readers who’ve turned to Turkey’s Anglophone voices to better understand the nation’s current evolution have reawakened interest not only in contemporary voices like Elif Şafak, but also in authors from Turkey’s past, including Ali, Sait Faik, and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar.

Maureen Freely ’74 is widely regarded as the foremost translator of Turkish literature into English; Madonna is her fourteenth work. She’s also written seven novels and is at work on her eighth, while serving as the president of English PEN and head of the department of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick. Born in New Jersey and now based in England, she grew up in Istanbul, where her late father, physicist John Freely, taught at Robert College (now Bogazici University). In conversation, she is frank about how her position as a Westerner has influenced some readers’ perceptions of her abilities: they are hesitant to believe she will overcome her cultural biases. “Inevitably, somebody bringing in the daughter of an American professor who taught Turks for 50 years can be seen as part of some imperialist project,” she says. “I don’t see it that way, but people have written papers about how I am an ‘orientalist.’ These tensions between the political and literary cultures are real.”

Freely’s first foray into translation, in her twenties, was with Turkish writer Sevgi Soysal’s account of being a political prisoner. Directly thereafter, she began what she jokingly refers to as her many years of “apprenticeship” with Orhan Pamuk, who would win the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006. Between 2004 and 2009, she translated five of Pamuk’s best-selling novels, starting with Snow and ending with The Museum of Innocence.

By her account, the process of bringing a text into another language is gradual but also somewhat frenetic. She and Pamuk have spent entire summers passing drafts back and forth at his home in Heybeliada, a beautiful island near Istanbul. Individual words are treated as puzzles, with author and translator challenging one another to pinpoint translations that best preserve a work’s integrity. In particularly contentious cases, they move on, tabling the puzzle for another day. English chapters slowly sprout from tribulations and arguments.

It is of the utmost importance that the translator preserve the author’s voice and original vision, Freely says. The translated text should reflect the writer’s strengths. Two of Pamuk’s are his ability to mimic voices and set what Freely calls “a strong narrative trance”: “He really knows how to tell a good story that just sucks you right in from the start.” Translation also means paying special attention to a writer’s idiosyncrasies. Pamuk has strong feelings about never beginning a sentence with the Turkish word “Ve,” which translates to “And.” Freely is also mindful of his disregard for grammatical conventions, and his love of sentences that seem to go on and on, ending in unexpected ways that may require readers to double back to make sure they understand what’s going on. “I still see those in my dreams,” she says, laughing.

Walking the fine line between accessibility and verisimilitude is a continuing challenge in translation, especially with older texts like Madonna. When the author has died, many decisions about how much to “domesticate” a text fall to the translator—and during the editorial process, copyeditors sometimes introduce errors. Freely had a particularly frustrating experience while translating Pamuk’s Snow: a copyeditor, worried that readers would confuse şerbet (a drink of flower petals and fruits, especially popular with Ottoman sultans) with sorbet and thus miss a key plot point, changed şerbet to sahlep (a warm milk beverage). “There is a view at many publishing houses that American readers should never be rattled,” Freely says. “There’s a tendency to think that you have to travel very close to the American reader’s known world.”

When discussing the back-and-forth that creates a strong translation, the aspect Freely returns to most often is her desire to convey Turkish words and idioms that don’t have direct English analogues. In Madonna, for example, the protagonist introduces his wife as his “life companion” (can yoldaşım). The phrase sounds quite banal in English, but in Turkish, it is a powerful expression of the longevity of love. “If I’m trying to bring a beautiful Turkish book into English, I want them to hear the cadences of Turkish thought,” she says. “Not just the music of the language, but the music of the way of thinking.”

Read more articles by: Oset Babür

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