Maureen Freely is a US journalist, novelist and translator who grew up in Turkey but now resides in the UK. She has translated several works by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk. A guest at the Cambridge Seminar 2007, Maureen tells Literature Matters what keeps her inspired to translate literature from Turkish to English, despite the challenging linguistic differences.
Translation, I’m often told, is a mechanical exercise. There is the text, which like fate, is already written; the translator’s job is simply to replicate it in another language. All this is true, but there is more to a text than its surface. When I sit down to translate a novel by Orhan Pamuk, I know it will not be enough to find the correct words. I need to be sure they are also the right words – the words that will conjure up the imaginary world in which it is set. So I myself need to believe in that cloistered world, to believe myself inside it. Only then can I hope to find the words that will make it visible in English.
This is not as easy as it sounds, for there is a very great distance between Turkish and English. There is no verb ‘to be’ in Turkish, and no verb ‘to have’. There is only one word for ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘it’. Turkish is an agglutinative language: a root noun in a routine sentence will often have a string of six, seven, or even eight suffixes connected to it. It has many more tenses than English does. It can dart between the active and the passive voice with grace and ease. It loves clauses beginning with verbal nouns (the doing of, the having been done unto of, the having being seen to have something done to someone else…..) In an elegant sentence, there will often be a cascade of such clauses dividing the subject from the verb, and that verb appears so close to the end of the sentence that it often serves as a punch line, reversing the expected meaning of all that has come before it. To be overly clear is to be crude. To write well is not the say the obvious, but to suggest what lies beyond it. So Turkish is not just another language: it is another way of looking at the world.
Every time I find myself before a new sentence, I am first filled with despair, because the distance seems too great to bridge. So why do I still keep trying? To answer that question properly, I’d have to write a full-length autobiography. But here’s the short version: I was eight-years-old when my family moved to Istanbul. My parents still live there, as do my sister, my brother, and their families, but because we did not originally plan to stay more than a few years, no one made much of an effort to teach us children Turkish. It wasn’t until I was 15, and attending an English language lycee for Turkish girls, that I was able to teach myself the language. By then I had spent years listening to the glorious music of Turkish without really knowing where words began and ended. In a sense, I came to know Turkish as a child comes to know her mother tongue – by listening in on the conversations swirling around me. I came to understand their emotional undercurrents long before I began to grasp their surface meanings. When at last I was able to converse in Turkish, I felt as if I had been admitted to a secret society.
But to step inside that secret world was to begin to share its frustrations. For in those days we lived on the far cultural margins. Books, films, and songs would reach us years after they had made their mark in London, New York, or Paris. Our world almost never figured in them. It was like living on the wrong side of a one-way mirror: we watched the West ceaselessly, and we hungrily accepted whatever they passed onto us second-hand, but to them, we hardly existed. When I first came to live in England, and people asked me where I was from, they would screw up their eyes, as if struggling to remember where it sat on the map.
And I’d despair. I’d rack my brain, trying and failing to find the words to make them see it. So just imagine how I feel now, on a good day, when I am translating a novel by Orhan Pamuk – a novel that is set in the closed and forgotten world of our child – and staring at a sentence that seems impossible to convey in English, and I suddenly find a way.
- Freely, Maureen: Enlightenment (Marion Boyars Publishers, 2007)
- Pamuk, Orhan (trans. Maureen Freely): The Black Book (Faber and Faber, 2006)
- Pamuk, Orhan (trans. Maureen Freely): Snow (Alfred A. Knopf , 2004)