The Writing Life: Maureen Freely
In which the translator of Orhan Pamuk's works finds herself interpreting more than a language.
It began seven years ago in 2002, during an idle conversation over lunch. My longtime friend and schoolmate Orhan Pamuk had just completed what he described as his first and last political novel. As we gazed at the crowds reveling in Istanbul's first snowfall that winter, I asked whether he thought the book might bring him trouble. He laughed in that offhand and reckless way I had noted in so many others who had challenged Turkey's fiercely defended myths over the years. He was not at all concerned, he said. Judges don't read novels.
In those days, few people outside Turkey were interested in its literature. Though Pamuk had won prizes all across Europe and was respected in literary circles in London and New York, he had yet to crack the Anglophone market. So later that year, when I agreed to translate "Snow," my first aim was to recreate the narrative trance that makes the novel so hypnotic in Turkish.
In truth, I needed a break from the disruptions of freelance journalism and the heartache of my own novel, which, after four years of neglect in my effort to raise four children and perform a very demanding job, had been shunted aside. Set in Istanbul, my novel featured an American narrator whose Turkish classmates had been implicated in a political murder following the 1971 coup. Though they had survived torture and prison, my characters had gone on to challenge Turkey's national myths, live dangerous lives, and categorically refuse to explain themselves. Pressed with a direct question, they took long drags from cigarettes and composed evasive answers. They were mysterious, inscrutable -- even to me.
What a relief it was to escape into another writer's world and immerse myself in questions of language. The details proved to be all-consuming, as the distance between Turkish and English is great. Turkish has no verb "to be" and no verb "to have." It prefers the passive to the active voice and has one word for "he," "she" and "it." It is an agglutinative language, which means that root nouns often carry a string of 10 or more suffixes. Turkish also likes verbal nouns (the "doing of," the "having been done unto") and because you do not know the verb until the end of the sentence, you often read four, five or six clauses without knowing how they are connected.
Add to that the Language Revolution, which began in the 1930s with the aim of replacing all words of Arabic and Persian origin, at the time 60 percent of the vocabulary. Though some of those words remain, the language has changed so much that the speeches of Ataturk, the republic's founding father, have had to be retranslated twice. Turkish allows for complex constructions that (to paraphrase the poet Murat Nemet-Nejat) can catch elegant thoughts in the act of unfolding, but to replicate those structures in English is to weave a knotted web in which each clause strangles the one preceding it, while the shortage of root nouns encourages an overuse of basic words and/or wild guesses as to which of 20 or so English words might reflect the writer's intentions.
My own solution was to work closely with the author. After Pamuk had read each finished draft, we sat down at his desk in his summer home on the Princes' Islands, off the coast of Istanbul, and argued it out, sentence by sentence. Though our conversations were often heated (perhaps because they were heated), they number among the most illuminating of my life. As we wandered together through the world of the book, he seemed to be opening doors to reveal spaces never before shown to an outsider. It was not the translator but the shadow novelist in me who treasured these privileged tours. But there is, perhaps, a shadow novelist in every dedicated translator. Though she must serve the text, she can recreate the author's voice only if she gets so close to the heart of the novel that she can convince herself it briefly answers to hers.
So that's where I headed, more by instinct than by design, as I sat typing away in my armchair in our house at the foot of a hill fort outside Bath, England, a continent away from the action. But I knew my solitude would soon end. I began translating "Snow" during the winter of 2003, as Bush and Blair prepared to invade Iraq. Whenever they spoke of "taking democracy to the Middle East," I longed to cry Stop! Read this book! That same winter I was mischievously misquoted in the Turkish press, and an Islamist paper began to send me threats almost identical to those of the assassin in "Snow." The genius of that novel is that it captures the ghost in the machine of politics so accurately that you see it all around you. Until one day you find yourself caught inside.
For me, that moment came two years and two translations later, when, in February of 2005, Pamuk -- already unpopular with the guardians of the republic -- broke a 90-year taboo by acknowledging (in an off-the-record interview with a Swiss journalist) the 1915 butchery of a million Armenians. Subjected to a sustained hate campaign, Pamuk was briefly forced into hiding and then, famously, charged with insulting Turkishness. As a translator, journalist and writer, I felt it my duty to campaign in his defense. I was in court in December 2006, the day he went to trial, and I will never forget the horror of seeing my friend subjected to a circus of denunciation, abandoned to throngs of ultranationalist agitators, while cameras rolled on and the riot police looked away.
By now ultranationalists had opened cases against a hundred other similar suspects: many of them my friends and classmates. In January 2007, the most controversial (and best loved), Hrant Dink, was assassinated. A year later, 86 ultranationalists themselves landed in court, accused of plotting to assassinate Pamuk and others in the run-up to a coup. You could see my attempts to take this story to the outside world as a nobler, blurrier mode of translation. But what I recall most vividly is my desperation when, each time I was offered the chance to write 1,000 words in the Western press, I tried to squeeze the entire history of the Turkish republic into a nutshell.
What have I learned since translating "Snow"? A novel can be a thing of such power that even judges will read it. But once that novel has been embraced in translation, judges lack the power to stamp it out. Even so, translators who set out to embarrass political elites should not be surprised if their work is scrutinized. The standard line on me in Turkey these days is that I "improve" or "westernize" Pamuk's words. It is not always a compliment. Knowing that my every sentence will be examined in this light does not make my work any easier. But I understand now why the characters in my novel refused to be straight with me all those years ago. They knew, as I do now, what it is like to live under a bell-jar. They learned, through brutal experience, how best to weather it. Observing that pressure from tenuous vantages, (crackdowns followed by lulls, followed by all-too-brief opportunities), they simply retired into cigarettes and silence -- the last refuge of free thought -- to await their moment. --
Maureen Freely, translator of Orhan Pamuk's "Snow," "Istanbul" and "Other Colours," is the author of the novel "Enlightenment." Listen to Marie Arana's accompanying podcast interview with Freely at www.washingtonpost.com/bookworld.