Photos by Les Todd.
Photos by Les Todd.

Translation as Transformation

Transforming language
July 24, 2013

Translation is a form of intercultural exchange and dialogue. I think of it as part of a larger constellation of writing and reading practices. It is furthermore a metaphor for what I do in my teaching and research on Turkey and the Middle East (at Duke and in the Duke in Istanbul study-abroad program). In my case, the authors I translate come from a little-known culture and tradition. There is a growing interest in the geopolitics and history of Turkey, but much less attention is paid to its language and culture. In translating, the challenge is to make the nuances of everyday life in Istanbul, let’s say, legible to a reader in Durham.

What many people think of as “translation” only describes the first stage of this kind of work. The lexical landscapes of Turkish writers such as Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk or the modernist author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-62) are complex. My aim is to both convey the meaning (to translate) and to create an aesthetic in English inspired by their language (to write). I do this by producing layers of text, beginning with a literal decoding and successively building up to an aesthetic language all its own. During this process the Turkish text is subsumed by an English version that is dependent on the original but also conveys its own independence as a literary work.

I consulted with Pamuk during my translation of his historical novel My Name Is Red. Often, we would debate words and phrases in his Istanbul writer's studio. At one point, he insisted that all of the references to Allah be translated as "God," because he claimed there was one God, which was the same in Judaic, Islamic and Christian traditions. I suggested, however, that the cultural nuances were vastly different. He wasn't persuaded. On the shelf, I saw that he had Webster’s Third New International unabridged dictionary, the one beloved by Nabokov. I flipped through it, confirming my hunch. I pointed out that in English, there were separate entries and definitions for the two words. In the end, I relied on both “Allah” and “God” in the translation. There were many examples like this in which word-choice colored or determined cultural meaning. Once published, the translation established Pamuk as an author of world literature and was awarded the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Three years later, Pamuk won the Nobel Prize.

The process of translation is an involved one. After establishing the first lexical layer of a translation, I begin with other kinds of writing and editorial practices. This includes removing unnecessary, excess words and phrases (prepositions, pronouns, transition words, paired adjectives) that accrue in moving from Turkish to English and placing the emphasis of the prose onto strong verbs. Then I leave the Turkish text completely and focus on the English alone. The goal here is not to “domesticate” the text, but to give it a texture that approaches that of the Turkish. I try to approach this textuality in English through a variety of exchanges and compensations on syntactic, lexical, and grammatical levels.

This practice is actually a combination of translation and creative writing. Through these layers of writing, what I aim for is a palimpsest that conveys the stylistic refinements of the author. I want the reader to be struck both by the level of meaning and by the filigree of the language itself.

There are too few translations from Turkish to English. Part of the politics of representation that Turkey experiences internationally is that there is no archive of translated literary or historical works to convey the complexity of its culture. Turkey represents an important nexus of cultural crossings, but as long as its textual life remains hidden away, Turkey will suffer the debilitating effects of distortion and misrepresentation. Translation is the key to opening this vault. And translation is not just about literature; it’s about the politics of representation. My goal is to link significant texts in Turkish to readers in the Anglophone world. So, just as translation is transformative, so too is the act of reading translations. I not only use my translations in my courses, they become vehicles for the publication of other translations.

Both Pamuk’s My Name Is Red and Tanpınar’s A Mind at Peace were sent to translators around the world and used as a template for translations into many other languages. Publishers became interested in other works by these authors and by the untranslated writers who influenced them and were influenced by them. Turkish and Middle Eastern literature is still in a ghetto, with a dearth of critics, translators, and readers, but I believe this is changing. Through the act of translation, I want to say: “Look, something really fascinating has been happening here, in this part of the world, something that you might learn from, that might even influence or change how you look at the world.”


Göknar, assistant professor of Turkish studies at Duke, is the award-winning translator of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, Atiq Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes, and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s A Mind at Peace. He is, most recently, author of Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel (Routledge 2013).