Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On Translating Pamuk

Maureen Freely, US journalist, novelist and translator, shares her thoughts on translation into English from Turkish and in particular the challenges of translating Orhan Pamuk in the latest online edition of Literature Matters.

In her talk at The British Council's 30th Cambridge Seminar on Contemporary Literature she says:
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.
And she explains the personal reasons that made her want to undertake this often seemingly impossible task.

There is much more good stuff on the British Council's Literary translation website.

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