On translating an interpreter of İstanbul

01 August 2013, Thursday / H. HANDAN ARIKAN,
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Alex Dawe July 26, 2011 (Photo: Musa İğrek)
Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk famously said of İstanbul ‘I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.’ The same could easily be true of the late novelist Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar, whose most famous work, ‘Huzur,’ is an homage to the city. A translation of the writer’s novel, ‘Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü,’ is due out in December. Turkish Review spoke to Alex Dawe, one of the book’s two translators, about this complex task and his own experience of İstanbul

Turkish Review: How did you first come across Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s work -- what drew you to it?

Alex Dawe: When I came back to Turkey in 1998, I was determined to learn Turkish. I felt it would be the best way to immerse myself in the culture, a chance to see the world through different eyes. Soon I was obsessed with “mastering” the language (of course a chimera) and reading Turkish literature seemed like the ultimate achievement. Eventually I began plodding through the classics. It was often rough sledding, but I enjoyed discovering dusty old Ottoman words that many of my Turkish friends sternly told me not to dust off but I would always dig them up in dictionaries and defend them. They were magical words like hodbin (selfish) and eleğimsağma (rainbow). I loved the way they sounded. One day a good friend suggested I read Tanpınar. There had recently been a Tanpınar revival in Turkey, which began in the late ’80s when many Turkish readers were rediscovering his work. My friend was taken by Tanpınpar’s lyricism and the creative collocations (or “marriage of words” as Nurdan Gürbilek eloquently puts it) that marked his work: there was iç manzaraları (landscapes of the mind), zamanın aynası (the mirror of time) and nağmenin billuru (melody of crystal). Back in the early ’00s, Tanpınar was difficult for me to grasp, let alone translate, but there was something intoxicating about the impressionist moods he conjured up in elaborate, cascading, musical sentences packed with glittering old Ottoman words. I got the same feeling from [Halit Ziya] Uşaklıgil, who, like Tanpınar, wrote descriptions of the Bosporus and İstanbul at twilight that seemed to crackle like they were on fire. These artists were meticulous stylists who celebrated the lyricism and the spirit of a city they dearly loved. I wondered how they might sound in English and I started with Tanpınar’s “Summer Rain,” a story I’m still tinkering with 10 years later. “The Time Regulation Institute,” however, was a very different kind of work. And it was a pleasure to have had the chance to work on it with Maureen Freely.

TR:The Time Regulation Institute’ is a satire of a country in transition; the cultural and historical nuances behind the story must make its translation a particularly difficult task. What was the allure of this project for you?

AD: “The Time Regulation Institute” is full of interesting historical and cultural references, many obscure, deliberately inaccurate or untrue. There is, for example, Hayri İrdal’s invented scholar Ahmet the Timely. Working on the translation there were many times when Maureen and I just didn’t know if Tanpınar had made up a German economist, a Swiss banker or a weirdly named İstanbul saint. But Tanpınar was an eminent literary historian and critic, and his knowledge of both Ottoman and Western history was insightful and far-reaching, and in “The Time Regulation Institute” it’s clear that he’s toying with the notion of historical truth. He gives readers a chance to experience Turkey’s transition from the crumbling Ottoman Empire to the republic, and meet some unforgettable characters along the way. He invokes the old Ottoman world: dilapidated medreses; coffeehouses with strange characters that never leave; old wooden mansions filled with family members from all corners of the empire; Greeks, Turks and Armenians taking the stage as woman in the theater boom in the early 20th century; a tender timekeeper caring to watches and clocks, and keeping time to a calendar of another age. Many of these characters and situations no longer exist today, so it’s no easy task to express them in another language. But it’s inspiring work. Timekeeper Nuri Efendi is beautifully conveyed in the original Turkish, and you work that much harder to capture his person and his spirit in English.

TR: What do you like about translation, especially when it comes to a challenging writer like Tanpınar?

AD: Translation forces you to see the world in a different light, through another person’s eyes. It is both a beautiful and humbling experience, sometimes almost an otherworldly one. This is especially true when you are translating an author who is no longer alive. One day I found myself visiting Tanpınar’s grave in Rumeli Hisarı. I felt such a powerful bond with this person I had never met, but knew so intimately through his words. There he lay, “neither inside time nor completely outside it,” as the poem begins. It’s probably his most famous poem. I also appreciate challenging translation projects because they force you to perform at a high level and re-evaluate your assumptions, the way you see the world. In general it makes you a stronger writer all around, and encourages to you consider and question the way you think in your own language, and to better see the constraints language places on thought.

TR: Do you feel you get a better understanding of Turkish culture after learning the Turkish language? What difference does it make, reading literature in its original language rather than in translation?

AD: I do. You get so much of a culture through its language. The general color and tone, shifts in register, the elasticity, the range in slang, fixed expressions and proverbs. Turkish is a language that is always up on its feet. It’s flexible, lively, playful and rich in cultural references that stretch far back in time. The current lingua franca, English, has sadly purged so much of its richness from its daily speech. Proverbs have surrendered to snappy business speak that might get to the point, but lack subtlety. One reason I enjoy translation is that it gives me the chance to discover something new every day: a curious expression, a dirty joke or an obscure fact or figure.

As for reading an original text versus a translation, I think it is a privilege and a unique sensation to read a major work of fiction in a language that is not your mother tongue. Having said that, I disagree with the idea that the original work is always better. True, it is the first creative act, but a translation should be judged as an equally valid creative act, one that follows the spirit of the original as much as its form, but is a work of art that can be read, enjoyed and analyzed on its own.

TR: Places and writers sometimes have a certain relationship; a city can become a big part of their writing. Orhan Pamuk is also known for his strong sentiments about İstanbul, Virginia Woolf for London, Paul Auster for New York... Tanpınar also associated with İstanbul. As a translator of this İstanbul writer, what is your İstanbul story, how did you first decide to live here? Did you see that as a common point you share with the writer, or is your experience different?

AD: I first came to Turkey in 1986. My father was the headmaster at Robert College and my mother worked as the head librarian. I was 12 years old then and the city seemed to precipitate my adolescence. Suddenly I was interested in girls and rock music and I rebelled against my parents, who in fact were kind enough to let me discover the city on my own. So perhaps my affinity with the city loosely resembles Tanpınar’s. It’s a romantic city and I will always remember first falling in love here. My first kiss was on an overnight train to Ankara. “Huzur” (a mind at peace) is a love story, but it is also a book about İstanbul, and I think there is something lost, forlorn, fading, poignant, evanescent about İstanbul that inevitably comes into play in almost every relationship.



TR: Are there any parallels between Tanpinar’s İstanbul and yours? Do you think it has changed so much to become something entirely different?

AD: Yes and no. I can see and feel the İstanbul depicted in “The Time Regulation Institute.” I know many of the neighborhoods and places, and I imagine that many of the quieter and historical neighborhoods are more or less unchanged. I also think that the spirit and the raw energy of İstanbul today is very much like it was in the past. Though in the last 10 years İstanbul has suffered relentless, unchecked growth, both in city center locations and suburbs. It has been especially tragic too, to witness the corrupt, undemocratic destruction of historical buildings and parks. I feel Tanpınar would mourn these changes and find little beauty in the unseemly new shopping malls popping up all over the city, along with overgrown, gaudy residences with names like the European Residence. Maureen’s father, John Freely, once said that İstanbul in the 1960s was a dreamy city and that the city today feels more like a meat grinder. I think that’s right. But you can still find quiet pockets and contemplative corners in the city where you just might catch a glimpse of someone like a young Hayri İrdal or Lutfullah, whittling away their time in a coffeehouse talking about the “world beyond the curtain” or just out on some crazy adventure.

TR: Tanpınar is still a relevant writer today: What parallels would you draw between today’s Turkey and the society Tanpınar satirized in ‘The Time Regulation Institute’?

AD: Obviously Turkey has changed dramatically since the founding of the republic. İstanbul has grown from a relatively small town to an international city of over 16 million people. But many of the same political, social and philosophical problems remain. There is a poignant passage in the novel when Doctor Ramiz is “healing” Hayri İrdal. He is speaking to him about the power of psychoanalysis and running through a list of important name from the West, a hodgepodge of thinkers and artists: Nietzsche, Beethoven, Schopenhauer… And Hayri puts his head in his hands and say, “Oh words and names and the happiness that comes with our belief in them.” Just the other day in the bar a Turkish friend was speaking enthusiastically of Spinoza when a woman leaned back and intoned his name “Ah… Spinozaaa…” I immediately thought of Hayri İrdal and the happiness that comes with names.

TR: Do you think reading ‘The Time Regulation Institute’ in translation could provide Americans or foreign readers with a true insight into Turkey and Turkish modernism?

AD: Absolutely. “The Time Regulation Institute” is an excellent metaphor for the top-down modernization that was pushed through in the early years of the Turkish Republic. Tanpınar mocks the excessive bureaucratization that occurred over those years and the confusion that came with severing ties with the Ottoman past. All of this is key to understanding Turkey today and so I hope this book will shed light on the subject. Pankaj Mishra has written an excellent introduction to the book that touches on many of these issues.

TR: As a fan of anti-heroes in literature, I like Hayri İrdal as a narrator -- he is unexpectedly likeable. You naturally spent more time with the characters than a regular reader. I’d like to know your take on Hayri İrdal?

AD: Hayri İrdal is reminiscent of Oblomov [the eponymous anti-hero of a novel by Russian writer Ivan Goncharov]: He’s both exasperating and endearing. It wasn’t long before Maureen and I were referring to him as “our dear friend.” So yes, I agree, he is a very likeable narrator, and I think he wins the reader over quite quickly. In him there’s a wonderful blend of self-deprecation, self-doubt, pride and conviction. He’s aware of his plight and the passive role he plays in the institute and he’s frustrated, but he’s equally resigned, compliant and forgiving, and he’s willing, perhaps even content, to sit back and accept his fate. We always pictured him as a kind of bumbling faux erudite, confused, but with a big heart. Throughout the telling of his story Hayri seems both blinded by his reverence to a doomed project, and yet very much aware of the many absurdities, shortcomings and wrong turns that come about in its rise and fall. He’s a complex person, but always a good friend.

TR: And lastly, do you have favorite quotes from Tanpınar about İstanbul?

AD: In the İstanbul essay from “Beş Şehir” (five cities), Tanpınar writes “İstanbul ya hiç sevilmez yahut çok sevilmiş bir kadın gibi sevilir; yani her haline, her hususiyetine ayri bir dikkatle çıldırarak.” It is a beautiful, wonderfully cadenced sentence in Turkish, but difficult to render in English. For one, there is the elegance of the passive voice in Turkish that we usually have to surrender. A free translation might go something like this: “İstanbul is either a woman you loathe or a woman truly deserving of your love; that is to say madly loving her every part, her every grace.”

I probably love Tanpınar’s poetry the most. In his poem about the city of Bursa, he beautifully evokes the sound of water bubbling through a fountain: “Bursa’da küçük bir cami avlusu/küçük şadırvanda şakırdayan su.” I initially came up with: “In the courtyard of an old mosque in Bursa/Bubbles from a small sacred fountain aqua.” But I think it still needs some work. I also like the poem that begins “Sesin yıldızlı gecemdir” or, “The sound of your voice is my starry night.”



“The Time Regulation Institute” is due for release by Penguin (US) in December 2013.



Scenes from Tanpınar, scenes from İstanbul



One day in Sultantepe or İcadiye

a melody takes wing

and suddenly where you are

a universe opens,

enchanted, endless, free.

Washed in the wind of today

the rose of the past one by one scatters its leaves

in the well of your dreams.

Now you'll look with a different eye

on the sleep you call 'life'.

Perhaps the strangest legends you have heard,

the dawn-kingdom in the branchy woods,

old stoic pines alone on every skyline,

evenings that leak away like secrets from your life.

yearly advent of hawthorn and chestnut.

and in their crumbling graves the dreaming dead

-- all will be born again

to the love you thought dead;

and you'll know the only death

is the passing of time.

(trans. Ruth Christie)



Çardırcılar Street was bewildering as always. On the ground before a shop whose grate usually remained shuttered, waiting for who knows what, were a Russian-made samovar spigot, a doorknob, the remnants of a lady’s mother-of-pearl fan so much the fashion thirty years ago, a few random parts belonging perhaps to a largish clock or gramophone, together with some oddities that had ended up here without breaking or crumbling to pieces somehow. A traditional coffee grinder of yellow brass and a cane handle made of deer antler were prominently displayed. Leaning against the shop’s rolling shutter rested two sizable photographs in thick, gilt wooden frames: pictures of Ottoman-era Greek Orthodox patriarchs from the reign of Sultan Abdülhamit II or a little afterward. Their medals, garments, and emblems were identical to those that appeared in the newspapers. From behind well-polished glass, through the vantage of time past, they gazed at the objects spread out before them and at the street crowds temporarily obscuring them at each surge. Perchance they were most pleased by the roar of life sounding so many years later -- by the therapy of sun and sound.

(trans. Erdağ Göknar)



Everything in the house was old. The furniture, curtains, birdcages, everything had its own story, its own horrible and amusing origin. Opening a trunk and a list of names, titles and events marched out one after the other, conjuring up the ornithologist of who knows which Sultan, the Table Napkin Agha before him, and then the wife of who knows which Pasha. The doors were no different. In the twinkling of an eye, half of İstanbul and nearly the entire Bosporus swelled into whatever room we happened to be in. Then something would happen and the topic was changed and we were all alone. 

(trans. Alex Dawe)