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True Sorry: On Literary Translation and Freedom of Expression

  • By Canan Marasligil
  • 6th May 2016
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Canan Marasligil, a former Translator in Residence at Free Word, explores the current issues around freedom of expression in her home country of Turkey and the implications this has for writers and translators in particular.

Another suicide bomber struck in a Turkish city last month, after Istanbul – my native city, and Ankara – my husband’s native city, it is Bursa – my mother’s native city. As I read a piece of news here, a tweet there, a Facebook comment here, I put on my headphones and listen to Ibrahim Maalouf’s “True Sorry”. Next to the fear of terrorism which has touched us all beyond many borders, people in Turkey deal with an increasing lack of freedom: losing their basic civil liberties and right to free expression on an almost daily basis. I am not highlighting freedom of the press alone, as every single person daring to express themselves against the government, and especially against the president, is at risk.

We’ve been seeing an alarming showcase of such attacks on freedom of expression in the past couple of months, from the Turkish president warning Britain’s consul general over a ‘selfie’ with a prosecuted journalist, to the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam sending a letter to Turkish nationals to report examples of president Erdoğan being insulted, and denigrating comments made about Turks in general. Dutch MP Sadet Karabulut even talked about Erdoğan’s “long arm of influence” in the Netherlands, and let’s not forget about Angela Merkel giving the go-ahead to president Erdoğan’s prosecution of the German comedian Jan Bohmermann.

As Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, rightly highlights in this piece for Newsweek, this is not only Turkey’s problem; her call for a greater protection of the laws governing freedom of expression across Europe goes hand in hand with the need for us all to care about freedom of expression in and beyond our borders. These are rights we should clearly not take for granted, anywhere.

Since 2014, there have been 1,845 cases on charges of insulting the president. These include caricaturists, a 13-year-old boy, lawyers and party leaders. More than one thousand and eight hundred people. Which one can we focus on? Which one can we truly care about? Be sorry for? Let me throw you a name you might know: writer and columnist Perihan Mağden, who was invited to Free Word Centre in 2013 as part of the Translator in Residence programme that I was also participating in. You may have read one of her many excellent novels translated into English – alongside many other languages across the world. I have translated Mağden’s novel Ali and Ramazan into French; it is a book that is very dear to me and she is a writer with a very important place in my mind and heart, both as a translator and as a person. So, obviously, knowing that she will be prosecuted for insult to the president has touched me in a different way. PEN International had launched a campaign in February and her French publisher followed up to spread the word among French-speaking readers. The first session of her trial is set for 12 May 2016.

Journalist Ahmet Şık was in residency at Free Word a few months ago and has written “Journalism Under Siege”, an excellent report presenting the current situation of freedom of expression in Turkey, which I encourage you to read. Şık’s much necessary report looks back at the past decade to explain, in detail, the cultural and political climate that has brought freedom of expression to its current state in Turkey. Şık highlights that:

[F]ree media is currently experiencing the darkest days in its history. Any journalist who directs criticism at President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is taking a high risk. It has become almost commonplace for journalists who publish reports critical of the government to be accused of being ‘terrorists’ and jailed.

Granted, the obstacles facing freedom of the press are not new in Turkey: 112 journalists were murdered in Turkey between 1909 and 2010. The biggest shift is that it’s now more common for a journalist to be imprisoned on terrorism charges than to be murdered. Another key issue is that “censorship and self-censorship are becoming the norm”, as Şık writes, explaining that “the goal is to intimidate society by silencing and gagging the opposition”.

Translation as an ethical, political and ideological activity

On 15 February 2016, translator from the Arabic, M Lynx Qualey (@arablit), tweeted:

I wish I spent more time thinking about trends in Arabic writing & less time thinking about writers in prison, under siege, etc.

A sentiment which I echoed back at her. I wish I could talk about imagination, about invented stories, about explorations of the mind and language only, about literature… but the truth is, in today’s world, in the language I work from and the country I focus on, it is impossible to remain apolitical. Depending on the languages and countries literary translators focus on in their career, they may choose to work on specific writing from a pool of authors facing censorship, in any form, in their home country.  Not all such writers appreciate being promoted in the outside world, especially in the West, as the “oppressed author”. They could be ferociously critical within their culture, but, to them, this is a question of integrity and stance, and that same integrity makes them extremely uncomfortable in the face of attempts in the foreign market to portray their work as the representation of something bigger than an individual struggle. Literary translators might be drawn to authors such as these – I certainly am – but in my attempt to bring these authors’ voices in translation, I will always try to make sure unique voices are not pigeonholed into the broad category of a resistant voice from an oppressive culture. While highlighting issues that concern us all, we should refrain from turning individual dissent into victimhood as an institutionalised branding.

The collected essays Translation, Activism, Resistance edited by Maria Tymoczko explore a great diversity of cases where translators are crucial agents for social change. In the introduction to the book, Tymoczko writes:

The ideological aspect of translation is heightened because translators make choices about what values and institutions to support and oppose, determining activist strategies and picking their fights, even as they also make choices about what to transpose from a source text and what to construct in a receptor text.

This engagement goes beyond the written text and the act of translating on a page, and involves not only translators, but also institutions fighting on a daily basis for freedom of expression and also for the right for everyone to access culture. We can see that gathering of efforts in the upcoming Tehran Book Fair, Uncensored event at Free Word Centre.

In 2014, I was asked by Europalia, a prestigious festival in Belgium, to become a literature curator to help build the programme of the 2015-16 festival, with Turkey as guest of honour. This festival usually has to work with the guest country’s official representatives – in the case of Turkey, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. I had known Europalia for a long time, had worked with them when I was still based in Brussels 10 years ago and knew they had been doing wonderful work bringing writers and artists from across the globe together in rich cultural activities for Belgian audiences. It was, of course, an honour for me to be recognised by this prestigious institution as an expert in the field of Turkish literature. I was thrilled, and, at the same time, I was extremely worried.

Although I was hired by the Belgian institution and working towards building a programme fit for Belgian audiences, the nature of the Europalia festival requires close collaboration with the official representatives from the guest country, and in our case, agreeing upon a list of authors to feature and themes to highlight proved difficult. Over the months, I had to deal with rejection after rejection of programmes I had developed and names I had proposed. Ultimately, I am profoundly proud of the work that the Europalia team have done across this festival; but, while gracefully suffering the uninformed critics in Belgium who had no idea about the constraints against which they were working, the whole exercise left me feeling drained and exhausted.

I lost sleep, I felt useless and insignificant, and sometimes I even lost faith in myself and in the power of translation. But then, I only need to go back to reading the works of those authors I am passionate about, to see their daily struggle back in their country, fighting every day against an oppressive regime. Sitting in my comfortable chair looking at a canal from my living room window in Amsterdam, I realise that nothing can stop me, no one can forbid me to do anything I want. I am aware of that privilege and will use it until there will no more be a need for it. I put “True Sorry” back on my ears. I think about Ibrahim Maalouf. His family left Beirut during the civil war, and the young Ibrahim – who is also the nephew of writer Amin Maalouf – grew up in Paris. Maalouf makes music; beautiful music that probably bears a lot of pain, but also hope, a lot of hope. Each note coming out of Maalouf’s four-valve trumpet feels like each syllable I am trying to render from one language to another. I feel truly sorry that I will never be able to attain the same level of emotion through my translation as Maalouf does through his music, but I know that every single syllable counts and I keep hope in translation’s power to trigger change, as long as there’s someone to listen.

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