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Although I am always aware of political contexts when I translate, edit or write, I would never have thought I’d need to be an active part of a resistance movement like the one that has emerged in Turkey this past month. Never before in my life did I have to fight for things I have always taken for granted, especially growing up in nice, quiet Belgium, where my only real problem was that people would mispronounce my name, make fun of my culture, or dismiss me because of some stereotypical ideas they had about my native country. All these, of course, helped shape my choices as a translator. But what happened a month ago confirmed for me the necessity of translation. More than ever, translation made sense: it just felt right.
I started working with Free Word the day I was appointed, seven months before the official start of my residency. Right from the start, I met a wide range of fascinating people, all passionate about creativity and freedom of expression, who helped me start building a programme around translation, Turkish literature and comics. I was always thinking about Turkey’s cultural and political context as a translator, and you can see through the choices I’ve made in my career that I care deeply about voices challenging official narratives. Collaborating with Free Word was a natural continuation of that work, and it came off bigger and better than I expected.
My programme centred on three main areas: authors, schools and digital, with a focus on Turkish contemporary writing and comics. I filled each of these with a wide range of activities, from curating and chairing events to leading on workshops for young people – none of which ever included sitting down and translating.
Since the very beginning of my residency I concentrated my energy around a few writers, trying to build a long term approach to the way we present cultural events, which are too often soon to be forgotten one-offs. Especially when it comes to writers who are foreign to the English speaking readers, whether they are translated or not, chances are that many readers may never have heard of them, so it was important to develop readers' interest step by step. I did this through a series of activities, digital and real life events, including support from other organisations based at Free Word, such as the Poetry Translation Centre and English PEN. Readers had the chance to discuss Perihan Mağden’s novel Ali and Ramazan at a book club before they could meet the author at an event I chaired where we talked through Mağden’s career. Karin Karakaşlı’s poetry has been the focus of two Poetry Translation workshops I delivered and her moving poems are now available online for more readers to enjoy. Writer and journalist Ece Temelkuran appeared at the prestigious European Literature Night and an event celebrating the many voices of women from Turkey, an event co-organised with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, where she was joined by writer Meltem Halaceli. For those of you who are ready to accuse me of only working with women, I also chaired an event at the National Library of Edinburgh with two amazing Turkish writers, Murat Menteş and Ahmet Ümit, to talk about crime writing. Even at that event, we managed to talk politics. It seems Turkish writers can never have a break even when they try to write fiction that allows any human being to go beyond reality and just leaves your imagination free. As both Murat Menteş and Ahmet Ümit said at the event, “we too need to laugh, we too need to imagine different worlds and just be free to create stories”.
Digital projects are always central to my work, so it was only natural to develop further possibilities linked to my residency with Free Word’s online channels, including the website and social media. Next to a series of interviews with Turkish writers, recommended reads and suggestion of Twitter accounts to follow, we ran a series called #100Turkeys, tweeting 100 facts about Turkey, serious and fun, throughout my four-month residency. This step by step, long term presentation of information about the country was key to me, as I always believe one can better understand the literature from a country if one knows a bit about its cultural, historical and political context. I’m always against adding information that wasn’t in an original text into translated fiction to make the prose more “available”. This has to happen “off the page”, so it’s very important to develop these kinds of initiatives in the long term.
Working with schools was another major part of my programme: probably my favorite part of the residency. I truly believe in the potential young people have when you offer them the right tools to express their creativity. For me, these tools include comics, language and keeping one's heritage alive through storytelling. With three schools, we focused on process rather than finality, and always focused on having fun, whether we were making comics with food or deconstructing our identities.
I think my residency really fulfilled the aims of Free Word’s translation programme, and its commitment to reinvigorating translations: celebrating the linguistic diversity of the UK, encouraging more readers to engage with literature from around the world, demolishing cultural barriers and supporting the development of professional translators. But Free Word were especially brilliant in adapting my last month of work to the current events that are now affecting Turkey.
The resistance movement that started a month ago to save trees in Gezi Park has grown across the country into massive civilian protests against an increasingly repressive and unresponsive regime. This civilian response has been exemplary: no use of violence, only a wish to build a better Turkey with basic human rights. You would think a government would respond wisely to such intelligent protests. But not in a country where autocracy prevails: Turkish police have used violence to respond to the protests. Tear gas, water cannons, beatings, and even torture. Very sadly, so far they have also killed four people, and no apologies have been made. There is an arrogance from the prime minister, who is more busy dividing Turkey through his hate speeches and conspiracy theories against the West. These are very scary days for Turkey and its very diverse population.
We did what we could. We adapted existing series of activities, such as our #100Turkeys, to help readers understand what was happening in Turkey. I authored a few articles explaining the action in more detail, focusing on elements I know. From interpreting the events on social media, to trying to understand the narratives that are being developed around the protests, I have tried to offer my perspective as a translator to open up the demonstrations to a new audience.
“We were me me me… instantly we became ‘us’. Let’s always stay like this…”
This is what jazz singer and composer Şirin Soysal tweeted, highlighting the amazing solidarity that has arisen between people peacefully protesting in the name of democracy in Turkish cities. This is what we all need to become across the world, as we have recently seen in Brazil: we need to become “us”.
Tear gas makes you cry, choke and spit at the same time. It is easily carried on the wind; you have no idea where it’s coming from but it suddenly hits you and envelopes you. It makes you want to get as far away from it as possible, but you don’t know which way to run.
In this passage from writer and translator Kaya Genç’s piece about Gezi Park for the London Review of Books, I see a graphic depiction of our current lack of direction. Protesters in Turkey and all their supporters across the world, including myself, are fighting against unchecked power. A scary one: autocratic, pitiless, shameless and dismissive of everyone who will think against them. This kind of power will need a political response at some point, especially when you can see the Prime Minister getting ready for the next elections in 2014.
For our last event, all four Free Word translators in residence read from works they were passionate about. I was going to read some prose in Turkish, from an author I admire. But in the light of the demonstrations, I decided instead to read translations of a few tweets that were shared at different moments of the protests. Each moved me in different ways, but all show how necessary it is to challenge official narratives:
RT @alicansoylu1907: Lan salak amaç polise saldırmak olsa zırhlı coplu gazlı panzerli TOMAlı polise saldırmaya basket şortuyla mı gideriz öküz.
“If our purpose was to attack the police armed with gas, batons and armored vehicles, do you think we would go face them wearing shorts and sneakers you dumbass.”
RT @barbarosaltug: su anda seksen yasindaki ninesine gezdiriyor torunu Gezi'yi yanibasimda; ne guzel yer bu boyle dedi nine “ama biraz gurultulu”
“At this moment right next to me, a kid shows Gezi to his 80 year old granny, “what a nice place this is” she says “but it's a bit loud”.”
RT @semihgumus: Dolmabahçe'deki camiye soruşturma, müezzine zorunlu izin. Bu ülkede devlet iyi şeyler yapan hiç kimseyi cezasız bırakmaz örnek olmasın diye.
“They investigate the Dolmabahçe mosque, they forced the muezzin to take leave. In this country, they never leave those who do good unpunished so they will never be an example.”
“@Pinar_Selek: Beni ülkemden attılar.Bu güzelliği göremeyim diye herhalde.Hem çok mutlu hem çok kızgınım.Gözyaşlarım ondan.Ama Meydan'dayim. Hep ordaydim.”
“They threw me out of my country. So that I couldn't see this beauty, I guess. I'm very happy and very angry at the same time. Therefore the tears. But I'm on the square. I'm always there.”
For the first time of my life, I actually realised we were never safe from losing our basic freedoms. Nowhere in the world should we take for granted the liberties our fellow citizens previously fought for. I believe translation has a key role to play in supporting this ongoing fight against power.
I am grateful to Free Word for providing me with the tools, the mindset and the space for my awareness to flourish. To quote a terribly overused cliché, I can only hope that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
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