Maureen Freely: When I first sat down to write, I never imagined I’d be writing so many books set in Istanbul. I have since discovered that authors don’t choose their subjects. It is, for better or worse, the other way around
Born in America, Maureen Freely grew up in Turkey and now lives in England. She has been working with the Warwick Writing Programme since 1996 and is currently giving lectures in English and Comparative Literary Studies at the Warwick University. She is the translator of five books by the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk: Snow, The Black Book, Istanbul: Memories and the City, Other Colors, and The Museum of Innocence. She co-translated The Time Regulation Institute with Alexander Dawe into English, which was published by Penguin Classics. Her translations have received both critical acclaim and negative reviews in Turkey. Freely is also the author of nine novels. In this interview, we talked about her last novel Sailing through Byzantium, her memories of the Istanbul of her youth, her many translations from Turkish literature and the critical views of her and Dawe's translation of The Time Regulation Institute.
In the novel, we’re looking at Istanbul through the eyes of a little girl. Mimi is a nine-years-old child who comes to Istanbul with her parents. What about you? How are you looking at Istanbul?
Sailing through Byzantium is most definitely a novel, but Mimi’s way of looking at the world, and Istanbul, is most definitely my own. In fact, you could say that I designed and shaped the novel so as to recapture the city as I first saw it, as an eight- and nine-year old newcomer, an enraptured outsider. In effect, I set out to perform an archaeological dig on my own memories.
Sailing through Byzantium is an autobiographical novel. Is there any difference between having lived in Istanbul in those days and experiencing Istanbul nowadays?
Today Istanbul is one of the most fashionable destinations in the world. In the early 1960s, it felt like a forgotten outpost. Of course, I am glad to see our city take its rightful place in the world again. But I miss those simpler days, when the pace of life was slower, and the modern world of malls, powerboats, and skyscrapers seemed very far away.
You like giving the leading role to Istanbul in your novels. The Life of the Party came first, which was followed by Enlightenment. And now, you’re back with Sailing through Byzantium. Each one of these novels is a sequel of the previous one, right? Could you please talk about these novels?
When I first sat down to write, I never imagined I’d be writing so many books set in Istanbul. I have since discovered that authors don’t choose their subjects. It is, for better or worse, the other way around. I feel very fortunate to have spent most of my formative years in Istanbul, but the experience left me with many mysteries to solve. Think of it this way: I was the daughter of working class Irish-American Catholics, attending elite American Protestant schools in a secular state whose population was predominantly Muslim. I was living in a city that had for millennia been one of the great capitals of the world, but when I opened my schoolbooks, it was to learn about the history and literature of a land half a world away from me. Even when I returned to that land at the age of eighteen, it still seemed half a world away. The only places where I can explore these and the many other paradoxes of my childhood are the novels I have set in Istanbul. They are not in chronological order – The Life of the Party takes largely in the late 1960s, Enlightenment in the early 1970s, and Sailing through Byzantium in the early 1960s. But they all loop back into the more distant past, and ahead into the almost-present. Perhaps because that is how I always feel when I am in Istanbul – there is no moment that exists entirely in the present. The past is always with me. The things I don’t know, as well as things I do.
“You are not just the artist of our grand adventure. You are our scribe,” says Grace to Mimi in the novel. Do you, like Mimi, take note of what you’re hearing or watching so that you could take them to the future?
I was very worried about my mother’s health during the time I was writing this novel. But I would also talk to her about the story I was writing. I think she knew it was my love letter to her, and my attempt to find something that she had given me as a child and that I had subsequently lost. It was only on the last day, when I wrote the book’s last lines, that I understood what that something was. I was in England that day, and she was in Istanbul. I picked up the phone to tell her. But I always wanted to speak to her when I felt cheerful and full of life, and that afternoon, I felt drained. I decided to wait. That evening, she had a bad fall and went into a coma from which she never recovered. And though I shall never recover from her loss, I cherish the secret gift she gave me all those years ago. It is the same as the instruction Grace gives Mimi: to recapture that magnificent adventure, in all its beauty. And to carry on, as beautifully and magnificently as she could...
Daughter of an academician father and a mother who is very interested in music; the elder sister of two siblings, a very clever, curious and smart girl: Mimi. If Mimi lived today instead of 1960s or 1970s, how would she view Turkey?
In the novel I am working on now, Mimi gives a great deal of thought to the country we know today. She is, like so many of her contemporaries in Turkey, haunted by 1971 and 1980s coups. And perhaps she is too haunted. She is a journalist based in London, often asked to write on Turkish politics and culture, and although her intentions are good, she often oversimplifies, or overdramatizes, or gets things wrong – exasperating and infuriating her friends. As I do, in real life! Luckily for me, and for the novel, Mimi is not the narrator this time. It is her friend Dora. Born of an Istanbul Levantine family, and recently returned, she delights in today’s Beyoglu. She walks through streets that belonged to the red light district when she was a child, and she sees a renaissance.
Mimi explains her mission as bringing “peace” on earth. What does the word “peace” remind you of here in Turkey?
It’s a dream, but a cherished one. Isn’t that why so many people my age in Turkey gave that name to their children?
It will not be wrong to say that you are mostly known for your translations in Turkey. How was the translation process of your own novel? Did you take part in this process or intervene with the translator when/if changes are required?
I was very happy when Ozge [Calli Spike], who is my daughter-in-law, agreed to translate Sailing through Byzantium. She is a playwright with a fine literary understanding. I find her Turkish very graceful, and I knew she would put her heart into her every sentence. What more could an author ask for? My only intervention was to urge her not to be overly literal – and instead to follow the music of her Turkish. A happy story, then, with a happy ending....
And Orhan Pamuk... For how long have you known him and his novels?
I knew Orhan’s brother as a teenager, and I was quite surprised to come across a book by his kid brother while working on the book pages of The Independent on Sunday in the early 1990s! During the years that followed, we renewed our acquaintance. I’d review his books when they appeared in English, and sometimes also interview the author. I was one of those who advised him on the literary scene in London, and went on to translate five of his books – Snow, Istanbul: Memories and the City, Black Book, Other Colors, and The Museum of Innocence.
How did the idea of translating his novels come about?
Orhan wrote to me asking me if I would consider translating Snow.
How was it to be working with Orhan Pamuk? In other words, could you please define the experience of translating Pamuk’s works?
A blizzard! But also the single most important blizzard in my writing life.
Talking in general terms, what are the difficulties in translating from Turkish to English?
The two languages are very distant from each other. You might almost say they rise from two different ways of thinking. But at the end of the day, there is a novel that does magic with Turkish, creating a world out of words, and my job is to find a way to do magic with English, to recreate that same world. The problem is therefore much, much greater than one of conveying accurately the sense of each successive sentence, though that remains important. I also need to understand, and attempt to recreate, the minute manipulations of voice, mood, tone, sound and image.
You also co-translated Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Institute into English with Alexander Dawe. How did you decide to translate this novel?
I was approached by the publisher (Penguin Classics New York) and accepted on condition that my friend Alex Dawe and I could work together.
What kind of difficulties or problems did you encounter?
I don’t think I can say it better than its Dutch translator. It was, she said, like biting into a peach.
Did you have a chance to read the Turkish critic and translator Armağan Ekici’s criticism on your translation of The Time Regulation Institute? Have you ever thought about giving a response to these negative criticisms or making explanations about the points, which Ekici puts forward?
When I first turned my hand to translation, I promised myself that I would always be humble, and thank anyone who pointed out my mistakes. I therefore have a lot to thank him for! And when the time comes to bring out a new edition, we shall return to his review – as well as consulting with others.
Armağan Ekici says, for instance, “A translator’s interventions in the target text such as combining or dividing sentences, changing punctuation that might be seen in each translation process are, I think, overly observed in this translation.”
He is certainly not alone in taking issue with our approach to translation, and his objection is honourable. İt is important to stay as close to the original as possible. But equally, it is important not to let questions of punctuation take precedence over all else. A slavish attention to the surface of the Turkish sentence, and a determination to see that surface replicated, can lead a translator to be tone-deaf, at least in English.
As Ekici makes a point in his criticism, is the main expectation of the English readers really the “fluent, smooth and neutral flow of the English language” in the target text/translation?
The real problem with Anglophone readers (and editors, and publishers) is that they are reluctant to read anything in translation whatsoever! We who campaign to redress that tragic flaw believe that we can, through literary translation, subvert the conventions of contemporary Anglophone writing, and in so doing, to refresh and reshape it. And I am in no doubt that the great sentences of great Turkish writers have breathed new life into my own work in English.
Ekici tells us the words that Tanpınar frequently uses in his novel such as “behemehal” (absolutely), “vâkıa” (though, actually) and “hülasa” (in short) are playing the leading role in creating the music of his narration. You, however, preferred to employ different English words for these repetitive words. How do you justify your decision on this one?
Yes. Such very beautiful words. One day, we hope, there will be a translator who will have as his or her first purpose to find English words that capture the harmonies of their Turkish originals, while also signalling their playful manipulation of historical contexts and associations. There will, I’m sure, be many future translations of this fine classic, so the door is open for a scholar-translator to do just that. For Alex and me, the aim was to celebrate, and seek to recreate, Tanpinar’s highly textured, and gorgeously ironic, narrative voice. If we used synonyms where Tanpinar preferred to repeat some of his most beautiful words, it is because English is a language that has less tolerance for repetition.
You recently translated Sait Faik Abasıyanık’s work into English. When compared to Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s works or Orhan Pamuk’s novels, Sait Faik Abasıyanık’s stories are very different both in language and style. What were the difficult and/or easy parts of translating his language into English?
Sait Faik seems, on first reading, to be writing simply, almost anecdotally. But in every story, we found a passage that was almost impossible to translate. Of course, these were the passages when he was doing some sort of literary magic – casting a spell, creating an expectation, lulling us into thinking that all was as we saw it, until suddenly the picture changed. What we love most about Sait Faik are his silences. He tells his stories from a place of loss and sorrow. He directs our attention to the light. We were working on these stories during the months after the sudden death of my husband. Sait Faik was my silent, consoling companion through those dark times.
Which authors and works have you translated so far and which others do you want to translate in future?
I have done a lot of translation and co-translation during these years of bereavement. Each and every one has been a revelation.
I translated several by myself – a collection of stories by the sublime Sema Kaygusuz, as well as The Grandchildren (by Fethiye Çetin and Ayşegül Altınay, following on from Fethiye Çetin’s My Grandmother) and Tuba Candar’s amazing biography of Hrant Dink. John Angliss and I co-translated two novels by the Hasan Ali Toptas – The Shadowless and Reckless. And Alex Dawe and I recently completed our translation of Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat. And now I’m back at work on a novel of my own. I like to think it will be the last to be set in Istanbul, but who can say?
I almost forgot to mention that Alex and I have won the Lois Roth Prize for our translation of The Time Regulation Institute, which will be awarded at the Modern Languages Association conference in Austin, Texas in January.