Pamuk's Translator

Maureen Freely has an absolutely fascinating piece in the Washington Post, where she discusses translating Orhan Pamuk into English:

The details proved to be all-consuming, as the distance between Turkish and English is great. Turkish has no verb “to be” and no verb “to have.” It prefers the passive to the active voice and has one word for “he,” “she” and “it.” It is an agglutinative language, which means that root nouns often carry a string of 10 or more suffixes. Turkish also likes verbal nouns (the “doing of,” the “having been done unto”) and because you do not know the verb until the end of the sentence, you often read four, five or six clauses without knowing how they are connected.

Add to that the Language Revolution, which began in the 1930s with the aim of replacing all words of Arabic and Persian origin, at the time 60 percent of the vocabulary. Though some of those words remain, the language has changed so much that the speeches of Ataturk, the republic’s founding father, have had to be retranslated twice. Turkish allows for complex constructions that (to paraphrase the poet Murat Nemet-Nejat) can catch elegant thoughts in the act of unfolding, but to replicate those structures in English is to weave a knotted web in which each clause strangles the one preceding it, while the shortage of root nouns encourages an overuse of basic words and/or wild guesses as to which of 20 or so English words might reflect the writer’s intentions.

Translators are not paid enough money, clearly. This just sounds like such an intense experience. And this:

As we wandered together through the world of the book, he seemed to be opening doors to reveal spaces never before shown to an outsider. It was not the translator but the shadow novelist in me who treasured these privileged tours. But there is, perhaps, a shadow novelist in every dedicated translator. Though she must serve the text, she can recreate the author’s voice only if she gets so close to the heart of the novel that she can convince herself it briefly answers to hers.

Great stuff. Go read the article.

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