Turkish Literature at Sea

The global literary market is a body of books in translation that, despite being from very disparate contexts, sound a lot like each other. Why?

In global literary canons, some authors tend to become conflated with entire literary histories. J. M. Coetzee is equated with South African literature; Chinua Achebe likewise equals Nigerian literature; Mario Vargas Llosa equals Peruvian literature. For much of the world, Turkish literature has become synonymous with Orhan Pamuk. It is Pamuk who is invited repeatedly to stand in for Turkey, a country with a particularly messy history and, accordingly, a rich literary tradition. Very few other Turkish authors have been able to reach an Anglophone audience as successfully.1 Why?

As world literature tries to expand the literary canon beyond Northern America and Western Europe, it reduces vast literary traditions to only select names, who happen to be translated into select “world” languages. These few authors become conflated with the entire literary output of their home countries; at the same time, this conflation means these authors also become canonized as global authors.

This pitfall—as Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters convincingly argues (itself a work that gained success predominately through its English translation from the French)—has to do with the practical dynamics of the literary market: the availability of translators, the interest of Anglophone readers in books and stories from elsewhere, and marketing. The result of this particular logic of the global literary market is a body of books in translation that, despite being from very disparate contexts, sound a lot like each other, either because the subjects in demand are similar or because of the emergence of a language Gayatri Spivak has pointedly called a “with-it translatese, [whereby] the literature by a woman in Palestine begins to resemble, in the feel of its prose, something by a man in Taiwan.”2

This is a problem, and not only because it limits the names of those within a literary tradition. The other problem is that today’s world literature limits the kinds of perspectives coming out of each tradition. Take Pamuk. Notwithstanding his brilliance as a novelist, Pamuk appealed to readers in English also because of his ability to fulfill the stereotypical image of Turkey. Turkey, the stereotype suggests, is permanently caught between the East and West, functioning as a “bridge” between two worlds, a metaphor whose stubborn prevalence often makes Turkish scholars roll their eyes.

But, thankfully, there do exist exceptions and challenges to these world-literary, translational difficulties. Refreshing reminders of this include two new translations from Turkish, Aslı Biçen’s enigmatic work from 2008, Snapping Point (İnceldiği Yerden) and Burhan Sönmez’s 2018 book Labyrinth (Labirent). Snapping Point and Labyrinth are beautifully written, thoughtful novels which are as different from each other as can be, except for their subtlety.

Neither Biçen nor Sönmez would be considered obscure in Turkey, but neither has enjoyed widespread fame either. Labyrinth is Sönmez’s fourth novel, and he is the recipient of multiple literary awards in Turkey, as well as being quite visible in international literary circles.3 Biçen, on the other hand, is also a translator, well-known as Elif Shafak’s translator into Turkish. For readers like me who always found Shafak’s The Saint of Incipient Insanities more poignant in Turkish than its English original, Biçen’s talent as a writer was evident before she began to publish her own novels.

The amount of time it took each novel to appear in English gives an inkling of a fickleness in the translation market: Biçen’s novel was translated just this year by Feyza Howell for the London-based Istros Books, 13 years after its original publication, while Burhan Sönmez’s Labyrinth appeared in English in 2019, skillfully translated by Ümit Hussein only a year after its publication in Turkish. These novels’ appearance in English is a welcome surprise for those of us interested in reading and teaching Turkish literature. And their respective publications are also a welcome disruption of the logic of the translation market.4


How to Read like a Translator

By Joshua Sperling

It’s easy to read Biçen’s novel as a realist work of familial and romantic tensions, or as a magical realist work with political commentary, veering, at times, into eco-apocalypse fiction. That it’s hard to settle on one of these descriptions is, I think, its strength and a testament to its originality.

The first half reads like a tame, slow-paced romance between Cemal, a grocer who has dedicated the past two decades to looking for his lost father all over Turkey, and Saliha, a depressed woman in her 30s trying to navigate the oppressive patriarchy of small-town Turkey. The events take place in a made-up southern town called Andalıç, a peninsula jutting out onto the Aegean Sea. In a single chapter, however, a catastrophic earthquake severs the town from mainland Turkey and sends it floating on the Aegean towards Greece, which has also lost an island in an equally colossal earthquake that occurred almost simultaneously. The novel never explains if the disasters in question are part of a global event, although there are some hints that indeed suggest a broader catastrophe.

The story quickly moves away from questions of environmental disaster and, instead, focuses on the newly minted island. We witness the emergence of a proto-fascist, makeshift government on the floating Andalıç, as the local authorities swiftly take over all decision-making and forcibly create and train a military unit for the island’s inevitable arrival in Greece. They declare the island “will always remain Turkish” and warn they will not allow “even a single Greek to step on the island.” As expected from an Aegean town in Turkey, however, tangential conversations reveal that the town used to be populated by Greeks, who presumably lost their homes in the forced population exchange of 1923 or in one of the later exoduses in the 1950s and ’60s, following pogroms. The tame family drama of the first hundred pages turns into a nightmare scenario of food rations, uncertainty, mass shootings, arrests, and torture, all of which happen as the town keeps floating unmoored on the Aegean with no help arriving from either coast.

Biçen’s language is almost dreamy at times, patiently describing the beauty of the Aegean town, as in the following lyrical passage:

The hourglass figure of sleepy Andalıç rising from the ever vigilant sea greeted [Cemal]: this was the place he had once thought of as the entire world … That playful, vivacious blue, whose name altered with every tint and shade, spread out inside him; the sea, whose absence rendered any place dead.

Turkish favors long, elaborate sentences, a particular challenge for English translators. Feyza Howell does a beautiful job throughout, capturing the ethereal quality of Biçen’s gorgeous sentences. Howell finds ingenious solutions to various challenging portions of the text, too, adding explanations of context and setting for locally specific words without cluttering the narrative.

The only part of the translation I found unconvincing was the dialogue, a tricky aspect of any translation. Biçen’s characters are humorous, and use localisms at times, such as “porazladım,” or “hit with the north-easterly,” but, in the original, they don’t have a discernible accent that marks their class or regional belonging. Howell adds dialectical shifts to their speech. For instance, older ladies suddenly begin saying “sez I” or “meself” while telling stories, when there’s no equivalent divergence from the standard in the original. There are also many Britishisms in the text that can be difficult to follow for readers like me who are unfamiliar with British English, which were nonetheless welcome changes from the standard “with-it translatese.”

As the novel progresses—as the island moves farther away from the coast and from past routine—the state of exception becomes sinister and claustrophobic, especially for readers well-versed in contemporary Turkish history, stuck in its own nightmarish state-of-exception since 2016. That Biçen’s novel appeared almost a decade before suggests a cycle of state violence in Turkey, enmeshed with the oppressive patriarchy that Biçen subtly weaves into every episode of the novel. Even Cemal, a rather likable (if dull) protagonist, occasionally reverts to patriarchal notions of love, displaying a neediness for unwavering adoration as he demands Saliha snap out of her depression for his sake. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the novel gives us another genre twist in slowly building up Jülide, a young woman who is a side character in the first hundred pages or so, as a magical-realist protagonist who is able to bend objects, animals, and nature to her will.

Summarized, thus, the novel might appear scattered or even trite, but the plot moves at an ever-changing pace and remains absolutely unpredictable throughout. At no point was I able to decide on or define its genre.


Translators and Other Icons

By Lily Meyer

Burhan Sönmez’s novel is less adventurous in its plot but even subtler than Snapping Point. It will disappoint readers who go looking for heavy handed metaphors or obvious commentary on Turkish daily life.

Labyrinth tells the story of a successful and strikingly handsome musician, Boratin, who wakes up in a hospital to learn that he has lost his memory after a suicide attempt. He jumped off the Bosphorus Bridge but miraculously survived. The novel is told alternately in first and third person, mostly focusing on Boratin’s struggles as he tries to make sense of his previous life and suicide, especially suspect, since all his friends tell him he had no obvious troubles. In the background is the persistent image of Istanbul and the striking beauty of the Bosphorus, an ominous threat that beckons to Boratin.

True to the epigraph from Borges with which it begins, Labyrinth is an existentialist novella full of mirrors, temporal confusions, and riddles. An old clockmaker tells Boratin that, throughout human history, there have been three great inventions: clocks, mirrors, and … When Boratin asks about the third invention, the old clockmaker cannot remember it. (Boratin ventures it might be writing, only to be told the story of Thoth, of which Derrida has spoken at length in his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy.”) Boratin never goes back to see the clockmaker, so we never find out the third invention.

Asked about this omission in an interview, Sönmez refused to clarify and ventured that it might be a salesman’s trick to tempt customers to come back. I am not too keen on author explanations in general, but Sönmez’s theory seems apt for Labyrinth, which I loved, especially, for its refusal to make grand declarations about life. Existence, time, memory all remain puzzles, as do Boratin’s questions about himself.

Ümit Hussein upholds the enigmatic, ambivalent tone of the novel. What becomes lost in translation, however, is the oddity of the names: Boratin, Bek, Hayala, and Serka are extremely strange sounding names in Turkish, either having lost a letter from a common name (like Bek, which might be the common name Berk minus a letter, or Hayala, perhaps a version of the name Hayal, meaning dream, plus an “a”). This is especially disorienting for Turkish readers. Since Turkish does not have gendered pronouns, characters with such unusual names initially appear androgynous until context clarifies their gender, an ambivalence that is inevitably cleared up for the English readers in translation.

The opposite effect happens with Boratin’s uncertainty, which is more readily apparent to Turkish readers, since Turkish has a suffix that marks evidentiality (also called “reported past tense” or “hearsay tense”), translatable to English by adding the word “apparently” or an equivalent. The suffix can be added to any verb in Turkish, making Boratin communicate his inability to verify facts much more efficiently in the original. Ümit Hussein is able to retain an impressive amount of ambiguity, but one cannot help notice the limits of translation as such when comparing the two editions.

Labyrinth offers two real-world parallels for Boratin by mentioning Kurt Cobain and Yavuz Çetin, two musicians who died by suicide, the latter a blues singer (like Boratin) who killed himself, in fact, by jumping off the Bosphorus Bridge.

But reading these two novels back-to-back, and perhaps influenced by the enigmas of Labyrinth, I couldn’t help but think of one of Elif Shafak’s protagonists, Gail, instead. At the end of The Saint of Incipient Insanities, Gail kills herself by jumping off the Bosphorus Bridge during a traffic jam, while on a visit to her fiancée’s hometown. Perhaps Gail came to mind, because it was Aslı Biçen who translated that work to Turkish.

One can only hope that more Turkish novels are translated, especially so that readers in English can also trace these unlikely connections for themselves within a literary tradition that is so much richer and intriguing than the limited number of translations would have us believe.

What I loved most about seeing these two novels in English was their divergence from the metaphors and explicit commentaries that populate most translated Turkish novels. I teach world literature to upwards of 100 students each year and many of them come to my classes hoping to find one culture neatly encapsulated in the works we read. No reader will find that in Snapping Point or Labyrinth. And that’s a relief.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín. icon

  1. Out of contemporary Turkish authors, the only name that has come remotely close to enjoying Orhan Pamuk’s fame has been Elif Shafak, who circumvented the translation market by beginning to write in English with her fifth novel The Saint of Incipient Insanities.
  2. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, (Routledge, 1993), p. 182.
  3. In September 2021, Sönmez was elected as the new president of PEN International. While this suggests an impressive international visibility for Sönmez, Labyrinth was translated to English in 2019.
  4. Nicholas Glastonbury has recently analyzed these dynamics as they pertain to Turkish literature, in Translating against World Literature,” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 18, 2021.
Featured-image photograph by Adel Salehi / Unsplash