Sunday, September 11, 2016

What Translation Cannot Tell Us

I began Amy Spangler’s newly-published translation of Sevgi Soysal’s Yenişehir’de Bir Öğle Vakti (Noontime in Yenişehir) (1976)[i] today.  A vivid recollection of Ankara in the Seventies, it brought to mind places and emotions that have been part of my adult life for decades now: the small businesses, the rhythms of daily life and the need to survive against sometimes difficult odds.

As I read on, however, I became aware of a peculiar sensation that made rethink much of what I believed about translation in the past.  Despite Spangler’s fluid and extremely readable rendering of Sosyal’s text, I felt the translator lacked an instinctive grasp of the complex social, cultural and familial negotiations that dominated the city then and continue to now.  She did not broach the complex networks of honor, duty, the need to provide and social responsibility that permeate the small business person’s life.  The need to please customers is accompanied by what might appear as an antediluvian respect for feminine passivity: women need to be looked after, whether they are at home or on daily shopping.  Hence the employment of rituals of customer service which to westerners might seem cloying or over-intrusive. 

Capitalist interests are part and parcel of the shopkeepers’ raison d’être, but they also have a loyalty to one another that is publicly displayed.  Only today while grocery shopping I saw some of the staff embracing one another before asking whether they needed any help in making pre-holiday purchases, or anything else.  This is part of the desire to ensure that their close friends are not cheated in any way.  Such overt displays of affection are inevitably treated suspiciously by less passionate westerners, who ask – often entirely superfluously – “what’s in it for the seller?”  We have to add another layer of complexity to this structure: sometimes westerners expect as of right that they should be helped by a local, especially while in positions of power.  Help is freely given with no questions asked or expected if you need it.

Spangler’s translation could neither communicate the complexities of the homemaker as she browses from shop to shop looking for the best for her family dinner.  This ritual is entirely different to the helter-skelter dash to the supermarket and back for frozen dinners.  It comprises a complex interplay of social and conversational thrusts and parries, where the homemaker talks to the shopkeeper and asks for the best on offer.  Naturally the keeper might want to extend the truth, but their desire for profit is tempered by the knowledge that the homemaker only wants the best for her family on a limited budget.  This knowledge leads to a civilized negotiation based on give and take, both participants secure in the knowledge that no sale might occur.  Even if it doesn’t, the respect between the two remains undimmed.

Noontime in Yenişehir does not know where to begin in recreating a landscape where each district old and new has stories to tell – of longstanding communities who moved in when the Republic was established, who have lived cheek-by-jowl for generations, and who respond to the inexorable progress of change both through adaptation as well as appealing to the past, as manifested in social and/or marital rituals – for example, desiring to protect all family members from harm.  We might term such moves ‘traditionalist’ or, more abusively, ‘ostrich-like,’ but Soysal has a lot to tell us about the power of the past as a living entity and source of strength affecting all of our lives.

Ankara has changed immeasurably since Soysal’s day, but that ineffable quality persists in Kızılay.  The big government-owned department stores might have departed now, replaced by concrete shopping centers, but the covered markets (çarşılar) remain, their networks of small shops offering the quirky, the different and the beautiful.  Families still run them; the owners sit communally outside, while their spouses move from adjacent street to adjacent street in search of the best deals.  Youngsters gather in Kızılay’s tree-lined boulevards to chat, drink lemonade, or eat lunch at the Ankara University restaurant, just as their immediate ancestors did in the past.  The atmosphere is redolent with the ghosts of those who took to the streets in days of yore –not necessarily to protest, but to express that ineffable air of belonging to an ancient city.  The inexpressible past is mediated through the present, even if no one says so: why should they?  To them it is part and parcel of their upbringing, their souls, and their beings.

So where does that leave the translator?  For the first time in my too-long career as an academic, I understood her limitations.  Spangler might be highly proficient in both languages but she can never empathize with Soysal’s haunting prose.  There is an ontological core of personality remaining closed to her.  I cannot claim to any superior knowledge in this respect, as my Turkish is not good enough, but I can taste the text underneath as I read the translation and use that experience to reflect on my life as a domiciled Ankaran.  I am forced to turn in on myself and consider what “translation” denotes; is it an expression of inadequacy as well as a facilitating process; or is it a complex mode of enlightenment that prompts often inexpressible speculation on my state of being?  In a recent Guardian article, Jonathan Freedland likens this state of mind to that of religion, a feeling that “cannot be explained or justified in the clear, stainless-steel language of pure reason.”[ii]  I think we can think beyond that binary of reason/ unreason into a more profound mode of being in the moment, where nothing else – not least worldly thoughts of explication – really matters.

Insofar as Spangler’s work forced me to sit up and reconsider Ankara past and present, it was a highly suggestive text.  But I am skeptical that it will achieve the publisher’s purpose of rendering the source-text accessible to emotionally ring-fenced westerners.

Laurence Raw
11 Sep. 2016.

[i] Horsham: Milet Publishing, 2016.  ISBN 9781840597707
[ii] “Religion is Like Sex – Is Absurd, but it Works.”  Guardian Weekly, 2 Oct. 2015: 18.

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