In addition to reading fiction in translation, I quite enjoy hearing from the people involved in the field, and The Cahiers Series, the collection of beautiful coffee-table works published by Sylph Editions and the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris, is a wonderful source of short, thought-provoking texts on language. The latest addition to the series is by a woman with a rather high profile, someone with a foot in the camps of both writing and translating – and, as you’ll see, this isn’t the only area where she straddles the divide between two worlds.
Maureen Freely is an American-born writer, academic and translator, and is currently the President of English PEN. For many readers, though, she’s probably better known as one of the main translators of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. Freely, having grown up in Turkey, has her own story, however, one that is similar to, but different from, those spun by Pamuk in his novels, and Angry in Piraeus (review copy courtesy of the publisher) allows her to explore her childhood and her thoughts on language, life and literature.
The work begins by taking us into the worlds of some of the authors Freely has translated, showing us brief scenes of Turkish life, before dragging us out to confront the reality of bringing these images into the English language. With Turkish having a very different structure, being an agglutinative language without the rigid emphasis on sentence structure and gender-specific third-person pronouns of her native tongue, Freely must be inventive to preserve the essence of the original – and it’s exactly this that she considers most important:
“I have to listen to the language of the original and look for the English words which might ride their echo. As important as it is for those words to convey the right meaning, what matters more is how they sound, how they look. I need to know their shape, their weight, their texture and temperature. I need to play them like instruments, until I find the orchestral voice that can tell the story, which, before that point, I more feel than understand.”
p.14 (Sylph Editions, 2014)
I hope you’ll agree, Google Translate it is not.
While a lot is said about the art of translation, there is plenty here about the writer’s own life too. Growing up in an alien culture, having moved to Turkey at the age of eight, Freely learned her Turkish organically on the streets, paying more attention to the feel and sound of the language than the importance of verb tenses. Angry in Piraeus allows us to wander with her through the streets of Istanbul, the journeys through the old laneways compared to the mental journeys taken through her writers’ creations in her later translation career.
Of course, the name that dominates that career is Pamuk, an acquaintance of Freely’s since her younger years. The chance call to help out with the translation of Snow was the start of a long collaboration, one which allowed her both to become a renowned translator and to get inside the Turkish characters she had been trying (and failing) to insert into her own fiction. Working with a friend on such wonderful novels seems like a great way to make a living.
However, it wasn’t all good… Perhaps the most interesting part of Angry in Piraeus (and one I, rather selfishly, would have liked to hear more about) was when Freely discussed the problems arising from her partnership with the Turkish writer. The back-and-forth of the translation process certainly seemed to be a rather arduous process, and there was a sense that both writer and translator were relieved once they had moved on. Of course, this was nothing compared to the dramas of the court cases against Pamuk in Turkey, with public opinion firmly against the ‘betrayer of the nation’ – and his ‘manipulative’ American translator.
Still, the focus of Angry in Piraeus eventually returns to translation itself, and it’s a topic well worth discussing. Freely transmits the joy she feels in her craft and the deep involvement the translator has with the source text:
“Translating is for me the slowest, deepest, and most intimate form of reading: closer than close reading. I sometimes think of it as immersed reading.” (p.32)
After the difficulties of negotiating with writers (and being a figure in the public eye, for all the wrong reasons), you sense that Freely is happiest immersed in a nice, warm book.
For all her translation prowess, Freely is also a writer in her own right, and it shows. Angry in Piraeus is a beautiful, elegant piece, an extended essay on translation, language and culture which is a delight to read. In the usual Cahier manner, the text is supplemented by illustrations, a series of works by Rie Iwatake. I must confess that I didn’t really think the mixture of letters, stamps and sketches of the human body really added much to the text here (in contrast with, say, the Max Neumann-László Krasznahorkai collaboration for animalinside), but then art isn’t really my speciality… Still, this is a short work which is well worth reading (and rereading) and a warning to all who think that translation sounds like a nice, easy way to make a living: whether in the midst of the text or out in the real world, there are more obstacles waiting to trip you up than you might think…