Turkish Literature in Arabic & Other Tongues

Turkish Literature in Other Tongues

By Mehmet Hakkı Suçin

Translated by Erhan Yükselci

A closer look at the translation activities in the geography that shares certain common cultures with Turkey, six major translation junctions can be discerned: the Baghdad-centered translation movement, the Toledo movement in Andalusia, the era of Muhammad Ali of Egypt, the Ottoman Translation Chamber, the Translation Office in the Turkish Republic period, and the TEDA project. An overview of these major junctures should be provided before proceeding to assess the current situation.

The Baghdad-based translation movement emerged in the 9th and 10th centuries and resulted in a significant cultural transformation. Efforts to translate works of thought, science and culture of the time’s dominant Greek, Persian and Indian civilizations into Arabic and Assyrian languages not only prevented the ancient culture from fading into oblivion, but also paved the way for the thriving and transformation of the Islamic thought and the creation of a relative liberal and tolerant environment. Dozens of translators including Ibn al-Batriq (Eutychius of Alexandria), Yuhanna ibn Masawaih, Qusta ibn Luqa, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Ishaq ibn Hunayn, Thabit ibn Qurra and Ibn al-Muqaffa left behind hundreds of works that blazed a trail for the development of Islamic philosophy and the discipline of kalam.

Photo: Matthew Chovanec, “Turkish and Arabic Literature

The next major translation movement emerged in Andalusia. After Toledo (Tulaytilah) was conquered back by the Spanish following a 300-year Arab rule, translation of works from Arabic to Latin and other languages commenced in the city. The Arabic-Latin translators included Constantine the African, Dominicus Gundissalinus, Gerard of Cremona, Michael Scot and Moses ben Samuel ibn Tibbon. Toledo-centered translation activities spread to other cities as well. The translations done by Jewish, Christian and Muslim translators prevented translations from ancient Greek as well as Muslim philosophers’ commentaries on them from being lost.

The era of Muhammad Ali of Egypt can be regarded as a major junction for translation efforts. Actually, Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt had previously served as a source of inspiration for a translation movement at that time. Although Napoleon stayed for three years in Egypt, the occupation had profound effects on the country. What Napoleon’s army did in Egypt to promote science, culture and demilitarization eventually caused Muhammad Ali of Egypt to support translation work after he assumed office in the post-Napoleonic era.

Muhammad Ali saw translation as an effort that forms part of military and bureaucratic modernization for establishing his own “empire.” For this reason, the translation works conducted during his rule between Turkish and Arabic languages were largely restricted to bureaucratic and military correspondence and legal amendments. Later, the Arabic and Turkish correspondence in Egypt continued to exist as “parallel texts” until the Arabic bureaucracy became stronger. Non-literary texts were translated mostly from French and other European languages in this period. Establishment of a printing press, foundation of schools offering education in foreign languages, transfer of military experts from Europe, sending students on scholarship for study abroad, and opening institutes for studying translation were among the factors that accelerated the translation work. 

The greatest translator of the Muhammad Ali era was Rifa’a al-Tahtawi. Graduated Al-Azhar, Tahtawi was assigned as an imam for the student group sent to France on scholarship. During the five years he stayed in France, Tahtawi learned French and comparatively studied diverse aspects of the French culture. Tahtawi is known not only as the translator of 25 books, but also one of the vanguards of the Arab modernization.

During the Ottoman period, translation was needed mostly in the fields of commerce, politics, diplomacy and law. As this attitude of the empire affected mostly the commercial activities of Venetians, they established a translation school called Giovanni della Lingua (Boys of Language) in 1551 to fill the gap for translators. In 1669, the Chamber of Commerce of Marseille established another translation school to serve the same purpose. During the Tanzimat (reorganization) era in the Ottoman Empire, lack of convergence between the Divan literature and national identity urged intellectuals to look for national identity in translated literature. These intellectuals translated mostly French literary works as they adopted the French culture as the leading culture. Thanks to these translation efforts, new literary forms such as novel, drama and essay that had not existed in Ottoman literature until the 19th century were adopted and Turkish prose started to thrive and develop.

The leading authors of the time gathered together and exchanged views within the framework of the Chamber of Translation (Tercüme Odası), established in 1832, and the Academy of Sciences (Encümen-i Daniş), established in 1839. The translation activities at the Chamber of Translation shed light on cultural and political pursuits. The translations in this period are considered as imitations or adaptations from a methodological perspective. In these works, the translator generally used the source text as a source of inspiration and diverged greatly from the original work. For instance, Ahmet Mithat Efendi, who translated literary texts in the first half of the 19th century, would read a page in the original novel and then, write whatever he remembered in Turkish. The same method was adopted by Ahmet Vefik Pasha in translating from Molière. There were three genres translated into Turkish in this period: Western poetry, philosophy and novels. The known translators from this period were Yusuf Kamil Pasha, Ahmet Vefik Pasha, Şemsettin Sami, Abdullah Cevdet, Hüseyin Cahit and Haydar Rıfat.

This type of translation had been very popular until the second half of the 20th century, but started to be replaced with a more informed translation work in early years of the Republic period in Turkey. Both society and translation work took new turns during the Republic era. The most intense and efficient translation activities were performed at the Translation Office (Tercüme Bürosu), established in 1940 by the Ministry of National Education. Then-Education Minister Hasan Ali Yücel, an intellectual himself, assigned Sebahattin Eyuboğlu and Nurullah Ataç to the translation initiative he launched, and many writers and translators later contributed to this initiative. This initiative initially focused on the translation of 604 Western works which were believed to have triggered the Enlightenment in the West –210 French classical literature, 90 from the German literature, 65 from the English literature, and the rest from various western languages. More than 1,000 works, including some Eastern and Islamic classical works, had been translated and published by 1967.

Unlike the translation work undertaken during the Ottoman era, the translation activities at the Translation Office were performed in line with the deliberately adopted methodological preferences. Imitations and adaptations in translation were not accepted. On the other hand, translations were made primarily from the original language. Translations from the second language were allowed only when no available translator was found for the original language. Lists of various classical works were drawn up so that personal preferences for specific authors or works were not followed. A decade later, translation activities within the framework of this initiative started to decline due to the changes in the country’s political climate. The journal Tercüme Dergisi (Translation Journal), which shed light on these extraordinary translation efforts, was published as 42 issues and seven volumes until 1947. This experience had positive impact on the following epochs in terms both of theory and practice.

Unlike the translation work aiming to translate the world classics into Turkish within the framework of the Translation Office at the Ministry of National Education, the TEDA translation project, launched by the Ministry of Culture in 2005, sought to make Turkish works available in other languages. Before discussing this project that has been going on for 16 years in greater detail, an overview of the translations from Turkish literature to English, German and Arabic should be provided.

Translation of Turkish Literature to English

A report by Tekgün and Akbatur contains important information and observations. According to this report, the only work translated into English before 1940 was the set of poems E.J.W. Gibb translated from Divan poetry. Until 1960s, two works had been translated into English: Ateşten Gömlek (The Shirt of Flame) by Halide Edip Adıvar (by the author herself) and Çalıkuşu(The Wren) by Reşat Nuri Güntekin (by another translator). After 1960s, the translated works of Yaşar Kemal and Nazım Hikmet came to the fore.

The number of Turkish works translated into English started to increase after 1980s. For instance, 11 novels by Yaşar Kemal were translated into English in late 1980s. These translations owed greatly to his wife Thilda Kemal. In later years, the works of Orhan Pamuk, Latife Tekin, Bilge Karasu, Elif Şafak, etc. were also translated into English.

As Aron Aji won the American Literary Translators Association’s National Translation Award in the US in 2004 for translating Bilge Karasu’s Göçmüş Kediler Bahçesi (The Garden of Departed Cats) and, in the same year, the English translation of Elif Şafak’s Bit Palas (The Flea Palace) and the translation of Orhan Pamuk’s Kar (Snow) were shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the UK, and the TEDA project was announced in 2005 and the Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, foreign editors turned their attention to Turkish literature. In 2008, Turkey became the guest of Frankfurt Book Fair. In 2010, İstanbul was honored as the Cultural Capital of Europe. In 2006, Cunda literary translation workshops were launched under the guidance of Professor Saliha Paker. These developments further whetted the appetite for the modern Turkish literature.

Translation of Turkish Literature to German

In the past, translation of Turkish literature into German was restricted to a few well-known works, as was the case with many other languages. These were poetry of Nazım Hikmet, humor of Aziz Nesin and fiction of Yaşar Kemal. Turkish immigrants from various provinces of Turkey went to Germany as workers, and they started to produce literary works starting in 1970s. Thus, a sort of “Turkish immigrant literature” emerged in Germany. Although this literature is reminiscent of the Arabic mahjar (immigrant) literature that emerged in the US, it has failed to make the same impact on the Turkish literature as the mahjar literature made on the Arabic literature. On the other hand, the writers who wrote in German like Feridun Zaimoğlu, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Yade Kara and Esmehan Aykol turned part of their attention to Turkish society and its literary production.

However, there are also other reasons for the relative interest in the Turkish literature seen in Germany after 2000s. The Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels was given to Yaşar Kemal in 1997 and to Orhan Pamuk in 2005. In 2006, Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Two years later, Turkey was designated as the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. All this contributed to further recognition of, and interest in, the Turkish literature.

Meanwhile, translation of works of Turkish authors unknown to German readers, particularly including modern classics, under the “Türkische Bibliothek” series, with a project supported by Robert Bosch Foundation, played a role in this process.

In 2010, the Tarabya Translation Prize was introduced to promote literary translation from Turkish to German and vice versa. The German Foreign Ministry and the Turkish Ministry of Culture undertook the financing of the Translation Grand Prize while S. Fischer Foundation and Robert Bosch Foundation assumed the financing of the Translation Promotion Prize as the Goethe Institute continues to provide organization services for the event.

Translation of Turkish Literature to Arabic

Literary translation from Turkish to Arabic mainly started in the post-Tanzimat era. Three works by Abdülhamit Hamid Tarhan, two works by Namık Kemal, and one work by Ziya Pasha were among the first to be translated into Arabic. Namık Kemal’s play Vatan yahut Silistre (Homeland vs. Silistra) was translated into Arabic in 1898 while his other works were translated at a later stage.

From the Servet-i Fünun authors, only Cenap Şehabettin’s Evrak-ı Eyyyam was translated into Arabic while from the Fecr-i Ati authors, only Halid Rıfkı Karay’s Yezid’in Kızı was translated into Arabic. Later, the Gölgeler (Shadows) booklet from Mehmet Akif Ersoy’s famous Safahat was published in Cairo.

During early Republic period, four works by Kadriye Hüseyin, also known as Princess Kadriye, were translated into Arabic. These were biographies and autobiographies. The author’s coming from a Egyptian aristocracy, descending from Muhammad Ali of Egypt, may have played a role in selecting her works for translation into Arabic.

According to the corpus at hand, the authors with highest number of translated works were Aziz Nesin, Nazım Hikmet, Orhan Pamuk, Yaşar Kemal, Orhan Kemal, Elif Şafak, Ahmet Ümit and Okay Tiryakioğlu. 

Orhan Pamuk’s winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, Turkey’s pursuing a “multiaxial” foreign policy in the same period, and increased popularity of Turkish soaps dubbed with Syrian dialect and aired across the Arabic world pushed the interest in Turkish literature further. However, the post-Arab Spring developments had a negative impact on Turkey’s relations with the Arab world. Thus, the literary works translated from Turkish into Arabic declined from double digits to single ones after 2013. In this period, Beirut, Cairo and Damascus became the centers that published considerable amount of translated works from Turkish.

Contributions by the TEDA Project

The Project for Supporting Publications of Works on Turkish Culture, Arts and Literature in Languages Other than Turkish (TEDA) was launched in 2005. As noted in its directives, TEDA is a translation and publication support program based on translating, publishing, promoting and marketing the classical and contemporary works of Turkish culture, art and literature into languages other than Turkish. The program provides grant support for translation or printing.

According to the statistics from the TEDA, support has been provided to the translation of approximately 2,590 literary works since 2005. The top 15 languages into which works were translated with support from the TEDA Project between 2005 and 2020 were as follows:

 LanguagesNumber of Works TranslatedShare among the top 15 (%)
Top 15201277.68

As is seen, the first top 15 languages supported by the TEDA accounted for 2,012 out of 2,590 works, i.e. 77.68% of all works. Among these languages, the Balkan languages were among the most favorite languages, followed by Arabic, Persian, Azerbaijani, Greek and Russian. Translations into Western languages, namely German, English, Italian and French, were secondary as there were 502 works translated into these languages (19.38%). It is interesting to note that translations into English came after those into Bulgarian, Albanian and Macedonian. 

Literary Translation Workshops

The literary translation workshops are the platforms where master translators share their experiences with novice ones, everyone learns something from the other and translation products come out of collaborative work. In a sense, they serve as programs for training literary translators. As far as I know, the first institutional translation workshops in Turkey started with the Cunda International Workshop for Translators of Turkish Literature (CIWTTL), founded by Professor Saliha Paker, from Boğaziçi University in 2006. The workshop was financed by the Ministry of Culture and through a collaboration of Boğaziçi University, Harvard University and Koç University. After 2009, the EU Culture Programme’s Literature Across Frontiers lent support to this workshop as well. After 2011, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Child and Adolescent Literature, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian, Korean, Persian and Bulgarian translation workshops followed them. However, the workshops had not been held since 2019.

As an academic working in the field of Arabic/Turkish translation, I established the Turkish-Arabic/Arabic-Turkish Translation Workshop (TÜRAPÇAT) in 2012 and managed its for three years in collaboration with Professor Muhammad Haridi from Cairo University. The workshop held for 8-10 days annually at Büyükada, Istanbul, was attended by 10 translators –four Arabic/Turkish and six Turkish/Arabic translators. Not only professional translators, but also budding translators who have begun their career with only one translation could attend this workshop. This made it possible to bring translators from different generations together for collective work on review of individually undertaken work. Thus, we translated passages from the works not only of Murathan Mungan, Adnan Binyazar, Hakan Günday, Orhan Veli Kanık, Hakan Günday, Hilmi Yavuz, Mustafa Kutlu, Yekta Kopan, Muzaffer İzgü, Sait Faik Abasıyanık, Vüs’at O. Bener, Ayfer Tunç, Attila İlhan, Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, Ebubekir Eroğlu, but also from short story writers, novelists and poets of the Arabic literature. 

In 2019, a collective translation workshop entitled “Çeviride Ada/Island in Translation” was launched in Büyükada, Istanbul, in collaboration with Boğaziçi University and Ceyda Elgül acted as its moderator. In this workshop, the poems with island as their main theme or metaphor were translated. Thus, translations of such poems were made from English, Korean, Japanese, Kurdish and French to Turkish and vice versa as part of this workshop. The selection of poems translated as part of this workshop was published in a special issue of The Punch journal. In 2021, the second edition of this workshop was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As Conclusion

As is clear from the information given above, the number of works of Turkish literature translated from Turkish to foreign languages increased thanks to translation and publication support given within the framework of the TEDA Project. Based on the data from the TEDA Project, it can be said that Turkish literary works were translated primarily into the languages of neighboring countries, cognate languages, or languages that fall into the same cultural basin with Turkish. On the other hand, except for German, translations into Western languages, particularly English, were not at the desired level. However, literary translations from Western languages into Turkish apparently account for a huge part of the books published in Turkey. The scarcity of Turkish literary works translated into Western languages clearly creates an imbalance in this regard. 

In addition, it is hard to say that quantitative increases in translation efforts have always been followed by qualitative increases. We hardly come across to articles, reviews or critiques regarding these translations in major international journals on literature. We cannot see these translations longlisted or shortlisted for major literature or translation awards. However, works of Arabic literature as our neighbors are nominated for major awards or receive translation awards or are covered extensively in reviews every year. Moreover, there are journals published in the West, focusing mainly on Arabic literature, such as Banipal and Arablit Quarterly. The leading journals in Western countries also publish special issues on Arabic short story, novel, or poetry. Unfortunately, the same hardly applies to the Turkish literature.

There are a couple of reasons for the global “obscurity” of Turkish literature. Some of them relate to works while others concern translators and publishers. Literary value and representativeness are what should be taken into consideration in the first place regarding the works to be translated into other languages. Perhaps, the relatively high circulation of works with low literary values affects the image of Turkish literature adversely, dissuading foreign publishers and editors from looking for other works in Turkish literature. On the other hand, while publishing a work certainly constitutes an opportunity, a translation that fails to reach or at least inform its target audience should not be expected to create the synergy globally as it is supposed to do so. At this point, publishing sample passages translated from a work or an author in literary journals in advance would prove effective in promoting the author. Considering all these points, I believe there is a great need for a semi-academic English-language journal, specialized in Turkish literature, to be published in the UK and/or the US. Such a journal would give editors all around the globe to follow up developments, trends and representations in Turkish literature. After a translated work is published, it should not be left to its own devices, but promoted through various face-to-face and online events to be organized in target countries.

Translators play a critical role in having a high-quality translated work in the end. Qualified literary translators are hard to raise. Most of the time, a translator is the main selling point for a work. In this regard, the Turkology chairs abroad have great roles to play. Indeed, many translators come from Turkology departments. Events that would bring translators who were brought up here and the translators who translate works into Turkish together will enrich experiences of both sides. Programs that are similar to the mentoring programs organized by the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) may be organized for literary translation from(/to) Turkish as well. In this way, experienced translators may have the chance to share their experiences with budding translators.

The identity of the publishers is also important. The selected publishing house may be large or boutique, but it must have a certain audience. Books should be examined through a strict editing process. We found numerous grammar, spelling and stylistic errors in many translated works we had examined during the Arabic/Turkish literary translation workshops we had organized. This implied that the cases we examined had not gone through any editing process. In the same vein, some of the important works we had examined had been published by unlicensed publishing houses. Moreover, we had heard interesting “stories” from the translators who had worked with such publishing houses.

In short, although significant progress has been made in the international expansion of Turkish literature, there are still huge things to do in order to boost its global visibility.

Mehmet Hakkı Suçin is a professor of Arabic literature & literary translator.

Also read:

Mehmet Hakkı Suçin on Translating Mahmoud Darwish into Turkish

Mustafa İsmail Dönmez on Translating Hoda Barakat and the Status of Arabic Literature in Turkey

International Prize for Arabic Fiction Judge Mehmet Hakkı Suçin: Advice to Young Novelists

Bibliography for further research:

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Bozkurt-Jobanputra, Seyhan (2021). “Bir Çeviri Hareketinin Görünür/Görünmez Özneleri: TEDA Projesi” (Visible/Invisible Subjects of a Translation Movement: TEDA Project). Ege Üniversitesi Çeviri Seminerleri (Ege University Translation Seminars), 25.04.2021.

Dino, Güzin (1999). “Sebahattin Eyuboğlu ve Türkiye’de Çeviri Hareketleri” (Sebahattin Eyuboğlu and Translation Movements in Turkey). Yağcı, Ö. (Ed.), in Cumhuriyet dönemi edebiyat çevirileri seçkisi (Republic Era Literary Translations: A Reader), (pp. 294-301). Ankara: Turkish Ministry of Culture.

Elgül, Ceyda (2021). “Çeviride Ada/Island in Translation: Bir Ortak Çeviri Etkinliğinden Notlar” (Çeviride Ada/Island in Translation: Notes from a Joint Translation Event). Ege Üniversitesi Çeviri Seminerleri (Ege University Translation Seminars), 25.04.2021.

Jobanputra, Rakesh (2021). “Translating Contemporary Turkish Literature into English: A Translator’s Observations”. Ege Üniversitesi Çeviri Seminerleri (Ege University Translation Seminars), 25.04.2021.

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Karantay, S. (1999). “Tercüme bürosu. Normlar ve İşlevler” (Translation Office: Norms and Functions). Yağcı, Ö. (Ed.), in Cumhuriyet dönemi edebiyat çevirileri seçkisi (Republic Era Literary Translations: A Reader), (pp. 338-344). Ankara: Turkish Ministry of Culture.

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Suçin, M. H. (2016). “Tarjamat al-Adab al-Turkî ilâ al-Lugha al-Arabiyya” [Translations from Turkish Literature into Arabic], in al-Tarjama wa Ishkâliyyât al-Thaqafa-2, pp. 239-251, Doha: The Forum for Arab and International Relations.

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Yazıcı, M. (2001). Çeviribilimine Giriş (Introduction to Translation Studies). Istanbul: Emek Matbaacılık.

Yılmaz, Simge (2021). “Alana Yakından Bakmak: TEDA Destekli Almanca Çeviriler Üzerine Eleştirel Bir Değerlendirme” (A Closer Look at the Field: A Critical Review of TEDA-Supported German Translations). Ege Üniversitesi Çeviri Seminerleri (Ege University Translation Seminars), 25.04.2021.


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