BEF 2011/3 – Professional Behaviour [Turkey]

21/01/2011

A translator is someone from whom we expect complete fidelity in their work, or as close to it as is possible.  Indeed, their identity qua translator is bound with the degree to which they faithfully reproduce the prose or poetry they translate: the more freely they interpret the text, the more creative they get in their rendition of the poet’s verse, the less they could be said to be translating, and would instead find themselves more on the creative side of things.  But the difficulty with translation is in the semantic differences between the original work and its translation.  Those writings that have a strong national flavour often use language that is charged with strong social and cultural meaning, much of which might be lost – as Robert Frost defined poetry to be – in translation, particularly when heavy with idiom or patois.  Some texts are so laden with such local colour that they are all but destroyed in the attempt to translate them.  Fortunately, this is not the case with Ersan Üldes’ story Professional Behaviour.

To expect complete fidelity between a text and its translation is to ask for the impossible.  This ideal, however, is something the reader knows he will never get and, furthermore, knows it to be unnecessary.  The reader, secretly wanting that fidelity, in reality understands that the translator will need to choose between synonyms on occasion, will need to select words that most closely approximate the meaning of the original word or phrase.  As such, some texts require more subjective input from the translator than do others.  Enter Üldes’ irresponsible, nameless narrator, once a translator by profession, he has since been fired for willfully “correcting” or “revising” or “polishing” the works of other writers.  The narrator, let’s call him N, dreams of writing his own stories, he longs to make the leap from translator to author.  This is a goal we can all sympathise with: to create something that is all our own, to ‘make out of the human heart something which did not exist before,’ and it is a goal N has not least because of the esteem in which his friend and erstwhile peer Necdet Sezai Balkan is held.  When Balkan interrupts the conversation at a nearby cafe table, the diners give him a “look that seemed to be asking who the hell he thought he was,’ until he introduces himself.

“I’m an author…” he said.  “I’m Necdet Sezai Balkan.”  Blushing, like disciples who had come close to committing some unforgivable sin, the kids welcomed the author to their table.  They even stood up to pull his chair out for him.

And though he later decries,

[the wearing of] the “title” of author like a badge of rank [as] one of the most dangerous ways on earth to achieve self satisfaction.  To write is one thing, but to be a writer, an author, to live life on earth clinging to this identity is a pathology belonging more to the field of psychology than literature.

his words sound bitter and unconvincing and envious of Balkan’s success.  Still, it may explain his peculiar writing method of “revising” those works he translates.  N says,

I reconstructed all the structures that the postmodernist writers I translated had deconstructed, I filled in all the gaps they had left, one by one, took out all the flashbacks I found unnecessary, changed settings, plots, dates, and sometimes even got so carried away that I’d sprinkle in a few poetic lines of my own, in raptures.

I was freeing the characters of the novels I translated from the roles they had been assigned, letting them out of the cages they’d been locked inside.  I was rewriting the novels, yes, making them far better and more effective than they ever could have been on their own.

There is one writer in particular, the German Judith Wohmann, whose novels N rewrites so radically that he feels justified in saying that she “played a major role in my ascension from translating to authorship.”

With every novel I took my self-appointed mandate to interpret the text however I pleased that much further.

Perhaps N’s most daring alteration of Wohmann’s work is his treatment of Colonel Enke in “The Society of Secrets,” a member of the eponymous club who fatally reveals their secrets and is killed very early in the novel.  In N’s revision, Colonel Enke remains alive for the entirety of the novel.  Novel by novel, N’s intrusion into Wohmann’s texts takes on a conjugal and seemingly consensual cast, a relationship built on the infidelities of the translator and in which he justifies his actions by Wohmann’s silence and the “reader’s admiration…increasing book by book.”  But the relationship holds interest for N only so long as he can rewrite Wohmann’s novels as he sees fit, and when her novel “The Number Pi: A Romance” comes along, it

left no room whatsoever for “corrections” or “revisions.”  Thus, I was deprived of all possible means of relieving my frustration.

The romance slides into onanism.  The translator, seeing no way to influence the text, is forced to remain faithful.

Professional Behaviour is excerpted from Üldes’ 2007 novel Zafiyet Kurami (The Theory of Infirmity), and it stands well on its own as a reminder of the inherent difficulties of translation.  Too often the great work done by a translator goes unnoticed.  Language, as Borges remarked, is an abbreviation, and concepts are but sketches of a far more complex reality.  The writer puts on the page his fumbling gestures toward an ineffable world  and the translator reads them as only he can, calling to mind his own images and words and transferring them, again in the abbreviation of language, to another page where they resemble, more or less, the author’s words.  To what extent, then, is the translator responsible for the creation of the translated work?  Is he Wohmann’s Colonel Enke, present only in a small proportion  of the text, or is he N’s Colonel Enke, alive and well throughout the entire piece?  These are the questions Üldes’ story asks and, while no clear answers are given, we are reminded of the subjectivities exercised by and difficulties visited upon those who would “[recreate] a work of art in a different language, moving so rigorously through an author’s world…”

– For those interested in reading more of the novel from which this story was excerpted (The Theory of Infirmity), a lengthier extract is available at the Transcript Review.

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‘Professional Behaviour’ is translated from Turkish by Idil Aydogan and Amy Marie Spangler

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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