Seeing Istanbul Again

Turkey 60s .jpg
Ara Güler/Magnum Photos
Sirkeci, Istanbul, 1964

In one way or another, I have been translating since the age 
of eight. This is how old I was when my family moved from Princeton, New Jersey, to the shores of the Bosphorus.

After we settled in Istanbul, we spent our summers and large parts of all the other seasons exploring the shores of the Mediterranean. Each time we arrived in a new city, we walked until we got lost. And after we got lost, we’d walk some more, until suddenly, without warning, we’d find ourselves approaching our hotel from a new angle. But it took a few moments before we recognized it.

Whenever we traveled by ship, the first thing my sister and
 I did was to play a game we called “Get Lost.” What a liberation 
it was, to believe, if never quite fully, that the maze of corridors might be infinite, and at the same time how reassuring to know that they followed a strict and logical design; it would not be long before we found our way out of our assigned place (third class) to the first class lounge that we would enjoy all the more for lacking the right kind of ticket.

Years later, when I was translating Orhan Pamuk’s memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, I would read his passage on childhood daydreaming and feel the chill of recognition. Orhan the little boy would often be parked with his sedentary grandmother for whole mornings. He would sit on a straight-backed chair and construct elaborate (and elaborately) other worlds, from which he could emerge instantly, just like that, should his name be called, knowing that when he was once again free to return to those worlds, they would be there waiting for him, just as he’d left them.

I felt the same way whenever I was summoned back to the everyday after a few hours of translating. I could close the door on the world of the text, knowing that it would be exactly the same when the time came to return to it. What I felt next was not very different from what Orhan had felt as a young boy, after days and days in his grandmother’s salon, with its heavy, impenetrable drapes. Stepping back out into the bright sunlight, we were both momentarily blinded.

When I cast my mind back to the seven years I worked with Orhan, the first thing I see is a sea of troubled eyes. I see the island just outside Istanbul where he and I spent many long summer days, going over each and every line of my translations. I see the other translators who had come out to that island for the summer, just to be near him. I see the island coffeehouse where Orhan and I went to work one day, so as to be within running distance of the pier. Was another translator coming out to have supper with him that evening, or a foreign journalist, or a new girlfriend? Or was 
I the one who had to be on a particular ferry back to the city? I can’t remember. We had fifty pages to get through before I had 
to leave or the guests arrived. I had no time to look around me. The waiter kept bringing us more tea as we walked our usual fine line between spirited discussion and open warfare. It was only when the light began to mellow that I looked up and saw that
 we had an audience. The coffeehouse that had been empty last time I checked was packed with women of a certain age and their grandchildren, all staring at us, open-mouthed.

It was later that same summer, on a beach in the south of Turkey, that my husband made the mistake of telling the man on the nearest towel that I was Orhan’s translator. This was before the hate campaign against Orhan began in earnest. But his success in the West, and the ease with which he questioned Turkey’s official history in the domestic and foreign press, had already made him a hate figure in some newspapers, including, presumably, the one this man read. At least that is how it seemed to me when said man came out to find me in the water. Across the waves, he began to shout at me: Who did I think I was, working for a traitor!

The real hate campaign was launched six months later, in February 2005, after Orhan told a Swiss journalist that he was the only one who talked of the million Armenians and thirty thousand Kurds who had been killed “in these lands.” It was not quite true: the taboos on these subjects were cracking all around him. But he was the only Turk who could talk about them abroad and be heard. Hence the uproar: the ultranationalists who drove the campaign accused him of pandering to Western prejudices, of selling his country to Europe to advance his career.

And that is exactly how it looked to Turkish television audiences ten months later, when Orhan was prosecuted for insulting Turkishness. They saw a great wall of righteous Turks standing outside the courthouse, shaking their fists. They saw banners denouncing Orhan as a “missionary’s child”—a term they had no trouble recognizing as a play on “whore’s child,” a common curse turned into a political insult by the substitution of missionary for whore—which suggested that Orhan had been corrupted by his American education and (as later agitators were to emphasize) 
his American translator. What the television-viewing public got to see that day was a garish and crudely scripted morality play, with ultranationalist lawyers dashing forward in their splendid robes to assault the EU parliamentarians who had come as observers. And an ashen-faced Pamuk, flanked by his publishers, struggling out of a van that the righteous Turks were rocking and pelting with eggs.

When I recall Orhan’s rise from cult status to world fame, I see another sea of eyes. Amongst them are the editors, literary journalists, writers, reviewers, and prize-givers who had been working on his behalf throughout Europe and North America for many years. But once he had been identified as a possible inheritor of Solzhenitsyn’s mantle—a wise dissident who, despite the threats being made against him in his own country, might help the West understand the East—there were suddenly many others who wanted to know and help and use him. When I looked into their eyes, I could see expectations that were never quite articulated, never quite met.

And I couldn’t help wondering: What did we want from writers like Orhan? What was it—what was it really—that evoked such strong emotions, such contradictory illusions, such condescending hopes?

Turkey dock.jpg
Ara Güler/Magnum Photos
Istanbul, 1962

In 2005, when the hate campaign forced Orhan briefly into hiding, and later, when he returned to Turkey to be prosecuted, 
I wrote many, many articles in his defense in the British and American press. I got involved with other cases. I worked
 with PEN. I was approached by well-placed friends of friends
 and warned about “rocking boats.” On several occasions I was befriended by individuals I did not know to be Orhan’s enemies. 
I was attacked by fascist agitators in courtrooms and kettled by riot police outside them. Some of those there with me kept their calm, and their principles. Others did not. There was also the very brave writer who could sometimes turn into a loose cannon: one day, she turned on me. After she had shouted me out of the flashy restaurant she had suggested for our meeting, she ate my fish.

The next day she wrote a column about “human rights tourism.” She did not name me, but others did. In one lavishly illustrated article I was cast as a superajan—a word that requires 
no translation. In another I was cast as some sort of cultural dominatrix. Orhan, this columnist said, wrote for only one person, and that person was his English translator. He wrote his books and then he gave them to her; she then told him how to improve them for Western audiences.

It was around this time that I stole a few months and went back to my own novel. I discovered, to my surprise, that I no longer needed to ask my Turkish characters to explain their world to me. It had become my world, too.

But somewhere, along the way, I had lost something. At the time I had no words for it. It began with hüzün, or rather with Orhan’s famous six-page sentence on collective melancholy in Istanbul. When I first read these words in Turkish—not yet thinking about how to translate them, just reading them, absorbing them, and tumbling from one clause, one image, to the next, I kept thinking: Yes, I recognize this. Yes, I remember all these black-and-white scenes from childhood. I remember how dusty and shabby Istanbul looked, when we returned each summer from the sparkling Aegean; had noticed this haze of melancholy that sat over the unpainted wooden houses of the old city, draining them of all color. But by the time I had translated my way to the end of this sentence, the hüzün had so permeated my imagination that I could barely see through it. The Istanbul of my own childhood had vanished.

I was left, instead, with men streaming down badly paved streets in shabby suits and covered women waiting on the roadside for the bus that never arrived; with collapsing Ottoman palaces, and fountains that had ceased working two centuries ago, and mosques whose lead domes were being plundered piece by piece. Inside every new apartment building there were modern families whose lives were empty because they had cut themselves off from their own history. They did not truly understand the Western ways to which they now aspired. Beneath their pride was the crushing shame of having lost an empire.

Yes, I thought. Yes, but. As I translated my way through the last chapters of Istanbul, I found as many things to question as to admire. Brought up short by a passing remark about the truth of 
a narrative residing in its artful symmetries, I stopped to consider the stark beauty of his black-and-white tableaux. I thought about the colors he had carved away. For when was the Bosphorus ever monochrome? Yes, there were days when the melancholy mist descended, but when the sun broke through again, it was so blue 
it hurt your eyes. For every image of 1960s Istanbul that this book brought back to me, there were a hundred missing. I remember pointing this out to Orhan on the day we reviewed my translation of the chapter in which he described his unhappy lycée days. Passing my finger over the gap between two paragraphs, I told him my whole life was hiding inside it.

He nodded, and smiled uneasily. He knew what I meant. Just as I knew what he meant, some years later, when he called me away from a Sunday lunch at a neighbor’s house on the Prince’s Islands, to tell me that he could no longer construct a sentence without worrying how I was going to ruin it.

By the time I embarked on our fifth and last collaboration, The Museum of Innocence, I had been wandering through the labyrinths of his mind long enough to know their every twist and turn. I had come to accept that everything he wrote had to be anchored in some way in the streets of his childhood. I had also come to understand that, as good as he was at capturing voices, his stories came to him in images. In The Museum of Innocence these images are highly detailed, and meticulously positioned. That order is reflected, and at times even replicated, in his Turkish sentences. 
I can only imagine the delight he found in creating a text that embedded the conceits of the narrative at the molecular level.

At a time in his life when the newspapers printed a new lie about him almost every day, narrative might also have offered some semblance of order. He was not, I think, surprised when I told him he could not exert the same sort of control over a translation. That did not stop him from trying. By that time, he had a lot of clout. I do not think I could have made it through that hellish year, had it not been for the daydream that was always waiting for me, every time I came up for air.

This was the Istanbul that I was slowly beginning to see again, if only to keep breathing. It wasn’t drained of color, like Orhan’s city. It was golden, and the troubled bourgeoisie that I’d been translating for seven years was nowhere in sight. There were only the wild and beautiful bohemians who had brought me up. Their real-world counterparts were mostly dead and gone, or sacrificed to their bad habits, but in the 1962 of my daydream, they were still living recklessly and getting away with it, beautifully.

When at last I had sent Orhan’s museum off to the publisher,
 I went back into my own head for what felt at first like a luxury vacation. Little by little, I translated myself out of Orhan’s Istanbul and back into my own. And when I look back on what happened next, I can only think that I must have been using words differently after all those years in translation. I was no longer using the clipped, cut-glass language I had always trusted most. I was letting myself loop and curve across the page. I was, without quite knowing it, putting myself into a trance. Word by word, I conjured up Istanbul circa 1962. And when I had succeeded in putting myself back there, it turned out not to be the paradise I remembered: the gold was laced with jealousy, confusion, and terror.

Adapted from Maureen Freely’s Angry in Piraeus, cahier no. 24 in the Cahier Series, published by Sylph Editions, to be released in the United States in June.