Orhan Pamuk: Art, Politics and Translation


Professor Maureen Freely, Warwick University

20 September 2011

The renowned Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, born in 1952, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. This was the first Nobel Prize awarded to a Turkish citizen. His works include The White Castle, The Black Book, The New Life, My Name is Red, Snow, Istanbul: Memories of a City, and The Museum of Innocence. Professor Maureen Freely, a Bath resident and herself an author, teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick University. She has translated several of Pamuk’s novels into English, and has worked with him closely as a translator over recent years.

Pamuk, who is himself a Humanities Professor at Columbia University, New York, teaching comparative literature and writing, has sold over seven million copies of his books, in more than fifty languages. He grew up in what has been described as ‘a wealthy yet declining bourgeois family’ in Istanbul, and was initially a student of architecture. He thinks of himself as a Cultural Muslim, identifying deeply with the cultural and historical aspects of Islam, without necessarily believing in a personal connection to God.

In 2005, Pamuk came forward with a controversial public statement about the killing of a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds in Turkey in 1915. This led to prosecution and, according to the author, a hate campaign  (coupled with the burning of his books) that caused him to flee the country. The charges were eventually dropped, but Pamuk was still fined (in 2011) for ‘insulting the honour of five named people’. He always insisted that he wished only to promote freedom of expression issues in Turkey, but was always opposed by an active group of extreme ultranationalists.

Maureen Freely outlined Pamuk’s remarkable career to date, including its unforeseen and dramatic political aspects. She has translated Snow, Istanbul: Memories of a City, and the recent The Museum of Innocence, together with Other Colours: Essays and a Story, and a new translation of The Black Book. The writer Jan Morris has said that Pamuk’s novels ‘have already made him celebrated throughout the world, but perhaps he will be longest remembered for Istanbul, his wistful memorial to the city of his heart’.

In a very powerful and eloquent talk, Maureen Freely spoke of the shock she felt by the intervention of outsiders in her work as translator, notably of Snow, the real suspicion of Europe which seems to exist in Turkey, and the horror she felt over Pamuk’s trial. She noted that one Turkish commentator had said darkly that ‘Orhan Pamuk writes his books for one person only - his translator.’ She had learned ‘the power of words’ from being a translator, though on very many occasions, she had felt suffocated. She regretted (in her own career) that there had been so little interest in Turkey. Most people in the West did not understand the political background to Turkey and Istanbul after 1918, and the omnipresence of control and censorship in education and public discourse.  Yet her work as a translator from Turkish into English had transformed her understanding of everything. Her view is that there is an urgent need for what she called ‘safe spaces for literature’, for the free exchange of ideas, arguments and conversation, away from the fear and tension which exists in Turkey, led by the Ultranationalists.

Turkish is a complex language, with no verb ‘to be’ and no verb ’to have’. There are a great many verbal nouns, and the end of a sentence comes as a surprise. She had felt an urgent need to retranslate The Black Book, since the first sentence in Turkish rendered into literal English would sound like gibberish. There was a need for proper grammatical sequence, and even cuts. In answer to a question about Pamuk’s ownership of his texts, Maureen Freely said that the translator (into any language, not only English) needs to get a voice as soon as possible. Once she has it, it is there for good.

Dr Robert Blackburn