Corps de l’article

Rarely has translation played as important an official political role as it did during the early years of the Turkish Republic. In this important book, Şehnaz Tahir Gürçağlar provides a detailed study of both the politics and the poetics of translation beginning in 1923 – when the Republic was proclaimed under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, through the founding of the Translation Bureau in 1940 until its dissolution in 1966. The role that translation played in the shaping of culture in the new republic was considerable – not only in terms of book production and consumption but also in the discourse around the Renaissance of Turkish literature through translation.

The story of the early heroic efforts to promote literacy and national consciousness through literature – and through a whole set of other reforms (language and alphabet) and institutions (the setting up of Village Institutes and People’s Houses) is a fascinating one. Şehnaz Tahir Gürçağlar is a rigorous and imaginative researcher, and she brings this compelling story to life. We learn that although one thinker thought that a five-year period would be sufficient to introduce Western script, and another ventured three years, by the time the actual law was passed Atatürk had decided that three months would suffice for people to learn the new script. The law was enacted on November 3, 1928, and the first book in Latin script published on January 1, 1929. From then on, the change was dramatic and definitive. It is also important to recall that at the time of the debates, a mere 10% of the population was literate and so such authoritarian decisions were indeed feasible.

The first part of the study provides a particularly clear overview of the relation between language, nationalism, westernization, and Atatürk’s reforms. Gürçağlar sheds important light on the ways in which Turkish nationalist attitudes towards language were both similar to and different from those held, for instance, by Benedict Anderson. Intrinsic to the Turkish idea of humanism was the idea that adopting influences from the West was a way for Turkey to become more itself. This paradox of translation (also clearly enunciated in the ideas of Mme de Staël, for instance) is adopted in opposition to a narrower idea of national self-sufficiency. Insight is given into the various debates and differing opinions from the 1850s onwards.

Gürçağlar covers both external and internal aspects of translation activity. The larger context includes the process of planning culture in Turkey, as well as the changes introduced in 1946 when a multiparty system was introduced and culture was de-planned. She examines in detail the discourse on translation, including the important debates that were waged in the journal of the Translation Bureau. Important chapters are devoted to the market for translated literature as well as the whole category of popular literature and literature for the people. The heart of the book consists of several in-depth case studies involving on the one hand two important writers and translators of popular literature, Selami Münir Yurdatap and Kemal Tahir, as well as a chapter devoted to translations of Gulliver’s Travels. The descriptive analysis of these works demonstrates that the translations, as works published in the field of children’s and popular literature, did not conform to the norms upheld in the field of canonical literature. Gürçağlar definitively proves that the official activities of the Translation Bureau and its spokespeople by no means controlled the norms of translation across the board, and that the activities and norms of translation were diverse.

Gürçağlar’s methodology is very explicit. Adopting the framework of Descriptive Translation Studies, she uses the core vocabulary to great effect. This allows her to proceed systematically through the very large task she has undertaken. At the same time, Gürçağlar argues for adjustments to the theory, in particular – following Daniel Simeoni – in arguing for increased attention to the subjectivity and agency of the translator. The analysis of the work of Tahir, in particular, testifies to such a need.

The Politics and Poetics of Translation in Turkey, 1923-1960 is a rich source of information and analysis. Joining the studies of translation in Ottoman Turkey initiated by Saliha Paker, it lays solid groundwork for further studies of the translation landscape in modern Turkey. It provides one of the best overviews, to date, of the place of translation within the radical modernization process of the new republic, and it demonstrates the remarkable appeal of Turkey as an atypical historical example of a Renaissance through translation. Or, to be more precise, it demonstrates the way in which all Renaissances, western and non-western, have to be reexamined in their sometimes contradictory appeal to classical sources as an instrument of modernization.