Lost and Found: A Few Words on Translating Tanpinar
By Alexander Dawe
Nearly ten years ago I wrote a somewhat extravagant essay on Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s short story ‘Summer Rain’ to entice a panel of judges to grant me a translation fund to translate a collection of his short stories. To my surprise I was one of the winners. I was beside myself. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. And so I was given a modest sum of money (not to mention the honor) to translate the short stories of one of the most acclaimed Turkish authors of the twentieth century with the hope that they would eventually be published in an elegant edition with a moving foreword by an eminent intellectual.
To this day I’m still hoping.
But hope burns brighter on the fumes of labor (I think I just made that up). And so when the Bosphorus Review of Books kindly asked me to write something about my experience, I found that essay and my translations with the hope that I might finish a project I started what now seems like a lifetime ago.
Here is some of what I wrote about ‘Summer Rain.’ Sabri is a middle-aged author spending the summer alone finishing a novel in his waterfront home on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, while his wife and two children vacation in Antalya with their grandparents. One morning a young woman appears in his garden at the height of an intense summer storm. Absently caressing the withered trunk of palm tree, she seems the embodiment of the summer rain itself, perhaps a mere figment of Sabri’s imagination. Charmed by her iridescent beauty and her sheer delight in the rain, he tentatively invites her to dry off inside where she promptly begins to recount strange stories from her past: her childhood in an ill-fated yalı, her relatives addicted to tragedy and discontent, and her husband by whose hand she was nearly drowned in the sea. Like a shadow puppet shifting in and out of roles, her fugitive personality seamlessly manifests new forms, gestures and speech: she is a woman and then a child, radiant and then replete with sorrow, resolute and then full of doubt. Listening to Debussy over an unrelenting thundershower ignites an overwhelming attraction between them. For a moment Sabri takes the woman for his wife, as if they are together peering over the cradle of their child, and then thinks that he himself had moved through the garden as she did in the rain; they seem to slip in and out of each other’s mental landscapes, adopting the roles and personae of various people from their pasts. When the storm subsides, they travel together across the Bosphorus to the European side of the city, where the author leaves her, eagerly anticipating her next visit.
The story is a powerful meditation on individual and collective memory that likens a young woman’s traumatic childhood experiences to the tragic decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire. The woman’s re-acquaintance and reconciliation with her past evokes a young modern nation state’s push to define itself in a period of rigorous Westernization. Her struggle for autonomy under the oppression of family and community questions the possible attainment of a distinct, sovereign self. Likened to dark rain clouds, the young woman absorbs the overlapping memories of her family’s past, at times nearly drowning in their recollection.
Steeped in equally arresting imagery, ‘The Dreams of Abdullah Efendi,’ is another unforgettable story that chronicles the drunken night of a young man stumbling through the back streets of Beyoğlu (not a few BROB readers might know the experience), tortured by desire and increasingly grotesque visions that verge on the apocalyptic.
The story opens with Abdullah Efendi drinking to excess with a group of five friends in a little restaurant where he has his first encounter with the surreal when a beautiful young suddenly woman vanishes into thin air, leaving her clothes in a heap on the floor. Not long after that his friends insist on a visit to a brothel. After climbing a flight of rickety stairs, Abdullah Efendi finds himself in a little room the size of a grave where he is haunted by a vision of the shriveled head of an ancient Greek man (no larger than a walnut) in a basket hanging from the ceiling, the grandfather of a woman called Eleniça. Abdullah doesn’t stay for very long, and his ordeal in the next brothel is no less frightening as Zeybek dancers spring to life in a portrait on the wall. By the end of the story, we find ourselves in the middle of one of those fantastic, ghastly doomsday panoramas of Hieronymus Bosch, buildings on fire, strange creatures madly gyrating through the streets. I can’t help but think of my own nights that began in a bar under a vine near the Balık Pazarı, downing glass after glass of cold beer as I watched the usual suspects come and go, an old man selling weird gadgets and toys with a wire massage helmet on his head, blowing on a kazoo, peddling his wares to guilty fathers, and our dear friend Devrim who dropped in to needle me for whimpering about the hardships of writing and how I said it was nothing like real life (all so mundane) and that short greengrocer who was never amused when I bought a banana and used it as a telephone like a child looking for a cheap laugh, gesturing wildly to my friend sitting in the bar on the opposite side of the street, and, later in the evening when my mind was drenched in drink, I rollicked until a mechanism in me clicked like an automatic door buzzer or a gunshot, I was dead behind the eyes, nothing more than a flood of desire.
Now as I write these lines and watch the winter rain falling on our garden pool beside the palm tree and the golden koi rising, wide-eyed, dreaming, gasping at the surface, I wonder if what I do is writing or translation, my eyes on the garden gate. I wonder why I even started translating Tanpınar in the first place.
More than ten years ago a friend of mine was reading him enthusiastically and she loved his vocabulary in particular, all those beautiful words he fished out of deep linguistic pools, the ones of Persian or Arabic origin that swim alongside Latinate equivalents like estet or erudisyon.
It was fun. Untangling Tanpinarian sentences, however, was not. It could be soul-deadening work. I was always struggling to come up with some creative solution for the odd turn of phrase or a seemingly unintelligible flight of elaborate imagery. And in many cases I was more than likely to get a passage wrong because what was right wasn’t all that clear in the first place (and do we ever really know). Often a Turkish friend of mine would puzzle over one of Tanpınar’s more mysterious constructions and glance at my attempt and say, ‘well I get what you’re saying, but I’m still not quite sure what he means.’ By no means does this have anything to do with besting Tanpınar, but I probably did set out to translate him to understand him better. Some may take offense. ‘Learn the original language before you try recasting it in another,’ they might rightly say. ‘And then you won’t make so many mistakes.’ And I certainly made my share of those. But is it not through reformulation, trial and error, constant digging that we begin to reach some kind of higher ground? Is translation not a vision of the perfect conversation. One that is always rising. In which both sides truly listen, one person not only working to save the other, win an argument, swim faster, gain ground; it is a calm and balanced sense of the immediate moment that makes for a more sublime transfer of ideas, a shared idiom, a spirited common language; it is a beautiful balloon kept up in air by two friends tapping it gently back and forth.
Alexander Dawe has translated many contemporary Turkish novels, including Endgame by Ahmet Altan and Women Who Blow on Knots by Ece Temelkuran. In collaboration with Maureen Freely he has translated A Useless Man by Sait Faik Abasıyanık, The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, which received the MLA Lois Roth Award, and Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali. In 2010, he received a PEN/Heim translation Fund grant to translate the short stories of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. He lives and works on one of the Prince’s Islands in Istanbul.