ESSAY: True books, good books

True books, good books: Turkish literature in Dutch translation
By Hanneke van der Heijden.

It is no exaggeration to claim that in the Netherlands, for decades, Turkish fiction was not looked upon as literature, but merely as anthropological source material on social life in Turkey. Inevitably, this attitude influenced the selection of books that were translated. Nowadays, Turkish fiction is regarded from a more literary perspective, and although still marginal, the demand for translations seems to be on the increase. This begs the question: what books should be translated?

Although the event may have gone by largely unnoticed, in 1937 the book market in the Netherlands had its very first Dutch translation of a novel by a Turkish author, De pias en zijn dochter (The Clown And His Daughter; in Turkish: Sinekli Bakkal) by Halide Edip Adıvar. The Dutch edition appeared a year after the publication of the original. In 1938, the Dutch translation of a second Turkish novel was published: Ankara by Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu, another leading novelist of the time. Again, only a couple of years had passed between publication of the Turkish and Dutch editions. But no matter how promising this appearance of Turkish authors in the Netherlands seemed, there was a gap of thirty years before the next translation from Turkish was published.

A more substantial interest in Turkish literature arose in the sixties, when groups of Turkish migrants came to work in Dutch factories. The arrival of this new immigrant group, mostly young men from Anatolian villages and provincial towns, triggered the publication of a very specific segment of Turkish fiction. In the first fifteen years, translated work mainly consisted of so-called ‘migrant literature’ and children’s books. Interest in both genres was nourished by curiosity about the traditions and village life of Turkish migrants before their arrival to the Netherlands. At the same time, explaining the background of Turkish migrants, both to children and adults, was thought to be helpful in fostering understanding and eliminating discrimination against the so-called ‘guest workers’. In addition to the interest generated by migration, the dramatic political life of Turkey, with its frequent military coups, caught the attention of (mostly left-wing) groups interested in literature with a strong social message from which they could get first-hand information on the political situation. The publication of work by Erdal Öz, Nâzım Hikmet and Duygu Asena should be evaluated in this context.

In this sense, Dutch publishers and readers tended to approach Turkish literature from a non-fictional perspective, regarding it as a source of folkloric or political information rather than as fiction, and in some cases deploying it as part of a societal mission. This extra-literary approach is evident from the fact that many titles were brought out by smaller, non-literary publishing houses, or appeared in a publisher’s sublist. Some of Aysel Özakın’s novels, for example, were published in an ‘anti-racism series’ by Ambo publishers. In addition, translations were in most cases accompanied by lists of explanatory notes in the back of the book, containing information on subjects like food, clothing, and traditions – but not on aspects that are important from a literary point of view. The meaning of first and last names, for example, is transparent to any speaker of Turkish. Names in a literary work are therefore not likely to be chosen at random, yet they never occur in these notes. Apparently, the lists were meant to clarify the non-fictional framework of the novel.

The new social make-up of the Netherlands, brought about by the migration of Turkish workers, thus resulted in a predisposition to socio-politically oriented literature. This fitted well with the long Turkish tradition of ‘engaged’ literature. Ever since the Tanzimat-reforms in the 19th century, there had been a strong movement of writers who adhered to the idea that literary authors, and intellectuals in general, have a societal responsibility. As a consequence, fiction is set in the ideological framework of the author. In certain periods of Turkish literature, this movement has been particularly influential, as was the case in the fifties, for example, when growing societal unrest was voiced in literature, or in the seventies, when Turkey was in the middle of fierce controversies between different political ideologies.

Although many widely appreciated authors sprang from this movement, it would be wrong to reduce Turkish literature to texts embedded in political ideologies, primarily concerned with societal issues. A second mainstream in Turkish fiction consists of modernist writers who choose the individual as their topic, or scrutinize the problematic and complex relationship between individual and city life, without restricting themselves to a single ideological framework. Owing to the initial preference in the Netherlands for ‘engaged’ Turkish literature, work by modernist authors was overlooked for a long time.

Literary landscape in the eighties

From the second half of the eighties onwards, the Dutch orientation towards Turkish literature started to change. Slowly, it came to be viewed from a more ‘literary’ perspective, and some renowned literary publishing houses started to publish Turkish titles. In addition, books were now being translated directly, not from their English or German editions, as had been the case before.

Again, this change in orientation was determined both by social factors in the Netherlands and literary factors in Turkey. Turkish migrants were no longer perceived as newly arrived, short-term guests; instead they came to be seen as a permanent part of Dutch society. With entire families coming over from Turkey to settle in Dutch cities, interest in the Turkish background of the migrants waned. Meanwhile in Turkey, political developments resulted in a radical change in the literary landscape. The harsh coup of 12 September 1980, and its aftermath, dealt a heavy blow to political activism, in society at large as well as among literary writers. A considerable number of authors ended up in prison, while others tended to direct their attention towards individual experiences rather than political or social issues. As mentioned previously, literature oriented around the individual was nothing new in Turkey; the change of focus in the literary production of the eighties merely reinforced the existing school of modernist work.

This change in the literary climate of the eighties was further strengthened by international trends, with modernism in vogue and postmodernism winning ground. As politically engaged literature lost strength, modernist literature became more conspicious. Orhan Pamuk, whose first novel appeared in 1982, was one of the young offshoots of this movement in Turkey, and the first to make a strong impression internationally. But at the same time he was firmly rooted in this tradition, with predecessors like Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, Yusuf Atılgan, Bilge Karasu and Oğuz Atay. While Orhan Pamuk is at present the only Turkish author whose entire oeuvre is available in Dutch, not a single title by one of these writers has been translated yet.


Although Turkish literature started to gain a more ‘literary’ status in the Netherlands in the nineties, Dutch translations still cover only a tiny percentage of what has been published in Turkey. In addition, the body of titles translated is limited in three respects. The collection of translations hardly shows any variation in the authors selected, in date of publication of the original work, or in genre. Most of the translated books are novels written by a small group of living, young authors. Works by writers long dead are hardly available in Dutch. This is also true for writing in genres like poetry, short stories and plays. Literary magazines, which might provide an alternative platform for genres other than the novel, do not flourish in the Netherlands, and very few of them publish translations.

The under-representation of Turkish poetry in translation is apparent from a quantitative point of view; judging from what is translated from the Turkish, a Dutch reader wouldn’t deduce that a relatively large amount of poetry is published in Turkey every year. What’s more, the Dutch reader is not in a position to judge the importance and influence of the poetic genre within Turkish literature either. With its long and rich history, poetry has been at least as influential as the relatively new genre of the novel. A variety of modern literary movements oriented around the Individual, like surrealism, futurism and symbolism, hardly left any traces in the novel, but did influence Turkish poetry. Although most of these movements were initially inspired by European literature, in time authors in Turkey surpassed simple imitation and gave rise to an authentic Turkish poetry.

Certainly, translating poetry is far from easy. But the under-representation of poetry among Dutch translations of Turkish literature can also be explained by Dutch readers’ preferences. Contrary to the poetry loving crowds in Turkey, Dutch readers generally prefer novels. In this way the poor share of Turkish poetry reflects the Dutch preference for pursuing the familiar (at least in terms of genre), instead of inquisitively discovering a new literature to see what it has to offer, and how different it may be from the Dutch, or European literary landscape.

Turkey as a cultural market

No doubt, Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Prize in 2006 aroused interest in Turkish literature in general and thus opened new avenues for other authors from Turkey. Nonetheless, Turkish literature doesn’t owe its relative popularity to the Nobel Prize alone. Dutch publishers tend to look for undiscovered territory to explore, a counterbalance to the overwhelming flood of English literature that the publishing sector opened its gates to. Turkish literature is an appropriate candidate. Owing to negotiations on Turkey’s EU membership, tourism, the European success of Turkish music and of Turkish films by directors like Fatih Akın and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey has come to be better-known not only for its indigenous folklore, ‘odd’ traditions and strange dishes, but also as the carrier of (so-called) ‘culture with a capital C’. In 2008 Turkey was Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in 2010 Istanbul will be cultural capital of Europe. Looking at Turkish migrant culture, Dutch readers might presuppose that Turkish publications simply consist of tabloids and magazines. They wouldn’t dream of Turkey as a country with a literary tradition, let alone an interesting one.

Good books

Given the interest in Turkish literature that (although still marginal) seems to be on the increase, and the biases in what has been translated so far, the question of what books should be published next becomes pressing. How should one represent literature from another culture in translation? Or even: should books be in some way representative of the literature in their ‘home country’ in order to be translated? Now that the ‘folkloristic’ stance has been largely abandoned, Dutch publishers are inclined to answer this question with a firm ‘no’ – at least in terms of book promotion. Unlike Russian classics like War and Peace, and literary work from totally unknown cultures like Iceland or African countries, a novel from Turkey tends to be presented not so much as a Turkish novel, but simply as a novel by itself. According to common publisher’s opinion, it is not the writer’s part of the world that should be in the forefront, but merely the quality of his work. Dutch publishing houses of today are not in pursuit of specifically Turkish books; they just want ‘good’ books.

But then, what are ‘good books’? This question is already difficult to answer for literature written in one’s own cultural context. What is defined as good literature is deeply influenced by a variety of non-textual, sociological and economic factors. When choosing ‘good books’ from another country, another culture, another literary tradition, written in another language, this question becomes even more complex. Naturally, literary-sociological processes at work in a country far away are much less comprehensible. And this becomes entangled with another factor: how familiar or foreign should a literary work from another culture be in order to gain the Dutch reader’s appreciation? The quest for ‘good books’ may be posed as an esthetical pursuit, but naturally, appreciation by the reader (and thus economic profit) is important to publishing houses as well.

For example, can ‘important’ books be ‘good books’ – works that have influenced literary production in Turkey, though they might have an old-fashioned flavour to the Dutch reader today? What about books written in genres or styles that the Dutch reader is not, or not any longer, familiar with? Can a burlesque story with flat characters be a ‘good book’, and thus a candidate for translation, now that Dutch readers seem to prefer psychological novels? Or religious, Islamic fiction? Or novels with a sense of humour that makes Turkish readers roar with laughter, but only brings a faint smile to Dutch faces?

One wonders whether it is possible to fully appreciate something that is utterly strange. Older literature, in particular, can be strange both in genre and in style. Perhaps a folkloristic or anthropologic interest indicates that one is trying to grasp something too unfamiliar to embrace; perhaps familiar clues in a text are a prerequisite to being able to love it. In Turkey, Pamuk’s success abroad is often explained by his allegedly Western way of writing; readers in Europe are thought to like his novels because the style in which they are written is familiar to them. If it is true that appreciation requires a certain degree of familiarity, candidates for translation will be only a small portion of the collection of ‘good books’ – and worse: ‘bad books’ overtly imitating Western fashions will be considered to be more apt for translating.

On the other hand, too much familiarity also seems to be a drawback for texts written abroad. There are still European publishers who don’t want to bring out Turkish existentialist texts, like novels by Ferit Edgü, ‘because we have them ourselves’. Authors living outside of Turkey, writing texts that are set in another country, may have a harder time convincing publishers than their colleagues writing about Turkey. Or, as Pamuk notes in his collection of essays Other Colours, when he analyses hidden expectations in the West concerning the work of a non-Western author: “[...] their secret fear is that becoming a ‘world’ writer who draws from traditions outside his own culture will cause one to lose one’s authenticity. The one who most acutely feels this fear is a reader who longs to open a book and enter a foreign country that is cut off from the world, who longs to watch that country’s internal wrangling, much as one might witness a family argument next door. If a writer is addressing an audience that includes readers in other cultures speaking other languages, then this fantasy dies too.”

Translator’s influence

To a small extent, we should add, it is also the translator that affects how familiar or strange a translation is to its new readership. In fact, a clear example of making a translation stranger than its original can be seen in the common lists of notes on common ‘couleur locale’ elements in early translations from Turkish, that appeared in the sixties, seventies and eighties. Explaining every dish at the bottom of the page is a guaranteed way to exoticize a text, just as a literal translation of curses, pet-names and politeness formulas would be; similarly, choosing a nearby equivalent in the goal language familiarizes the text to the culture of the translation’s readers. It depends on a translator’s preferences what strategies will be adopted in translating these and other, less conspicious cultural elements in a text.

When it comes to the selection process itself, the role of literary translators from Turkish is, generally speaking, marginal. Since most publishers want to read a book themselves before deciding on having it translated or not, and since there are no editors at Dutch publishing houses with a command of Turkish, it is an arduous task for translators to convince publishers of ‘good books’ that are not available in English, German or French versions. From this perspective, the selection of Turkish texts to be translated into Dutch is doubly handicapped, as it is almost bound to be a subset of a subset. The titles that appear in Dutch translation are, broadly speaking, a selection of Turkish texts translated in English, French or German, which constitute, in turn, only a small percentage of the Turkish book market. From the perspective of the Dutch publishing sector, the number of titles by Turkish authors makes up only a slight proportion of all translations published every year. Interest in Turkish literature may have increased since the sixties, but it still occupies only a marginal position on the Dutch book market.

New trends?

The initial Dutch preference for more ‘engaged’ literature, a consequence of migration, is by now balanced by translations of Turkish (post)modernist authors. But as mentioned, there is still only a small group of authors that has been translated into Dutch. Moreover, publishing houses’ concerns about promotional activities have resulted, nearly exclusively, in the translation of recently published titles. Older work is hardly available in Dutch. Furthermore, the preferences of the Dutch readership (and thus, of publishers) have advanced novels over other genres, notably poetry, but also short stories and (literary) non-fiction.

This inevitably keeps certain literary works away from the Dutch readership. But even if an author is selected for translation, this selection process still determines how the Dutch reader will evaluate them. This can be illustrated with the Dutch translation history of two important authors from Turkish literature: Nâzım Hikmet and Orhan Pamuk.

Nâzım Hikmet is one of Turkey’s most famous poets and the author of a large and varied oeuvre, consisting of poems, plays, letters, and novels. In the beginning of the eighties, a cultural fund, a political organisation and a small publishing house each published a collection of his poems in Dutch. The first book that appeared was given the title of Turkse strijdliederen (‘Turkish militant songs’). A couple of years later, these three publications were followed by two books of fairy tales. Only in the second half of the nineties were translations of his major works published (in two cases by a large publishing house): Mensenlandschappen (Memleketimden İnsan Manzaraları; Human Landscapes From My Country), Het epos van sjeik Bedreddin (Şeyh Bedrettin Destanı; The Epic of Sheikh Bedreddin) and his novel De romantici (Yaşamak güzel şey be kardeşim; The Romantics). Until then, many readers in the Netherlands knew Nâzım Hikmet only as a writer of children’s books. Similarly, translating the whole oeuvre of an important author, but not the works of the writers by whom he was influenced (as is the case with Orhan Pamuk) hampers any evaluation of this author’s literary merits, in the absence of cultural context.

Recently, the success of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, the growing reputation of Turkish culture and literature in general, and publishers’ pursuit of new discoveries, have resulted in a more ‘literary’ interest in Turkish literature. Moreover, several translations published in the last few years, and some upcoming projects, constitute a modest counterbalance to the present biases, and thus contribute to the variation of works translated from the Turkish. An extensive anthology of Turkish short stories, published three years ago, and a similar collection of Turkish poetry, to be published soon by the same publishing house, should challenge the bias in genre. The novel Aşk-ı Memnu (‘Forbidden love’), written in 1900 by Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil and published in the Netherlands last summer, and the planned publication of work by Tanpınar (1901-1962) and Oğuz Atay (1934-1977) defies the preference for young authors, and increases the number of translated writers. Hopefully Dutch publishers will continue to expand the variation in Turkish titles, and hopefully these books won’t share the same fate as the novels by Adıvar and Karaosmanoğlu.


Orhan Pamuk, Other Colours. Essays and a Story. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely. London: Faber and Faber, 2007. p. 243.

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