Elif Şafak: Ballot-box Victory Is Not a License to Criminalize Criticism

Best-selling Turkish novelist Elif Şafak talks to Ceyda Nurtsch at Qantara.de about everything from the ill health of Turkey’s democracy to when she prefers writing in Turkish vs. in English (Lack of Democratic Culture in Turkey): 

Ceyda Nurtsch: You were one of the writers who signed a petition against the recent Twitter ban in Turkey. In the early days of the AKP’s rule, most critical voices said that the party was making changes that were good for the country. Recent developments, however, have made even hard-line supporters distance themselves from the AKP. What is your assessment of these developments? Do you still see Turkey as being on the threshold of becoming a more democratic state, as the Gezi protests made many people think and hope?

Shafak: I am very worried about the state of Turkey’s democracy. The politicians seem to think that democracy is only – or mostly – about the ballot box. They think that if you get the majority, then you are entitled to do anything. But democracy is not only about the number of votes you get. It is also a culture. It is a culture of inclusiveness, openness, empathy, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This is why Turkey today lacks a culture of democracy.

For true democracy to exist, one needs the separation of powers, a diverse press and plurality of voices. Increasingly, however, the government sees every criticism as a “national betrayal”. If you voice criticism, they think you are acting for Western powers. I find these clichés very dangerous. Democracy needs self-criticism. Societies can only move forward if and when they allow free speech and criticism.

Elif Şafak’s New Novel: A Great Ottoman Architect, An Elephant and His Keeper

Dec 7 2014 update: Review of The Architect’s Apprentice

The author of eight novels including the best-selling and controversial Bastard of Istanbul, Elif Şafak, has just launched her ninth—Ustam ve Ben—in Turkish. The title literally means “My Master and I.” Curiously, though she wrote it in English, according to Sunday’s Zaman (Homage to Mimar Sinan) the English version won’t appear until October 2014, and not necessarily under that name either.

Ustam ve benSet in 16th-century Istanbul, the book revolves around two characters: a white elephant named Çota and his Indian keeper, Cihan, who is one of four apprentices to Sinan Mimar, the chief architect to three Ottoman Sultans: Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, and Murad III. Experts consider the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne his masterpiece, although he is better known for the Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul. Sinan Mimar was reportedly responsible for the construction of more than three hundred major structures, and according to Wikipedia, “his apprentices would later design the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, Stari Most in Mostar and help design the Taj Mahal in the Mughal Empire.”

The object of much veneration in Turkey due to his unarguably superb architectural contribution to the Ottoman Empire, one aspect of Sinan Mimar’s legacy is both disputed and highly sensitive: his ethnicity. As online readers have commented below the Hürriyet Daily News article, and Wikipedia notes as well, some  historians maintain he was not an ethnic Turk, and may have been of Armenian, Albanian or Greek heritage. It is unlikely that Şafak would directly address this question in her novel, because reminding the public that the architect of some of Turkey’s most beloved mosques was Christian would be asking for trouble. In fact, reports The Guardian, she was prosecuted—but found not guilty in 2006—for “insulting Turkishness” and “faced up to three years in jail over remarks made by a fictional character in her latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, which referred to the massacre of Armenians in the first world war as genocide.”

An excerpt from the recent interview with the author:

[Sunday’s Zaman:] In this novel, you write of the refined character and art of Sinan through the stories of other people. But why did you not prefer to focus mostly on the architect?

[Şafak] In my opinion, great people can only be told of through their relationships with others. The people around them hold mirrors to (the inner worlds) of these great people. To be more precise, in order to tell the story of a master like Sinan, I need to tell the story of his relationship with his apprentices. I also need to tell the story of how he treated the laborers who worked for him. The greatness of Sinan was not only on paper. There were letters he sent to sultans, asking them to increase the salaries of the laborers. He was working hard in order to improve conditions. He could just as well have chosen not to deal with such details, but instead he did not step away from construction sites until the end of his long life. When I think of Sinan, I see a person who showed the utmost respect to his art and the people who did their jobs. These are the values that we have long forgotten. I wanted to write about the working principles of Sinan in this novel. I needed to prepare an environment to achieve this. So, I included the apprentices and animals in this story.

Time to Open up the Orhan Pamuk/Mo Yan Monopoly to Competition?

At his press conference yesterday in Istanbul after a five-day stay in the city, Mo Yan called for the governments of China and Turkey to actively promote literary translation.

“I could have [the] chance to read only the books of Orhan Pamuk as he was the only Turkish writer whose books have been translated into Chinese. And Turkish readers most probably only read my book,” he said (Xinhua). The latter is a reference to Kızıl Darı Tarlaları (Red Sorghum), his sole novel to be translated into Turkish.

Well, that’s a slight exaggeration. At least 9 of Pamuk’s books are available in Chinese, but the good news is that several new titles from other Turkish authors—I count another 9—should be launched before or at the 2014 Beijing Int’l Book Fair in late August this year. They include the classic Turkish novel of the 20th century, The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Tanpınar, also newly rendered in English. See 中文版本 for the full list.

If politically correct Mo Yan insists on reading solely Chinese renditions available in the People’s Republic, however, he will be missing out on two of the most popular Turkish authors who have elected to publish their works first in Taiwan: Elif Şafak, who just launched her 愛的哲學課:雲遊僧與詩人魯米 (Forty Rules of Love) there, and Ahmet Ümit’s 伊斯坦堡死亡紀事 (Istanbul Hatırası), a crime thriller.

[Read more…]

现代土耳其语文学:中文版本 (表)

现代土耳其语文学:中文版本 (表)

(2016 年 7 月 更新的)










Hande Altaylı

Maraz / Suferință / Affliction



Aşka Şeytan Karışır / Djalli Luan Me Dashurinë



Oya Baydar


 失语  唐江、孙伊

Kayıp Söz / The Lost Word


已由上海文艺出版社出版。此项目由土耳其文化部文学翻译基金会 (TEDA)资助。

Erguvan Kapısı / Das Judasbaum Tor



Reha Çamuroğlu

Bir Anlık Geçikme / Um Golpe de Sorte



Canan Tan (桑恩)





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“Time Regulation Institute”: English Version of Tanpinar’s Classic to Launch

Arguably the greatest Turkish novel of the 20th century, Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü  has been translated into EnglishThe Time Regulation Institute as of January 7.

Writes Istanbul-based Kalem Agency:

The Time Regulation Institute, true to the style of modernity, exposes the dominance of time over modern man’s life and their ever-changing relationships. The ebb and flow of time guides the reader through the novel’s four parts. From Great Expectations to Small Facts, Towards Morning and to Each Season Has Its End we follow Hayri Irdal on his tumultuous journey from East to West, from the Ottoman state to the westernized society of modern Turkey.

Hayri is employed by the Time Regulation Institute, an organization founded for the sole purpose of changing all of Turkey’s clocks to Western time. At the Institute, he becomes involved with a mixture of colorful and fascinating characters: a television mystic, a pharmacist who dabbles in alchemy, a dignitary from the lost Ottoman Empire, and a “clock whisperer”. In a description as mocking as it is accurate, Tanpınar relates the collision of Western modernity and Eastern tradition—a collision whose aftermath the Turkey of today still experiences.

Kalem has sold the rights to many publishers worldwide including Shanghai Literature & Arts Publishing House (上海文艺出版社), which is expected to publish it in 2014 in time for the Beijing Int’l Book Fair at which Turkey will be the Country of Honor. See here for details on all three of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s novels due for translation into Chinese.

Translation Crunch: Turkey Revs up for Role as Country of Honor at 2014 Beijing Book Fair

It has been officially announced that Turkey will be the Country of Honor at the 2014 Beijing Int’l Book Fair, as China was at the Istanbul In’tl Book Fair this year.

A dearth of Turkish-to-Chinese translators means Turkish works like this one are often translated from the English.

Which raises several questions:

  • What contemporary works of fiction by Turkish authors are already available in Chinese?
  • Which additional novels are to be published in time for the Beijing Book Fair in late August 2014?
  • Who is going to translate them, and what language(s) will they be translated from?

My table below — which I believe is fairly comprehensive — helps to answer some of these questions, but it’s hard to believe that the Turkish publishing industry would be content with such a short list of works in Chinese.

For its part, Turkey’s government-sponsored TEDA, a program under the Ministry of Culture & Tourism that subsidizes translations and publications into many languages, has offered financial support to the translation and publication of 16 books into Chinese [Dec 28 update: 19], of which 10 have been published so far.

While that may sound like a decent effort, over the years TEDA has subsidized an incredible 1,333 titles, the top recipients being German (209), Bulgarian (169) and Iranian (66) (见表).

Surely Turkey’s government sees a bigger potential market in China than in . . . Bulgaria?

Regardless of who bankrolls the publication of Turkish works to be launched in time for the Beijing Book Fair, another pressing problem is their translation. There are reportedly only a handful of professional Chinese translators who can handle literary translation straight from the Turkish. Shen Zhixing, Xia Yongmin, Yin Tingting and Tang Jiankun do; several of the others listed in the table below can’t. [Read more…]

“Madam Atatürk: The First Lady of Modern Turkey” Now Out in English

Ataturk and his wifeThe English translation of the biography of the woman who married Turkey’s “Father of the Nation,” Madam Atatürk: The First Lady of ModernTurkey, has just been launched. Author Ipek Çalışlar stood trial over charges of insulting the memory of Atatürk in her biography of Latife Hanım (Latife Uşakizâde) but was acquitted several years ago. Reports Hürriyet Daily News:

A multilingual intellectual educated at the Sorbonne, Latife’s marriage to Atatürk in 1923 set her apart from her contemporaries, raising her to the pinnacle of political power. She played a central role in the creation of a modern and secular Turkey and campaigned tirelessly for women’s right to vote.

Throughout her marriage, Latife stood beside her husband and acted as his interpreter, promoter and diplomatic aide. However, after only two years of marriage, Atatürk divorced Latife and she soon disappeared from public life. 

“Turkish Culture Year in China”: But Where Are the Books?

Thursday March 21 saw the official launch of “Turkish Culture Year in China” (土耳其文化年) in Beijing.  The road show—destined for 12 cities—includes dance and music performances, fashion shows and a “Turkish Cuisine Week,” but I haven’t found a detailed list or schedule yet. Beijing, Shanghai, Yichang (Hubei), Shenzhen and Hong Kong are confirmed road stops, though.  It comes on the heels of “Chinese Culture Year in Turkey” which ended in February and helped attract 120,000 Chinese visitors to Turkey last year.

Readers who want to get a taste of Turkish literary works in Chinese will find them thin on the ground, however; see my initial list here.  In the PRC, the only widely translated Turkish author is Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. Several of his best-known novels including My Name is Red, Museum of Innocence and Snow are available in Chinese (奥尔罕·帕慕克).  <伊斯坦布尔的幸福> (Mutluluk, or Bliss in English) by Zülfü Livaneli, the writer, musician, singer, journalist and member of parliament, is one of just a handful of novels—Pamuk’s aside, obviously—that have been genuinely well received in China where Turkey still has a rather low profile.


Turkish Literary Works Rendered in Foreign Languages via TEDA Project

(Mid-2012 Statistics)


Target Language

Titles Translated























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“Turkish Culture Year in China”: Bringing Orhan Pamuk to . . . Tibetan Speakers?

Tibet specialist Françoise Robin has kindly alerted me to the fact that the February 2013 Tibetan edition of National

A dose of hüzün for Tibetan readers?

A dose of hüzün for Tibetan readers?

Literature Magazine (民族文学杂志,藏文版) features two pieces by Turkey’s Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk. If your Tibetan is up to par, read about them here: མི་རིགས་ཀྱི་རྩོམ་རིག.

One is apparently a speech by Pamuk that translates as “Eastern and Western cultures and the Literary Imagination” in English, and the other is a Tibetan version of The Ship on the Golden Horn, the penultimate chapter of his Istanbul: Memories of the City (Istanbul: Hatıralar ve Şehir).

Is this part of China’s government-endorsed 2013 “Turkish Culture Year” campaign? Can’t say for sure, though I wouldn’t be surprised. National Literature Magazine (民族文学) is a state-run publication now available in Han Chinese, Uyghur, Kazakh, Korean, Mongolian and Tibetan.

But it would be interesting to know how Tibetan renders that peculiarly Turkish concept—hüzün or (something akin to) melancholy—that runs throughout Pamuk’s work.

Turkish Novels, Honor Killing and China’s English-language Complex

Zülfü Livaneli, the Turkish writer, musician, singer, journalist and member of parliament, recently toured China to promote the launch of the mainland Chinese translation of his popular novel, Bliss (Mutluluk), or 伊斯坦布尔的幸福.

Now a movie as well, Bliss is a melodramatic tale of a young village woman who is raped by an elder relative. When she doesn’t hang herself out of shame, as is expected, the task of restoring honor to the family (by ending her life) is assigned to another male relative. The novel takes us from Van in the southeast to Istanbul, touching on most every controversial aspect of “Turkishness,” from honor killing to the Asia-Europe divide represented by schizophrenic Istanbul, and the guerrilla war waged by the Kurds against the Turkish state.

But how many Chinese readers will notice that this quintessentially Turkish novel has been translated from the . . . English?

Not many, I’d wager. The spine of the book features “Turkey” in brackets above the author’s name, implying that the book and its author originated in that country, and cites the translator (贾文浩). The credits page gives the same information without identifying the source language. It should be noted that this is standard procedure in the People’s Republic. Thus the only reference to the fact that this Chinese edition is a translation of the English translation is in the last line of the translator’s Foreword.

I interviewed Shen Zhixing (沈志兴), the Chinese translator of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, several years ago. He studied in Ankara in the 1980s and worked from the Turkish. The earlier Taiwan edition of the book was based on the American, and Pamuk—apparently very displeased with this approach—insisted that Shen translate from the Turkish original.

Shen told me that in his estimation, “only a dozen or so” translators in China had the background in Turkish and literary Chinese to translate a Turkish novel into Mandarin. In a country which has over ten million speakers of Turkic languages living in Xinjiang alone, that’s a bit odd. [Read more…]