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.

But there are several obvious reasons why China lacks Turkish translators. One is that many native speakers of related languages like Uighur have poor Chinese skills, and most Uighurs would find getting a passport valid for study in Turkey—seen as a haven for pro-splittest groups—next to impossible.

The other reason is a bit more worrisome: the intense focus on Chinese-English translation that leads Chinese students and scholars to ignore the study of what are referred to as “minor languages” (小语种). Turkic languages, spoken from Turkey through Central Asia to Xinjiang, count at least 100 million speakers; hardly minor, one might think. But outside of several West European languages, Russian and Japanese, in reality China has precious few high-quality translators, particularly for African and Middle Eastern languages.  Several currently popular Israeli novels in China were translated from the English, not Hebrew, for example.

One thought on “Turkish Novels, Honor Killing and China’s English-language Complex

  1. With Polish, on the other hand, the situation apparently is not as bad as with Hebrew or other “minor” languages. At least one of Edward Kajdański’s books about Michael Boym was translated to Chinese directly from Polish, by Zhang Zhenhui(张振辉), as part of a series where most interesting Western books about early Sino-European contacts are translated and published in China.

    Poles appreciate the fact that Polish is studied by some people in China (mostly at the Polish Language Faculty of the Beijing Foreign Languages University), and they actually invited four prominent translators from Polish into Chinese – Professors Yi Lijun, Lin Hongliang, Zhang Zhenhui and Yuan Hanrong – to the first World Congress of Translators of Polish Literature (Krakow, 2005).

    (And on the other side of the language barrier, Kajdański himself was probably one of the few modern Polish authors capable to work directly with Chinese sources. He was born in Harbin and later served as a Polish diplomat in China, so I assume he was fluent in Chinese.)


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