The overhead projector casts three texts onto the wall: one in Turkish, one in Dutch, one in English. Hanneke van der Heijden, Turkish-Dutch translator, explains the background behind translating the book Tutunamayanlar, a cult book of Turkish literature by author Aguz Atay. The book is written in several different styles of Turkish, and, showing different pieces of text, Hanneke explains how she and her co-translator managed to catch that in the translation. She calls the book an adventure, both language-wise and in the inner world of the protagonist. I’m reading her Dutch translation now – I’m at page 84 of a total 756, at the beginning of the adventure.
Tutunamayanlar – which translates as ‘The disconnected’ – was published in 1972. Language was politics at the time. There was Öztürkçe, ‘pure Turkish’, developed after Atatürk decided to purify Turkish and replace all Arabic and Persian words with Turkish ones, some of which didn’t develop naturally but were made up just for the sake of it. Using Öztürkçe in daily life meant that you supported the principles of Atatürk. But Öztürkçe was not in general use: many people still spoke and wrote the language using Arabic and Persian words. Which variation you used was a political preference, and nobody could refrain from choosing.
In Tutuanamayanlar, French influences were also used, and a language which has hardly anything to do with Turkish: ‘high Ottoman’, from before the republic. And another one: Göktürkçe, a centuries old Central-Asian Turkic language.
Indeed, it is no surprise that Tutunamayanlar has always been considered an untranslatable book. The only attempt made was into English, but it was never published. The translator didn’t make an effort to reflect all the language variations of the book. But they are an inalienable part of it, so without paying respect to the language variations, you can’t pay respect to the book. The problem is how to catch those varieties in another language, where language has never been so extremely politicized and where no two variations of the same language existed alongside each other in the first place?
I think what Hanneke van der Heijden and her co-translator Margreet Dorleijn have done in this first translation ever world wide of Tutunamayanlar, should be considered the most advanced form of translating. They used words and structures with Romanic and Germanic roots, they used Dutch with a touch of French, they made up words just as was done in Öztürkçe, they used both formal and basic language, and more. Of course, in Dutch these kinds of variations don’t have such intense political implications as in the seventies in Turkey, but Hanneke and Margreet explain all that in the postscript to the book. I can only applaud.
When the book was published, it was not liked very much by the public or by reviewers. As I said, society and language were very polarized, and Oguz Atay didn’t choose: he used both traditional Turkish and Öztürkçe. He couldn’t be put in one camp, and that was just unbearable in those days. As well, the two protagonists in the book don’t take sides either: they have doubts, they struggle with their convictions. Not okay. In other words: society was conformist, Tutunamayanlar was pluralist.
More than a decade later, that changed. Hanneke and Margreet explain in the postscript that due to political changes in Turkey,for example the military coup in 1980, the environment became more open to doubt, to less polarization, and Tutunamayanlar was re-published. (Needless to say, Hanneke and Margreet state this without in any way supporting the coup.) Since then it has been officially reprinted 49 times (and counting!), and unofficially innumerable times. It has become a cult book, and ‘tutunamayan’, a disconnected person, has become a concept.
Nevertheless, the title of the book in Dutch is not ‘De griplozen’, which would be the most accurate translation of Tutunamayanlar, but ‘Het leven in stukken’, (in English: ‘Shattered Life’). In the end, the publisher decides about the title, and probably a weird Dutch word like ‘Griplozen’ in combination with a totally unknown author wouldn’t do the trick, sales-wise. Maybe that’s true. Actually, I hope they are right and that because of this title more people decide to read the book and experience the adventure of Tutunamayanlar.