The Translation of “My Name is Red”

I am in the middle of reading My Name is Red by the Nobel Prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. This is a more highbrow type of novel than I usually read, but I admit to buying it because it was displayed at a bargain price at my local Tesco’s, which is more or less the UK equivalent of Walmart (although not to be confused with its rival Asda, which belongs to Walmart).

The display was presumably of books suggested for summer reading. But it was interesting in that The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was in what otherwise looked like a fiction section. And then a few days later I saw a very similar display in Heffers, the major academic bookshop in Cambridge. Are the staff trying to tell us something about The God Delusion?

Back to My Name is Red. I have now read about half of it. And I am enjoying it, although finding it harder going than the kinds of thriller that I usually read – even though it is technically a thriller, based on murder among miniaturist artists. In some ways I regret not reading this book in the original Turkish, which I could more or less manage with some help from a dictionary, but of course only the English translation was on special offer at Tesco’s. But reading the translation has brought up some interesting points for me as a Bible translator.

I became very aware when reading this book that I have some significant advantages over the great majority of English speaking readers.

For one thing, I know reasonably well Istanbul, where it is set. Given that there is no city map in the book (although there is a rather inaccurate map of the Middle East showing the various cities named), this is a great advantage. Of course the city has changed vastly in the 400 years between the time when the book was set and the present, but the general topography and many names of parts of the city are unchanged, and quite a few of the buildings named still survive. Of course Orhan Pamuk was writing for modern Turks whose knowledge of the city would be modern like mine, and so probably chose locations which are still meaningful.

This advantage is of course unrelated to language. I would be similarly advantaged over most North Americans in reading for example Charles Dickens, whose novels are mostly set in places in England which I know.

Another advantage I have is some familiarity with the Middle Eastern classical literature which plays an important role in the book, such as the “Book of Kings” by Firdusi and the poems of Nizami. These works are mostly in Persian and so usually read by modern Turks in translation, but their role as classics is comparable to that of Shakespeare in the English speaking world. Indeed they claim that Shakespeare took the plot of Romeo and Juliet from their classic story Leyla and Mejnun. Mind you, I don’t suppose all Turks are very familiar with this classic poetry, but then some English speakers (at least one from Basildon) don’t even know who Shakespeare is! Well, I actually also know who Firdusi and Nizami are, because I lived for a time in a nearby country where their works are similarly revered. Although I haven’t read their complete works (nor for that matter those of Shakespeare), I know the outlines of their main stories, and that probably gives me a great advantage over most English speaking readers of My Name is Red.

There is a “Chronology” at the end of the book (I’m not sure if this is from the author or the translator) which explains some of the historical and literary background, but in a very brief way.

But I am also aware of many things which I must be missing because I am reading a translation. There are surely a number of word plays in the book. One which I could recognise, but only with the help of obscure dictionaries, is when the dog in chapter 3 calls the preacher character not “Nusret”, meaning “help”, but “Husret”, apparently meaning “damage”. Actually probably most Turks would not catch that one. But I suspect that the Turkish text of the book is full of word plays which cannot be brought out in translation and so which I have missed completely.

Then a note on the translation of personal names. I was a little surprised to find that the name of the central character of the book, Black, is obviously a translation. So are the nicknames Elegant, Olive, Butterfly and Stork, presumably because these have a clear meaning in the text. Maybe Black will turn out similarly to have a meaning of significance to the plot, at least as a word play, but not so far. One might have expected the nickname Enishte to be translated, for it also has a clear significant meaning; the problem is that it couldn’t really be translated, for English doesn’t have a single word for “husband of maternal aunt”, and “Uncle” would be too generic and misleading. But it is rather confusing to have a mixture of translated and untranslated names in the text.

The same mixture applies to the place names of parts of Istanbul, some of which are translated and some not; also it seems odd to me that one part of the city which does have a well-known English form, Scutari, appears in its Turkish form Üsküdar.

Meanwhile I was interested to find, in chapter 29, a sentence which makes Paul’s ones in the Bible seem short. This one sentence takes up more than a whole page (p.208) of the book! In fact nearly all of this is the subject of the sentence, which is a long list of complex noun phrases. Although the sentence does get to the verb it is ended by an ellipsis suggesting that it is not really finished. I won’t spoil the plot by saying why, but the long sentence is clearly a literary device leading into the following events.

So, what are the implications of all this for Bible translation? I would say that the translation I have is rather like a formal equivalence Bible translation, like RSV or ESV, in that no real attempt is made to explain any background information. It doesn’t even have the kind of footnotes explaining word plays which we are used to seeing in Bibles, although not of course in novels. The question is, should we expect translators to go beyond translating the words of the text into explaining the meaning? Should a translator of My Name is Red explain more of the literary background, or explain word plays? Should that be done in the text, or in footnotes, or an introduction or appendix? If this is not done, how is an average reader to understand what is happening? And what of the same issue with Bibles? In fact most Bible translations which are more dynamic, not just the middle of the road NIV and TNIV but also true dynamic equivalence translations like CEV and NLT, are very restrained in including this kind of background information in the text, but tend to provide it in footnotes. Should they be less restrained? This is in fact a matter of real debate among Bible translators at the moment.

Suzanne McCarthy, in her brief review of Snow by the same author, links to a longer review by Michael McGaha. McGaha writes that

In Maureen Freely Pamuk seems at last to have found his ideal English translator. … She captures Pamuk’s eloquent yet conversational tone in English more exactly and unobtrusively than any previous translator.

This is implicit criticism of the translator of My Name is Red, Erdağ M. Göknar, who despite the Turkish name writes English like a mother tongue speaker. I wonder if Maureen Freely, perhaps by translating more freely (!), brings out better the word plays in Snow – which I can find even in the Turkish title which must be “Kar”, when the main character is called Ka and the setting is the city of Kars. This may well be on my list for future reading.

2 thoughts on “The Translation of “My Name is Red”

  1. Interesting Peter and so as Kirk you have to be within it? I loved My name is Red for the flow and dream like passion in it – but thanks for the analysis – similarly I hated the despair in Snow – really could not finish it even though it informed an igorant like me about why turks have a thins about headscarves..

    Incidentally what do you think of Reza Aslan’s ‘No God but God’ ? – as one who never before reading it had really troubled to think where Islam came from I found it really helpful if maybe glossing stuff and being explicitly liberal

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