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Sabahattin Ali’s short novel Madonna in a Fur Coat was a literary castaway for a very long time. Published in Istanbul in 1943, with Atatürk’s state funeral still a recent memory and the armies of the Third Reich occupying most of continental Europe, the book did not begin attracting the attention it deserved until Angela Merkel was presiding as Chancellor in Berlin and Tayyip Erdoğan was running Turkey. Ali himself had been dead—at the hands of an assassin generally believed to have been hired by Turkish authorities—for over 60 years when his enigmatic, meticulously crafted tale of a young Turkish man’s love affair with a German painter and cabaret singer achieved, within the last decade, wide recognition as an important work of 20th Century European fiction.
Three factors do much to explain the long dormancy of Madonna in a Fur Coat. Two of these were of Ali’s own making.
Probably out of hard-earned caution—after his repeated imprisonment by the Turkish regime for his political views and writings—Ali chose to disguise an austere consideration of the young Turkish Republic’s cultural and political relationship to Europe—first and foremost to Germany—as a romance harking back to an earlier era of European literature, even to the Sturm und Drang movement. (Madonna in a Fur Coat has been compared to Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther.) The disguise worked all too well. Upon publication, Ali’s novel was generally taken at face value and dismissed as an odd, ill-advised departure from what was considered his wheelhouse as an author, unblinking criticism of Turkey’s social order. There was little inclination to peel away Madonna in a Fur Coat’s layers of symbol and to read it, beneath the narrative of love lost, as a kind of allegory of his nation’s fate at the high water mark of European fascism. Yet a good argument can be made that Ali was clueing readers in to do just that—to think allegorically—when, in the story itself, he emphatically linked the heroine, Maria Puder, and her self-portrait (the painting that gives the novel its name) with a richly allegorical altarpiece, Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies” (1517). It’s little wonder that the clue—and the book—was overlooked in Ali’s Turkey, dominated as it was aesthetically and otherwise by the modern, positivist, nationalist vision of the Atatürkist elite, no country for encoded modes of expression and understanding borrowed from Christendom’s High Renaissance.
The use of Christian iconography in no way implies any underlying religious agenda—there is no Turkish version of Dostoevsky’s “Russian God” lurking in Madonna in a Fur Coat. Maria, who is of mixed Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant background, eloquently condemns organized religion of every type, and her friend and lover, Raif, is all in with her views on the subject. And if Ali was not cheating on his own secularist (socialist-style) vows when he associated Maria with the Virgin Mary, he also wasn’t doing so in linking Raif with Jesus. The Christ figure aspect of Raif is broadly hinted at when he awkwardly blurts out in his first conversation with Maria that the “Madonna” painting reminds him of his mother (a remark Maria repeatedly reinforces later, quipping about mothering him). It is suggested in other ways as well, including through the focus on Raif’s innocence and childlike soul, even within a body that is all-too-human and subject to lascivious thoughts; his surname Hatipzade (“of the lineage of those who deliver God’s word” or, more prosaically, “preacher’s son”); and perhaps even his colleagues’ peculiar use of the antiquated honorific “Efendi” (from medieval Greek αφέντης, “master,” “lord”) to refer to him. Just what message Ali did intend to convey with the allegorical weave of Madonna in a Fur Coat is a question that can and should be debated, and here’s hoping that literary scholars will explore it in full. There can be little doubt, though, that the excruciating pivot points of the love story offer a crypto key to the answer. They occur in October 1923 (Maria’s death) and June 1933 (Raif’s discovery of her fate), the very moments in history when, respectively, the Turkish Republic emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman past, and Hitler was consolidating Nazi control of Germany. This book is about Turkey’s tortured relationship to Europe, specifically to a Europe that had spent a generation committing political, cultural, and spiritual suicide.
Ali also set his novel on a collision course with the zeitgeist of his era when, in his portrayal of Maria, he fused her romantic soul with a fierce, combative feminism. Unlike the book’s allegorical veil, its feminist edge has, with the passage of time, turned into a potent selling point, especially with the educated younger generation of today’s Turkey. Indeed the feminist/romantic merger that Maria embodies is what has elicited the most accolades for Madonna in a Fur Coat as the book has risen to the top of Turkey’s best seller lists. Those plaudits are justified even though they have mostly failed to put Maria’s strength and independence, and likewise the “gender fluidity” of Raif, into the holistic context of Ali’s use of symbol and allusion.
Beyond Turkey, a third factor in the eclipse of Madonna in a Fur Coat was Ali’s native language. Like Kierkegaard’s Danish, Ali’s Turkish doomed him to a “small batch” readership in the wider world until translators took an interest. Which, thankfully, they have now done. In recent years, Madonna in a Fur Coat has been published in over a dozen European languages as well as in Arabic, Urdu, and Mongolian. Much was made of the appearance, at long last, of an English version, published by Penguin (UK) in 2016. This event was hailed as a milestone. For the first time, Ali’s masterpiece had been translated into the world’s most widely understood language.
Or had it?
The English text of Madonna in a Fur Coat, a joint effort by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is more a free-wheeling adaptation than a translation of Ali’s Turkish. If that were acknowledged up front, the issue would be whether the adaptation Freely/Dawe have created is an engaging piece of writing in its own right, not unlike a well executed remake of a movie classic. But no such acknowledgement is forthcoming. Freely/Dawe represent what they have produced as a translation when, by any fair definition of the word, it isn’t. To make matters worse—much worse—they misread the Turkish again and again. In the process, they turn the sharp, beautiful artistic lines of Madonna in a Fur Coat into a blurry mess.
Reviews of the Freely/Dawe Madonna in a Fur Coat have been silent about its failure to provide an accurate translation of the original. It isn’t necessary to read into this silence a timid deference to Freely’s reputation. The more likely explanation is that none of the reviewers knew Turkish, or at least that none knew the language well enough to follow the nuanced train of thought and complex syntax of Ali’s prose. (The challenge is all the greater because Ali wrote at a time when the Atatürkist modernization of the language was still an early work in progress. Vocabulary and usage are sometimes closer to Ottoman than to today’s Turkish.)
Freely/Dawe would surely have gotten no such free ride if they had been translating a novel from Italian, German, Spanish, or one of the other languages widely studied in the Anglophone world. Reviewers able to compare the original text would have given them a drubbing for work that is uneven and sometimes downright shabby.
Consider the sour notes that Freely/Dawe hit when the reader is being introduced to the immediate and extended family members of the central male character, Raif, all living with him in a modest house in Ankara. This passage occurs in the part of the story—the first quarter of the book—set in the Turkish capital in 1940. The rest of Madonna in a Fur Coat looks back—it is presented as the text of Raif’s private notebook, penned in 1933 and mainly recounting his two years in Berlin in the early 1920s. In the opening, Ankara section, the unnamed narrator, a younger friend of Raif’s, goes to visit him at his home for the first time. Raif has been sick, as he often is, and the friend, a coworker who shares office space with him at a local company, spends a few minutes with the ailing man. The friend narrates what he observes when he is on his way out of the house and encounters Raif’s daughter Necla and two males (this and all other translations not identified as Freely/Dawe’s are my own):
When I left the patient’s bedside and was passing through the front hall with the large table in the middle, I saw standing around it two young men and a 15- or 16-year-old girl—they were putting their heads together and began whispering and snickering, not even waiting to do it behind my back.
Hastanın yanından çıkıp holden geçerken ortadaki büyük masanın etrafına dizilmiş gördüğüm iki delikanlı ile on beş on altı yaşlarında bir genç kız, birbirlerine sokularak, benim arkamı dönmemi beklemeden fısıldaşıp gülmeye başlamışlardı.
Freely/Dawe render the passage this way:
After leaving the patient, I passed through the hallway, where two boys age fifteen or sixteen were in a huddle with a girl of about the same age, and without waiting for me to turn my back, they began whispering and giggling.
Freely/Dawe have erroneously applied to the two males the phrase specifying the age of the girl. In their text, all three of the young people are 15 or 16 years old. In the original novel, the girl’s two male companions are “young men” (“delikanlı”) of unspecified age. They are the same two men as have already been mentioned a few paragraphs earlier, when Raif tells his visiting friend that his wife Mihriye’s two younger brothers are officials at the Ministry of Economy. Shortly the two are identified by name, Vedat and Cihat, and we are told that they are the ministry’s youngest officials (“en küçük iki memuru olan”). Ali never does spell out their age, although, in terms of emotional maturity, they are callow enough to be lumped with Necla by the 24-year-old narrator (who acknowledges that he isn’t much older). One pictures young men perhaps in their early twenties. Boys, however, these fledgling civil servants are not.
It’s puzzling why Freely/Dawe, having misread the Turkish and turned the junior bureaucrats into children, weren’t bothered enough by the inconsistencies this error created to go back and recheck the original. Certainly any reader paying attention to the story will be annoyed by the resulting loose ends. But Freely/Dawe barrel ahead, compounding the confusion with a further goof. In the Turkish, we learn how Vedat and Cihat got their civil service positions: it was through the influence of Nurettin, the unctuous, arrogant husband of Mihriye’s sister Feridun. Nurettin is a branch director at the Ministry of Economy. He and Feridun, along with their small children, also reside with Raif and are significant characters in the story. When we are told that Nurettin pulled the strings to land jobs for Vedat and Cihat, he is referred to not by name but as Raif’s bacanak or “sister-in-law’s husband.” That is what Nurettin is. Mistranslating, Freely/Dawe say the jobs were arranged by Raif’s “brother-in-law’s sister.” No such character exists, but Freely/Dawe don’t seem to notice.
Raif’s friend makes a number of subsequent visits to the home, most crucially when Raif is again sick, this time with what turns out to be his final illness. The friend drops by on a Friday evening towards the end of winter and converses with the bedridden man. Raif’s wife Mihriye enters the bedroom and briefly speaks with the visitor. She then turns to her husband and asks him to have his friend bring her his towel. She explains that “Sunday will be laundry day” (“Pazara çamaşır yıkanacak”). The towel in question is one that Raif keeps in his desk at work. Since he is ill and unable to go to the office, Mihriye wants the coworker friend to bring her the towel so it can be included in the laundry load.
Freely/Dawe miss the meaning of Mihriye’s remark about the laundry. In their translation, she says nothing about Sunday; instead she declares “We’re sending out the washing.” This is wrong. No one is sending out the washing. Mihriye will be doing it herself, on Sunday. Is the miscue consequential? It is. Ali has gone to some lengths to emphasize that the household is cash-strapped and that Mihriye is overtaxed trying to keep the place running. The poor woman is forced to do the chores—cooking, sewing, cleaning—for an unappreciative extended family all living together in the crowded home and all sponging on Raif’s modest salary. It would be an odd departure from this picture if these ingrates were to ease Mihriye’s burden by the extravagance of “sending out the washing.” But readers of the Freely/Dawe text have to accept this cognitive dissonance.
Nor are Freely/Dawe through muddling the passage. To meet Mihriye’s laundry schedule, the friend will need to return to the home with Raif’s soiled towel after he leaves work on Saturday evening. This he pledges to do: “I’ll bring the towel tomorrow evening!” (“Yarın akşam getiririm!”). The friend is generously committing himself to another long walk across a maze of rundown Ankara neighborhoods (walking is his only mode of transportation to Raif’s home) once his shift is over at the company on Saturday. His promise is a key event because it will lead to his unlocking Raif’s desk at work in search of the towel and discovering and retrieving the all-important secret notebook Raif keeps there. Inexplicably, Freely/Dawe change “evening” to “morning” in their version of the friend’s promise. “I’ll bring it tomorrow morning,” they translate. Not only is the Turkish text unambiguous—akşam means evening, not morning—but just a page later, the friend does return to Raif’s home with the towel (and notebook) on Saturday evening. The reader of Freely/Dawe can only conclude that the friend is a bit of a flake, having arrived not in the morning as he (according to their mistranslation) promised but at the far end of the day. But Raif’s friend isn’t a flake. His intense concern for Raif and considerate attitude towards him and his family have been painstakingly depicted. More confusion, courtesy of Freely/Dawe.
Neither of these errors makes the ultimate timing of the friend’s towel errand in Freely/Dawe any different than in the original novel, but they obfuscate the timeline of events. In the process, they also obscure a likely Christological allusion, especially through the omission of the reference to Sunday. Ali has created a Passion play that begins with Raif’s Friday night agony—his outburst of longing for death—and ends on Sunday. It is on that Sunday, at the novel’s conclusion, that the friend goes to Raif’s home, realizes from the lamentations of the family that he has expired overnight, and, strangely uplifted, departs with his life’s testament, the black notebook. In Freely/Dawe, Sunday has been stricken from the record.
Freely/Dawe’s transformation of evening into morning in the passage is, regrettably, part of a pattern in the topsy-turvy world of their Madonna in a Fur Coat. They flip “south” (cenup) into “north,” with reference to a police officer’s foot patrol in Berlin’s Nollendorf Square—and while they’re at it they multiply the single police officer (bir polis) into “a few policemen.” They change “October” (teşrinievvel) into “November,” as the time of year when Raif first sees and is dumbstruck by the painting that he’ll come to know as “Madonna in a Fur Coat.” They alter women (kadınlar) into men, when Raif describes persons he observes striding earnestly home on the avenues of Berlin. A shop in Berlin selling reproductions of famous paintings (meşhur tabloların kopyalarını satan bir mağaza) becomes a famous shop selling reproductions (“a shop renowned for reproductions,” to use Freely/Dawe’s words).1 In a scene at the avant-garde Romanisches Café, the Turkish text tells of writers who sit “contınually filling up pages, pipes hanging from their lips, their fingernails grown long.” (ağızlarında pipoları, uzun tırnaklı parmaklariyle habire sahife dolduran muharrirler oturuyorlardı). Freely/Dawe not only change these busy scribblers to idlers who merely “leaf through” the pages rather than filling them with writing, but even take their pipes away, inserting them instead in the mouths of painters who have been mentioned earlier. During the initial stage of Raif’s fatal bout of illness in Ankara, the narrator tells how Raif’s teenage daughter Necla seemed accustomed to her father’s spells of feeling poorly and wasn’t overly worried:
Slipping off her overcoat and tossing it on a chair, she rushed off. It seemed like she was used to these states that Raif Efendi got into and didn’t think they amounted to much.
Paltosunu sıyırıp bir iskemlenin üzerine attıktan sonra, hemen dışarı çıktı. Raif Efendi’nin bu hallerine alışmışa benziyor ve fazla ehemmiyet vermiyordu.
Freely/Dawe take Necla’s lack of concern about Raif’s sickness and twist it into Raif’s lack of concern about Necla’s flippancy:
Taking off her coat and tossing it onto a chair, she left the room. Raif Efendi looked as if he were used to such behavior and didn’t consider it very important.
Soon, Raif’s condition deteriorates and the family’s mood darkens. Freely/Dawe again re-wire the emotional dynamic as it involves Necla. The Turkish tell us that Necla has not fallen apart as thoroughly as her mother, upset though she is:
Necla, although she didn’t go to pieces as badly as her mother, was distraught.
Necla annesi kadar kendini kaybetmiş olmamakla beraber, büyük bir üzüntü içindeydi.
Freely/Dawe say the precise opposite:
Necla was as bereft, and as desperately lost, as her mother.
Funny things happen to figures of speech too. As Raif is getting to know Maria, she explains how she finds him appealing because he is unlike other men, with their “asinine, arrogant male vanity.” Still, she isn’t entirely confident that he can be trusted:
“I don’t know, though…In the mouths of lambs, what a vicious set of wolf’s teeth I’ve seen grinning…”
“Fakat bilmem…Ne kuzuların ağzından vahşi kurt dişlerinin sırıttığını gördüm…”
Freely/Dawe offer this version of the passage:
“But I don’t know…even when he has a lamb between his teeth, a wolf can hide his savagery behind a smile.”
Poor lamb. Poor reader.
An especially damaging instance of these bizarre reinventions of the Turkish comes at the end of the novel, where Freely/Dawe garble Raif’s agonized expression of guilt. Raif furiously records in his secret notebook his remorse over having misjudged Maria, who is now deceased. He writes that he can never atone for having “murdered her memory.” According to Freely/Dawe, Raif sees his wrongdoing in these terms:
…for the greatest betrayal, the greatest sin we can commit against the most blameless, is to abandon a loving heart, and for that I shall never be forgiven.
This translation jumbles the Turkish clauses into something unrecognizable and creates a weird non sequitur at the story’s climax. Accurately rendered, the Turkish reads this way:
…I felt that charging the most innocent of people with the foulest of crimes—the crime of treacherously turning one’s back on a loving heart—could never be forgiven.
…insanların en günahsızına kabahatlerin en ağırını; seven bir kalbi yüzüstü bırakmak ihanetini yüklemenin, asla affedilemiyeceğini seziyordum.
Raif’s bitter regret is not about having abandoned a loving, blameless Maria, as Freely/Dawe have it. Nor would there be any reason for such regret, because he never abandoned her. Rather, as the novel has intricately laid out, it was she who mysteriously stopped communicating with him and disappeared from his life, seemingly abandoning him (although in fact she had died, unbeknownst to him). Now, having belatedly learned of her death, Raif beats himself up because for 10 years he has wrongly imputed to Maria the blackest of crimes—that of betraying him and his loving heart. He didn’t treacherously turn his back on her; rather, he accused her of treacherously turning her back on him, and that accusation was, he now sees, unforgivable. Missing this point reduces the whole conclusion of the novel to nonsense.
If Freely/Dawe impoverish Madonna in a Fur Coat by spoiling the story’s internal logic, they also do it by distorting the historical picture Ali is drawing, the keystone of his purpose for writing the novel. This occurs, for example, when Raif makes disparaging observations concerning his fellow residents at a Berlin boarding house and their habit of sounding off about how to fix Germany’s woes in the aftermath of defeat in World War I. Freely/Dawe render the paragraph as follows:
Everyone had an idea as to how to save Germany. However, none of these proposals had anything to do with Germany. Rather, they were tied to personal interests. An old woman who had lost her fortune through moneylending was angry with the officers, who were angry with the striking workers. She blamed the soldiers for Germany’s defeat, while the colonial trader for no apparent reason was forever blasting the emperor’s declaration of war.
There are two serious errors here. Freely/Dawe misunderstand the Turkish phrase para düşüklüğü, rendering it as “moneylending.” It actually means “money collapse,” best rendered here as “currency collapse,” a reference to the disastrous hyperinflation that beset Weimar Germany in the early 1920s. 2 (If there is any doubt about how to understand the phrase, the novel removes it several pages later when it refers to the same boarding house resident’s financial undoing and borrows the English word “inflation”—or in some editions “enflasyon”—to account for it.) Freely/Dawe also assign the wrong subject to the clause about blaming the common German soldier for the defeat. It is the officers, not the elderly woman, who condemn the troops for the debacle, again a reflection of political dynamics in the Germany of the era, foreshadowing the Nazi takeover. Properly translated, the passage says this:
Everyone had their own idea about saving Germany. All these ideas, however, weren’t really about Germany but about each of these individuals’ personal interests. An old woman who had lost her fortune because of the currency collapse bristled at the military officers, the officers blamed the striking laborers and the soldiers unwilling to keep the war going, and the colonial trader would all of a sudden lash out and curse the emperor who started the war.
Herkesin Almanya’yı kurtarmak için kendine göre bir fikri vardı. Fakat bütün bu fikirler hakikaten Almanya’ya değil, her birinin kendi şahsi menfaatlerine bağliydi. Para düşüklüğü yüzünden servetini kaybeden ihtiyar bir kadın, zabitlere kızıyor, zabitler grev yapan ameleyi ve harbe devam etmek istemeyen askerleri kabahatlı buluyor, müstemleke tüccarı durup dururken, harp açan imparatora küfrediyordu.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that, besides misattributing the blame heaped on German soldiers, Freely/Dawe also omit the reason for it, namely, the military personnel’s refusal to fight on—an important historical reality (the Kiel mutiny and related events).
Freely/Dawe are unable to get through even the novel’s very brief summation of the situation in Turkey after the 1918 armistice without wreaking some havoc. Noting the disorder in the country, with foreign forces occupying some locations and all manner of rebel bands springing up, the original passage goes on to tell of the rash of gruesome public executions:
…it would be announced that a ringleader whom everyone had hailed as a hero just the other day had, a week later, been made an example of, and that his dead body was hanging in Konakönü Square in Edremit.
…dün bir kahraman olarak ismi ağızdan ağıza dolaşan bir sergerdenin bir hafta sonra tenkil edildiği ve ölüsünün Edremit’te Konakönü Meydanı’nda asılı durduğu ilan ediliyordu.
In Freely/Dawe’s text, the fact that the ringleader was “made an example of” disappears; instead, we are told, he was“driven away.”
…a bandit celebrated one day as a hero was driven away a week later, whereupon it was announced that his body was hanging in the village square of Konakönü, near Edremit.
“Driven away” might, in some contexts, be reasonably used to translate the pertinent Turkish verb (tenkil edildiği), but not here. The authoritative Redhouse Turkish/Ottoman-English Dictionary defines this verb in its infinitive form (tenkil etmek) as follows: 1) to repress (rebellion). 2) to punish so as to make an example of. 3) to divert, to turn aside. Paired with the image of the bandit’s body displayed in the village square, the idea of “making an example of” could not be more clearly intended. “Driven away” is simply wrong; it obfuscates the climate of vendetta that Ali is recalling from the bloody aftermath of the Ottoman collapse.
Freely/Dawe’s flubs are legion, the result of carelessness and lack of due diligence, but we can never be sure that a deliberately cavalier approach to Ali’s writing isn’t at work in a given instance. This is the upshot of their operating in a gray area—a “translation” that is really an adaptation of the novel. Conceivably, what appear to be translation blunders could sometimes be conscious alterations of the original. Maybe Freely/Dawe felt that November worked better than October (bleaker, darker) as the month when Raif discovers Maria’s self-portrait, or that more than one police officer was needed on patrol in late-night Nollendorf Square (ratcheting up Raif’s tense mood). We can’t say for certain. What we can say is that their impulse to amend is on display scene after scene, page after page.
Most of all, Freely/Dawe glory in the eraser. They assiduously eliminate words, thoughts, and phrases in an apparent bid to speed up the narrative, Ali’s leisurely and luxurious prose be damned. The tactic begins to creep in at the very beginning of the novel. Fully translated, the opening sentences of the Turkish read as follows:
Of all the people I’ve come across to this point in life, one has perhaps had the greatest effect on me. Even though months have gone by, I haven’t been able to shake off that effect in the slightest.
Şimdiye kadar tesadüf ettiğim insanlardan bir tanesi benim üzerimde belki en büyük tesiri yapmıştır. Aradan aylar geçtiği halde bir türlü bu tesirden kurtulamadım.
Freely/Dawe rewrite the opening this way:
Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression. Months have passed, but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts.
The changes create a whole new feel. Freely/Dawe have scrapped the “perhaps” (belki) of the first sentence, a word so characteristic of Ali’s soft-spoken, cautious narration. They also rush ahead to introduce the principal character, Raif, before the original is ready to do so. Their phrase “haunts my thoughts” is nowhere to be found in the Turkish, but allows them to put their own stamp on the story. They have decided that the narrator is haunted by Raif and that they will get that idea across immediately, irrespective of Ali’s preferences or pacing.
Their urge to abridge is compulsive, almost taking a cue from Readers Digest. A characteristic piece of editing occurs a few pages into the story, in a scene at the home of Hamdi, an old schoolmate of the narrator’s. Hamdi has finished washing up and has returned to the parlor where the narrator has been waiting:
He was combing his damp hair with one hand and buttoning up a white, open-collared, European-style shirt with the other.
Bir eliyle ıslak saçlarını tarıyor, ötekiyle açık yakalı beyaz frenk gömleğinin düğmelerini ilikliyordu.
Too many words for Freely/Dawe. They trim the sentence to this:
He was combing his wet hair with one hand while buttoning up his shirt with the other.
For Ali, the description of the shirt—white, open-collared, and European in its styling—is worth lingering over, especially because the cultural hegemony of Europe over Turkey is a central subtext of the novel. For Freely/Dawe, the details about the shirt are just annoying speed bumps in the story. Toss them.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has read Dawe’s ideas about the art of translating. In an interview that Bosphorus Review conducted on the subject with three Turkish-to-English translators—Dawe, Ümit Hussein, and Zeynep Beler—in conjunction with the 2018 Istanbul Literary Festival, Dawe took issue with Hussein’s unequivocal rejection of inserting one’s own voice into a translation, as opposed to maintaining fidelity to the original author’s. Said Dawe:
…With every translation, I almost always insert in [sic] a little something that is my own. I think in Tanpinar [Dawe’s translation of Ahmet Tanpınar’s novel Time Regulation Institute] I put in something like calling a person a weasel. I almost always used that word, it’s funny. A guy I used to play rock music with recognized it and said, “dude you put that in there!”
Dawe went on to cite a maxim he ascribed to Irish poet and translator Seamus Heaney, “the text is [a] trampoline.” This phrase epitomized, for Dawe, his own approach:
Very often what we do is jump on a text and use it as a springboard. Then we are often covert writers. Translators don’t want to admit that but they are often trying to express their own creative powers and writerly chops. Even think “I can do this a touch better then Tanpinar.”
Dawe should be given credit for his honesty. He makes no bones about his belief that his role as translator is to lend his own voice to the narrative and even to improve on the original text, flashing his writerly game. In partnership with Freely, he has striven to do just that in their Madonna in a Fur Coat. They fail dismally, instead creating a tiresome and befogged version that robs Sabahattin Ali’s novel of its magic.
There is, of course, no single, accepted template for how to translate great works of literature. One translation’s purpose and intended audience may be completely different from another’s. The most basic methodological division is between those that are mainly meant as ponies for foreign language students (like the Loeb Library’s bilingual texts of the Ancient Greek and Latin classics, or Nabokov’s militantly pedagogical English version of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin) and what we might call literary translations. The latter are attempts at something rare and elusive—a successful marriage of the original work and the new language. Marriage is an apt point of comparison because, for a romantic relationship to last, a lover must have a thorough, no-nonsense understanding of the beloved, and yet that understanding must not override the sweet delusions of the pleasure principle. Likewise, the task of the literary translator is to achieve and convey a precise, accurate comprehension of the foreign language text while not sacrificing its come-hither beauty. That’s always a tall order, but we could wish that Penguin, which has marketed their Madonna in a Fur Coast as a literary translation, had seen to it that Freely/Dawe at least gave it their best effort. Sadly, Penguin allowed them to ignore the “precise, accurate comprehension of the foreign language” part of the translator’s vow.
Seven decades ago, Turkish security officials silenced Ali, cutting down the 41-year-old dissident as he tried to slip across the Bulgarian border and escape their reach. Only his writings were left to speak for him. How pleased they would be that the greatest of his works, Madonna in a Fur Coat, has been so badly “dubbed over” for English speakers, reducing a masterpiece to mediocrity.
1. It should be noted that the widely used edition of the novel published by the Yapı Kredi Yayınları publishing house in Istanbul (first printed in 1998) contains a printing error at this point in the text. It omits the word tabloların (“paintings”) and simply says “…meşhur kopyalarını satan bir mağaza….” The grammatical endings on the word kopyalarını (“reproductions”), however, alert a Turkish reader to the fact that something is amiss with the phrase and that a preceding noun has fallen out. That noun, tabloların, is present in the original 1943 edition of the novel.
2. The phrase para düşüklüğü (“money/currency collapse”) in the original 1943 edition is misprinted as para düşkünlüğü (“excessive fondness for money,” “avariciousness”) in the Yapı Kredi Yayınları edition. Neither phrase could be construed as “money lending.”
George Angell is a writer in Baltimore. He worked as a translator and foreign affairs analyst in the Department of Defense from 1982 until 2019.