A pink taxi

A pink taxi

June 27, 2011

Lost in Translation

I always read books in their original language. This even applies to Spanish, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabella Allende which I devoured in their original.  Arabic is so challenging I couldn't even imagine trying. I have therefore read Naguib Mahfouz and Ala'a Al Aswani in English or in French, depending on where I purchased the book.

But from this day on, the aleatory choice of which language translation to read will no longer be. My struggle with Orhan Pamuk begins with its translation. I really believe that in this instance, more than any other, reading it in Turkish (which wouldn't happen unless I give the language a second chance) would have been preferable. His novel Museum of Innocence is about words, word choice, sentence structure and style. It gets lost in English.

I respect Maureen Freely for having taken the endeavor of translating this hefty Turkish novel. I admire her prouesse in mastering the Turkish language. I can confirm from experience that it is a difficult language, perhaps not as difficult as Arabic or Mandarin. But unlike those two languages that are obviously learned for the sheer numbers of people who speak it, Turkish is a secondary language despite the Central Asian market.

I flirted once with the idea of becoming an interpreter,or  translator. I passed the admissions exams for the School of Translation and Interpretation at the University of Geneva, but (gladly) didn't heed my mother's recommendation to stay in Geneva and get a professional degree. The American universities had much more allure! Still, I have taken many language classes, have been confronted with many translation exercices (even in Arabic!).

I therefore can imagine the  challenge of translating The Museum of Innocence. Orhan Pamuk, in this novel, uses words carefully, selects them cautiously and precisely. He fills sentences with juxtaposed nouns because of the thematic: objects. In this book, he collects objects and these objects are intricately described, are unique,  and each have a precise definition, qualified with an array of adjectives. These objects are manipulated with a variety of verbs as well.

Interesting is Pamuk's desire to anthropoligize Istanbul, to explain its idiosyncracies, to describe its furthest corners, its quaintest neighborhoods. I suspect he has me, the foreigner, in mind, as a reader. Even more so than the Turkish reader whose language he has in common. But his detailing requires symbiotic translation. Does he have the appropriate English to edit the translation and insure its accuracy?

Maureen Freely's style is too contrived. She uses an excessive number of what I casually call "SAT words". The words are beautiful and savant. But their choice appears artificial. Did Orhan Pamuk imagine such a salad of refined words? Did he mix them in a sauce so rich it becomes indigestable? I should give Maureen Freely the benefit of the doubt, as I will never be able to read Pamuk in Turkish to find out for myself. I may look at the same text in French translation and see if the French rendition is more readily digested.

When you translate a book, you don't have to worry about building a storyline, you simply have to respect the tone, the vocabulary and remain as faithful as possible to the text. But translating shouldn't be an attempt to construct your own world, to use your own words, no matter how erudite your English is!

I have packed Pamuk's Istanbul for the summer. I will read it in English as my father did. I want to experience it as he did (after all, it is my father's Ottoman Lebanon I am in search of). However Pamuk's other books, the more philisophical "My Name is Red" and "Snow" shall be read in French.

I may have started "Museum of Innocence" with much enthusiasm, gotten bored with the melancholy at the heart of the novel, and as I reach its end now, the story is unveiling, I am held aback by the magic of Pamuk, by the way he presses me to walk the streets of Istanbul with his unpleasant narrator, almost pushing me foreword by the arm, to the point that I have asked my husband who traveled to Istanbul recently:

"So how is the weather in Pamukland?"


  1. It is hard,even harsh to judge a translated book through the eyes and hands of the translator.What if a Turk translated Pamuk into French or English,or an Egyptian did the same with one of Mafhouz's masterpieces?We would gain on the feel,but loose on the language skills.

  2. I read Pamuk's "My Name Is Read" and enjoyed it to it's fullest. Perhaps that is the secret of reading translations, one enjoys it to it's fullest since they have nothing to compare it to, not being able to read it in it's original language. In this case, ignorance is bliss!!

  3. I wanted to thank you for this great read. I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

  4. A round of applause for your mind blowing article. Much thanks to you. Fantastic.