Ahmet Altan’s writing is sprawling, ambitious, radical—so radical that the author is currently serving a life sentence on charges of inciting the plotters behind Turkey’s 2016 failed coup. In the latest instalment of the Asymptote Book Club interview series, Altan’s co-translators, Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi, reveal that their only contact with the author is through his lawyers. No written materials can be carried into or out of the prison where Altan is serving his sentence, but work continues on the final volume of the monumental Ottoman Quartet.
In conversation with Asymptote’s Garrett Phelps, Freely and Türedi give us an insight into how they came to translate Altan’s work, and why a novel sequence of novels dealing with the events of the early twentieth century has never felt fresher or more contemporary.
Garrett Phelps (GP): Like a Sword Wound is set during a momentous period in Turkish history and details the cycle of chaos which ultimately results in the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. As translators, did you feel the setting added to your burden of responsibilities?
Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi (BF/YT): Both of us are quite familiar with this period, so the setting as such did not present any particular problem. However, we were aware of the echoes of the current political situation in Turkey, and of how little the main political currents seem to have changed in over a hundred years. In practical terms, although Like a Sword Wound was written in modern Turkish rather than Ottoman Turkish, Ahmet Altan made an effort to reflect the language of the period, often choosing outdated words and phrases. In our initial meeting to discuss the translation, he was concerned about how we would approach this. We agreed to take the same approach he did—that is, to prefer older words and phrasing to evoke the mindset of the period while still keeping the language current enough to avoid alienating contemporary readers.
Our October Asymptote Book Club selection is the first novel in a quartet that aims to reveal “the dark and bloody face of history.” Earlier this month, a Turkish court upheld a life sentence for the quartet’s author, Ahmet Altan, on charges of aiding the plotters behind the failed military coup in 2016. He continues to work on the final volume of the quartet from inside his cell. Like a Sword Wound can be read as an autopsy on “the sick man of Europe”, the ailing Ottoman Empire at the turn of the last century, but also as a powerful indictment of despotic regimes across history.
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If you’re already an Asymptote Book Club subscriber, head to our official Facebook group to continue the discussion; if you haven’t joined us yet, Garrett Phelps’ review should give you a brief taste of the novel, and all the information you need in order to subscribe is available on our Book Club site.
In case you’re hungry for more recommendations after reading the blog’s 5 Must-Read Pieces from our New July Issue, here’s a write-up about something that’s stuck with me since its publication last Wednesday.
In our latest issue of Asymptote, I was particularly excited to discover three poems by Turkish Gökçenur Ç, author of six poetry collections and Turkish translator of Wallace Stevens, Paul Auster, and Ursula K. Le Guin. I was drawn in by Gökçenur Ç’s first poem, “We’re in the World, So Are Words, How Nice that We’re All Here,” in which intriguingly short, self-contained thoughts such as “Morning is hissing like an empty tap” and “The shadow of a hawk strikes your shadow, / neither you nor the hawk is aware of this” make up the entire piece. This is also the format of the third poem, “I Watch with Love Like a Stupid Student,” which wraps up the three poems nicely.
I wanted to write something. I picked up paper and pen, and I walked out to the terrace. What I call terrace is on the top floor of the hotel where I live. The weather was spitefully tempting. A warm March sun penetrating all the way to your bones. Weather like this makes many a person happy at the end of winter. What is happiness? Has everyone in the world known it? Questions like this can be debated at length. Who knows, maybe if I did debate this one, I would take back what I said. So what if I imagine myself to be happy every once in a while? Since it seems certain that I won’t be getting my share of great fortune, I’ll make do with whatever comes my way.