The Bookseller of Istanbul

A woman checks books in a bookstore in Istanbul. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

A woman checks books in a bookstore in Istanbul. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

When Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, it was an important moment for Turkish publishing, despite the mixed feelings—and, often, plain dislike—felt towards Pamuk in his home country. It was hoped that the interest generated by the first Nobel laureate from Turkey might translate into greater awareness of Turkish literature in general. Turkish novelists have since garnered more attention, but only in small measure; to date, there are only a handful of authors from Turkey who have made their mark on the English-reading audience.

Fortunately, things are changing. At The London Book Fair held in mid-April, Turkey was chosen as the Market Focus country, highlighting its publishing industry and helping form publishing trade links between Turkey and the rest of the world. A retinue of twenty renowned authors, in addition to publishers, academics, commentators, and translators from Turkey or involved in Turkish literature, were at the forefront of activities at the fair itself and at talks and events across London. And, for a change, that most famous Turkish litterateur, Orhan Pamuk, was not the only face representing Turkish literature.

What was truly exciting about the line-up of visiting authors was the effort taken to bring exceptional Turkish writers to the forefront. It showcased both those who have been writing for decades and new voices in Turkish literature, most of whom have had little exposure to English readers. The author Elif Shafak was probably the only author present to have significant renown in the English-speaking world.

Even though the delegation of authors was chosen by the British Council in partnership with the Turkish National Organizing Committee for International Book Fairs, those selected represented various cultural backgrounds and political views. While there were complaints about the lack of space in the program given to Kurdish-language books and authors, the diversity of writers present was still an encouraging sign for a country where authors have been frequently targeted for their opinions, often being charged with “insulting Turkishness.” (Turkey sits near the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index 2013, ranked at 154 out of 179 countries.)

Unsurprisingly, a common theme in Turkish publishing has remained the challenge in bringing the works of some of the great Turkish authors to an international audience. As the author Kaya Genç recently noted, this has proven to be a real challenge for one simple reason: the complicated nature of many Turkish novels and the difficulty of translating the language, especially given Turkish novelists’ preoccupation with complex language and modernist experimentation. But he also pointed out a more complex reason: this under-exposure is a result of the lack of interest among English-language publishers and their reluctance to engage with demanding works of Turkish literature.

More often than not, a mediocre piece of Turkish literature will have a higher chance of being published in English than a more sophisticated work. There was a certain poignancy in listening to someone like the great dramaturge, author and poet, Murathan Mungan, who played a part in the book fair proceedings, complain about having to introduce himself to an audience as a novice even though he has published nearly fifty works. In a wry line, Mungan noted that he had come to the conclusion that it is more difficult to find a great translator than a great lover.

It is not all bad news when it comes to Turkish literature. Important classics, such as the works of the great novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, are increasingly being taken on by excellent translators. As part of The London Book Fair, the British Council announced the Young Translators’ Prize to acknowledge literary translators working from Turkish to English. Some 259 translators from across ten countries competed for the prize, with winners receiving mentorships from two distinguished translators, Maureen Freely and Sasha Dugdale.

Turkey’s government-supported Translation and Publication Grant Program, which encourages the translation and publication of Turkish cultural, artistic and literary works into foreign languages, has also been highly successful. Bülent, a recently launched quarterly journal that aims to foster new ways of thinking and writing about Turkey, has a strong component of Turkish-to-English translations. These initiatives will help grow international publishing interest in works from Turkey and move beyond the existing literary currents and trends that exist in the West.


Subscribe to the discussion