We live in a translated world. Most of what we hear, read, and learn is, in fact, translated. We take these translations for granted as if they were transparent copies of their originals. Likewise, we forget that what we are offered in translation is only a selected fragment of a vast pool.

Who, then, decides what gets translated and what is left out? Who are the agents that prompt promoting, translating, evaluating, and publishing foreign literary texts? How does the network of social agents and institutions underlying translation and publication function?

In my research project focusing on translated Turkish literature in English, I am looking for answers to these and similar questions.

I conduct my research mainly in the Archive of British Printing and Publishing, which is held at the University of Reading’s Special Collections. Research in the archives allows us to identify the invisible gatekeepers – publishers’ readers and editors the most influential among them – who regulated the translation flow from Turkish into English.

Examining unique archival sources – translators’ and publishers’ papers, letters, and business correspondence – sheds light on the historical and ideological context of Turkish literature in the Anglosphere between 1945–1975. I have been finding out about the agents involved in the translation and publication processes, from manuscript selection to actual translational decisions and the dissemination of translations.

Turkish literature in the English-speaking world

As part of my fellowship, I organised a two-day symposium on translating and publishing Turkish literature in the Anglosphere with my host, Daniela La Penna. The symposium focused on recent trends in translated Turkish literature by bringing together academics, translators, and literary agents to discuss issues concerning translated Turkish literary works from various perspectives.

Maureen Freely and Aron Aji, two distinguished professors and prolific translators between English and Turkish, shared their experiences and insights about the position of Turkish literature in the English-speaking world.

Other contributors discussed the presence of Turkish literature in the English language and the reception of Turkish fiction in the Anglophone world. We also listened to the stories of literary agents and independent publishers who have brought Turkish literary works into English.

Origins of the Turkish novel

While Anglophone interest in Turkish literature can be traced from the late nineteenth century (anthologies were translated and edited mainly by renowned Turkologists or Orientalists of the time such as E. J. W. Gibb and Charles Wells), it was only in 1924 that the first Turkish novel, Halide Edib’s The Shirt of Flame, was published in New York. This book was a self-translation of Ateşten Gömlek, which Halide Edib originally wrote in Turkish. It is the starting date of the publication of modern Turkish literature and the novel, to be precise.

In 1949 the first English translation of a Turkish novel was published in Britain: Reşat Nuri Güntekin’s The Autobiography of a Turkish Girl (Çalıkuşu, 1923), translated by Sir Wyndham Deedes, and published by Allen & Unwin.

There was a small but significant increase in English translations from Turkish during the 1990s. This trend continued in the 2000s, and today, there is a rich corpus of Turkish literary works in English covering different genres and authors. Our symposium particularly demonstrated the need to include different stakeholders in discussions regarding translational phenomena.

The collective efforts of translators, agents, editors, publishers and readers

As was seen from the panellists’ speeches, the translation, publishing, and promotion of Turkish literature (in fact, of any literature) involves and requires effort by translators, publishers’ readers, literary agents, editors, and publishers – as well as by readers who are expected to be open and willing to read and learn about other cultures and their literary works. I hope, as different speakers at the symposium stated, there will be more similar events bringing together these agents to discuss issues on translating and publishing.

In my forthcoming talk on 22 February, I will present a glimpse of how archival material helps us to reveal the strategies of selection, evaluation, and translation concerning Reşat Nuri Güntekin’s Çalıkuşu (The Wren) in English based on the correspondence between Sir Deedes and Allen & Unwin between 1945-1949, preserved in the George Allen & Unwin Ltd. archive.

Professor Özlem Berk Albachten is a British Academy Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Languages and Cultures at the University of Reading.