Let’s Translate this Thing: Murathan Mungan’s Cities of Women

April 27, 2012 | 14 3 min read

coverTwo years ago, The Quarterly Conversation canvassed translators and publishers for great untranslated works and compiled their results in a volume called Translate This Book! In the same spirit, I offer to you Murathan Mungan, the much-loved, best-selling Turkish literary figure whose work, with the exception of some poems and an anthologized play and story, does not appear in English. Mungan is very prolific, and I am very slow; I’m sure he has many works worth translating. But I love the premise and the plots of Kadından Kentler (Cities of Women), a collection of 16 stories, each featuring a different woman in a different city in Turkey.

Mungan is a major figure in Turkey — his books become best-sellers when they appear, and just two weeks ago he received the Erdal Öz award for excellent writing (past Millions contributor Kaya Genç was a member of the selection committee). Mungan writes plays and poems and novels and music. He is openly gay and openly critical on matters political and social. He is an established member of the literary lights. (One columnist called him, somewhat pejoratively, Turkey’s answer to Truman Capote; see Nimet Seker’s biographical piece, in English, for a more substantial look at his accomplishments.)

Being a foreigner, my literary valuations are naturally suspect; sometimes I read things in Turkish and like them simply because I didn’t need a dictionary. This is not a good metric of excellence. But even while the process of reading Mungan is painful for me — my brows knit as I reach for the dictionary and try to find the verb in an artistic sentence — the strong spark of the work’s quality and interest transmits itself even to my lumbering brain.

The stories are about women’s inner lives, and their outer lives in their various cities, from Sinop to Ankara and Diyarbakir. Sometimes the happenings are small in the grand scheme of things — a newly-engaged girl strolls the Izmir pier for the first time alone. Other times, they are scandalous or macabre — a weakness for young men, a suicide by pesticide. We see the inside of people’s houses, the things in their handbags and their suitcases, their diseased family trees. The effect is voyeuristic and thrilling and sometimes grim, a literary gift to people who are prone to staring on buses and straining their ears in restaurants, trying to plumb the depths of their neighbors.

coverI know, thanks to Emily Williams, that there are myriad barriers to translating and publishing non-English language works in America. Still, other languages have a much better track record of translating Mungan — German, French, Italian, Greek, to name a few. If it’s a matter of money, the Turkish Ministry of Culture is here to help: TEDA, the Translation Subvention Program of Turkey, provides grants to publishing houses and universities for the translation or publication of works in Turkish. With assistance from this program, Cities of Women appeared in German in 2010, two years after its Turkish publication, and Chador was translated into German, Italian, and Greek. The deadline to be considered for this application period is, er, tomorrow, but applications are accepted throughout the year.

Furthermore, we Anglophones have a rare opportunity here for a bit of friendly cultural one-upmanship with the French: In a talk last summer, Mungan told the assembled that his French publishers rejected Cities of Women because they wanted to advertise him strictly as a novelist. The introduction of his stories and plays and poems to the market, they told him, would “confuse” the French people.

Certainly there’s an argument to be made against translating only the most famous people from a given place, but when the rates of translation into English are abysmal, we should be pragmatic. You need strong stuff to liberate the global Turkish literary market from the Pamuk monopoly, and Mungan has the credibility of critical and popular success, the seal of approval implicit in a long and august career. And most importantly, these stories are really great.

is the editor of The Millions and the author of The Golden State, a novel forthcoming from FSG/MCD. She is on Twitter at @lydiakiesling. You can read more of her writing at www.lydiakiesling.com.

14 comments:

  1. And, of course, we English speakers could learn a few foreign languages and bring language classes back to their prominent position in primary schools. In the future, the polyglot folk will RULE!

  2. Sorry, won’t happen. Getting someone to publish a translated novel is hard enough. Short stories are downright impossible.

  3. I think Murat Uyurkulak (Turkish author of Tol, Har, and Bazuka) is another important novelists whose works have not been translated into English. I might like to do it one day, but he has such an incredible use of language that I’d be worried of not doing him justice!

  4. Haven’t heard of this book, sounds interesting and would’ve made for read for my trip to Turkey in a couple weeks. Any other suggestions besides Pamuk?

  5. I believe that what Mungan has been doing perfectly is writing some stuff mainly based on women’s inner lives. That’s the best way to sell in this country since most of the book sales are due to women. Ahmet Altan was pioneer in this way of writing in 90s. If I recall correctly, his one book reached 500 thousand sales figure one time. Foreign publishers also tried to ‘promote’ him. He’s more political than a novelist right now. Orhan Pamuk don’t write about women but he at least talk about Armenians and Kurds once before publishing another novel as the way westerners would like to hear. That’s more politics than literal value after all.

    If any of Turkish writers deserve to be translated to other languages solely on literature, I can’t think other than Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, because he defined what to be a ‘Turkish’ novel would be since we incorporated the genre into our literary so lately. From the young generation, I can say Ihsan Oktay Anar would be great reading in any language.

  6. @Taha Well actually, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar has been translated into English, which is wonderful indeed: http://www.archipelagobooks.org/bk.php?id=37 and
    http://www.amazon.com/Regulation-Institute-Ahmet-Hamdi-Tanpinar/dp/1892381036/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1335608337&sr=8-3
    (I understand that a new translation of ‘The Time Regulation Institute’ is forthcoming)

    Further, comparing Mungan’s writing to Altan’s in this way (‘stuff based mainly on women’s inner lives’) requires obstinate ignorance about Mungan’s oeuvre from his early Mesopotamian Trilogy, to his latest masterpiece The Poet’s Novel (2011). The fact that he can write plausible, compelling and rich women protagonists and characters is nothing to trivialize, in fact, it is precisely what makes him a more masterful writer than Orhan Pamuk.

  7. I’m currently working on translating this very same book into English for my Fulbright project! Still in the beginning of the process though.

  8. Thank you for your comments and suggestions for further reading, everyone!

  9. A few stories from Mungan (or poems that read like stories) appeared in Grand Street some years back. I remember being quite impressed by them, and have been disappointed not to see anything further from him in English. Good luck, Abigail!

  10. I highly admire Mungan’s work and have been trying to translate some of his poems, which takes days and even months since his simplistic yet very complex language is not very easy to translate. After reading this book, I decided to translate it to use in one of the courses I am planning to teach (women in Turkey). It is great to know that there are people who are aware of other great Turkish writers, other than Pamuk, and taking a step forward to translate him.

  11. Hi! Partly inspired by this post, I translated a couple of Mungan’s early stories (“A Woman Called Hedda Gabler” and “Snow White Sans Seven Dwarfs”, both from the collection Forty Rooms) for my BA thesis. If anybody is interested in reading these stories, I’d love to get feedback on my work. One is only a few pages long, the other is ~30 pages.

    If anybody who’s read much Turkish literature has a suggestion of who should be translated into English, I’d really love to get more work under my belt.

    Best,
    Nathan

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