TLS ONLINEOCTOBER 15, 2018
Millefeuille of civilizations
Yasmine Seale on the reception and translation of Homer in Turkey
In Renaissance Europe, Turks were often associated with Trojans. One story had Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, write to the pope to express his surprise that the Church did not support his attack on the city. For although its defenders were Christians too, he reasoned, both Turks and Italians were descended from the people of Troy, and “it concerns me as well as it does them to revenge the blood of Hector upon the Greeks”. Among Ottoman Turks themselves, the idea of such a parentage gained credence from the 1870s, when archaeological digs focused attention on the actual site of Troy. The Iliad and the Odyssey — the origin stories of European civilization — could now be firmly linked to a real place, under Ottoman rule, at the mouth of the Dardanelles strait. It was only a short leap to claiming Trojans as the aboriginal people of Anatolia, and the Homeric epics as a part of Turkish heritage.
If a romantic attachment to ancient Greek culture had sent Europeans to their shovels, in the Ottoman case it was the opposite: research into the place generated an interest in the poems. In 1886 Naim Frashëri produced the first Iliad in Ottoman Turkish (he would do the same, a few years later, in Albanian) and wrote in his preface: “Although in the past both the siege and the destruction of Troy were thought to exist only in the imagination, the excavations in the area have confirmed and strengthened the contents of the Iliad”.
All translations are partial; some are more partial than others. Responses to classical literature in the last years of the Ottoman Empire were coloured by the rising tide of Turkish nationalism. Ömer Seyfettin, who spent a year in Greece as a prisoner of war in 1913, and whose short stories portray Greek characters in a negative light, made his own version of the Iliad. (Early translators of Homer into Turkish, more concerned with what transpired at Troy than in the journey home, tended to leave out the Odyssey.) This was less an act of philhellenism than an attempt to forge a Turkish canon – he wrote an essay called “Why Have We No National Literature?” – by reclaiming the Trojans, who had, much like the Turks of the early twentieth century, resisted a Greek invasion. It was also a laboratory for a simplified version of the Ottoman language; Seyfettin avoided Arabic and Persian loan words and sought to bring his writing in line with the spoken language of Istanbul.
The desire for both a national literature and a simple language became official policy after the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. As head of the “grammar and syntax section” of the Turkish Language Committee, Ahmet Cevat Emre translated the Odyssey into the new Turkish he was helping to create. The state-led turn to antiquity was bound up with the young nation’s fantasies of Western modernity. As the minister of education Hasan Ali Yücel put it, “The roots of the civilisation we want to be a part of are in ancient Greek”. In 1940, Yücel launched a campaign to translate Western classics into Turkish, with an emphasis on ancient Greek literature. That decade, the most translated author in Turkey was Plato
“Cultures that do not go through an intense age of translation”, Yücel wrote, “are doomed to dry up like unblessed earth and remain barren.” Crucial to the intensity of the age was a cohort of Jewish intellectuals who fled Germany in the 1930s and, finding havens in Turkey’s new universities, helped enshrine the study of ancient languages and literature. At the confluence of both these movements – the state-sponsored push for translation and the grafting of European classical knowledge into new soil – was Azra Erhat, who became one of Turkey’s leading classicists and translators.
At the University of Ankara, Erhat studied under Leo Spitzer and became the assistant of Georg Rohde, who went on to set up the Classics department at the Free University of Berlin. Her originality as a scholar lay in combining the rigorous training she received with the ability to conjure the world of the text beyond its historical or linguistic value. Ambivalent about the methods of traditional German scholarship, she wrote that the philologist should not simply be “a library on feet”, but should bring feeling and understanding to the study of literature.
The political tide was turning against the intellectuals Yücel had fostered; Erhat lost her professorship in 1948 for her leftist activities. Forced from the academy, she began to travel Turkey’s western shore in the company of other writers, and it was here that she came to see Anatolia as a millefeuille of civilizations, and – perhaps her most important insight – the land itself as generative of culture regardless of who inhabited it. Blue Anatolia (1960) and Blue Voyage (1962) are accounts of her wanderings along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts made up of anecdotes, mythological stories, observations on local culture, etymologies, the night sky and ruins. Her communion with the ancient world did not rest on some fictitious blood lineage, but on the sense that this corner of the earth was a rich fountainhead from which modern Turks had the fortune to drink.
As well as her translations of the Iliad (1958) and the Odyssey (1970), she produced Turkish versions of Hesiod, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Sappho, and a collection of essays called Government of Love. Her translations of Homer drew on Anatolian vernacular, suggesting an imaginative continuity between the ancient inhabitants of Anatolia, the subjects of Homeric legend, and the idiom of contemporary Turks. Having seen her country become a refuge to émigrés from fascist Europe, Erhat was attuned both to the dangers of nationalist appropriations of the past and to the Greco-Roman bias among Western scholars. On the legends around the Mediterranean, she wrote: “We think of them as Greek or Roman, since they were written in Greek and Latin. But these mythologies were born neither in Greece nor in Italy; they were born in Anatolia, Crete, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia or Egypt . . .”. Trained in the old philological tradition, she came to argue for a more capacious definition of antiquity, its study governed by love.
Yasmine Seale is a writer and translator living in Istanbul.