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Maureen Freely on translation, Istanbul and Orhan Pamuk in NYRB


Don’t miss Archipelago translator Maureen Freely’s beautiful essay “Seeing Istanbul Again” on the New York Review of Books’ blog.

Ara Güler/Magnum Photos
Ara Güler/Magnum Photos

Years later, when I was translating Orhan Pamuk’s memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, I would read his passage on childhood daydreaming and feel the chill of recognition. Orhan the little boy would often be parked with his sedentary grandmother for whole mornings. He would sit on a straight-backed chair and construct elaborate (and elaborately) other worlds, from which he could emerge instantly, just like that, should his name be called, knowing that when he was once again free to return to those worlds, they would be there waiting for him, just as he’d left them.

I felt the same way whenever I was summoned back to the everyday after a few hours of translating. I could close the door on the world of the text, knowing that it would be exactly the same when the time came to return to it. What I felt next was not very different from what Orhan had felt as a young boy, after days and days in his grandmother’s salon, with its heavy, impenetrable drapes. Stepping back out into the bright sunlight, we were both momentarily blinded.

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BOOK CURRENTS: Tanpinar & the Istanbul protests

Image Courtesy of Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press 

To launch BOOK CURRENTS, a series of posts that looks at current events through international literature, we asked one of our interns, Scott Beauchamp, to use one of our books to briefly reflect on some of the political unrest that’s happening in the world. He chose Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s A Mind at Peace:


The connection between literature and current events isn’t always obvious. Sometimes, like in the case of The Great Gatsby, we only realize the social importance of a work in retrospect – with time and circumstance giving us enough perspective to understand what a book might mean politically or socially. In other cases, works are so very personal (or sometimes, in the opposite direction, mythical) that they seem to come from a world where newspapers don’t even exist.


Usually though, great works simultaneously comment on both our shared experiences as well as those of the individual, enriching and deepening our understanding of each. A Mind At Peace, by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, for instance, is a wonderful example of a work that does just that. It’s a love story, a lyrical ode to Istanbul, and a novel of ideas – and it expresses itself in a voice both intimate and social. It shows us, not only what it was like to live in Turkey during the turbulent years of radical Kamalist political and social change – but also how people existed in the aftermath of those changes.


One is reminded of those radical historical changes as the protests that began in Taksim square continue to strengthen and spread through Istanbul and other Turkish cities. It originally began as a protest to keep public green space from being turned into a mall, but has since grown diffuse. Changing from a bid by citizens to assert local control over their community, it has become a nebulous and multifaceted articulation of a much larger concern – how Turkey will remain both modern and itself at the same time. This is the very issue, in fact, that Tanpinar writes about.


It’s something that’s worth remembering, as we read headlines of protests in Turkey and elsewhere around the world – how important literature is to our understanding of what’s happening now. It’s much more than just “News that stays news”, as the famous saying goes. It’s about connecting emotional depth with cultural knowledge in such a way that we’ll be able to acknowledge the limitations of our understanding, and at the same time desire to understand more.