[Bilge Karasu] Fear With Variations

Bilge Karasu Translated by Serdar Metin Translation Notes on “Fear with Variations” In the following report, I will try to describe the translation process of “Çeşitlemeli Korku” (Fear with Variations) and justify the initiatives taken. First, I will give a brief overview of Bilge Karasu’s literary stance and his works in general. Unfortunately, I will […]

[Bilge Karasu] Fear With Variations 8

Bilge Karasu
Translated by Serdar Metin

Translation Notes on “Fear with Variations”

In the following report, I will try to describe the translation process of “Çeşitlemeli Korku” (Fear with Variations) and justify the initiatives taken. First, I will give a brief overview of Bilge Karasu’s literary stance and his works in general. Unfortunately, I will not be able to provide a bona fide academic work with solid references –its scope exceeds this report. Thus, it should rather be taken as a partial overview, aimed to give a rough impression on the literary context of the author, from the translator’s point of view.

Second, I will elaborate on some of the words and grammatical structures on which I took the liberty to improvise while translating (or “recreate in English”, if you will), for they had no counterparts in the target language. Before beginning, I would like to state that I had immense fun and learned a lot translating. For this reason, I would like to thank for the liberty provided.

Bilge Karasu lived between 1930-1995. He was one of the pioneers of literary revolution in 1970’s Turkey. We do not know much about his life, probably because he chose it that way. We know that he was homosexual. I felt the necessity to mention the fact, because the theme is apparent in a couple of his works, which by that time is quite a radical notion to make public. It can said to be one of the characteristic themes in his literary work, which he obviously saw no harm to include an anecdotal texture. The rumor has it, he was one of the first conscientious objectors in Turkey, but I wasn’t able to verify or falsify it. Nevertheless, one thing that is certain is that he was a humble but a radical figure. All his life, he remained a research assistant, for some reason, again, unknown.

His first storybook, “Troya’da Ölüm Vardı” was published in 1963. The book consisted of stories concentrated around the themes such as inner contradictions of the modern individual, manly love and friendship, and jealousy. The book was translated to English with the title “Death in Troy” and it is one of the two pieces by Bilge Karasu which has been translated into English, the other one being “Night”, the title of which is an exact translation.

Karasu, generally refers to his pieces as what may be translated as “texts” or “scriptures”, if you will, for he denies to squeeze them into a predefined literary genre, for which he seems to have a right because these text generally do not follow the conventional literary forms; they rather oscillate in between poetry, prose and drama. All of his works seem to be thematically and loosely tied like the pieces of a puzzle, both within and in between, waiting to be solved. Yet each one of them also stands independently as solid literary works.

The literary revolution of the 70’s Turkey brought about the themes like individual liberty, freedom, modern contradictions and the like. It was a general movement extending from poetry to story writing and novel writing. The authors of the time stressed the importance of emancipation from the old linguistic structures and tradition, and create new words and expressions to stimulate the reader. Bilge Karasu was very much in defense and practice of this front. He exploited the opulence of suffixes in Turkish to the brim, to come up with new words. He actually refuses to use words borrowed from Persian and Arabic. Instead, he composes words with word bodies of Turkish origin, and suffixes. Occasionally, he also would prefer to use an invented word in place of an already existent conventional one of Turkish origin. Departing from the fact, I am inclined to think (or maybe hear, for that matter), it is not just for the literary preference and the function, but also for the melody and the rhythm.

As the challenges are laid out above, I may proceed to discuss the translation process. On my way to translate the text to English, the first issue I had to deal with was the invented words. These are theoretically possible but traditionally unused words. It is a difficulty to create these words in English. But on the other hand, I tried to keep loyal to the essence of the text so I did not hesitate inventing English words in place of a conventional Turkish word; and also to use a conventional English word, for an invented Turkish word. But it turned out that majorly, the invented words are best accounted for with invented words, and there generally is a good word in English for every conventional word used in the text.

One thing that strikes me is the ease of the process as compared to my expectations. Probably, not foreseen, the free association/stream of consciousness technique employed in the very conception of the text, makes it easy to rebuild the essence of the text in another language, for they are the concepts -rather than their implementations in a given language- that is essential.

Actually, Bilge Karasu makes this point very explicit in one of his texts, where he elaborates on stream of consciousness and the nature of ideas, and goes on to state that for him, the process of thinking is not done by means of words, but smaller entities, whose borders are not (and ontologically cannot be) well defined.

There are, however, a couple of words I had great difficulty translating. Here is a small glossary for them:


Gönül: This is probably one of the most intricate words in Turkish. It can be translated as heart, and I translated it as such, but it should be made explicit that, though subtle, there is a difference. The Turkish word that corresponds to heart one-to-one is kalp, because it inheres both the anatomical and the romantic reference. Kalp is Arabic in origin and has been quite frequently used in the old Turkish/Ottoman literature. Gönül, on the other hand, is exclusively abstract (i.e. one cannot have a “gönül surgery”) and it extends to the spiritual, surpassing the mere romantic.

In other words, kalp, as well as gönül, has powerful connotations in the abstract level. Gönül should be considered as being a restriction of kalp, concerning their reference sets. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that restriction of a word can be more sophisticated and powerful in sense, as compared to its inclusive counterpart.

Çıdam: This is a very old word in Turkish origin. In fact, it is quite unlikely that a native Turkish speaker picked in random will know its meaning. Well, I did not, to begin with. Originally it means toughness, and not unrelatedly it also means patience. It turns out that enduring corresponds almost one to one. I used a lot of variations of this word, as does the author in Turkish.

Yerleşmek: The word literally means to be positioned (somewhere). But in English, it does not have the same connotations. Yerleşmek is more like to create a place for itself to stay for good (i.e. to move to a flat). In the specific context, I used to sprout. It sounds more loyal to the sense of the original use.

Al & Boz: These words, I couldn’t really deal with. They mean take and break respectively. Break not in the sense of dividing a solid object into two or more parts, but as in the sense of breaking a mechanism or a toy. Alternatively, they can also mean red and dun, again, respectively. In the original text, since the more frequent use is the verb forms, the reader is caught on the wrong foot. The reader is lead to think that the words are meant in the sense of the color names, until s/he sees the following word, black, only to realize that the preceding words were meant in their verbal senses. I have put the alternative meanings of the words within parentheses.

Sonra: The word has three interrelated meanings. It can either be translated as later, then, or beyond. In the text, it was used in all three senses but keeping it fixed seemed more convenient. I preferred beyond since the immediate meaning is rather spatial. In addition, beyond is somewhat more suitable to be used in temporal sense; as compared to the other two are in spatial sense.

Oysa: This word, I really do not know how to translate. I used the phrase “yet curious” as it seems to be the closest expression. Oysa is intrinsically pointing to a dichotomy, or even a paradox. It gives you the sense that the following statement is the case, where for some reason it really shouldn’t be! A similar word is halbuki, which is a compound word, binding a phrase of three words “hal bu ki”, which may be translated as “so the situation is”. In a sense, they point to a contingency, which, for some reason, is illogical and, maybe also, uneasy or unlucky to accept!

Hiçlik: It is roughly nothingness and I translated it so. But actually it is more involved a word. Nothing corresponds to the phrase “hiçbir şey”. At this point the things get tricky. Thing is şey; bir is one, but it can also be used as an indefinite quantifier. So, for example, something is “bir şey”. Consequently, in order to reach hiç, you should get rid of “bir şey”, which would correspond more or less to ‘thing’, but then you are left with no, which definitely is not hiç. The reader should also be notified that hiç has immense philosophical connotations in the mysticist İslamic tradition.

These are the words I had difficulty translating. I used the structures “[noun] i was”, “[noun] i was like”, “[verb] not” instead of their canonical uses, in order to maintain the crescendo effects used in the original text. Occasionally, I had to change the ordering of the words and/or phrases in the original text in order to preserve the meaning and the structure. The change of ordering rarely exceeded the borders of a given indented chunk. I stayed loyal to the punctuation and capitalization of the letters. I just added a small number of commas to disambiguate, which should not count up to five.

To sum up, it was a very fruitful work for me. I learned and enjoyed a lot doing it. I hope the reader also benefits so reading it. ✪