Translators on Trial: A Form of Post-Censorship in Turkey

Censorship, General Interest, International issues, Self-Censorship

By: Inci Sariz

The effects of an ideology on translational practices can be highly visible because what is allowed and proscribed in a culture affects the immediate context in which translators produce.

Most of the time, a tension arises from the way in which changing ideological circumstances are structured into the act of translation and translated texts. Censorship, in all its external and internal forms, has proved in many periods and contexts to be one of the most common products of this tension. Turkish history of translation is no exception.

Shifting power structures and socio-political conditions since the promulgation of the Republic in 1923 have undoubtedly cast a long shadow over the cultural field, including translation. The pivotal status historically accorded to translators in Turkey has frequently put them under the spotlight and rendered translation — which is usually quite a marginalized practice especially in the Anglo-American context — quite visible.

This visibility came many times in the form of prosecution and imprisonment of translators. In the 1970s, for example, the fear of communism in the climate of the Cold War led to a massive clamp down on the left. Article 141 and 142 of the Turkish Penal Code, borrowed from Fascist Italy banning communist propaganda and organizations, provided the legal ground to prosecute and incarcerate left-leaning writers and translators, to ban and confiscate their writings and translations, and to shut down leftist periodicals and newspapers.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff
Chuck Palahniuk’s “Snuff” was one of the novels that Turkish translators were charged with allegedly distributing. Photo credit: Doubleday Publishing

Intellectual figures including translators and publishers are still facing charges on the grounds of anti-terror laws and Penal Code articles, which, this time, sparks global reaction due to Turkey’s record of freedom of expression violations. A concern for morality, which is a common ground for various censorship practices all around the world, comes to the fore in recent cases.

Turkish translators Süha Sertabiboğlu, Funda Uncu, and İsmail Yerguz, along with the publishers İrfan Sancı from Sel (who is also the recipient of 2010 International Publishers Association Freedom Prize – Special Award) and Hasan Basri Çıplak from Ayrıntı Publishing Houses, were charged with distributing obscene material under Article 226 of the Turkish Penal Code, briefly known as the obscenity article, in 2011. If found guilty, these translators and publishers face between six months and three years in prison. The obscene material in question consisted of Turkish translations of William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine (English: 1961), a classic novel of the Beat generation, Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff (English: 2008), a satire on the American pornography industry, and Guillaume Apollinaire’s erotic novel The Exploits of a Young Don Juan (French: 1911).

Not only translators but also “literariness” has been put on trial in these notorious cases. Actually, Article 226 stipulates that it does not apply to scientific, artistic, and literary works provided that access to children is prevented, which required the defendants prove the literariness of the said pieces of literature. A number of scholars from literature departments penned their expert opinion, concurring on the fact that these novels were part of world literature and could not be considered pornography.

However, the Supreme Court of Appeals resorted to the opinion of the Prime Ministerial Board for Protection of Minors from Obscene Publications, which indeed has been in existence since 1927 with no notable function, and overturned the previous acquittals. The Board deemed said translations “immoral,” “injurious to sexuality,” “repugnant,” and “incompatible with the morals of the society.” Interestingly, the prosecutor’s report also included observations about the literary value of these novels. For example, The Soft Machine, the first installment of the Cut-up Trilogy/Nova Trilogy composed in a non-linear way by using the cut-up method, was criticized by the prosecutor for “lacking narrative unity and coherence.”

Turkey was indeed condemned in 2010 for violating Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights after banning another erotic novel by Guillaume Apollinaire, Eleven Thousand Rods, in 1999. The ruling was that censorship of this novel hindered “public access to a work belonging to the European literary heritage.”

The cases of The Adventures of a Young Don Juan, Snuff, and The Soft Machine did not result in official banning and imprisonment of translators and publishers or their acquittal. Instead, a more common and possibly more effective form of censorship was encouraged: self-censorship. The cases were postponed in 2012 provided that these translators and publishers not commit the same offense again, that is “publishing further obscene works.” Both publishing houses have responded to the warning by publishing further translated novels by William Burroughs and Chuck Palahniuk since the court ruling that incited self-censorship — with no legal consequences for the time being.

Prosecuting and jailing translators, along with publishers, academics, and journalists, not only exacerbates Turkey’s already poor track record on human rights, but also expands the sites of censorship in general. After all, banning, censoring, partially expurgating, or recalling a book is the most common yet only one manifestation of state censorship.

Inci Sariz is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, working on the nexus of ideology, ethics, and translation. She has also worked as a freelance translator for the past 10 years.

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