professional behavior

“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” [william blake]


1. “being a translator is nothing like being an ordinary reader, it’s the most intimate means of entering into the author’s inner world.” I never really liked big talk, and was completely disgusted by the cliché Necdet Sezai Balkan kept employing in an eƒort to flatter me. It had been a long time since I was kicked out of the profession, I was no longer a working intellectual. But Necdet Sezai didn’t need to know this, and for some reason I derived great pleasure from his thinking that I still translated.

“What translator really gives a damn about the author’s inner world?” I asked.

“Don’t say that, I think being a translator is really something . . . Being capable of recreating a work of art in a diƒerent language, moving so rigorously through an author’s inner world, don’t tell me that isn’t something!”

I had left the house hoping to find a drugstore (that accepted Medicaid), but then Bahadır called and so I diverted my route to the city center. My father had been discharged from the hospital that morning and had been

brought home to die in peace. There was still an hour before I was supposed to meet Bahadır at Sarmasıklı Kahve, so I wandered around Bar Street for a while. I had just decided to sit down somewhere when I bumped into Necdet Sezai. Unable to refuse his polite invitation, I plopped down across from him.

The weather was decent enough to sit outside, so they’d scattered a few tables out front. There was nothing on the table when I arrived, but then Necdet Sezai soon had an order of Mexican steak, two egg rolls, and a huge bowl of Caesar salad. Me, I just ordered a beer. After his second egg roll, Necdet Sezai ordered a beer as well.

A heated discussion was underway at a nearby table. Two young men, their ties loosened, were getting louder by the minute. Between the two sat a brunette with higher self-esteem than either, about thirty, who preferred to remain silent. One of the men, the one who looked a little less temperamental, was expressing his belief that we, as a nation, needed to adopt a more aggressive attitude; we needed to get out there and take immediate action in the world. The other, who had a prominent forehead that stuck out so far he must have had no trouble at all butting it into other peoples’ business, thought instead that delivering peace and solidarity to far away countries was absolutely none of our business and that interfering with the internal aƒairs of other countries was in violation of international law.

I had no idea what it was precisely that had started this argument. I soon realized, however, that Necdet Sezai was no longer talking to me, but listening to the conversation at the other table. Watching the two young men—now getting really agitated—he kept rolling his eyes back and forth, like a moderator on a debate show.

Suddenly he pushed aside his empty salad bowl and announced: “Fine, but what do we gain?” He didn’t look at the other table as he said this, although he was addressing them, not me. “What do we gain?”

Then, in an astounding display of agility, he grabbed his beer, rose to his feet, and lifted his glass into the air, in a single gesture, toasting the other table. He looked as if he was preparing for a long tirade. The latest version of Young Werther, vigorous but grave. Alyosha Karamazov’s teacher Zosima, mortal but wise. A portrait of Franz Liszt playing the piano, attractive despite his long nose. The fact that he was dressed like some hick did nothing to spoil the scene; after all, his short-sleeved green shirt and jeans almost matched.

Necdet Sezai was excellent at making ordinary events look extraordinary, no matter what the circumstances. For a moment there, the young men didn’t know what to do. How were they to respond to this friendly and noble attempt of a stranger—past middle age, a venerable old uncle—trying to look and act as young as they (and who was probably a lunatic into the bargain)?

Giving in, they raised their glasses in return, hoping to appease him. What about the woman who was sitting with her back turned to us? She didn’t raise her glass; she turned to Necdet Sezai and cracked a tiny smile. More eƒective.

“To go or not to go,” said Necdet Sezai, leaning toward the other table a bit more, “to go or not to go, isn’t this also a literary problem, going back hundreds of years? If we do go, what will we gain? Shouldn’t we be talking about this? Or, what if we stay? What will we get if we stay?”

The three of them together gave him a look that seemed to be asking who the hell he thought he was. The lunatic was going too far now. But N. Sezai successfully read the two young mens’ minds and so proceeded to introduce himself:

“I’m an author . . .” he said. “I’m Necdet Sezai Balkan.”

Blushing, like disciples who had come close to committing some unforgivable sin, the kids welcomed the author to their table. They even stood up to pull his chair out for him. After settling down in his seat, splaying his presence all over the place like an octopus, N. Sezai had no difficulty whatsoever in socializing with the young men and woman. He straightened his collar and tried to make his bulky body appear more slender by sitting upright.

“Guys, when graced by the presence of such a beautiful young lady, isn’t it ridiculous to be wasting time talking about such trivial nonsense?”

Having been mildly scolded, the less temperamental looking young man bought the author a beer in a bid for forgiveness; the one with the prominent forehead oƒered him some nuts, holding the bowl out like a bottle of cologne. Now I was left at the other table, all alone, drifting farther and farther away from the center of attention with every ticking second …

Human beings are social animals. When they don’t socialize, they become savage. Perhaps I didn’t start sprouting fur, but the moment I was left all alone, I became filled with the desire to dig myself down into the mud, to bury my shame. And because of this I missed a show that was really worth seeing. I failed to catch Necdet Sezai’s performance as he strove to make his way through foreign territory (or how, after showing a little courtesy, after licking oƒ the salt that the nuts had left on his bottom lip, he delicately kissed the brunette’s hand). I asked for the bill.

In spite of everything, Necdet Sezai was a sympathetic man, understanding, respectful, polite. When he saw that I was leaving, he came up to me immediately and apologized exactly three times. He took out a pen from his bag and clipped it to my shirt pocket.

“In memory of today,” he said, “as an apology . . .”

I felt so embarrassed I didn’t know what to do; I just prayed the kids weren’t watching.

Do you think this was really necessary? All things considered, it was his right, after all, to leave without notice. To head oƒ and savannah-soothe the crude, crass islets of his heart . . .

1.1. to wear the “title” of author like a badge of rank is one of the most dangerous ways on earth to achieve self-satisfaction. To write is one thing, but to be a writer, an author, to live life on earth clinging to this identity is a pathology belonging more to the field of psychology than literature. And then, when these writers know their work isn’t good enough, they take it all out on you, the “author’s friend,” that pitiful creature who has to stay fresh and interesting at all times and feed the author a steady supply of new ideas in order not to feel entirely insignificant in his presence . . . Are you too one of those pitiful creatures? If that’s the case, remain calm—no reason to panic. There’s an easy way out: just admire everything you read, without question, and find a deep, underlying meaning in it all— and you’re done.

During one of our Sarmasıklı Kahve sessions, Bahadır said to me, “You get all pissed oƒ with our local authors, but then you go and take it out on foreigners!” This was months before I got fired. He was the only person I’d shared my somewhat idiosyncratic translation theory with, convinced that he wouldn’t go out blabbing it to anyone else. For some odd reason.

Novels that set their supposed “readers” up for tidy, closed endings made me absolutely miserable. I hated all those bloodsuckers who want nothing more than to arrange their plots so as to pull oƒ one of those perfect dénouements that leave nothing at all behind save the words making up their so-called accomplishment . . .

Let’s say our protagonist is a retired police o~cer. If, for example, in the very first pages of the novel, the protagonist is described using such phrases as, “He was a man possessed,” and “A demonic glare beamed in his eyes,” and if he’s given the same tired old dialogue and personality as a million other fictional cops, all the usual signifiers to indicate that this guy—that the law!—is sick, dangerous . . . well, that’s when I really lose it. Thus, contrary to the expectations imposed upon the “reader,” and out of

pure spite, I might decide, when translating, to give our retired police o~cer—who at the end of the novel will chop up his neighbor with a butcher’s knife after a fight over the garden fence—with a chance to perform the most wonderful, the kindest deed the world has ever known.

Or, for example, I once kept a character alive until the very end of a novel, writing all his parts myself, since the “real” author had killed him oƒ shortly after creating him, probably thinking he wouldn’t contribute much to the plot. And, look, all our “readers” really liked him, and a renowned critic even wrote (in a very respected newspaper, with a very high circulation) that my creation “mirrored” both Proust’s multidimensional characters and Beckett’s strange and miserable parodies.

And just like I didn’t approve of everyone’s obsession with neat, closed endings, I also couldn’t stand it when there were huge gaps left in a story. Eƒects like that are nothing more than buƒoonish displays of incompetence— the sort of trick an author incapable of finishing oƒ a proper essay would fall back on, under the guise of being profound. A total disgrace. (Who the hell did I think I was?) I reconstructed all the structures that the postmodernist writers I translated had deconstructed, I filled in all the gaps they had left, one by one, took out all the flashbacks I found unnecessary, changed settings, plots, dates, and sometimes even got so carried away that I’d sprinkle in a few poetic lines of my own, in raptures.

“Isn’t there anyone who checks your translations, goes over them or something?” Bahadır asked.

“Of course there is. An editor who doesn’t speak a word of German . . .”

I’ve never used any unpleasant words like “ruin,” “tinker,” or “rewrite” to discuss what I did when I was a translator. I think the word that best describes my activities might be “correction.” Or maybe “revision” . . . or how about “polishing”? . . . But look, whichever sounds the least criminal, that’s the one I’d like to go with.

I was freeing the characters of the novels I translated from the roles they had been assigned, letting them out of the cages they’d been locked inside. I was rewriting the novels, yes, making them far better and more eƒective than they ever could have been on their own.

However, of all the many authors whose works I “revised,” there’s one I find particularly noteworthy: the famous German writer Judith Woh mann. I give Wohmann the most credit. She played a major role in my ascension from translating to authorship.

“Oh wow, so Wohmann got the big prize after all,” said Bahadır. “Unbelievable.”

I had banished this prize thing from my mind a long time ago. All I was thinking about was starting my own work, my own writing . . .

“When you try to do something, really do it, you have to stick to it, you should never give up,” said Bahadır. “I mean, if you’d shown some respect for your work, if you had just played by the rules, you’d be counting your money by now.”

“You’re right Bahadır, I totally agree with you. But let me ask, when did you ever stick to anything?”

“It really doesn’t matter what you try to do, what matters is that you be persistent and never give up trying,” he said. “I mean, all your complaints, all your bitterness . . . the insults . . . maybe it’s just an easy way out . . .”

1.2. changing the rules of one’s profession might seem somewhat capricious, maybe even immoral. But it really depends on what sort of work you’re doing. If you work at air-tra~c control, well, it can and should be considered an unforgivable crime to give your pilot incorrect information, since passengers’ lives are at stake. In such cases, you really are obliged to follow the rules. But if you work at a job where your decisions are of a somewhat less fundamental nature, let’s say, for example, a grocer, then a little mendacity is a must. How many tomatoes in a crate do you think are actually edible? If you’re a grocer, you know very well that half the crate will always be full of rotten tomatoes. Customers naturally want you to give them the edible ones, so they do their best to believe that you, as a grocer, meet their high standards: they expect some dignity, some honesty of you. Let them have their expectations. After all, that’s what a customer is: an animal crouched in expectation. Never let them choose their own tomatoes. One kilo of tomatoes, please: half of it to meet your customers’ expectations, the other half a mass of putrescence. For a grocer to live in this world as a mass that isn’t itself rotting away, he must be faithful first and foremost to this basic law.

“They’ll find out what you’re up to one day,” Bahadır had warned me. “Can’t you stay faithful to the original even a little?

Judith Wohmann, it was all her fault; I became completely obsessed with her. It’s no exaggeration to say that I translated her entire corpus, seven novels, including her second, The Falcon’s Screech, which introduced her to readers in our country, The Society of Secrets (the first edition sold out entirely), The Homeland of a Wanderer (the talk of the town for days and days, you must remember), and The Transcendental Numbers of Love, which is what finally won her a large female readership. Her publisher considered me an expert and sent every newly released Wohmann novel straight to me.

With every novel I took my self-appointed mandate to interpret the text however I pleased that much further. I did what I could to ruin The Falcon’s Screech, but I completely wrecked The Society of Secrets. The strange thing is that no one noticed; the sales never changed. And since I saw that her readers’ admiration was only increasing book by book, I lost all self-control and began to adopt all sorts of new methods. I even went so far as to sabotage the titles. Still, for whatever reason, from time to time, an author comes along before whom that mysterious community we persist in calling “readers” finds itself entirely helpless. No matter what I did, you “readers” loved Judith Wohmann.

You remember the character who kicked the bucket in the very first pages of a novel? The one I insisted on keeping alive for every one of the remaining 382 pages—the one who was declared by the critics to be nothing less than a perfect combination of Proustian and Beckettian personae? Well, you see, that was the old and miserable Colonel Enke from The Society of Secrets . . . I don’t even know why I took such a liking to that ridiculous character; maybe I just found it a bit too familiar, too much like a bad movie to have him put to death by the other members of his absurd little club for revealing their secrets to the public. His brief appearance in the novel—or rather, his brutal assassination scene, since that was all he had- was nothing more than an empty embellishment. The Colonel had no claim to being a part of the story; the plot would have clattered along with or without him.

In this respect, I thought, he was like Garfield—I mean the cat. His presence or absence made no diƒerence to the rest of the text. Nevertheless, he felt that he had a legitimate right to sit there, to do nothing more than waste space. So Colonel Enke was a sort of literary Garfield. Yet Garfield, the original, was alive and well, despite his uselessness, his obso les cence—giving orders, playing colonel, and being well paid for the privilege.

So why shouldn’t the “real” Colonel Enke live too?

Wohmann didn’t agree. Enke needed to be punished. He had to be slaughtered mercilessly in the basement of the apartment building where the Society had set its trap, then stuƒed in a sack and dumped into a river. The river’s powerful current would sweep Enke away, pushing him out to sea, to be lost forever in its mighty, its glorious waters, somewhere near the shores of Wilhelmshaven. This was Wohmannesque symbolism and it meant: You may be a soldier, an individual who has the discipline he needs in his professional life, but if you can’t keep a secret (and, according to Wohmann, not knowing how to keep a secret means not having faith in oneself, and there’s no room for nonbelievers among people who’ve banded together for a purpose—there never could be), you’ll disappear into the sea, into oblivion: not worth remembering.

And then, following the murder, their spirits raised after having banded together to expunge a parasite like Enke, the Society of Secrets worked nonstop to create new secrets and cultivate more mysteries within its ranks . . . These secrets could be quite simple and personal, or they could be about high-positioned members, or even aƒairs of state. The whole point was to keep secrets for their own sake. Keeping a secret means challenging the whole world. All the tragedies that have ever befallen humanity were caused by loose lips; the only thing that’s kept the world intact is the existence of secret alliances, mysterious links between people or communities. Nothing should be revealed, everything should be hidden, and there should be no such thing as “common knowledge.” At the end, at the very end, when all the little secrets come together, the world itself will become nothing but one big secret. And when the day comes for that big secret to be revealed, everything will at last be known. According to Woh mann, this was the only way to solve the numerous problems plaguing us today.

Anyway, I felt sorry for the Colonel. I just couldn’t kill him oƒ. So I didn’t.

To tell you the truth, Wohmann had overdone Enke a bit; he was a busybody, sloppy and unstable, a coward and a tattle-tale. The character was falling apart at the seams from the get-go; all soggy like a marshmallow, seeping away like a punctured sack of rice. I had to take immediate action. Incapable of keeping his big mouth shut, Colonel Enke was giving away very important secrets, including a certain critical one that might change our future forever, change all of our futures. Okay, big mistake. But was it really necessary to hammer home with such awkwardness that he would have to pay for this with his life, and from the very first page?

I translated the novel without tampering up until the page where the Colonel got slaughtered. And because I didn’t have the energy to go back and make corrections (plus, of course, this would have been disrespectful to the source text, and thus to Wohmann), I only did revisions on the pages following; I kept the Colonel alive for another 300 pages, when he was supposed to leave the stage on page 82 . . .

It wasn’t that di~cult to find a solution to his revelation of the big secret. I made the person the Colonel blabbed to an active member of the society, which meant that the secret had now never left their community. But I still made the Colonel carry the heavy burden of his transgression until the very end of the book. All those secrets were constantly at the tip of his tongue. Congenitally unable to keep his mouth shut, he could have let out a big secret at any moment, start blabbing about the wrong things at the wrong time. But as Enke lived on, always on the verge of revealing his secrets but always coming to his senses at the very last moment, just as he was about to make the same mistake twice, the suspense in the text grew overwhelming, and so our “readers” were simply swept away.

The Society of Secrets sold more copies in this country than it did in Germany— people loved it! Wohmann had thrown in a character that no reader would be upset to see dead, using him as nothing more than a side dish. Whereas I had created a new and multidimensional character who was allowed to live on, to hit both readers and critics right where they hurt.

The honorary guest at that year’s book fair was Judith Wohmann, so you can do the math yourself as to just how successful my translations turned out to be. It was right about the time when her philosophical work, The Number Pi: A Romance, came out. Just about everyone, serious and more pedestrian “readers” alike, remembers The Number Pi: A Romance. Pi (.) is said to be the ratio of a circle’s area to the square of its radius, or, spelled out, three point fourteen something. But according to Wohmann’s philosophy, love could have no fractions or remainders. The novel was divided into three separate chapters, was narrated by three diƒerent narrators, had three main characters, and quite surprisingly, had three diƒerent endings of which each “reader” could have their own interpretation.

My problem was that the plot of the novel left no room whatsoever for “corrections” or “revisions.” Thus, I was deprived of all possible means whereby I could relieve my frustration. The structure of the novel, enslaved entirely to the number three from page one, rendered any intervention whatsoever utterly impossible. At one point I even seriously considered replacing the number three with another cardinal number, any cardinal number. Like thirteen for example, bringing in the concept of bad luck and all. But it wasn’t long before I realized this was impossible. Starting from scratch with the number thirteen* (writing/shaping/creating thirteen chapters/narrative perspectives/characters)1 would have been a massively cumbersome undertaking, and the patient only had a couple of critical months left (to put it in medical terms) before Wohmann arrived. That’s when I really began to pick up on how much I loathed her. I hurled curses at the one and only author who had succeeded in screwing me over; the worst things I could think of. I can say now that The Number Pi: A Romance was the only novel I ever translated that truly remained faithful to the original. I had, I think, been outsmarted.


* Here I attempt a new, mathematically derived technique which will come as a relief to those writers who fall prey to excessive repetition in their texts. It is called the “paranthetical equation.” By confining certain expressions to parentheses rather than repeating them thousands of times, I do believe it would be possible to reduce tree consumption to far more desirable levels.

If you would like to read more from “the theory of infirmity” you can reach extended summary from here.