Bringing the Best Western Classical Literature to Turkish Masses
On October 29, 1923, the day Turkey became a secular state, a revolutionary law aimed at unification, standardization, and secularization of the educational institutions (Tevhid-i Tedrisat kanunu) was passed effectively closing all the religious schools and attaching all educational institutions to the Ministry of National Education.1 Several other reforms in education followed with speed and enthusiasm. 2 Turkey's system of higher education, was thoroughly revised when the University Reform Law No. 2252 was passed in May 1933. That law closed Turkey's only existing university, the Istanbul Dar'ül fünun,3 on July 31,1933 as a means of canceling all existing faculty contracts.4 The next day, August 1, 1933, Istanbul University was opened using Dar'ül fünun's physical plant, a small fraction of its original faculty, and over 30 world renowned émigré German professors under contract and on their way to what was their only available safe haven.5 By this very act "the word and the concept of a university first entered the Turkish legal terminology and educational life." 6
The goal was to insure that the Turkish reader would have access to the "classics thereby elevating the educational level of Turkish students and creating more of a level playing field for them vis-à-vis western students. At a Congress involving many of Turkey's outstanding intellectuals, the decision was made to create a bureau for the translation of the most important works of the world's literature within the Ministry of Education.
One of the émigré scholars instrumental in taking those steps was Georg Rohde (1899-1960). Born in Berlin, Rohde had been appointed Privat Dozent at Marburg University in 1931 where he taught classic philology. Expelled from his job in 1935 because his wife was Jewish, he accepted an appointment at Ankara University as a professor of philology of ancient languages at Ankara University. In 1940, he assisted and advised Hasan Âli Yücel in the establishment and organization of the Bureau of Translation and within a period of 10 years the Bureau published the Turkish versions of nearly 1000 world classics.7 As part of this project, 76 literary works were translated from German, 180 from French, 46 from English, 64 from Russian, 13 from Italian, 28 from Latin, 76 from classical Greek, and 23 from Persian and Arabic. Published by the Turkish Ministry of Education, they are still in print.8
While the selection was eclectic, it was systematic. The spectrum moved from East to West; from Sa'di, Celaleddin-i Rumi to Shakespeare, from pre-Moslem Arab poets to Goethe and Victor Hugo.
Marketed to the public at subsidized prices and distributed to all public libraries free of charge, the books were also distributed to the students of the Village Institutes.9
Working with Rohde on the translation project was Erol Güney. Born in Odessa, Russia, in 1914, the family fled the communists in 1920 to Istanbul where he was raised. He became a naturalized Turkish citizen and like other young men served his stint in the Turkish army during WWII. Güney was in the first class of Istanbul University when that institution was created in 1933, with the majority of its faculty comprised of intellectuals expelled by the Nazis. In Turkey, where he lived until 1955, he is well known,10 but his contributions to the country by way of the translation bureau are unknown in the English-language literature.
Güney's recollections of his years as a university student and a translator of Western Classics into Turkish are detailed in an essay he provided. Following are some excerpts:
From 1934 to 1938, I studied philosophy, French, and English literature at the newly established University of Istanbul, and it was an exhilarating and unforgettable experience.
My fellow students and I were in love with European culture, but we knew it only from books. While at this university we were in daily contact with Professors like Hans Reichenbach, Leo Spitzer, Erich Auerbach, Herbert Diekmann, and quite a few others who were the embodiment of this culture.
I had the luck to finish my studies with most of the professors with whom I started, but Leo Spitzer went to the States in 1936. Fortunately for me, Erich Auerbach, the future author of Mimesis, replaced him.
Auerbach had quite an influence on my literary taste and my career. One day, he told me, "I know that you want to be a teacher, and you certainly can do it, but I think that you would better succeed in journalism. Think about it." I did, and in the end, due to circumstances, I became a journalist and don't regret it.
Atatürk had a vision of Turkey as being part of western civilization and there is no doubt that Reichenbach, Auerbach, and all the German professors, each in his field, contributed greatly to bringing Turkey closer to the realization of Atatürk's dream.
Turkey's golden age was spurred by having the German professors. At the time, my fellow students used to say, "We must thank Hitler. Without him, most of these professors would have never come to Turkey."
Translations by Erol Güney
Recent series of classics
In Turkey today, translations from many sources are printed and sold by numerous public and private publishing houses. In 2006, the total number of (book) titles published in Turkey surpassed 20,000, undoubtedly serving the education of the Turkish students, intellectuals, and the population as a whole. The seeds sown by the Bureau of Translation, the translation of the classics, are now bearing fruit as is evident by the efforts of the İş Bank, one of Turkey's largest commercial banks, which is reprinting these translated classics as a matter of public service and using top-of-the-line publishing standards. To date the series has approximately 90 titles which are offered for sale to the public at a subsidized price. The İş Bank's Cultural Publications Department, founded by Hasan Ali Yucel himself in 1956, is keeping Yucel's dream alive.
With the Soviet Union and its various republics such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, as well as COMINTERN countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania having a common border with Turkey and /or fronting the entire northern span of the Black Sea, Turkey, a NATO country, had good cause to fear Communist aggression from without and within during the Cold War years of the 1950s.
Both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations sought to contain the Soviet Union's expansionist tendencies, viewing Turkey as a major factor in the containment. Unquestionably Turkey experienced its own version of McCarthyism. Many left-wing intellectuals and liberals were suspected of having communist affiliations. Many were persecuted and many were jailed.
As reported in the New York Times11 at the time, Guney served "as a member of the French News Agency bureau....was Ankara correspondent for the French-language afternoon paper Istanbul, and for the Turkish morning daily Vatan. He also wrote for several foreign newspapers, including the Jerusalem Post."
According to Richard D. Robinson who worked for the American Universities Field Staff Office in Ankara, on March 19, 1955, Erol Güney was taken into custody and soon thereafter "stripped of his citizenship."13 The charge against him was that "he was serving Israeli interests."14 Guney was exiled to Yozgat, a small provincial town 100 miles east of Ankara15 and 30 miles from the closest railroad station. He was
detained in Yozgat until April 21 when he was brought to Ankara under police escort. On April 24, 1955 Erol Guney was placed on a plane for Paris though his ultimate destination was Israel.16
It is to Guney's credit17 that, to this day he holds no grudges for the shabby treatment he received in Turkey during his last days in the country. It is to Turkey's credit that the country has acknowledged a dark period in its body politic and given quite a bit of visibility to its mistreatment of Erol Guney, an adopted son who contributed so much to the country's development and westernization.
Centuries after the Jews who were expelled from Spain introduced the first printing press to the Ottoman Empire,18 Jewish refugees both from communism and fascism were instrumental in the translation of a large body of western thought into Turkish and printed using the newly created Turkish alphabet. 19
Almost seventy years after the inauguration of the translation project in Turkey the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) considers the rate of book translations to be a significant indicator of societal and or national development. Its 2003 report dealing with development in the Arab world states: "The translation movement in the Arab world, however, remains static and chaotic. On average, only 4.4 translated books per million people were published in the first five years of the 1980s (less than one book per million people per year), while the corresponding rate in Hungary was 519 books per one million people and in Spain 920 books." Moreover, "This limited readership is clearly reflected in the number of books published in the Arab World, which does not exceed 1.1% of world production, although Arabs constitute 5% of the world population....In 1996 it did not exceed 1,945 books, representing only 0.8% or world production, i.e., less than the production of a country such as Turkey, with a population one-quarter of that of Arab countries."20
"Five times more books are translated yearly into Greek, a language spoken by just 11 million people then into Arabic." Arabs constitute five percent of the world population yet they produce only one percent of the world's books. .....Religious books constitute 17 percent of all books published in the Arab world compared to a world average about five percent.....No more than 10,000 books were translated into Arabic over the entire past millennium, equivalent to the number translated into Spanish each year.21
In a recent interview dealing with his role in the translation project Guney said: "We used to work 10-12 hrs a day. Goebbels22 says 'I reach for my revolver at the mention of culture'. In contrast to him, we were building a culture"23
The Translation Bureau, the Translation Journal and the translation of Classics opened up a new horizon in Turkey. This new horizon not only introduced originality to our culture and literature, and fashioned our language but also put our press in order, blazed a trail for dependence on text and concrete reality in science, brought Turkish intellectuals and artists into contact with the world's intellect, literature and art. They injected a principle of books to the writer and the reader.....Having the classics translated into Turkish was a catalyzer for the intellectuals who convened at the Yucel's translation bureau.
While Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, was making his pronouncements, "when I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver," world-class Jewish professors and other "undesirable" intellectuals were fired from their posts. While he was personally initiating public book-burning demonstrations as a matter of policy, a much different scenario was being played out in Turkey. A newly created Republic rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, an entity derelict in upgrading its own culture for over a century. Turkey's founders recognized the need of culture in a society, appreciated and acquired the very culture that Goebbels so loathed.
"Culture is the foundation of the Turkish Republic."
The author is grateful to the Turkish Cultural Foundation of Washington DC, for its funding and support, which made this paper possible.
1 See Yasemin Karakaşoğlu. "Turkey." The Education Systems of Europe. Ed: Wolfgang Hörner,
Hans Döbert, Botho von Kopp, and Wolfgang Mitter. Amsterdam: Springer, 2007. pp.783-807.
3 A former medrese turned into a university in 1912.
4 Most of its faculty were considered woefully behind western standards and some were very Islamic leaning in their teachings .
5 See Reisman, A. (2007) "German Jewish Intellectuals' Diaspora in Turkey: (1933-1955)." The Historian. Volume 69 issue 3 Page 450-478, Fall 2007; Reisman, A. (2007) "Jewish Refugees from Nazism, Albert Einstein, and the Modernization of Higher Education in Turkey (1933-1945)." Aleph: Historical Studies in Science & Judaism, No. 7, Pages 253-281, and Arnold Reisman Turkey's Modernization: Refugees from Nazism and Atatürk's Vision. Washington, DC: New Academia Publishers, 2006.
6 Katoğlu, "WERE GERMAN SCIENTISTS AND EXPERTS REFUGEES?.
7 Up to 1947, 500 classics were translated. The decision taken by the Ministry of Education foresaw 1850 additional books to be translated. Out of the 1850, 370 from French, 336, from from German 303 from English, 191 from Greek, 132 from Russian, 115 from Latin, 68 American, 77 from Arabic and the rest are from Chinese, Spanish, Persian, Portuguese, Hungarian Indian, Sweden, Norwegian etc. In addition to literature, the classics included history, philosophy and scientific works. Source: Ministry of Education Tercume, Ankara, 1947 No: 41-4.
8 Reisman, A. (2009), Turkey's Library System and Translation of Worldwide Classical Literature Policy: The Impact of Refugees from Nazism, Working paper.9 Village Institutes were established in 1940 in order to remedy the fundamental shortage of teachers in the rural areas where the literacy rate was abominably low. The students after graduating from the Institutes were to serve a given period of time in the designated villages and teach the peasants not only to read and write, but also agricultural techniques and elementary music and arts. The Institutes were extremely successful; however, after 1950 with the change of the political party in power, they, together with their creator, were accused of harboring communists or communist sympathizers and disbanded.
11 The New York Times, March 20, 1955.
12 "The case of "Erol Guney: An Account of the Arrest and Denaturalization of a Turkish Journalist." Richard D. Robinson, American Universities Field Staff, Letter from Ankara, March 20, 1955. Courtesy, Archives of the Institute of Current World Affairs, Washington, DC. Pp 1-7
13 Ibid p 5
15 Ibid p 6
16 Hand written notes provided to this Author by Erol Guney.
17 Szyliowicz, J.S. (1992) 'Functionalist perspectives on technology: The case of the printing press in the Ottoman Empire" in Ihsanoglu, E. (1992) Ed. Transfer of Modern Science & Technology to the Muslim World, IRCICA, Istanbul, Turkey.
18 Reisman, A. Turkey's Modernization: pp 28, 43, 44, 74, 80, 197, 199, 258, 440 and Reisman, A. (2009), Some Current Ramifications of Turkey's Change of Alphabet in 1928. Working paper
20 http://www.rbas.undp.org/ahdr/ press_kits2003/2_AHDR03E2_FINAL.pdf Viewed July 16 2007.
21 Joseph Goebbels, a reject of the Weimar Republics military, a PhD, from the Univesity of Heidelberg and Hitler's Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda from 1933 to 1945. He was one of Adolf Hitler's closest associates and most devout followers. Goebbels was known for his zealous, energetic oratory and virulent anti-Semitism. One of his first acts was to order the burning of books by Jewish or anti-Nazi authors at Bebelplatz and he proceeded to gain full control of every outlet of information in Germany.
23 Azra Erhat, "Tercume Burosu." Sevgi Yönetimi. İstanbul: Can Yayınları, 1993.
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