Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Elif Shafak's Journey between Languages

Most of you might know how strongly I always objected to people saying that one can only write in his or her own native or first language. I am now so relieved to read Elif Shafak's column of 17 March. For those of you who cannot read Turkish, I would like to share some of her views here. Shafak starts her article explaining how people like to ask her why she is writing in English, and even sometimes argue that by writing in English, she becomes a writer of English language literature. "It isn't so!" she says and argues that today, when so many people are living and growing up and get educated in different languages, live in different countries, move so much, we shouldn't put people into such narrow categories. Elif Shafak is writing both in English and in Turkish, not only is this important for the author, but it is for the reader. I don't feel the same when I read her work when the original version is English (like The Bastard of Istanbul or The Saint of Incipient Insanities) or Turkish (like Mahrem or Bit Palas). I always prefer to read books in their original written language, the same goes when I watch movies. Whenever possible, I prefer the original version. And in case of Elif Shafak's work, I can join her in the journey between languages because luckily, I understand both Turkish and English. I sometimes have more trouble understanding Shafak's work in Turkish because she uses a very elaborate vocabulary with many ancient Turkish words (I love to learn by the way!). And this is what I love about her work, this "journey between languages" as she likes to put it. It is also a journey for her readers, at least it is for me.

Her last novel published in Turkey and in Turkish, Ask (pronounced "Ashk", meaning "Love") is the example of such an adventurous and passionate journey. Shafak has written the novel in English and had it translated into Turkish by Kadir Yiğit Uz. Then she reworked on the Turkish version, so in a sense, Ask "has been written again". In her column, Shafak also fairly explains that it isn't an easy task for a writer to express him or herself in a different language and that it would simply be madness if one wouldn't simply love working like that. She offers a wide range of examples of writers who have been writing in different languages and in languages which aren't their first, like Nabokov, Beckett, or Conrad (whose English Virginia Woolf heavily criticized). Well yes, they are all among the best writers of the 20th century so no doubt that were successful.

I am fascinated by languages and I myself speak five. I do certainly not master them all the same way but all of them open different doors of the world to me, make me experience different cultures, teach me different visions and ways of life, and offer me such a wide range of possibilities to express myself. So I think I do know what Elif Shafak is sharing with her readers and I do applaud her for the way she shakes herself, her readers and literature to its very core.

Elif Shafak's column in the Newspaper Zaman appears twice a week.

1 comment:

Erinc Salor said...

I wish all dogmas could be as easily debunked and disregarded as the claim that one should stick to his/her 'native' language for artistic expression.