by Bill Sweet
Long a fan of the great European novels of the 19th century, Melih Levi ’15 has a treat in store for his fellow bookworms: the first English translation of an 1875 novel from his native Turkey.
Syracuse University Press has confirmed that it will be publishing an English translation of Ahmet Mithat Efendi’s 1875 novel Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi. Melih Levi and Monica M. Ringer, associate professor of history and Asian languages and civilizations, are co-translators. According to Ringer this will be the first published translation of the book in any European language.
Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi is considered one of the first original novels in Turkish, written during the Tanzimat era (1839–1876), which saw increasing modernization and reforms blossom in Turkish culture. During this period, adaptations and translations from European literature became increasingly popular with the reading public.
The novel tells the story of two men, whom the author presents as types of the emerging modern Turk: Felâtun Bey, a spendthrift enamored with French culture who is ultimately ruined by gambling, drinking and a lengthy affair with a French actress, and Râkim Efendi, who is hardworking, frugal and responsible. As the novel follows Râkim and Felâtun through various relationships and mishaps, Râkim emerges as the hero, being able to embrace modern ideas, such as women’s rights, while retaining his Turkish identity.
“It was very popular,” said Levi. “In high school mostly, most students will encounter this novel. It asks: What is westernization? What is the right way to be modernized? In two different characters there are different ways in which you can experience the two cultures.”
Ahmet Mithat Efendi “uses a lot of European techniques from Victorian novels, French novels especially, but at the same time he brings in elements of the Turkish theatrical tradition and Sufi or Turkish poetry. It is an authentic combination,” said Levi.
The translation project developed as a collaboration with Ringer, who shares Levi’s interest in the literature of 19th-century Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. The two worked from editions of the novel written in the original Ottoman Turkish and a modern Turkish adaptation.
Levi credits Ringer as co-translator. “She’s an expert on 19th-century Ottoman history—Middle Eastern history as well. She knows Turkish; she knows Ottoman,” he said. “I think it was very rewarding to work with her, to ask historically informed questions about the translation. I was more confident having her presence alongside [me] as I was doing this.”
"We had a lot of fun translating the idioms," said Ringer. She said it was an incredibly involved process --the two had been at work on the translation since Levi's first year at Amherst-- which benefitted from having a native speaker of each language directly involved.
Levi recently completed his travels as part of Amherst’s Schupf Scholars Program. He was able to journey to and from Turkey for his research, and has also studied literature at Oxford and the German language in Munich. His travels ended with a trip to Prague.
He is the student coordinator for this year’s Copeland Colloquium, “Words in Transit: The Cultures of Translation,” a yearlong series of lectures, films, courses, theatrical performances and other events addressing issues of language in the world today.
“I think this interest in translation is one of the most worthy things that Amherst has given me. It is such a fascinating thing to do,” Levi said. “I consider myself more of a conventional translator, but I think I have also started taking a lot of liberties and exploring different fields within translation.”
“It’s one of my favorite maxims, that a text has to die before it comes back into life again in another language. And as a translator, you have to murder the thing,” he said.
Does Levi feel he’s murdered Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi?
“I think so,” he said. “I think the trick is to make it come alive again in a very similar way. And I think we did a good job.”