by Candace Barrington
At the Medieval Academy this spring, I presented a paper on Nazmi Ağil’s Turkish translation of The Squire’s Tale, or Silahtar’in Hikâyesi. My presentation was part of Session 50, “Empires of Fantasy,” and was titled “’Myn English eek is insufficient': Translating Medieval English Insularity and Ancient Empires.” After a general introduction to the Global Chaucers project as well as its foundational premises and working methodologies, the paper then examines Ağil‘s translation.
Today, my focus is the first 205 lines of a Turkish translation of The Squire’s Tale, chosen for three reasons. First, it is thus far the only translation for which I have conducted interviews with both the translator and a reader. The translator is Nazmi Ağil, whom I met and interviewed last April in Istanbul. The reader is Leyla Zidani-Eroglu, a linguist, department colleague, and native speaker of Turkish. Her comments were based on a comparison of Chaucer’s English text and Ağil’s Turkish translation. Previous to this encounter, she’d never read any of Chaucer’s Tales. As you will see, her expertise as a linguist leaves a distinctive mark on my approach. Second, Ağil’s 1994 complete translation of The Canterbury Tales is not a word-for-word crib designed to facilitate a Turkish reader studying the Middle English text. Instead, his translation attempts to capture the Chaucerian text without betraying either it or his Turkish audience. His accessible text evokes the antiquity of the middle ages not by reaching back to Turkey’s medieval past but by tapping into the idioms and images associated with the more recent mid-twentieth-century past, a time when a sizable portion of Turkey’s population remembered the years prior to Ataturk’s secularizing policies. As far as Ağil is concerned, the days when sultans and imams dominated Turkey’s cultural landscape are distant enough to evoke a long-ago past for the readers he envisions. Because Ağil’s translation does not attempt what some would call a “faithful” rendition of the original, it might seem more suited as a way to teach us about contemporary Turkish culture than as a way to learn about Chaucer’s originary text. As I hope to demonstrate today, this unlikely candidate stands up to the challenge and has much to tell us about both of my claims. Third, I’ve chosen The Squire’s Tale, or Silahtar’in Hikâyesi because it provides a rich field of deictic moments—those moments of incommensurability when the text’s semantics are defined, limited, and reconfigured by its context. These deictic moments are particularly apparent because Chaucer and Ağil each write for an audience with a different relationship to the central characters, events, and locations in the tale. For Chaucer, his Squire, and their audiences, Cambyuskan and his court are in far-off Sartary. For Ağil, his Silahatar and their audiences, the perspective is different: Cambinskan is the grandsire of the Ottoman Empire; he fought battles just over there, and Sartary is nearby. Conversely, when a modern Turk thinks about medieval England, it isn’t the Plantagenet’s backwater kingdom on the far western edge of Europe. It is the predecessor to another great empire. Therefore, the deictic moments of place and time provide for my query two particularly intriguing entry points: first, the Squire’s “here” of the English domestic countryside between Southwark and Canterbury becomes for modern Turks the powerful British empire that the Ottomans failed to stave off and that Ataturk’s reforms sought to emulate; second, the Squire’s “now” in England’s late-fourteenth century’s emerging literary culture becomes for Turks the setting for a story that celebrates the birth of the Turks’ political and cultural dominance for half a millennium. In addition to noting the ways the Turkish perspective allows for a different understanding of Cambyuskan and his court, I’m especially interested on the deixis of place and ways inherent features of English and of Turkish create a sense of distance and proximity.
Even before we examine the translation, thinking from a Turkish perspective reorients our understanding of Chaucer’s The Squire’s Tale and provides a sense of the translation’s payoff for us. Set amidst the court of Ghengis Khan, invader and ruler on the eastern frontiers of Europe and associated in the west with cruelty and devastation, the tale perplexes modern readers with its descriptions of Ghengis Khan as extraordinarily wise and fair and noble. This Euro-centric perspective, however, comes undone when we assume the vantage point of modern Turks who trace their cultural and linguistic heritage to the Tartars and Mongols, the people led by Ghengis Khan. For the Turks, Ghengis Khan is neither an abstract figure of ferocious cruelty nor an exotic name associated with the unknown chambers of eastern sultantates. Instead, Ghengis Khan is a founding figure, whose rule marks an originary moment less like the one marked by George Washington’s presidency and more like the invasion of William I, whose subsequent rule is generally remembered as uniting and civilizing a previously fractured (and comparatively barbaric) people. So, like late-medieval Englishmen who traced so much of their political, linguistic, and literary culture to the French invader, so do the Turks, who found their identity not on the displaced indigenous peoples but on the invading Mongols. This similarity might explain, in part, Chaucer’s unexpectedly positive presentation of Ghengis Khan in The Squire’s Tale.
If we then turn to the General Prologue portrait of the Squire—or Silahter—we see that his Turkification most noticeably in explicitly Turkish word choices. Here, the Silahtar wears a local Turkish garment—a “Takiştir”—and when he tells tales, they are “Türküler” or Turkish folk tales. More understated is the shifted emphasis in the portrait. The Turkish Silahtar embodies the courtly values we find in the Middle English original, but he does them in a particularly Turkish way, emphasizing his obedience to his father rather than his courtly performances. In addition to these semantic and cultural shifts, the translation also depends upon deictic moments that exploit the fact that Turkey and England occupied two ends of the medieval map. The Turkish suffixes appended to the sites of the Silahtar’s expeditions into France emphasize a greater distance than the Middle English preposition “in”; the Turkish suffixes lend a sense of motion towards some place, thereby implying the long journey that an expedition from Turkey to France would entail. So Ağil’s Silahtar is a fighter, lover, and courtly performer, but he is primarily a loyal son with noticeable Turkish inflections.
When we turn to the tale itself, we find various ways Ağil gives his translation a certain immediacy. In addition to truly telling a “Türküler,” for his tale is certainly a tale about the Turkish past, Ağil’s Silahtar uses several strategies: he creates a correspondence between his audience and the audience in Cambinskhan’s court; he transforms indirect discourse into direct quotation; he replaces Chaucer’s impersonal “a man” with a second person pronoun; he uses idiomatic expressions; and he ascribes behavior directly to characters when Chaucer makes more general statements. He also, once again, takes advantage of the tale’s geographic deixis. The most obvious case occurs when Chaucer’s “in that lond” (5.69) becomes in the Turkish, Cambinskhan’s land, a change made so that readers are not confused when he translates Chaucer’s “in this land” (5.71) as “bizim ülkede” (62), or “in our land.” And as we saw in the portrait, the complex set of suffixes indicating location in Turkish creates precise relationships between the reader and the place names that open the tale. Ağil’s Turkish translation opens with “Tataristan’da” (1) whose locative case suffix, -da, indicates a state of rest. Its location is further identified with Tatar’s suffix –stan, which derives from the ablative case suffix, -dan, indicating motion from (Kornfilt 242). The tale’s second word “Sarray’da” (1) also includes the locative case suffix, -da, and the comitative suffix in “Rusya’yla” (2) continues that sense of the events happening nearby. That sense is further underlined by “bu savașta” (3), a phrase that does not have a close equivalent in the Middle English text and that implies a certain shared knowledge about the battle between the Tatars and the Russians. And in keeping with its national interests, the Turkish presentation of Cambyuskan doubles-down on the English Squire’s over-the-top assessment of the great khan. Beyond being “in his tyme of so greet renoun” (5.13), the Turkish Cambinskan is of such perfection, that no one comparable could be found across the seven climates and four corners of the world. And whereas the Squire’s ambiguous “fair” could describe Cambyuskan’s appearance or his probity (MED s.v. “fair,” adj), the Silahtar leans entirely towards his moral qualities and not his looks. When the Middle English Squire feels he must remind the reader that he’s been telling his reader about Cambyuskan, the Turkish Silahtar fills the line by identifying him as “hikayemizin kahramanı” (49), or the story’s hero. When the Knight presents the mirror and ring to Canacee (5.143-145), the Turkish translation includes a short phrase that shows the Knight’s efforts to ensure that his master is not seen as superior to Cambinskhan: çoban armağanıdır sultanımdan (136). This phrase literally means that “the shepherd is a gift from his sultan,” and it is used to suggest the lowliness of the gifts in comparison to the height of the Cambinskhan, his offspring, and his court.
Another telling deixis is the two different relationships that the Squire and the Silahtar have to the English language. In keeping with what we have learned about the Middle English Squire in his General Prologue portrait, when he apologizes for his rhetorical failures, his wording points to the limitations of “Englissh.” It is an insufficient language: it does not provide a speaker with the tropes necessary to describe every part of Canacee’s beauty; he must, as he demurs, speak within the limitations imposed by English. His rhetorical abilities are not great enough to overcome the limitations inherent in English. In the Turkish translation, it matters not whether English is sufficient or not to describe Canacee’s beauty. What makes more sense is the speaker’s knowledge of English, and thus the translation emphasizes the narrating Silahtar’s severe lack of English knowledge. It is not an insufficient language that impairs him but his insufficient knowledge of English that impairs him. He emphasizes his distance from English eloquence by departing from a somewhat close translation of the Middle English and closing this passage with two lines of Turkish folk idioms that are nearly untranslatable into English.
More subtle is the way the Turkish shapes the tale through demonstrative adjectives and pronouns that are inherently different from the ones in Middle English. Turkish has three levels of demonstrative adjectives: bu, șu, o. The first two correspond with English’s this/these and that/those, indicating proximity to or distance from the speaker. Turkish adds a third, o, which roughly translates as “yonder” (Kornfilt 106). In the first 205 lines of Silahtar’in Hikâyesi, “bu” appears twenty-seven times. In fifteen of those occurrences, it points to a character or object in the story, thereby reflecting Chaucer’s use of demonstrative adjectives in the corresponding passage. Nearly as frequently, it appears as part of idiomatic phrases that emphasize that these elements belong “here” or that these events took place “here,” further underlining the sense established in the opening lines that the teller and the setting of his tale are co-existent. These same demonstratives can be declined and used as demonstrative pronouns, again indicating proximity to or distance from the speaker (Kornfilt 311-313). In Silahtar’in Hikâyesi,the Turkish uses the more distant demonstrative pronoun to indicate hypotheticals or abstractions. Therefore, Canacee’s beauty (25), the height of Cambinskhan’s stature over all others (52), the knight’s rhetorical style and skill (96 -97), the faraway lands that the brass horse can take its rider (113), the enemies that could be spied via the magic mirror (129), the language of the birds (143), the wound that could result from the magical sword (152), the horse’s excellence (194 and 195), and the strange events that have prompted the court’s speculations—these are all referenced with the demonstrative pronoun indicating distance, o. The mid-distant șu appears the least often. As a demonstrate adjective, it appears only four times, and each time it introduces the next element in a process and does not deal with distance, first when it points out the next element in a process—that crank (118)—necessary for instructing the brass horse to return its rider home, next when it introduces the second gift—that mirror (124)—and later the third gift—that sword (137)—and finally when it references a second, not present, flying horse, Pegasus (208). In all four cases, these demonstratives have the sense of “the following.” Everything else is referenced or modified with bu, or “this/these” creating a sense of pointing to this place, these characters, these events. So in this passage, the main distinction is between bu and o—this close by and that yonder.
The Turkish demonstratives encourage us to revisit and rethink Chaucer’s peculiar use of demonstratives. In many ways, the Turkish translation is picking up on and emphasizing an easily overlooked distinction made in the Middle English text: Chaucer’s use of demonstrative adjectives in the first 203 lines of the tale. This Middle English passage contains only twenty-three demonstrative adjectives, and all but one—the previously mentioned “that lond”—are “this” or “thise,” suggesting an effort to create a sense of proximate closeness. That, paradoxically, is not the case. But for two exceptions [the phrase “in this world” (62), the contrasting “that lond” and “this lond” (69 and 71), the demonstrative adjectives modify either Cambyuskan (or a noun substitute) or they modify the knight and three gifts he delivered. In this passage, the Middle English “this” has the effect of pointing out the strange and the unusual, progressing from Cambyuskan, to the knight, and then to his three gifts. Used this way, the demonstrative adjective “this” is more like the nonstandard “this here” in modern English, used to connote a certain alienation from something that is supposedly nearby. [This here dog tracked mud into the house. This here Senator wants us to fund a bridge to nowhere.] In this locution, the apparent proximity that “this” and “here” would seem to intensify is undermined and lessened by repetition. “This” is “here” but not from here or at least not someone or something I lay claim to. Although Chaucer does not use the “this here” locution, he invariably limits demonstrative adjectives so that his “this” feels very much like “this here”: “Thys Tartre Cambyuskan,” “This strange knyght,” “This steede,” “This mirour,” “This naked sword.” All these demonstrative adjectives support the immediacy of the Squire’s performance, while simultaneously exposing its distant setting.
By translating The Squire’s Tale into Turkish, a language with finely drawn and unavoidable deictics of place, Ağil’s Silahtar’in Hikâyesi prompts us to look at corresponding points in Chaucer’s text and see it anew. These moments should not surprise us. We are working with a tale that already explores the compression of time and space via a magical brass horse whose mechanics instill great wonder in Cambyuskan’s court. By re-examining it through the lens of Ağil’s Turkish translation, we can see more clearly one of Chaucer’s techniques for effecting that compression.