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Features / August 14, 2018

The Curtain Sweeps Down

One of the best-selling novels in modern Turkey was published in 1950 under a male pseudonym. Here, the story of the young translator who kept her work secret for decades, but influenced a generation
The original cover of <em>Genç Kızlar</em> painted by Cindy Esteves as part of Erdem Taşdelen's project <em>The Curtain Sweeps Down</em>, 2018. Photo: Michel Brunelle. The original cover of Genç Kızlar painted by Cindy Esteves as part of Erdem Taşdelen's project The Curtain Sweeps Down, 2018. Photo: Michel Brunelle.
The original cover of <em>Genç Kızlar</em> painted by Cindy Esteves as part of Erdem Taşdelen's project <em>The Curtain Sweeps Down</em>, 2018. Photo: Michel Brunelle. The original cover of Genç Kızlar painted by Cindy Esteves as part of Erdem Taşdelen's project The Curtain Sweeps Down, 2018. Photo: Michel Brunelle.

I remember the first time I heard about Nihal Yeğinobalı’s novel Genç Kızlar on a hot summer evening two years ago. I was speaking to a friend about the master’s thesis she had written for her Translation Studies degree at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University many years before, and her casual mention of this book came as a surprise. Like any reader of novels translated from English to Turkish, I too had come across this prolific translator’s name at some point, but was unaware that she had authored any books herself. Apparently, this novel was relevant to my friend’s thesis as an example of “pseudotranslation,” a concept I’d never heard of before.

A pseudotranslation is a text presented as though it were translated from another language, even though there is no actual original document. As such, it can be regarded as a textual simulacrum that invites a discussion of the circumstances of its making and urges us to ask why an author would feel compelled to pretend there is an original text. There are countless instances of writers, many of them women, hiding their authorship by adopting pseudonyms, but what sorts of conditions would also urge them to claim that they are rendering a text accessible to readers of another language? What credibility is attributed to the non-existent original and its supposed creator that the pseudotranslation wouldn’t possess on its own, and how does this credibility validate the content of the text?

Published for the first time in 1950, the pulp novel Genç Kızlar is the quintessential example of pseudotranslation in Turkish translation studies. It is set in an imaginary performing arts boarding school in the United States called Ludlow Academy and tells the story of Beatrice Karova, Hindley Bell and Mariana Dunne, three young women who all vie for the attention of their handsome teacher Gabriel Samson. Gabriel ultimately falls in love with Beatrice, who is also smitten with him despite her uncooperative nature and all her efforts to hide her sentiments. (It would be fitting to use the Turkish word hırçın to describe Beatrice’s temperament in the novel, but I struggle to find a satisfying translation.) The two lovers ultimately have a secret affair and furtively meet in various locations around the school. We read the titillating details of their trysts, such as the moonlit night when Beatrice performs the first oral sex of her life on Gabriel. But as pleasurable as it is to read about their passionate relationship, what makes the novel so fascinating as an object of scholarly study is not really its plot. It’s the story of how it came to exist as a text, and the socio-political implications of its reception by Turkish readers.

“Sweetheart, how did you translate these racy passages?” they bashfully asked her, finding it strange for an unmarried young woman to have worked on such material.

Nihal Yeğinobalı was only 23 years old when Genç Kızlar was published in Turkey in 1950 as the work of an American author named Vincent Ewing. The literal translation of this title into English is “Young Girls,” and the English title of the non-existent original credited inside the book is The Curtain Sweeps Down—an amusing choice, given the efforts Yeğinobalı made to veil her authorship of the novel. A bright young woman from the Aegean city of Manisa, Yeğinobalı graduated in 1945 from the prestigious Arnavutköy American College for Girls, a private boarding school in Istanbul that became co-educational in 1971 when it was merged with Robert College, and which has a long list of notable alumni including Nobel laureate author Orhan Pamuk and renowned curator Vasıf Kortun. Fluent in English and well-versed in American culture as a graduate of this elite missionary school, Yeğinobalı slowly built a name for herself as a skilled translator of English-language texts. Her interest in literature, however, wasn’t limited to translation; she was also convinced that she could write a novel of merit herself. Curious to gauge the possibilities for publishing it, she casually asked the editors of the publishing house she was working with whether they would be interested in reading a manuscript she was planning to write. The editors—who, needless to say, were all older men— didn’t take her writerly aspirations seriously and told her to wait until she had some more experience in the literary world. But Yeğinobalı’s ambitions were not curtailed by these dismissals.

In the summer of 1950, Yeğinobalı went on vacation to Manisa. Her editors had asked her not to be away for too long, since they had set some deadlines to publish new novels and needed her to work on the translations. Yeğinobalı wasn’t so thrilled at the prospect of having to cut her vacation short, so she came up with an ingenious idea to extend her stay: write her own novel but pretend that she was translating it from a source that didn’t actually exist. She would tell her editors that she had come across a great story published in instalments in some old American magazines she found at her uncle’s house in Manisa. Supposedly, this story was its author’s singular work, and it had been long enough since it was printed that all copyright had expired. In order to make her ruse convincing, Yeğinobalı would mimic some translation patterns in her writing and make the plot look as though it were originally written in another part of the world. Having studied at an all-girls American boarding school in Istanbul, she reckoned she could pull off a story about a group of young girls set in the United States.

Found image of the city of Manisa, where Yeğinobalı wrote her novel, <em>Genç Kızlar</em>.  Part of Erdem Taşdelen's project <em>The Curtain Sweeps Down</em>, 2018. Photo: Michel Brunelle. Found image of the city of Manisa, where Yeğinobalı wrote her novel, Genç Kızlar. Part of Erdem Taşdelen's project The Curtain Sweeps Down, 2018. Photo: Michel Brunelle.

If the pseudotranslation undergoes a cultural transposition back into the context in which it was actually created, does it, in a sense, become the original that never was?

These plans to hide her authorship meant, of course, that she had to figure out what kind of an author would write a novel like the one she had in mind, and find an appropriate pseudonym. She wanted to write something similar to the foreign novels that she so enjoyed reading herself, without censoring her characters’ desires. She came to the conclusion that giving the author a man’s name would allow her to take more liberties with what she could make her characters say and do, and decided to adopt the guise of a male American writer whom she named Vincent Ewing. She fabricated a brief biography for him, cut out an image of some man from the French edition of Vogue as the picture of the author, and carefully weaved a plausible ploy to convince her editors. She worked with incredible discipline, and finished writing her novel within a month and a half.

Back in Istanbul later that summer, Yeğinobalı went to the publishing house and was taken by surprise when her editors greeted her with enthusiasm and told her that the book was already being typeset. They congratulated her on finding this exquisite gem of a novel and translating it into Turkish so marvellously, yet they didn’t seem to know what to make of the eroticism in certain parts of the book. “Sweetheart, how did you translate these racy passages?” they bashfully asked her, finding it strange for an unmarried young woman to have worked on such material. Some even took the view that these passages were proof of her excellent translating skills, since they thought she had accurately translated things she didn’t understand. Yeğinobalı quickly understood that her initial plan to disclose her authorship after the novel’s publication was not going to be so feasible after all.

Offering Turkish readers a rare view of young women as sexually active protagonists, Genç Kızlar became a sensation, spreading like wild re particularly among female readers. But Yeğinobalı recalls in interviews that even men who proudly proclaimed never to read fiction told her that Genç Kızlar was the only novel they’d ever read. There was clearly an appetite for such literary material among a certain segment of Turkish society that was embracing a less conservative lifestyle. The novel had touched on something fundamental, and demand for it did not diminish in the following decades. In 1963, it was adapted into a movie—albeit one less sensual than the book—that starred Türkan Şoray, Hülya Koçyiğit and Ediz Hun, all of whom became big movie stars in later years. Watching this film today is a strange experience, since the adaptation transposes the story back into Turkey and the characters are all “Turkified.” If the pseudotranslation undergoes a cultural transposition back into the context in which it was actually created, does it, in a sense, become the original that never was?

I asked my mother on a Skype call whether she had read or heard about Genç Kızlar when she was a teenager in the early ’70s, and she told me enthusiastically that she and her friends had all loved it; apparently even my grandmother had been a fan. But the look of confusion on my mother’s face when I mentioned Nihal Yeğinobalı’s name jolted me into the realization that, to this day, many are still unaware that a Turkish woman wrote the novel, even though Yeğinobalı exposed her ploy in the late ’80s and the book has been published under her name since 2003. I wondered if this information would make any difference to my mother’s perception of the book, and told her the whole story. After listening to me for several minutes, she said: “Good for her. What a smart woman.”

Fifty-one years after Roland Barthes famously declared the death of the author, it is now glaringly obvious that it takes tremendous privilege for an author to “die”—because to die as an author, to go into the oblivion of an illusory neutrality, you have to be “alive” and afforded the opportunity to speak with your own voice to begin with. But can Yeğinobalı’s story be instructive for those whose voices are hindered or dismissed? Does self-concealment amount to an acceptance of defeat (“I acknowledge that you are not giving me a right to speak and I will not openly challenge you”), or could it be useful to view it as a tool of resistance (“You are not giving me a right to speak but I will find a way to do it anyway”)? In the context of today’s Turkey, where the current government’s Islamist project tries to prohibit all secular and democratic dissent, this question is a daily struggle. But it is also becoming increasingly relevant in other parts of the world, as we seem to be collectively stuck in the impossibility of ascertaining what the future holds. If and when open dissent becomes too risky, how do we find other, stealthier ways to disobey?

This is an article from our Summer 2018 issue, themed on Translation.

Erdem Taşdelen

Erdem Taşdelen is a Turkish-Canadian artist. His diverse projects, often characterized by a mordant humour, bring self-expression into question within the context of culturally learned behaviours.