The Pedagogic State: Translation and the Cultural Revolution in the Early Republican Turkey

Firat Oruc, Assistant Professor of English and Humanities at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar and the 2015-2016 CIRS-SFSQ Faculty Fellow, delivered a CIRS Focused Discussion on “The Pedagogic State: Translation and the Cultural Revolution in the Early Republican Turkey” on February 3, 2016. The lecture drew on central themes from Oruc’s current book project examining the cultural and ideological transformations forged during the early decades of the Turkish Republic, with particular emphasis on importation and translation of classics in world literature.

With the forming of the new Turkish Republic, a new Turkish identity was crafted on the principles of nationalism, modernity, and secularism. “In order to create a new society and country out of the now gone Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his comrades envisioned ‘a total revolution’ in all aspects possible,” and especially in language reform, replacing Arabic script with Latin script. For the reformers, “translation from European languages would enable Turkish to ‘free’ itself from the historical ‘yoke’ of Arabic and Persian words, idioms and expressions.”

In answer to questions such as: “Why would a state need world literature?” and “What was this ‘foreign element’ doing in the midst of the Turkish cultural revolution?” Oruc explained that the Kemalist state saw reading as means of cultivating “civilized” citizens with a crusade against “ignorance” based on reason and knowledge. The European humanist canon was taken as the philosophical basis for the republican reforms that would lead to a “Turkish renaissance.”  This “cultural engineering” and the creation of a new national canon relied on a campaign of translation in which the state was the central actor. “Thus, an organized, and government administered operation of translation contributed to the state regulation of the language,” Oruc argued. However, this celebration of a cultural revolution was not supported by a corresponding implementation of a social revolution, and many in Turkish society remained illiterate and impoverished, and incapable of partaking in the grand visions presented by the elite.

In conclusion, Oruc pondered the question of the complex tensions and contradictions involved in the formation of world literature in non-western societies such as Turkey. He argued that, even though the study of world literature purports to be a global humanist project, the grand narratives of the discipline have been largely shaped by specific European histories and ideologies. In order to problematize the power relations enacted through the world literature discourse, Oruc proposed engaging with the perspective of other nodes in the global network. “The state has so far never been discussed as an actor in the field of world literature. Whereas, in the Turkish case, the state is right at the center,” where world literature was coopted as an ideological apparatus. 

Firat Oruc received his Ph.D. in Literature from Duke University in 2010. His teaching specialties include contemporary global literature, 20th century Anglophone writing, literatures of the Middle East, and world cinema. Before joining SFS-Q, he taught in the Comparative Literary Studies program at Northwestern University (2011-2013) and the departments of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles (2010-2011). His scholarly interests center on the intersections of cultural globalization and transnationalism, postcolonial studies, world literature theory, and translation studies. His recent work has appeared in literary criticism journals such as English Language Notes, Criticism and Postcolonial Text. His current book project is a comparative study of world literature and institutions of translation in Turkey, Egypt, and Iran.

 

Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications