Turkish Translator Charged with Obscenity

The Guardian reported this afternoon that İrfan Sancı, head of the Turkish publishing house Sel Yayıncılık, will be brought to trial starting tomorrow on charges of obscenity in connection with his January 2011 publication of William S. Burrough’s 1961 novel The Soft Machine (Yumuşak Makine). The translator, Süha Sertabiboğlu, is being charged as well. Despite the fact that the novel is clearly not intended for children, it was submitted for evaluation to the Turkish Prime Ministerial Board for the Protection of Children from Harmful Publications, which found the book to promote “attitudes […] permissive to crime by concentrating on the banal, vulgar and weak attributes of humanity” as well as displaying “incompliance with moral norms.”

As the Guardian reports, Sancı was sued last year as well on similar charges related to three other books, including Guillaume Apollinaire’s Les exploits d’un jeune Don Juan (The Exploits of a Young Don Juan), but was acquitted in December. Burak Bekdil, a commentator in the Turkish English-language newspaper Hürriyet Daily News who regularly publishes remarks critical of the Turkish government, expressed optimism in a column published on May 3, 2011 that these new charges will not have serious consequences. I very much hope that he is right. His commentary was written before it was announced that Sancı would be prosecuted in connection with these latest charges.

Yet another Turkish publisher of Apollinaire, Rahmi Akdaş,was vindicated in February 2010 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Turkish government’s 1999 ban on the publication of Apollinaire’s erotic novel Les onze mille verges (The Eleven Thousand Rods) in Turkish translation violated Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Turkish Professional Organization of Translators has issued the following statement:

As the Turkish Professional Organization of Translators (Çevbir; Çevirmenler Meslek Birliği) we are faced with circumstances in which books are forbidden and censored, in which self-censorship is incited and in which our profession is readily turned into a criminal offence, and thereby we, the translators into criminals. The legislation which forces restrictions on art, literature, a free press and the profession of translators is in urgent need of change. The honour of our profession is based on conveying a work into another language without sacrificing it to our personal opinions or feelings, nor to any given societal pressure. It is a disgrace to a society if publishers, translators and, in case they cannot be apprehended, even printers are taken to court. We hereby declare that we shall support the publisher İrfan Sancı and our colleague, the translator Süha Sertabiboğlu, and we urge the legislative and judicial system to take the necessary steps to do away with this legislation.

I would like to join my Turkish colleagues in asserting that it goes without saying that translators should not be prosecuted – or otherwise persecuted – for practicing their art, nor should the publishers who print their work. I will keep watching this case and let you know about any further developments.

Despite the gravity of the situation, I cannot help noting with some amusement that the name of Burroughs’s translator, Süha Sertabiboğlu, is not mentioned even once in the Guardian‘s article about the case but is printed front and center on the cover of the Turkish book. In one country, the translator is having his work acknowledged – no doubt to a much greater extent than he might prefer – while in the other, his name and role are suppressed as a matter of course. I think there’s something the British publishing world could learn from Turkey.

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