Over two weeks in September, the 5th Beyoğlu Antiquarian Book Fair was held in Tepebaşı. Luckily I had returned to Istanbul a few days before it had finished, so was able to take a look for myself. There were so many stalls taking part that it was almost overwhelming, and I did get that familiar ‘book fair fatigue’ after a while. Finding a century-old Ottoman newspaper in a dusty second-hand bookshop is a thrill, but when they come in hundreds the impact is somewhat attenuated. I did make one fine discovery though, an attractively dog-eared collection of early Republican-era Turkish nationalist poems. It was printed by the publishing arm of the legendary Turkish literary journal Varlık and, though undated, research suggests that it was probably published in the mid-1950s.

My Turkish is by no means advanced, but I’m always struck by how ostensibly simple it seems to translate snatches of Turkish poetry into English. Poems are generally
free of unwieldy, punctuation-less sentences of multiple subordinate and qualifying clauses, and this makes it “easy” for the non-advanced Turkish speaker to translate at least their surface meaning. So, flicking through the book one night, I decided to have a go at some from this collection, my first deliberate experiments in translation.

Overall it was a rewarding enterprise. The biggest challenge was undoubtedly posed by the surprising number of unfamiliar old Ottoman words and phrases that many of
these poems contained. Aside from converting the Turkish language wholesale from the Arabic to the Latin script, a systematic attempt to banish words of “foreign” origin was effected during the early years of the Turkish republic. Over time hundreds of such words, (mostly Arabic and Persian), gradually fell out of use in the name of ‘purifying’ Turkish and making it ‘fit’ for the modern world. It’s ironic that many of the poems in this collection still use a great many of these old terms, despite clearly sharing the positivist, modernising impulse to forge a modern language, purge foreign influence and celebrate the ‘authentically Turkish’. Even Kemal Atatürk’s speeches are understood with some difficulty by modern Turks, so radically has the language changed since his time. Many words that I came across in these poems – such as “hirfet” (small tradesman/artisan) or “huda” (a folksy word for God) – are now largely unknown in Turkey, and can’t be found in modern dictionaries. I would sometimes ask Turkish friends if they knew the meanings of words that gave me particular trouble, and most of the time they didn’t.

Nevertheless, I was certainly helped by more fundamental characteristics of the poems. Most are imbued with the straightforward, scientific, unfussy spirit of the early Republican era, so there were no tricksy literary devices to contend with. If there’s awkward phrasing, gauche poetic posturing, and inconsistency of tone, that may be down to the poems themselves rather than their neophyte translator(!) They’re far from classics but they do, I think, have some interest as historical artefacts.

Motherland  –  Ziya Gökalp

In the mosque the ezan is read in Turkish,

Peasants understand the meaning of their prayers.

In the school the Qur’an is read in Turkish,

Young and old,  everyone knows God’s order

Oh Turkish son, your motherland is there!

There are no other eyes for our soil.

In every person the ideal is one, language, custom, religion is one

The parliament is clean, the traitors’ word is gone,

The frontier willingly gives life to its children;

Oh Turkish son, your motherland is there!

In the market, wealth has returned,

The path to art is shown by science.

The tradesmen protect one another;

Shipyards, factorys, boats, trains;

Oh Turkish son, your motherland is there!

My country – Cahit Külebi

In 1917

I was born on your earth,

I took milk from my mother

From your fountains and fields,

My uncles, on your frontiers

Died fighting for you,

In your castle’s towers

I flew a kite.

In your valleys I grew grass.

I grew like a young plant

On your earth.

I joined great caravans

To your bigger cities

I went to learn,

Bandits cut off my way

They could find nothing to take.

On your earth

I played football, I loved, I thought

I made friends.

My days of sorrow

I wandered helpless on your streets.

My days of joy

I wandered in my mind.

My cry sounded slowly

On the cool blowing breezes

From your coasts

I followed the sea.

On your desolate, barren plains.

I travelled for days.

I cry for you!

I laugh for you;

You are like the honoured

Bread of life!

Clouds and Turkey  –  Macit Benice

My clouds, my dear clouds, stop wandering.

What is it, let’s go south together.

In the south I have villages waiting for rain.

My villagers open their hands to the sky.

My wind, my north wind blow.

We’re taking rain south, quick!

In the south the earth is cracked from sorrow,

In the south the vineyards, the gardens are roasted.

Can you hear the sound of the ezan?

My villagers left to pray on the hills.

Clouds run, winds blow,

Ah we’ll be late this time.

Here the burnt plains, here the thirsty villages.

The crops are still white, the seeds have fainted.

Rain, my clouds, rain without stopping;

Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop rain!

When it rains it’s a lake, when it doesn’t a desert,

You’re honest, my clouds, forgive me.

I promise I’ll do your bidding,

I’ll open channels, your deep desires.

And one day I’ll invite you south

Once again for good days,

Clouds, remember me for four seasons,

My name: Turkey!

Motherland  –  Orhan Murat Arıburnu

From your sky I ate

From your sun I ate

From your fruit I ate


From your stone

From your earth I also ate.

When Your Cry Begins  –  Mehmet Emin Yurdakul

 –   To the nation’s martyrs  –

Turk, your name is the loveliest sound in this world;

Your idea comes pure, all its meaning sacred;

Your heart’s emotion is the holiest love;

Your mind’s pain is the wildest fever.

When your cry begins; greed, malice, all else stops;

Love prepares the ground for your holy law;

Your cheeks shed painful tears of farewell;

In cradles, temples, in every corner you mourn.

At this time wise, ignorant, innocent, criminal, the whole nation;

With speeches, with poems, with prayers, with flags,

With gold, with iron, with fists, with fingernails…

Heroically serve your noble life;

And all your children, when giving their life, say: “Death is good fortune!”

To your self-sacrificing sons I offer one hundred thousand tributes.

%d bloggers like this: