Understanding the deep-rooted practice of self-censorship in Turkey

A recent instance of self-censorship in Turkey received considerable news coverage. A translation of Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho’s novel titled Eleven Minutes censored the word “Kurdistan,” with media covering this instance of self-censorship as a noteworthy event. The novel had originally been published in Turkish by an Istanbul-based publishing house called Can Publications in 2004.

The original text had read, “She entered an Internet café and learned that Kurds were from Kurdistan, a country that does not currently exist, and is split between Turkey and Iraq.” The sentence was censored, replacing the reference to Kurdistan with the phrase “It said that Kurds lived in the Middle East.”

When faced with serious backlash, the owner of the publishing house, Can Öz, announced that the book would be pulled and that the new edition would amend the mistake.

It is both disingenuous and dangerous to treat this instance of self-censorship in literature as an issue that can be severely criticised, addressed, and then resolved. The surprised reactions indicate that self-censorship is rare in Turkey, which is misleading.

Self-censorship in literature is a common and familiar practice that has been happening for decades in Turkey. It is not an isolated, extraordinary event. Portraying self-censorship as surprising act obfuscates the commonplace nature of this practice.

Translators and publishers often take sensitive words and phrases, and render them acceptable. This is done at times due to fear of legal repercussions, and at others due to fear of reader reactions.

The leading causes for these sensitivities are political issues—exemplified by the hesitancy to use the term Kurdistan described above—and fears of insulting Turkishness or Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose legacy is safeguarded as the founding father of the Turkish Republic. Another source of self-censorship is fear of writing something that may run counter to Turkish national identity.

Let us consider a few examples. A novel written in the late 19th century by Turkish writer Namık Kemal and originally published in the Arabic-based Ottoman script was transcribed and translated into modern Turkish, and has been published in this form for the past four decades. What I found in this Turkified version was that words like “Muslim” and “Islam” had been changed to “Turk” and “Turkish.” When I criticised the censorship, the publishing house, İnkılâp Publishing house, apologised to its readers and promised to publish a new version. Today, the “correct” version of this novel is still sold alongside the censored version.

All literary texts translated from Greek have undergone self-censorship. This includes even the writings of Georgos Seferis, a leading Greek poet of the 20th century. For example, the translation of his writings describing his visit to his house in Urla, skipped over his comparison of two kids that emerged from under his door to “large field mice.”

The novels of Nikos Kazantzakis, Dido Sotiriu, Georgios Vizyinos, and Maria Yordanidou that I have examined are all self-censored. It is common practice for translators and publishers to take precautions when they find sensitive terms. For example, the title of “Bloody Lands,” was translated as “Give My Regards to Anatolia.” “Turks are strangling us,” was changed to “They are strangling us.” “Dogs,” “humanity’s whip,” and “those oppressed by the Turks” are all phrases that have been taken out. These are some of an abundant number of examples.

There are two pieces of Greek writing I know of that have been undergone self-censorship: Y. Andreadis’s novel titled Tamama, and the oral history titled Exodus: Greeks’ Forced Departure from Anatolia. Unfortunately, the publishers of both works, Belge and Iletişim, and their translators have been taken to court and convicted because of their efforts.

Let me share another absurd approach to censorship in Turkey. If you reproduce a text considered to be racist against Turks, even if it is to criticise this approach by saying, “The portrayal of Turks here is unfair and ridiculous for saying Turks are X,” you could still be convicted for writing “Turks are X.”

Of course, following this logic, the court decision should also be considered criminal for reproducing an offensive sentence. Furthermore, due to these practices, it is impossible to understand how Turks are seen abroad through works of translation.

In other words, works of literature in Turkey that contain sensitive terms are either censored or end up in court. This is the real issue. The problem is not that a word was omitted in a novel. self-censorship is a common practice and lifestyle that has been around for years.

At first glance, self-censorship appears to be the shortcoming of translators and publishers. They have demonstrated cowardice, they have not remained true to the text, and they have behaved undemocratically. However, there are fundamental causes that result in these unfortunate actions.

First of all, there are legal regulations in place defining insult and sensitivity. This includes national sensitivities (like Turkishness), people (like Mustafa Kemal and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), and sacred symbols (such as the flag, and national heroes).

Considerations of “national harm” that could impact politics are a second category of sensitivities. When sensitivity becomes such an encompassing umbrella, the writer’s avenues of expression are inversely curbed.

The roots of these problems are not the laws, however. The laws are a result. The real cause is the mentality that produces these laws. This mentality, which is very widespread and considered to be natural, is that there are certain fundamental truths in society and that more importantly, it is only natural that these truths be forcefully imposed.

The refusal to accept different viewpoints and for these viewpoints to instead be seen as insult, harmful messaging, and hostile propaganda is a shortcoming in democracy. Democracy should guarantee that different opinions, though they may not be accepted, could nevertheless be expressed. Tolerance in this regard is an indication of democracy’s strength.

In the 1990s, the Atatürk Supreme Council for Culture, Language, and History asked me to translate a few books by Greek historians. I reminded them that these books contained terms that would bother Turkish readers. They casually responded that they would remove those sections. (The person that said this was the head of the council).

“Don’t you think we know what they say? We are aware, but how could we share it with the public?” they said.

This is the whole problem. There are two distinct spaces: us, and the public. And a given authority knows what is best for the public. This mentality is very common in society, and across the political spectrum. Every political segment in the country is living its own version of this “us” syndrome.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.