The European costume

One of the world’s best language books is The Little Prince. It has been translated into even the smallest languages, and almost all have an audio book version. Its structure, as if it had been really intended as a language book, moves from the simple towards the complex. In the army to kill the dragging time, I learned French from it, and I still know the first few chapters by heart. Later I used it to learn Chinese, to practice Persian, in the beautiful translation and recitation of the great modern poet Ahmad Shamlou, and to teach Italian. I have it in several translations, including Viennese dialect, Basque, Roman slang and an Assyrian version. But in Turkish I somehow have not yet seen it. Not that it would be difficult to obtain. At the end of last year the copyright on the works of Saint-Exupéry, who died in 1944, expired, and in the first days of January, thirty Turkish editors published the book in new translations, in more than 130 thousand copies, the cheapest edition being sold for 1 lira, less than half a euro.

If anyone needs a Turkish-language Küçük Prens, should buy it now. And not just because of the price, but also because – as Kaya Genç points it out in his blog – this is the first edition that finally fixes a translation error ingrained for seventy years. The error is, accidentally, in the very chapter where the author mentions the Turks, as follows:

“I have serious reason to believe that the planet from which the little prince came is the asteroid known as B-612. This asteroid has only once been seen through the telescope. That was by a Turkish astronomer, in 1909.

On making his discovery, the astronomer had presented it to the International Astronomical Congress, in a great demonstration. But he was in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said. Grown-ups are like that…

Fortunately, however, for the reputation of Asteroid B-612, a Turkish dictator made a law that his subjects, under pain of death, should change to European costume. So in 1920 the astronomer gave his demonstration all over again, dressed with impressive style and elegance. And this time everybody accepted his report.”

The “Turkish dictator” is of course Kemal Atatürk, the creator of the Turkish secular state, who in his “Hat Law” of 1925 prohibited the wearing of the fez, the veil and other traditional garments. However, dictators have the strange habit of not liking being called dictators. In Turkey there still exists a law which punishes insulting Atatürk with up to three years in prison. It is understandable, therefore, if the translators have so far avoided this term.

Ahmet Muhip Dıranas, the Turkish translator of Baudelaire, who in 1953 first translated The Little Prince for the Çocuk ve Yuva (Child and Home) magazine, set up to support the orphaned children of WWI soldiers, tried to prevent the displeasure of the orphans who at that time were already over forty:

“Fortunately, Turks had started dressing like Europeans afterwards, with help from a great leader…”

The next translation, prepared by Tomris Uyar and Cemal Süreya in 1995, is slightly differently worded:

“A peremptory Turkish leader had issued a law one day: from now on all would be dressed as Europeans, and others sentenced to death.”

The translation of 2015, writes Kaya Genç, already renders accurately the original French sentence. “No complaints have yet been filed”, he ends his post. However, in reality, this is not exactly so.

An official protest has been made against the book, and not from the clearly secular-minded army, or from some committed Atatürk fan club. The site of the Turkish education and scientific workers’ labor union published the claim to remove the book, which contains the banned word, from the list of books recommended for the school by the Ministry of Education.

Dictators have long arms, and they try to prevent even from a distance naming things as they are. This is exactly how they are revealed as what they are.

Cartoon by Selçuk Erdem