Skip to main content
Outdated Browser

For the best experience using our website, we recommend upgrading your browser to a newer version or switching to a supported browser.

More Information

When speaking about any decades-long ethno-national conflict, where does one begin? If we could identify the first cut and compel the offender—usually the state—to acknowledge it, it would have already been sutured. The longer a conflict endures, the deeper the wounds, with the actions of either side most informed by the previous month’s dead.

The Kurds trace their present grievances back to one particular corpse: the Ottoman Empire’s. A 1920 treaty partitioned the Empire and designated an autonomous region to the Kurds, but the Turkish National Movement forced the Treaty of Lausanne three years later, redefining Turkish borders to include the Kurdish Southeast—no different, on paper at least, from the Aegean coast or the Thracian plains. The Kurds responded with several uprisings that were brutally suppressed, setting into motion a now one-hundred-year cycle of violence between Kurdish separatists (and, yes, terrorists) and the Turkish state. By the mid-1990s, the Turkish security apparatus was razing Kurdish villages, machine-gunning cattle, setting fire to crops, and throwing the bodies of suspected PKK sympathizers down “death wells.” As journalist Stephen Kinzer has put it, the Kurdish issue is Turkey’s “open wound.”

It’s fitting, then, that Ferit Edgü (b. 1936) should title his work of short fiction about this deeply wounded region Yaralı Zaman (2007), which Aron Aji translates as The Wounded Age. This is one of two short books by Edgü—the other is Eastern Tales—that Aji has translated into English for the first time, and which NYRB Classics has just published in a single volume. The Wounded Age is narrated by a journalist who visits Turkey’s southeast shortly after another one of the nineties-era counterinsurgency campaigns, but Edgü’s unnamed narrator seems less concerned with a journalistic account of violent historical forces than he is with rendering short, untitled vignettes of the individual human suffering that follows such violence. Treaties, dates, parties, leaders’ names, and proper geography—save for repeated references to the Great Zab River and Sümbül Mountain—are all conspicuously absent in these beautiful and unforgivingly distilled micro-stories, many of which border on the realm of prose poetry: a brief meditation on the mountains; a recounting of two versions of the same dream about hunting; an unquoted and unattributed dialogue about the rainy season, which turns into a list of other seasons: those of death, of killing, of fear and migration. In Edgü, one gets the sense that here—or rather, “there”—history itself doesn’t even exist. As Vahap, the narrator’s guide, says: “Some days don’t end [ . . . ] Sunset’s so long in coming that you think time’s stopped.”

And yet every time the human subject comes into view, so too are readers pulled into history’s train of violence, as if it trailed from the refugees’ saddlebags or was shoved between cushions in the villagers’ stable-like homes.

Which readers? The Turkish ones. Between the constant threat of another bombing and the splashy footage of another counterinsurgency operasyon, at least one aspect of the conflict is as familiar to these readers as their own living room décor. By turning toward the quiet moments after the flashpoints in the conflict have dimmed, and by rendering those moments so sparely as to strip them of all their “information,” Edgü defamiliarizes the conflict to the point where it begins to feel foreign. This is ironic, considering the narrative account of The Wounded Age comes from a journalist, while that of Eastern Tales, based on Edgü’s ten-month teaching stint in Hakkâri Province in 1963, is a teacher’s.

Take The Wounded Age’s untitled opening vignettes. Edgü barely sketches out the details: we have unnamed mountains, settlements, a refugee camp. Soldiers guard a border while “wave after wave” of refugees pour down a nearby mountain, which Turkish readers know the military will have routinely bombed. The narrator and his guide approach a child who stands on the side of a road staring up at a hill and ask her what she’s waiting for. “My Aga, my father,” she replies. She’s been there many days and refuses to be taken to the village because she believes her father will appear at any moment. “There, see, he is coming!” she suddenly screams. “Didn’t I tell you! He is coming!” The narrator sees nothing. “Where?” he asks and she points to the summit. “There. Up there. Look, look, he is coming down,” she says. “I look at Vahap,” Edgü writes. “Yes, I see, he says, there, he’s coming down. I told you, [the girl] says. She’s dreaming, Vahap says. Let’s keep going.”


Translating Edgü’s spare, literal, undemanding prose “feels deceptively easy,” Aron Aji writes in his afterword. A few years ago, fellow Turkish translator Derick Mattern and I held a translation joust at a conference at Montgomery College. The piece we translated—separately, without revealing each other’s work until the day of the conference—was Edgü’s “Fal” (“Fortune”), from Doğu Öyküleri (Eastern Tales). As ridiculous as it sounds, the thought that Derick and I would produce identical versions crossed my mind. The Turkish original clocks in at just over two hundred words, one of the longest of what Edgü bills as his “minimal tales,” with sentences that read as if they’d been lifted from an intermediate Turkish grammar textbook. But as every translator knows, the simplest sentences are often the hardest to translate.

The fortune teller in “Fortune” plies her trade with a hand mirror, rather than coffee grinds or palms, and when she hands the mirror to the narrator, Edgü writes, “Teninin kokusunun işlediği terli aynayı aldım ve baktım,” a complex, albeit basic declarative sentence that literally means: “I took the sweaty mirror that the smell of her skin penetrated”—or stamped or engraved or processed; the verb işlemek has up to fourteen definitions—“and looked [at it].” And suddenly, thanks to that tricky verb in the subordinate clause, the translator’s work no longer seems that straightforward. Does Edgü use işlemek literally or figuratively? Has this woman kept her mirror in her bosom so long that it stinks of, or perhaps even is covered in, her own sweat, or does the mirror smell so strongly of sweat that it’s as if it had been forged with it? Depending on one’s reading, among other considerations, the translated sentence could be:

“I took the mirror, which was sweat-slicked and wrought with the odor of her skin, and looked.” (Mine.)


“The mirror was smooth with the scent of her skin and sweat. I took it and looked.” (Derick’s.)


“I took the mirror that smelled of her sweat and looked.” (Aron’s.)

Aron resists the temptation to flex his figurative muscles, while I, a brand-new translator at the time, did not. Here was my chance to show off a little! Looking at my line again, I wince at its redundancy. Besides, the woman’s clothing would have absorbed the sweat, and “sweaty” in Turkish can very well mean that someone simply smells sweaty. Derick takes a liberty too, rendering the smell of the mirror in synesthetic terms with the addition of “smooth.”

Aron, meanwhile, uses a literalist’s scalpel. Gone is the word işlemek, the word for skin and the physical presence of sweat. With these cuts, Aron’s translation is identical in length to the original, such that a reader’s visual English experience with this piece, whose lines are all flushed left, mirrors the visual experience of reading it in Turkish. I should note, though, that every vowel in Turkish corresponds to a syllable, so that it takes me just over three seconds to read the line in Turkish and just over two seconds to read Aron’s version in English. And what of the potential figurativeness of işlemek? Aron relies on the entirety of Edgü’s oeuvre to make that decision. As he points out in his afterword, Edgü “cannot stand metaphorization.” Problem solved.

The way Aron sees it, he’s actually domesticating English, broadening its syntactic and lexical reach the same way one domesticates a dog by letting it out of the mud room, into the kitchen, into the living room, and so on. He routinely drops pronouns and renders idiomatic phrases as literally, yet naturally, as possible—the English “not a soul in sight” gets Turkified with this appropriable gem: “No one. Just the jinn playing ball, as they say.” One of the most energetic features of Aron’s translation relates to his interpretation of relative clauses, which, in Turkish, are most often expressed restrictively, whether the relative clause is truly restrictive or not. Take our previous sentence about the mirror, which would typically be nonrestrictive. Aron, being more faithful to syntax, translates it restrictively instead (“the mirror that smelled of her sweat”), creating a quicker, fresher reading with fewer commas, fewer natural breaths.

What results is a beautifully energized translation. While the first four stories of Eastern Tales are more conventional in scope and technique—“The Story of Ibram, Son of Ibram,” for instance, is a seventeen-page nested story about a murderous dispute over grazing sheep—the book closes with a return to Edgü’s deeply affecting minimalist style. The reader still feels like a stranger in a strange land. But Edgü does orient us a bit more. The occasional lines of untranslated Kurdish that appear in The Wounded Age aren’t present in the translation, and every story bears a title. The implication seems to be that the Turkish, and English, reader has read enough of these people, their land, and their collective tragedy to at least recognize the wound. If read slowly enough, as if it were poetry, this book will get in your blood.

Ferit Edgü has said that he felt “born again” after a ten-month teaching stint to eastern Turkey in 1963. It’s simultaneously controversial and truthful, the notion that one can so closely identify oneself with a foreign people after a single lengthy visit that one smarts at their wounds. He briefly dramatizes this in the final story, “What,” when a “familiar voice” admonishes the narrator for identifying himself with the people of “that ungodly mountain,” with their living and their dead. “Don’t speak like you’re one of them. You, why are you there?” the voice says, to which the narrator replies: “Maybe because I’m no longer one of you but one of them.”

The Wounded Age and Eastern Tales by Ferit Edgü, translated from the Turkish by Aron Aji (New York Review of Books, 2023).

© 2023 by Ralph Hubbell. All rights reserved.