Translating into English - Sabahattin Ali

Published on February 18, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

Madonna in a Fur Coat - Written by Sabahattin Ali

Originally Published in 1943. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe

“… ...what matters most to me is the voice. And this narrator's voice is like honey. All I had to do was figure out how to get to that voice, how to recreate its flow and truthfulness.” - Maureen Freely, on the translation process in an interview with Hurriyet Daily News.

Released in May 2016, the much anticipated English translation of Turkish author Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat has finally hit the shelves. With a rich plot and a compelling, controversial author, one can’t help but wonder why it has taken so long since the novel was published in the original Turkish to attract English-language publishers. Maureen Freely, lead translator on the project, chalks it up simply to lack of interest in Turkish novels. Freely gives an all the credit to translators for much of the momentum in opening Turkish literature to the world; it is the hard work of translators who are responsible for making exposure happen.

  •  Madonna in a Fur Coat is a best-selling Turkish classic challenging gender roles and playing with concepts of love and alienation. The story follows the main character Raif Efendi through 1920’s interwar Berlin where he meets a painting and it’s an artist who becomes the love of his life. Raif struggles to hold onto his new life with his strong-willed partner, Maria, as the two seem to slowly become for feminine, and masculine, respectively. Maria, a proud feminist, becomes fond of Raif’s non-threatening temperament and Raif falls for Maria’s independence.

  •  Maureen Freely, president of English Pen: an organization dedicated to fighting against censorship and defending the rights of writers around the world, comments on Turkey at the time of publishing, “[The 1940s] was really a moment in Turkey that is very, very close to the moment we are experiencing now. It was a fascist, ultra-nationalist time, and the socialists were the ISIS of the day. Anybody who was a dissident was a terrorist -- that’s the same as it is now. What they do now -- and they have been doing it for the past year in Turkey -- is they have deprived almost all journalists of their livelihood, and nobody else will hire them either. And this is true of a lot of academics as well. There are about two million people, if you count the families who are affected by this, people who have been taken out of work and nobody else dares to hire them. That’s what was going on in Turkey at the time [of Sabahattin Ali], it was going through another fascist moment.”

  • Sabahattin Ali (1907-48) was intensely political, suffered imprisonment and was deemed dangerous by the Turkish authorities of his time. He was a family man, a newspaper owner, and editor, writer, and activist. He may not be familiar to most western readers, but was a major voice for 20th-century secular Turks, and that moment has met a recent revival here in the 21st. Today, he is renowned as one of Turkey’s most loved writers, selling thousands of books every year. He is seen, especially by the youth of modern Turkey, as a resistance icon, a “man who dared to stand up to the heavy hand of the state.”

  • Ali’s daughter, Filiz Ali, is currently based in Istanbul where she tours schools to talk about her father’s life and work to teenagers. She reports, when talking about Madonna in a Fur Coat, witnessing both boys and girls, cry. She says, “They realise there's something missing in their own lives, something they search for but cannot find in this now, now, now generation."

While politics saturates much of Ali’s work, Madonna in a Fur Coat chooses to illustrate to use that the personal is political, focusing on the politics of love rather than of government. Ali’s novel remains a set text in Bulgarian high schools to this day. As Freely points out, Madonna in a Fur Coat reminds readers that there has always been dissent, that there have always been characters who challenge with great courage.

Madonna in a Fur Coat in numbers:

Age Sabahattin Ali was murdered under suspicious circumstances. Unable to get a Turkish passport to travel as a refugee to Europe, in hopes of escaping persecution for his political views, Ali hired a smuggler to take him across the western Turkish border into Bulgaria. It is said that while Ali was reading on a bench, the smuggler who allegedly hit him over the head with a shovel and killed him. Theories circulate that the smuggler was an agent of the state, sent specifically to assassinate Ali. No one knows what really happened, nor have the whereabouts of his remains ever been located.


Amount of copies sold in Turkey


Number of years that it took after its publication to be translated into English.


Number of original books that the lead translator, Maureen Freely, has written herself. Her passion for translation stems from a deep desire to see Turkish literature exposed to a wider audience.


For more Turkish novels, reviews, and commentary follow the ‘Turkey Book Talk’ podcast on iTunes here and Facebook here.


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