The Little Prince travels to Turkey
Emrah Güler - ANKARA
If Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer, aviator and the seminal author of the third most-translated book in the world, “Le Petit Prince” (The Little Prince), were to see Turkey seven decades after his death, he would have to sit down on a planet of his own to digest it all. His famous novella has been receiving the royal treatment for the last six months in Turkey, a country not to shy away from over-doing.
Today is Saint-Exupéry’s birthday, and the months leading up to his birthday have been an exhaustive and exciting period in the history of “Le Petit Prince.” The first-ever animated feature of the novella brought the audience to tears in its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in late May and is waiting for its global release later this year. The film is set to introduce the story to new generations through its protagonist, the Little Girl, discovering the universe of The Little Prince herself.
Five months earlier, at the end of 2014, the copyright for the publication of “Le Petit Prince” expired in many parts of the world, jolting publishers awake across the globe. But not like over-excited Turkish publishers, who turned bookstores into “Le Petit Prince” sellers, with more than 30 editions, ranging from 4 Turkish Lira translated editions to ex-travagant pop-up ones of over 100 liras.
This is only the literary part of the “Le Petit Prince” craze, as major retailers have been re-leasing mugs, glasses, dishes, bags and clothes, to name a few, with the Little Prince and his acquaintances across the galaxy splashed across, cashing in on this extraordinary chance of being free of copyright infringement. Some people were actually seen reading the novella.
Toward a Little Prince Museum
Not all the brouhaha around “Le Petit Prince,” however, was a ploy to make some extra cash. Last month, 48 collectors from around Turkey came together in Ankara for an exhibi-tion of the famous book in different languages, sizes and dates, and for a week of every-thing that is “Le Petit Prince.” Among the exhibited editions were a mini-book the size of a coin, one in Braille, another one in Morse, and the very first Turkish edition from 1953, translated by Turkish poet Ahmet Muhip Dıranas and serialized in “Çocuk ve Yuva” (Child and Home) magazine.
Perhaps, the most famous “Le Petit Prince” collector in Turkey is Mehmet Sobacı, an aca-demic in Ankara University’s Faculty of Communications, a collector for 20 years with 860 books in 144 languages and dialects. One of the names behind the exhibition, Sobancı had said earlier, “With such a wide fan base, of course this book has magic. Among the visitors of the exhibition were students, space engineers, biologists, designers and travelers.”
The collectors are now on their way to kick-start the “Little Prince Museum Initiative,” with the words of another avid collector, Yıldıray Lise: “Like other examples in other parts of the world, we dream of a place where we can display not only books but also other ob-jects related to the Little Prince.”
“Le Petit Prince” is a fable for adults, where little children (and kings and businessmen) live on miniature, one-person asteroids, using volcanoes as mere stools to sit on, where they travel across the space with flocks of birds, where foxes share their wisdom. Yet the narrator is a pilot very much from this world, his conventional thinking and earthly worries transformed by the Little Prince.
A great leader or an abhorrent tyrant
Juxtaposed against the Little Prince’s otherworldliness is the narrator’s urgency to frame the Little Prince’s story into something from this world. When the Little Prince talks about his planet, the narrator has “serious reason to believe that the planet from which the little prince came is the asteroid known as B-612.”
And that brings us to the colorful interpretations translators have brought to the various Turkish translations. The narrator tells that the Little Prince’s asteroid has only once been seen through the telescope, by a Turkish astronomer, in 1909, and continues, “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.” An illustration of the astronomer wearing a fez accompanies the part.
The astronomer’s credibility and “the reputation of Asteroid B-612” are restored when “a Turkish dictator made a law that his subjects, under pain of death, should change to Euro-pean 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 pas-sage refers to Atatürk’s Hat Law of 1925, when wearing Western-style hats were made mandatory, and anything else, including the fez, was not allowed.
Ideologically, historically and legally (insulting Atatürk is punishable), it was a slippery slope to translate the passage. On the LRB blog, writer Kaya Genç cites two versions, the very first translation by Dıranas, “Fortunately, Turks had started dressing like Europeans afterwards, with help from a great leader,” and a 1995 translation by literary giants Tomris Uyar and Cemal Süreya, “A peremptory Turkish leader had issued a law one day: from now on all would be dressed as Europeans, and others sentenced to death.”
With more than a dozen translations of “Le Petit Prince,” the most controversial one was the one published from Nehir Yayınları in 1996, with no translator’s name in the edition. The part about the astronomer is tripled, and goes like this: “An abhorrent tyrant was the ruler of the Turks. He passed a law and forced them to dress like the Westerners (Europe-ans and Americans). He killed all who showed resistance. He tortured all who refused to wear felt hats. Students not wearing ties were expelled, civil servants with no ties were fired.
Headscarves of the women, young and old, were removed brutally by the police and the gendarme.” And as the Little Prince would say, “Grown-ups are like that.”