Terrors of Translation: Ottoman Crime Fiction and the Politics of Fear

By Hannah Scott Deuchar
Submitted to Session P4832 (The Cultural Politics of Violence, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In the early 20th century, a new genre, soon to be ubiquitous, emerged in the Ottoman literary journals: crime fiction. Particularly popular, and patronised by Sultan Abdulhamid II himself, were translated Sherlock Holmes novels. This paper performs a close reading of several of these translations, comparing texts produced for public consumption with those designed for the eyes of the Sultan only. Attending to the translation strategies employed for the two rather different audiences, I read these understudied texts in the light of the legal and policing reforms that characterized the latter period of the Ottoman Empire, asking how works of fiction such as these contributed to new conceptions of the nature and location of state power.

Specifically, I use Taussig’s work on the potential of narrative to blur the boundaries between reality and illusion and so contribute to a ‘culture of terror’ to speculate about the changes made in these texts’ translations. In England, the boundary between the Holmes narratives and the ‘real’ they purportedly represented was famously blurred: Holmes’s fictional death was publicly mourned, while Conan Doyle wrote academic essays on forensic method and was sought as a criminal investigator. The novels, further, are animated by two poles of fear - on the one hand, the omnipresent, often racialized ‘criminals’, and on the other the omniscient and surveilling power represented by Holmes himself – that speak to the changing nature of governance in Britain in the period. How then are these texts made legible in the context of a different ‘real’? How do they function in the Ottoman Empire at a time when British colonialism was encroaching on its borders? What ‘fears’ are neutralized in translation, and what new anxieties emerge?

Drawing out the tensions between ‘foreignizing’ and ‘domesticating’ strategies in the translated texts, I argue that the simultaneous threat and allure of Sherlock Holmes, as a personification of all-seeing (British) power, is rendered in translation in unexpected ways. In some texts the transformation of representations of class, race, and justice may serve to confuse or even undo the logic of the original narrative, with potentially anarchic results; yet other texts become fraught with additional fears, such as that of encroaching colonial power. Bringing Taussig’s theories to bear on questions of translation and dislocation, this paper investigates the ways in which imperial narratives, travelling far beyond their native readership, may participate in new and related cultures of fear.