Review: Translating the Counterculture

Erik Mortenson’s Translating the Counterculture: The Reception of the Beats in Turkey examines the way the Beat Generation is taught, enjoyed, understood, and translated in Turkey, where he lived and worked for many years.

In his introduction, Erik Mortenson gives some background to Turkish history and explains that, due to this history, the Beats are received there very differently from in the West. He talks about technology and cultural differences, as well as politics and religions, and explains that:

While there are undoubtedly those reading the Beats as “literature” with a capital “L” or as examples of American cultural history, most readers, in both Turkey and the United States, read the Beats as part of an intervention into personal and social issues.

In Turkey, some Beat literature was published in the 1960s but mostly it began to arrive in the country following an era of liberalization in the 1980s. When it did reach Turkish audiences, it was lumped together with other “underground” work and viewed as “dark” and “nihilistic,” which is how some in the West also received it, although many would contest that it is a flawed view. Mortenson suggests that this labeling as “underground” is due to the Beats being perceived as overtly antiestablishment. While the Beats were in fact more interested in cultural criticism than political discourse, in Turkey they were received differently, and viewed in light of the country’s own political landscape.

Mortenson looks at issues relating to some of the better-known Beat authors, like Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. He examines the different cultural values between the US and Turkey, and how they alter the reception of Kerouac’s prose and poetry. In chapter three, he discusses Kerouac’s On the Road, and how the individualist streak of Dean Moriarty was perceived in a rather collectivist society. He looks also at how America’s expansionist history framed how readers viewed Kerouac, and also cultural issues like personal mobility, which are highly relevant to Kerouac’s classic. He notes, as one example, just how much extratextual explanation was needed in translating the word and concept, “hobo” for Turkish readers.

Elsewhere, Morstenson examines the legal battles faced in getting Burroughs’ work published in Turkey just a few years ago, which mirror the Beats’ own anti-censorship struggles in the fifties and sixties, and how Allen Ginsberg – the only Beat writer who actually visited Turkey – was and is received by Turkish readers.

Ultimately, the book explores reactions and issues in Turkey as relating to the Beat Generation, but the conclusion is rather more universal:

One of the primary reasons for the Beats’ continued relevance is that they provide a valuable space for readers to negotiate their responses to constraining social norms. This is especially true for those whose lifestyles strain against accepted standards of behavior. Thus young people exploring their sexuality can often benefit from a writer like Allen Ginsberg, or women struggling to reconcile personal desires with social demands can gain insight from Beat women writers like Diane di Prima.

Translating the Counterculture is available now at Amazon.com.

Here is a review of another book by Mortenson.

David S. Wills

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David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. He travels a lot and currently lectures in China. He also runs an ESL website. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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