Thesis Christ: Translating Teffi

Russian Senior Cansu Saraç Gives New Voice to Old Stories

Cansu Saraç hands in her thesis today, Friday, November 30. She entered Reed as a linguistics major, but after forays into the disciplines of math and dance, Cansu settled into the Russian department for the project that would leave her mark on Reed.

Translating Three Short Stories by Teffi sums up the work of Cansu’s past two semesters, dedicated to piecing together some of early 20th-century Russian writer Teffi’s lesser known works, none of which have been translated into English before. Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, or Teffi, is best known for her 1907 play, The Woman Question. The status of her claim to fame contrasts with her more comedic works which have fallen to the wayside. Cansu remarks, “I noticed that other translators avoided the funny stories, and focused on the more serious ones. It is harder to translate humor, so that’s the part of the translations I spend the most time on.”

Language, Cansu would argue, is a part of everything she does. As an international student from Turkey, navigating Reed for the past four years has led her not only to improve her English, but also to learn the language of this institution as well.

“That’s why I started in linguistics. It’s not just a mystery that words come out of people’s mouths,” she says, “but there are rules there. Knowing that as a foreign language speaker makes it easier to find the answers I’m looking for.” Dance, too, has proven to be a field where she was able to explore a language of expression. Cansu enjoys the improvisation that both language and dance ask of her.

In the language departments, students are offered a few approaches to the senior thesis: one is a historical or literary analysis, deeply rooted in a culture where the language is spoken, and the other is translation. When Cansu opted to translate Teffi, she was fond of the creativity this option asked for her.  “I feel that it’s more tangible to translate a story that has an end product that people could read for fun. A nonfiction thesis is an object, too, but a story is fulfilling on a different level.”

The three stories, titled “The Deer,” “How I Wrote a Novel,” and “Instead of Politics” each present their own challenges for the translator. “Instead of Politics,” for instance, contains a section of puns that cannot be directly translated. In their place, Cansu found herself creating her own jokes to maintain the flow of dialogue. In her commentary following the stories, she elaborates on the elements that that were lost in translation. One of the greatest challenges for her was finding comparable English idioms for Teffi’s colloquial Russian style.

Cansu is grateful for all the help she has received from professors and friends. “I think my thesis is a collective effort,” she says. “I double check it with a lot of people because it’s the most time efficient way. So it’s more of a ‘we,’ and I feel good about that.”

Her professors’ clear checkpoints also gave Cansu a way to structure her project. Having ADHD, she says, made crafting the thesis around its parts all the more necessary. “Having a thesis that is more tangible, and being able to break it down into its very small steps, is important. In four years of struggling with deadlines in writing, I know I need to climb each of the steps to complete it.” As a word of advice to other students concerned about strict deadlines, Cansu recommends finding those tight holds within the creative process that structure the process and provide a drive.

While you may have glimpsed Cansu Saraç bopping along the blue bridge to Turkish house music late at night, what you may not have caught were the painstaking hours she spent searching for each translated word in her thesis. If you see Cansu at today’s Spring/Fall parade, be sure to congratulate her efforts.

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