Maureen Freely is a novelist, translator and free expression campaigner and a former President of English PEN.
Born in New Jersey, US, but spending her formative years in Turkey, Freely is one of the most important translators of Turkish literature working today. This job, she admits, places her at a curious cultural crossroad between East and West but also in a complex position with relation to Turkey’s increasing hostility to the West and to its liberal and democratic values.
Freely came to translation after many years as a journalist. She is a champion of translators both in the public eye and within PEN itself describing how ‘when I translate, I become a shadow novelist. When I am shadowing [Turkish novelist and #100PENMembers Orhan] Pamuk, what I want to do most is capture the music of his language as I hear it.’
She is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick University and regularly writes about Turkish literature, the politics of translation and PEN itself for the British national press.
Freely has been involved with English PEN for decades, focussing her campaigning on free expression in Turkey, where she regularly took part in fact-finding missions and attending trials of writers who fell foul of the country’s strict censorship laws.
She served as President of English PEN from 2014-18, she said: ‘English PEN has been amazingly effective in recent years. It has worked with like-minded organisations to reform libel law, bring clarity to the debate on press reform, and champion the rights and needs of writers in the digital age. For it does not just campaign for writers. It is interested in their ideas, their friendship, and their work.’
It is this notion of international friendship and cooperation which underpins all of Freely’s work, both professionally and with PEN itself: In an article for the Guardian in 2014, Freely wrote, ‘[t]his, for me, is the essence of PEN. We do not just campaign for writers. We share our ideas and our work, and in doing so, we do often make friends. We argue a great deal, too, of course. But if a Turkish writer wants to complain about the missionary mentality that we at PEN sometimes exhibit when we swoop in from London or Oslo or New York to attend a trial that shows Turkey at its absolute worst, that writer can tell me what he or she thinks, and I shall have to think about it, and if I want to figure out how to do things better, I will not go back to head office to construct a more robust strategy, I will go back to talk to my friend, and other writers we both think might have something to add.
‘In an age when human rights work is as marketised as any other line of work, an organisation grounded in friendship becomes more important than ever.’