Justus Raphelengius (1573-1628) and Turkish Folk Tales.

Author:Palabiyik, Nil

Although it has been established without doubt that the sons of Franciscus Raphelengius (d. 1597), Justus Raphelengius and his brother, also named Franciscus, were both competent Arabists who had undertaken the editing and posthumous publication of their father's Lexicon Arabicum, the first printed Arabic-Latin dictionary in Europe, (1) Justus's name is rarely, if ever, cited in relation to Turkish studies. His interlinear Latin translation of sixty-seven Turkish folk tales associated with the celebrated jester Nasreddin Hoca, found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Marsh 42, tells a different story. A close look reveals that Raphelengius was an accomplished Turcologist who edited and translated a text riddled with cultural references and idiomatic expressions specific to sixteenth-century central Anatolia. The near-completeness of the translation, the selection of tales, and the elegant style of the Latin prose all indicate that he had prepared this manuscript for purposes beyond personal study. Although it never found its way into print, the scholar-publisher Raphelengius clearly wished to make these Turkish folk tales available to learned audiences in early modern Europe in a bilingual edition.

Raphelengius's intended edition of these tales marks a milestone in the publishing history of Nasreddin Hoca stories. His editorial choices and interventions also reveal much about the publishing practices of early modern oriental texts in Europe. In the same way as editors of translations of classics and school texts expurgated and bowdlerized Lucretius or Horace to conform to early modern standards of morality, Raphelengius altered the text he had at hand. (2) When confronted with profane or bawdy tales, such as one in which an indecent Nasreddin engages in copulation with the Prophet's camel--in fact, he goes so far as to contemplate sexually assaulting the Prophet himself-Raphelengius omitted them from his translation.

He included some of the lewd tales, yet often resorted to euphemisms in his translation to make them less offensive to his readership.

Nasreddin Hoca, a wise-fool figure and folk philosopher, is perhaps the best-known prankster of the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Middle East. His witty humor and his out-of-the-ordinary take on daily matters captured the imaginations of people for centuries through anecdotal tales that recount his dealings with townsmen, figures of authority, his congregation, neighbors, and family members. He is often depicted as an imam, an Islamic judge, or a Sufi master, a man of some learning and authority. Yet despite the gravitas that his status accords him, he is excruciatingly inappropriate: he often misbehaves at public gatherings or commits a scandalous act that is guaranteed to raise many eyebrows. He is also intrinsically eccentric, quirky, and witty. Nasreddin is a man who does not conform to the norms of society; rather, he constantly defies the borders of sanity. Sitting backwards on his donkey, he dispenses wisdom of a different order to your usual mullah. He is often blunt, outrageous, cunning, sly, and self-serving, yet it is hard to find fault with his straightforward logic, and even harder to come back with a wittier and more self-righteous punch line than his. The stories are almost always set in a provincial town away from central authority, where Nasreddin seems to have some say in local administration. As such, he often acts as an intermediary for the simpler folk and resolves disputes between inhabitants in his disarmingly practical way.

This article considers the role of Raphelengius's translation within the framework of the manuscript circulation and print production of Nasreddin Hoca tales in Europe from the first dated manuscript to twentieth-century printed editions. Raphelengius's editorial choices, the style of his Latin translation, and his excision of bawdy and sacrilegious passages from the original text all come under scrutiny.


The historical figure of Nasreddin Hoca is believed to have been born in the early thirteenth century in Sivrihisar and lived in the town of Aksehir, near Konya in central Anatolia, where one may still find many locals eager to point out his tomb. Nasreddin is a household name in Turkey, where conversations are laced with allusions to his stories and his characteristic punch lines have become proverbs. There is a large corpus of literature on his identity, tales, and legacy in Turkish. (3) Yet it is impossible to argue with certainty that the Nasreddin Hoca of the tales is the same person as the attested figure of that name. Furthermore, some of the tales attributed to Nasreddin predate the thirteenth century and are, in fact, associated with the Arab jester Juha (Juha). (4) Nasreddin is also known by different names in different regions--for example, Chotzas in Greece, Anastratin in Bulgaria, Mullah in Iran, and Afanti in China. Owing to the ambiguity surrounding the origins of the character and the widespread appreciation of the stories, it is perhaps appropriate to consider him a universal figure of fiction rather than a historical person. The eminent folklorist Pertev Naili Boratav, who spent most of his academic career outside of Turkey as a political exile, refers to multiple Hocas rather than a single factual or fictional character throughout his anthology of Hoca stories.

The fruit of more than forty years of diligent archival research, Boratav's anthology aimed to build a corpus and to reconstruct the folkloric tradition of Hoca stories from manuscript sources--a textual tradition that had been spoiled by twentieth-century compilations and re-appropriations of Hoca tales that either omitted or "corrected" obscene passages. The anthology was first printed in 1995 by Yapi Kredi Yayinlan, a commercial publisher financed by a banking corporation, but was then, ironically, immediately taken out of circulation by the publisher because of the perceived obscenity of some of the tales. A small printrun of the book in its entirety was published a year later by Edebiyatcilar Dernegi (The Literary Society), which had limited financial resources. Unlike its predecessors, Boratav's unexpurgated text captured the true spirit of the Anatolian folk tradition and opened a new chapter in Turkish folkloric studies. A second edition of the uncensored anthology appeared in 2006. (5) The censorship of Nasreddin tales has a long history, beginning with the first printed Istanbul edition of 1253h (1837). This edition carries the unassuming title of Leta' if (Anecdotes); some stories--including the aforementioned tale about Nasreddin's attempted rape of the Prophet's camel, also found in MS Marsh 42--are purged of bawdy jokes and lewd remarks. (6) Such expurgation, which altered storylines, impaired the natural flow of the text, and left the stories somewhat odd and nonsensical, continued to be employed in later Istanbul prints and the influential Cairo prints of 1254h (1838), 1256h (1840), 1257h (1841), and 1259h (1843). These Bulaq editions became the basis of European translations, and an unbroken line of expurgated Nasreddin Hoca tales thus became cemented in the literary tradition. A number of scholarly and literary anthologies of the stories appeared in Turkey during the Republican era, (7) yet these were often shaped by their compilers's political views or stylistic concerns. Islamic nationalistic sensitivities mostly prevented the Turkish intelligentsia from appreciating the original Nasreddin tales, although it did not stop them from appreciating equally licentious texts from Renaissance Europe such as Boccaccio's Decameron or Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. The poet and essayist Enis Batur opined in his preface to the new edition of Boratav's anthology that the opposition Boratav's work received from those who termed the tales "beyond the boundaries of decency" and "inauthentic" was nothing other than turning a blind eye to the element of profanity that was central to the Anatolian oral storytelling tradition. According to Batur, Boratav's opponents found it hard to reconcile this lewd and irreverent character with their ideal of a national hero in what seemed to be an outright rejection of the country's cultural heritage. The religious irreverence permeating the original Nasreddin tales from manuscript sources still remains a topic of fierce dispute in an increasingly Islamicized Turkey. Bowdlerization of the tales was by no means confined to a particular era, locality, or political predisposition. As shall be seen, the obscene nature of some of them troubled editors and publishers of different social, cultural, and political inclinations throughout history, including the translator of the manuscript with which this article is concerned.


Nasreddin Hoca is deeply ingrained in the folk culture of the East, but there has also been an abiding interest in his tales in the West. Translations into European vernaculars have long been abundant, and well-known writers quoting Nasreddin without naming him are plenty. Thanks to translations into French (1876), German (1878), and English (1884), there was a vast collection of Nasreddin Hoca tales in print in Western Europe from the nineteenth century onward. (8) Benjamin Franklin reportedly quoted an anecdote widely attributed to Nasreddin Hoca to illustrate the impossibility of pleasing everyone, (9) while Goethe, not knowing that a good portion of the tales had been available in Latin since as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century, entertained the idea of his own Latin translation. (10)

The first Nasreddin Hoca manuscripts were brought to Europe in the late sixteenth century. This was no coincidence, since this era saw the emergence in Europe of a burgeoning interest in oriental languages. At the time, there were very few printed resources; orientalists had to procure manuscripts of grammars, dictionaries...

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