politics : culture : economics

Lost in translation: the legal marriage age in Turkey

In Constitution, Legal system, Women in Turkey on December 1, 2010 at 2:57 pm

It’s the kind of thing that one would have thought needs to be more or less entirely devoid of ambiguity. But the Turkish language does its users no favours when it comes to setting down in law the age at which various actions become permissible.

The immediate context here is a bit of background reading I have been doing on changes to the legal age for marriage in Turkey. What is clear is that revisions to the Civil Code, approved in late 2001, raised the marriage age and standardised it for both men and women. What is less clear, to me at any rate, is what the age restriction now is.

This is largely down to the peculiarly figurative turn of phrase that the Turkish language relies on in this area. Clearly, not being a fluent speaker of the language doesn’t help me here. Equally clearly, however, even fluent speakers seem to diverge in their interpretations of Turkey’s age-related legal provisions.

If anyone reading this can settle the question definitively, the addition of a comment below would be much appreciated. In the meantime, let me sketch out the contours of the ambiguity that seems to exist here.

*****

The relevant provision of Turkey’s revised Civil Code, article 124, runs as follows: “Erkek veya kadın onyedi yaşını doldurmadıkça evlenemez.” The key word here is “doldurmadıkça,” from the verb “to fill,” which gives us a clumsy translation along the lines of: “Without filling the age of seventeen, neither man nor woman may marry.”

On the face of it, this looks like it might be straightforward. If you “fill” seventeen years—that is, reach your seventeenth birthday—you can marry. Well, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Here the idiomatic differences between Turkish and English start complicating matters for the Anglophone observer.

In English, to say “I am seventeen” is also to say “I am in my eighteenth year.” In Turkish, by contrast, the words one uses to say “I am seventeen” are “onyedi yaşındayım,” which literally mean “I am in the age of seventeen.” If we apply this logic to the excerpt above from the Civil Code, the meaning of its “onyedi yaşını” starts to slip. Is marriage permissible when seventeen years have been filled (ie, once one reaches one’s seventeenth birthday) or when the Turkish “age of seventeen” has been filled (which would be at one’s eighteenth birthday)?

For the moment, I remain tentatively of the view that the first understanding (ie, seventeenth birthday) is probably the correct one. For one thing, the same turn of phrase is used in the provisions (constitutional and legislative alike) that stipulate the age at which individuals acquire the right to vote, and there doesn’t appear to be any ambiguity surrounding its use there. Article 67 of the constitution gives the right to vote to “every Turk who fills the age of eighteen.” I’m not aware of ever having heard anyone suggest that voting is only allowed in Turkey after reaching one’s nineteenth birthday rather than one’s eighteenth. By analogy, marriage should therefore be permissible from the seventeenth birthday. And, indeed, this is what is stated clearly in at least one government-produced English-language text, which outlines various equality-related provisions. For what it’s worth, it is also the position adopted by UNICEF in this discussion of child marriage in Turkey.

*****

The fact that these various bits of evidence all point towards the seventeenth-birthday interpretation doesn’t mean that the linguistic ambiguity I’ve been alluding to is just angels-on-pinheads stuff. Nor is this solely the confusion of the monoglot foreigner. A range of Turkish sources, including official ones, also point to the eighteenth-birthday interpretation.

As it happens, the question of Turkey’s legal marriage age crops up in this morning’s Today’s Zaman, where it is discussed by one of the paper’s columnists. According to Berk Çektir, the current legal position is as follows: “Thus, the man and woman should have ‘completed the age of 17,’ meaning they should be 18 years old.” Mr Çektir is not an isolated example. A publication on Turkey’s EU-focused reforms produced in cooperation with the prime minister’s office clearly states (in Turkish, on page 18) that article 124 of the Civil Code means that marriage is permissible from the eighteenth birthday. Similarly, the website of Turkey’s Consulate General in London states (in English) that: “Normal marriage age under Turkish law is 18.”

(Incidentally, the website of the US embassy in Ankara adds a new slant to the confusion by claiming that: “Children under the age of 19 old [sic] must obtain permission from parents or custodians before they can marry.”)

Uncertainty as to the precise meaning of the doldurmak/filling idiom appears also to stretch into the legal field. On this legal forum, there’s a longish exchange (in Turkish) which tries to resolve the question (albeit in different context from the marriage one I’ve been dealing with). The forum participants come down on the side of what for our purposes is the seventeenth-birthday interpretation. But the fact that this is something that lawyers need to check with each other is indicative of how oddly unintuitive the formulation used to stipulate age requirements in Turkey’s laws is.

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  1. There might be an essential differences between the written and spoken language, which is the degree of formality! A basic difference is that the things we say, usually are not recorded. When a thing is written down, the resulting document can serve as proof that those words were, indeed, expressed. In rural areas, a person who could read and write, had influence (in th 50ties of the last century, still 40% of the Turks in rural ares could not read or write). As it is, and as it would be for any future beings who are fascinated with the history of our present-day culture, there is still an abundance of information stored in our written words. History, power, written or speaken languages, formaly degree…this sums up pretty well current problems regarding languages in transition.

  2. Elsewhere, Okan Altıparmak (@OkanAltiparmak) and I have had the following exchange in relation to this blog post. I’m pasting the exchange in here to keep any comments/clarifications in one place.

    Okan: This is a confusion created by the Turkish state. There are two terms used in reference to age: “x’e basmak” (stepping into age x) and x’i doldurmak (filling/completeing age x). In other words, the day you are born, you step into your age 1 whereas your first birthday makes you fill your age 1. Hence, you would have to be 18 years old (having filled/completed 17 years) to get married. Berk Çektir has it right.

    istanbulnotes: Thanks Okan. But what does that mean for the voting age? The constitution says: “Onsekiz yaşını dolduran her Türk vatandaşı seçme ve halkoylamasına katılma haklarına sahiptir.” But people here can vote before their 19th birthday, can’t they? (BTW, the list of figurative age references goes on. I’ve seen quite a bit of a third one today: “x yaşından gün almak.”)

    Okan: That I did not know. If that is what the constituion says, then 18 year olds voting should be contested (unless it was, and decided/clarified by the YSK – High Election Board). “x yaşından gün almak” is the same as “x yaşına basmak”.

  3. This age confusion is rife and doesn’t just affect marriage age. I attended the birthday party of a child born in 2004, yet he had 7 candles on his cake. My son, born 2005, is in the 6-year age group in preschool. Going backwards, do Turkish kids get 2 candles on their 1st birthday cake? Does starting school at 7 actually mean 6 years old in non-Turkish counting?
    And working forward to marriage age does this mean a 17th birthday is seen as ‘filling’ your 18th year or just starting it?

  4. Like the song goes, “I am seventeen, going on eighteen…” There has long been confusion in Turkey over age denomination, but it usually does not matter in casual contexts. Going forward, confusion could be dispelled by using an unambiguous formula such as “until X years after birth”.

  5. I spoke with a Turkish mother tongue, and here is the explanation, as far as I understood.

    The sentence “Erkek veya kadın onyedi yaşını doldurmadıkça evlenemez.” relates to the situation in which the age of 17 has not been filled, i.e. between your 17th and 18th birthday.

    The sentence “Onsekiz yaşını dolduran her Türk vatandaşı seçme ve halkoylamasına katılma haklarına sahiptir.” referes to the situation in which the age of 18 has been filled, i.e. you already celebrated your 18th birthday.

    The problem here is given by the verbal forms “-ma-dıkça” and “-an”. In the first case it indicates the non-completeness of an action. The second case relates to a person that had accomplished an action. I think that in the second case the “dolduran” participle could be substituted by “doldurmuş olan”.

    Did I make myself clear? If yes, do you thing I misunderstood something?

    Kolay gelsin

  6. Mattia: I don’t think that quite solves it. In your second paragraph you say that “the age of 17 has not been filled” if you’re between your 17th and 18th birthday, suggesting that the age of 17 ends at the 18th birthday. But in the next paragraph you say that the age of 18 ends at the 18th birthday. Those two statements can’t both be correct. I think that’s where the big ambiguity lies, not so much in the grammatical suffixes. (I don’t think the negative ‘madıkça’ suffix is determinant here, esp given that it appears in a double negative with ‘evlenemez.’) Does that make sense, or have I misunderstood?

    Catherine, Emre: the point you make about age being a source of wide-ranging and long-standing day-to-day confusion here seems to be one of the few points of widespread consensus in all of this! (The birthday-cake example is a great one.) The thing that I find amazing is that this casual confusion can be allowed to spill into pretty fundamental legal texts. Even if the patterns of everyday speech are prone to misunderstandings, one would have thought that the law would have to be pretty crystal clear in setting down who can marry/vote/etc when!

    (Evidently, this isn’t a Turkey-only phenomenon. For instance, a friend has said that the same kind of issues re children’s ages arise in Korea.)

  7. Istanblues,

    I’m sorry, in the second part I had to write:

    ‘The sentence “Onsekiz yaşını dolduran her Türk vatandaşı seçme ve halkoylamasına katılma haklarına sahiptir.” referes to the situation in which the age of 17 has been filled, i.e. you already celebrated your 18th birthday.’

    I am very sorry, my mistake surely didn’t help to solve this enigma 🙂

    Anyway, what I wrote does now make sense?

  8. But now you’re translating onsekiz as seventeen, aren’t you?

  9. No. “Onsekiz yaşını dolduran her Türk vatandaşı” can be translated as “Every Turkish citizen that had filled the age of 18”, i.e…..

    Oh my God, I’m lost!!!

    I’ll be back later…

  10. It seems less amazing when you remember that the law is on paper 😉

    For the confused, the Turkish method of reckoning goes like this: from the moment you are born to one year after that, you are completing your first year. Upon your birthday, you celebrate the beginning of your second year, and so on.

  11. This may not be as complicated as you make it sound: on your 1st birthday you complete (doldur) 1 year, ie you’ve been alive 1 whole year. so on your 18th birthday you complete 18 years. So `Onsekiz yaşını dolduran her Türk vatandaşı seçme ve halkoylamasına katılma haklarına sahiptir’ simply means `everyone aged 18 and over can vote’

  12. @ben

    so the sentence “Erkek veya kadın onyedi yaşını doldurmadıkça evlenemez.” means that everyone aged 17 and more can marry?

  13. Ben, that’s my understanding of the position on voting too. But it still leaves the confusion over the marriage age unresolved. The voting analogy suggests that everyone aged 17 and over can get married. But in the third paragraph from the end of the post, we still have three sources (two of them official ones) saying that the marriage age is 18.

  14. Yes I would read that in Turkish as clearly saying that marriage is legal from age 17. I remember someone telling me that there are 2 marriage threshholds, a lower one where you can only get married with parental consent, & another where you don’t need it. Maybe the first is 17 and the second 18? maybe the next bit of the law says something like: No one can get married under 17. AND 17-YEAR OLDS NEED PARENTAL PERMISSION, BUT FROM 18 YOU ARE FREE TO MARRY…

  15. “MADDE 124.- Erkek veya kadın onyedi yaşını doldurmadıkça evlenemez.
    Ancak, hâkim olağanüstü durumlarda ve pek önemli bir sebeple onaltı yaşını doldurmuş olan erkek veya kadının evlenmesine izin verebilir.”

    The 2nd part says that the judge can permit the marriage in particular situation for people aged 16. Isn’t it?

  16. Hi, I just came across with this page, and though the discussion was outdated, maybe I can still add my comments.. In the daily language there are different terms like “X’e basmak”, “X’den gun almak”, “X’i doldurmak”. The first one (X’e basmak-to step into X) is a vague one, people interpret it differently; some get it as completing one full year of X age, others as completing the pervious one and starting X. The second term “X’den gun almak (literally “take days from X”) is used when the previous age is completed, eg. when a child is born, he/she immediately starts to “take days” from his/her 1 year of age (though for babies we don’t use this term, we just says X days old, Y months old etc.. I gave this example just to explain the term). In the legal code these vague terms are never used; it is always “doldurmak” (to fill/complete). When a baby reaches his/her 1st birthday he completes his 1 year of age thus he/she is 1 year old. Hence the marriage age is 17 (having completed-lived 17 full years) and voting age is 18. Someone born on 12.1.1980 can marry earliest on 12.1.1997 (when 17), and vote on 12.1.1998 (when 18). The phrases such as “doldurmadikca” and “dolduran” may sound confusing to you but the first one (“Erkek veya kadın onyedi yaşını doldurmadıkça evlenemez”) is a limitation of a right (exact translation is: no man or woman can marry unless he/she completes his/her 17 years of age)and the second (dolduran) is granting of a right (Onsekiz yaşını dolduran her Türk vatandaşı seçme ve halkoylamasına katılma haklarına sahiptir – Every Turkish citizen who has completed 18 years of age has the right to vote in elections and participate in referendums).
    In the code there is also an exemption for the age, in extraordinary conditions and on very important grounds the judge may decide to allow the marriage of those who completed 16 year of age. So the normal marriage age in Turkey is 17; in extraordinary conditions this can be as young as 16; and voting age is 18.

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