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Books: translating Central Asian literature

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HAH Report

Shelley Fairweather-Vega, a Seattle-based writer and translator. She translates literature from Russian and Uzbek languages into English. She collaborates with authors, academics, and activists around the world and has worked on projects as varied as Russian poetry, Uzbek historical fiction, popular science, romance, and detective stories. She is a founder of the literary translation circle in Seattle, Washington, and runs FairVega Translations and FairVega Russian Library Services. In a recent interview with the Voices on Central Asia she spoke about the modern trends in Central Asian literature. The High Asia Herald reproduces the excerpts of the interview here with minor editing for clarity of language.–Editor

Q: The modern literature of Central Asia seems to be really underrepresented in English — and the West in general. What are the reasons behind this, in your opinion, and how it can be improved?

A: Let me tell you about the upcoming books first. Talasbek Asemkulov’s novel A Life At Noon (Талтүс in Kazakh, published by Slavica Publishers) has hit the stores last month. It’s a fictionalized memoir of the author’s own childhood in an aul in rural Kazakhstan in the 1960s. Asemkulov is mostly known as a musician, a dombyra player and a composer of kuys (and an expert on the history of Kazakh music). The protagonist in the story is a young boy learning to play the dombyra, and at the same time, learning about the history of his family and his country from all the old men in the aul. The book is full of stories. Set in the Soviet era, it was written after the collapse of the USSR, and it’s a very non-Soviet book in every respect.

Shelley Fairweather-Vega

Then two books by Hamid Ismailov — first Of Strangers and Bees: A Hayy ibn Yaqzan Tale (Haiy­ibn ­Yakzon, came out from Tilted Axis Press in October). A critic recently described it as “Master and Margarita comes to the Uzbek Cultural Center of Queens” for its odd blend of magic, post-Soviet angst, Sufism, and everyday ups and downs. Its main characters include Avicenna, an Uzbek writer, and a bee. Then, in November, Syracuse University Press will publish Gaia, Queen of Ants (a simplified version of its Uzbek title, Ялмоғиз Гея ё мўр-малаҳ маликаси), another Ismailov book that has never been published in Uzbekistan. This one also has persistent Sufi themes, and it’s also a tale of a clash of civilizations, but the two books are quite different.

This one also has persistent Sufi themes, and it’s also a tale of a clash of civilizations, but the two books are quite different.

I’ve been a professional translator for ten years, and over that time I’ve found myself working more and more on the translation of creative texts (books, poems, film scripts, etc). Ismailov found a short translation I did from Uzbek online and contacted me; I translated some short stories of his and an essay and eventually he convinced me to translate these novels. I was introduced to the Asemkulov book by the author’s widow, Zira Naurzbayeva, who is a fantastic writer herself and knows many more good writers and people who promote Central Asian literature abroad. Now I’ve learned of so many good new books from the region that I can’t possibly stop translating them.

To translate two novels from Hamid Ismailov in a row – there must be something about them that made them so attractive to be translated.

Yes, absolutely, and this something is Hamid Ismailov himself. He’s a wonderful storyteller in any language he chooses, and while his novels are all very Central Asian or Russian (in the broad sense of “Russian”), a lot of the emotions, characters, and stories feel very universal to me. His books always have a sense of humor, even if it’s very sad humor, and they have an ironic wisdom that’s very appealing to me. I believe all those elements help Ismailov’s books to resonate with readers all around the world, so they demand to be translated. Ismailov is himself a translator as well, and he understands how the craft of translation works; and as a BBC journalist and long-time resident of the UK, he also has useful connections to the British publishing industry. They know him and there is always an audience ready for his next book.

How do you choose a novel to translate? What do you pay attention to? Is the story more important, or do you focus on the way the story is described to catch the attention of western readers?

My decisions are based on the book itself, first. As I read it, I ask myself whether I like it at all, whether I understand it, and how I would describe it to an English-language publisher or literary critic in a way that would be interesting to them. And second, I consider the author, if they’re a living person. Can I develop a good working relationship with the author? Do I trust that person? Do they trust me? Translating someone’s book is a very serious commitment. If the author and translator don’t see eye to eye, I think translating that book would be a very difficult and unpleasant experience. I’m very lucky to have been found by some authors who are wonderful people, with whom I have a lot of trust and mutual respect.

What do you think may attract Western readers to Uzbek or other Central Asian literature?

I think that most Western readers first come to Central Asian literature because they have an interest in Russian literature. In a way, that’s a shame, because literature from Uzbekistan and the other countries deserves to be read and evaluated on its own terms. On the other hand, it’s a blessing, because readers can be pleasantly surprised to discover how non-Russian a book written in Uzbek can be. They discover that Central Asian literature is much more than just exotic Russian literature. I hope a few discoveries like this will pique readers’ curiosity and make them want to learn more about the region and read more, too.

“Who will read this book? What will they expect from the book? And what can I expect from the readers, in terms of attention, willingness to learn something new, willingness to think in an unfamiliar way?”

Do you attempt to adapt novels for the western audience’s mentality or keep the original motifs fully intact?

Well, this is one of the fundamental questions of translation: do we “domesticate” the text, bring it closer to what English-language readers expect, or do we “foreignize” it, and make an effort to keep it strange and alien to English-language readers? But it’s not a simple question, because there are many kinds of English-language readers, and there are many kinds of books. For every book, I have to make a judgment: Who will read this book? What will they expect from the book? And what can I expect from the readers, in terms of attention, willingness to learn something new, willingness to think in an unfamiliar way? Usually, I trust my readers to have a sense of adventure. I want them to be fully aware that this story does not come from their native land, and enjoy the interesting, odd things about it. Yet I see no reason to intentionally make the translation sound “foreign”. If the original is a good, well-written Uzbek book, then the translation must be a good, well-written English book, even if the settings, motifs, and themes are rarely described in English or completely unfamiliar.

What are the main differences that you have noticed between the content of Central Asian literature and the current world trends? And do you still feel the Soviet impact in the post-Soviet literature?

Yes, that Soviet shadow is still visible over a lot of Central Asian literature. This is especially a problem, I think, with the authors who were writing under the Soviet system in the 1930s who are the Central Asian “classics” now, or those who were writing later, in the seventies and eighties. Those from the early 20th century are often classified into just two groups: those who were later labeled nationalists or dissidents who were purged in the 1930s, and the authors who meekly conformed to Soviet rules and wrote socialist propaganda. But I wonder if there is another type of author from those decades whose work has been overlooked? The one or two generations who followed grew up in the Soviet system and might have found it hard to imagine writing in any other way. But of course, poetry and storytelling and art of all kinds have a very long history throughout Central Asia, long before the Russian Empire or the Bolsheviks arrived. Now some authors have more freedom to explore those old traditions like Ismailov does with Sufi tales and Avicenna, or like Zira Naurzbayeva does in her work with ancient Kazakh myths and legends. And other authors are equally free to join more global trends and write the kinds of things you might find in any Western university’s creative writing program, which may be set in Central Asia, but have more in common with Western writing today than any particular local history or tradition. But I have the sense that those authors, following global literary trends, are in the minority. There is just still too much writing to be done on specifically Central Asian themes. They have not had the chance to be fully explored yet.

Khaled Hosseini, a Hirot-born writer, uses a lot of Persian words in his books in English. Have you also kept some words in Uzbek and Kazakh in the translation?

Certainly. There are some words like greetings that I like to keep in the original language to remind readers that these characters are not speaking English. I also think it’s useful to retain some of the original language for the names of culturally specific items like foods and tools for which there really isn’t an English word. In those cases I expect my readers to learn some new vocabulary, and I hope they’re willing to make the effort.

What are the biggest challenges that you face during translation?

Translating any book is difficult because of the sheer size of the project. It takes stamina to return to the computer day after day to make progress on a big novel. Fortunately, when the book is really engaging, it holds your interest, and the work never gets boring. That was true with all three of these upcoming books.

There is also the challenge of understanding; how can I be 100% certain I’m correctly understanding an Uzbek-language book? Hamid Ismailov is a fantastic author to translate partly because he is happy to answer questions and he understands common translation dilemmas. Any time I wasn’t sure I understood something in the Uzbek, he was able to explain.

The other challenges all have to do with the English language. What do we call this or that part of a horse in English? Does English have a common phrase that is similar enough to this or that blessing or curse in Kazakh? I have to explore every corner of my native language to find the resources to translate Central Asian books well.

The modern literature of Central Asia seems to be really underrepresented in English—and the West in general. What are the reasons behind this, in your opinion, and how it can be improved? Should the writers turn to Russian to improve their chances of being translated, or should they keep writing in their native languages and seek opportunities to be translated?

I certainly agree that it is underrepresented. I think this is, again, mostly a consequence of being overshadowed by Russia and Russian literature for so long. I hesitate to tell every writer to use Russian or to never us

e Russian. A writer must write her story in the language in which she imagines the story. It’s a big mistake to write while focused on the goal of being translated! First, write an excellent book in the language your imagination speaks, whether that’s your native language or another one, and after that the translator will do her job to make it an excellent book in another language.

Of course, there are dozens of translators that are always working from Russian to English, and very few working from Uzbek or Kazakh. But there are more of those now than there were even five years ago, and they are honing their translation skills—and they are dedicated to the cause of promoting Central Asian literature and poetry. I like to think the truly good books will find their translators no matter what language. Finding publishers in English, sadly, is another question.

If someone wants his/her works to be translated from a non-Russian Central Asian language to English, what should they do, who should they contact, and what should they say?

The perfect scenario is to publish your work in the original language, and get some good publicity for it. If you collect enough recognition and praise, then you need your local publisher or your literary agent to share the news with publishers in other countries. Publishers are busy and have a lot of authors competing for their attention, so even the most artistic, beautiful book needs to have a good salesman promoting it. Sometimes translators can help with this process, but I find that publishers often prefer to hear from authors’ agents, and they bring in a translator later, after all the arrangements for a new publication have been made.

But if publication in the original language is not possible, or if you don’t have an agent who can contact publishers, you’ll need to convince a sympathetic translator to read your book. If they fall in love with it, they might agree to help find a publisher for an English version. I am trying to do this for a few books right now, and it’s very hard work, so I can only agree to do it for books I personally like and ones I think publishers might like, too (those are not always the same thing!).

International book fairs are also good places to present your book and possibly attract the attention of foreign publishers. In general, the more attention you can get for the book and for yourself as the author, the better.

What are your nearest plans regarding translations from Uzbek or other Central Asian literature?

I’m excited to see what kind of response these three 2019 books receive. I hope that if readers like those books, they’ll demand more stories from Central Asia. I have plenty more to recommend to publishers.

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