On translating Central-Asian literature: Interview with three translators
In recent years, a significant number of Kazakh writers have been translated into English. At the request of the Kazakh PEN club, British translators Simon Hollingsworth and Simon Geoghegan translated three classic Kazakh authors, Mukhtar Auezov, Herold Belger and Oralkhan Bokeev. American translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega initiated another project, introducing contemporary women writers from Kazakhstan in an online literary magazine devoted to world literature. I interviewed these three translators about the particularities of translating Central-Asian literature, including issues such as accuracy, source language vs. pivot language, and cultural diplomacy.
Zaure Batayeva: Simon Hollingsworth, Simon Geoghegan and Shelley Fairweather-Vega, you have all been working as translators for many years. Can you tell us more about your reasons for going into the field of translation, and specifically literary translation?
Simon Hollingsworth: After graduating with a degree in Russian language and literature, I had no initial plans to become a translator, let alone a translator of literature. However, after some ten or eleven years of living in Russia, my command of the spoken language improved and I developed a better understanding of the written word. That said, I have to say I became a translator of works of literature more through good fortune than personal ambition. I translated Viktor Pelevin’s Empire V in 2006 for an anonymous client, a baptism of fire for a translator of literature. Despite the project proving to be a considerable challenge, I found the task immensely enjoyable and have since taken on other works, each challenging in their own particular way.
Simon Geoghegan: The reason I took Russian up is actually rather banal and prosaic: I was thirteen, I arrived late at school and the Spanish class was full - so I decided to do Russian. I had a brilliant Russian teacher who looked like Chekhov and spoke perfect Russian with an Oxford accent. In my third year of university, I went to study for a year in Voronezh University in 1989. I fell in love with the former Soviet Union and its people at a time when the most important changes in the world in my lifetime seemed to be happening in the country in which I had decided specialise. There were a lot of ‘bridges of friendship’ that needed building and we were in the right place at the right time. In 1991, immediately after university, I went to work in Petersburg - there were very few Russian-speaking westerners at the time and many adventures and opportunities to be had. I became increasingly fascinated by the country. I even went on a number of ethnographic expeditions. And I suppose this is what eventually led me to literary translation. What better way can there be of understanding a people, their country and their culture than by translating their great literature.
Shelley Fairweather-Vega: I studied international politics as an undergraduate, and in graduate school, I continued studying the same topics, but this time with a focus on Russian, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. By the time I earned my graduate degree, I knew I didn’t want to be a politician or a diplomat. I started translating a little and by the time my kids started school, I was translating full time. I love all types of translation, because successfully moving meanings from one language into another is always a challenging puzzle, and success feels like a genuine victory. But for me, personally, literary translation is often more satisfying than other types of translation. When I work with a creative piece of writing, I get all the pleasure of reading it closely, and the additional pleasure of shaping it myself, with my own hands. With fiction and in longer nonfiction, I have the luxury to dive more deeply into the work, and the satisfaction of knowing that I am helping to create or re-create something original and meaningful, in my own language, to share with people who would never experience it without a translator’s help. It turns out that, this way, I can be a cultural diplomat as well as a translator.
Zaure Batayeva: Simon Hollingsworth, you have recently translated two famous Kazakh writers: Herold Belger and Oralkhan Bokeev. Let’s start with Belger. You carefully read several works by Belger, including some of his short stories and essays. As a reader, what is your general impression of Belger?
Simon Hollingsworth: I found Herold Belger a joy to translate. He has a rare talent for describing what lays before him in a way that the reader can easily visualise. This is all the more remarkable given he was not a native Kazakh. I have visited Kazakhstan and spoken with people who knew Belger personally, and I believe it is his ability to convey all that is specifically Kazakh that makes him not simply popular, but truly loved as ‘one of our own’. Belger’s stories are simple and concern emotions and feelings inherent in all of us. Kazakhstan is a country about which the world knows sadly little and I believe Belger’s stories are an ideal introduction to the colours and the warmth of this nation.
Zaure Batayeva: Belger wrote in Russian, but he sometimes used Kazakh words. In your translations, how did you handle the bilingual issue, the presence of Kazakh language?
Simon Hollingsworth: This is a good question. The task of any translator is to convey the content, style and flavour of the original text without confusing or bogging the reader down with obscure terms. I retained many Kazakh words in my translation as many of them do not have a direct equivalent (and certainly not in English). Take the word aul for example. In certain contexts the word can be translated as village but in Kazakh this word has a far more profound significance. It was not by chance that the essay Aul was placed at the very beginning of the selected works I translated and it would be criminal to use any other word for the title. At the same time, other words can be conveyed by means of a simple translation, which helps the text flow without distorting meaning.
Zaure Batayeva: Recently you have also translated some of the stories by Oralkhan Bokeev. As a reader, what is your general impression of Bokeev’s stories? Which story did you like the most and why?
Simon Hollingsworth: Bokeev is another master of the descriptive form and his images of nature, people, climate and hardships are all vivid. The writing style is enjoyable, particularly, I found, in the shorter stories. It is hard to pick a favourite as they are all so varied but I found The Scream engrossing and I liked the Tale of Mother Aipara for the structure of the story, which I thought was beautifully rounded.
Zaure Batayeva: Bokeev originally wrote his stories in Kazakh, but you made your English translations mostly on the basis of Russian translations of Bokeev. How confident are you that using Russian as the pivot language has helped you produce accurate translations?
Simon Hollingsworth: Translating from a translation guarantees an imperfect result every time, however happy one may be with one’s work, and a full picture can only ever be attained from reading the original. In this sense, my translation is not the work of Bokeev, but my rendition of the rendition of another translator. I was recently blessed with the honour of meeting Abdizhamil Nurpeisov in Almaty and, on learning I was a translator, the writer’s first words were to tell me the work of someone in my profession is always a distortion of the original. And he is undeniably right. That said, Kazakh literature is a wholly unknown quantity in the English-speaking world and it is essential it receives the wide audience it so deserves. I am not confident that using Russian has produced an accurate translation, but I am confident that the end result is a critical step in bringing classics such as Bokeev and Belger to the international stage.
Zaure Batayeva: Simon Geoghegan, you have recently translated some of the best-known stories by Mukhtar Auezov. As a reader, what is your general impression of Auezov’s writing? Which story did you like the most and why?
Simon Geoghegan: Auezov’s voice is clear and assured and resonates throughout all the stories in the collection that I translated. Like all great writers, he effortlessly incorporates many of the great dualities of the human condition into his work: entropy and energy, progress and tradition, the rich and the poor, nature and nurture, men and women, the victorious and the conquered. Written in the 1920s, these stories are set on the Central Asian steppe just before the revolution when the entire region was going through the transition from a brutal feudal past and an unjust Tsarist imperialist recent past to the possibility of a progressive and egalitarian future.
Auezov is such a masterful writer that it was an immense pleasure translating all of these stories. However, if I had to single any of them I particularly enjoyed Savage Grey (Kokserek). It has obvious comparisons with Jack London’s White Fang but lacks the latter’s sentimental anthropomorphism; its uncompromising understanding of animal nature makes it immeasurably superior. It is possibly one of the best animal genre stories I have ever read.
However, perhaps my favourite story is Beauty in Mourning. It is a remarkable depiction of female desire that is contemporary to but more real than anything by D.H. Lawrence. Auezov’s writing in this story has quite rightly been compared by Aleksey Pantielev (Auezov’s Kazakh-Russian translator) with that of Guy de Maupassant.
Zaure Batayeva: Auezov originally wrote his stories in Kazakh, but, like your colleague, you made your English translations mostly on the basis of Russian translations of Auezov. How confident are you that using Russian as the pivot language has helped you produce accurate translations?
Simon Geoghegan: I was lucky in that the translation of the stories in this collection into Russian was made by Auezov’s great friend and collaborator Aleksey Pantielev with the author’s participation and blessing. So this is as close to an 'authorised' translation as you can get and don’t forget that Auezov was a prolific translator from Russian to Kazakh in his own right.
The question of ‘accuracy to the source language’ is very interesting and central to the work of any translator. For this purpose, the translator has such tools as glossaries, footnotes and access to native speakers of the source language. Without wanting to sound too radical, there can be no such thing as a 100% accurate translation. A translation can only ever be an approximation, an interpretation. Accurately rendering one language into another is important but it is only one part of the translator’s job. The translator has an even more important duty to interpret and render the author’s ‘voice’. And, in my opinion, this is a process that transcends language or nationality. Great art and literature transcends national or linguistic boundaries. A great artist or writer draws their inspiration from the ‘muse’, the ‘collective subconscious’ or ‘God’ (depending on your take on this matter), and what they produce is universal to all human beings.
Moreover, I often think that the criticism levelled at ‘pivot’ translations is unjust. They are a lot more common than people outside of the world of translation think. Indeed, a large percentage of the world’s literary translations are made using a pivot language purely because there just aren’t enough Japanese to Hungarian or Kazakh to Swedish translators to do the job and the results produced are often superb.
Zaure Batayeva: Shelley Fairweather-Vega, you have recently translated works of famous contemporary writers from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, including Zira Naurzbayeva, Lilya Kalaus, Aigul Kemelbayeva and Hamid Ismailov. What is your general impression of these writers?
Shelley Fairweather-Vega: I’ve been happy to focus quite a bit on Central Asia in the past few years. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and the whole region, are still very poorly known in the English-speaking world. Most people in my country have only vague ideas about ancient civilizations, Genghis Khan, maybe Soviet nuclear testing, but nothing else. So, in one sense, any writing we can translate from this region is a success and it contributes to our education.
However, the Central Asian writers I’ve worked with have value far beyond merely being educational. Hamid Ismailov is really a brilliant storyteller, and his writing draws on his experiences living all over the world and reading and writing in many different languages. I’m always amazed at the complexity of the themes and feelings in his work. Zira Naurzbayeva’s stories are wonderful and touching, and her work creates such a powerful emotional impact while never crossing the boundary into cheap sentimentality. And I’ve never read anything quite like the stories by Aigul Kemelbayeva and Zaure Batayeva that appeared in English in Words Without Borders in January. They have stories to tell that nobody else has told. I’m very excited about translating more by all these writers and continuing to share their work with the wider world.
Zaure Batayeva: Hamid Ismailov writes in two languages and you have translated his works from both languages. Is Ismailov a different writer in Uzbek than in Russian? Does the language affect his identity and style?
Shelley Fairweather-Vega: Well, this would be a very good question for Ismailov himself. When I asked him this question, Ismailov responded that he’s not ‘the same’ in any two books, regardless of language. But I can say we both agree that translating his Uzbek-language work is a very important endeavor, and while his Russian-language writing is wonderful, there is something distinct and special about the Uzbek novels.
Zaure Batayeva: As a reader, do you have any thoughts on the differences between Uzbek and Kazakh literature?
Shelley Fairweather-Vega: I haven’t read enough in either body of literature to have a knowledgeable opinion. But the two countries have faced some similar problems in terms of creativity and publishing. There was Soviet censorship and political repression, which prevented many interesting writers from publishing their work. There was a political culture that dictated the types of ideas and styles that could be published for a long time, resulting in too much writing that was unoriginal in terms of subject and artistry. Some of those problems remain, to one extent or another, in both countries. And now there is the added difficulty of a lack of money for publishing, so that only truly dedicated writers, or writers who no longer live in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, can persist in their work and have a chance at success.
Zaure Batayeva: Simon Hollingsworth, Simon Geoghegan and Shelley Fairweather-Vega, your English translations of Kazakh writers are now widely available on the internet, for English-speaking readers to read and purchase. Do you think the Kazakh writers you have translated will appeal to English-speaking readers?
Simon Hollingsworth: The English-speaking reader is generally an inquisitive reader. Tales of hitherto unknown places, unfamiliar customs and exotic cuisine are always a draw to the curious mind and I have no doubt these writers will appeal. Not only that, but the outside world knows next to nothing of this immense, enchanting and beautiful country and the writers I have translated play a key role in conveying these charms.
Simon Geoghegan: Auezov’s stories provide anglophone readers with a fascinating insight into the culture, landscape and history of this huge and remarkably neglected region. But most importantly, they stand up on their own literary merits and may justly claim a place alongside some of the best known Western European writers of the modern and pre-modern period.
Shelley Fairweather-Vega: I very much hope so! I know the stories appeal to me. One wonderful thing about the American book market is that we have readers who are interested in absolutely everything. There are readers for every book. The trick is to find a publisher who knows how to find the right readers.