Since declaring independence from Moscow in 1991, the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan has embarked on a journey to redefine its multi-ethnic and multilingual identity, far removed from imposed Soviet models of colonialism, historical censorship and roles of gender. The current Kazakh renaissance is reshaping its own definitions of culture, especially in the fields of cinema, music, modern art and literature.
The literature of the traditionally nomadic Kazakh people remained mostly oral until the 19th century, when Tsarist Russian colonization introduced the use of Russian, as well as access to printing technology. A parallel Russian-language literature then developed and was promoted politically from the 1920s to the beginning of the Soviet period. Moscow encouraged ethnic Kazakhs and other ethnicities to write in the transnational language of that period, presenting the Kazakh language as a less favorable choice. There are few mentions of women’s writing until the Soviet period, but today Kazakh literature has diversified in forms, style, gender and ethnicity, which is largely reflected in ” Amanat. Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan”, the first anthology of women’s writing from Kazakhstan published in English in July 2022.
The anthology was curated and co-translated by Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega, two women promoting translations of literature from Kazakhstan. Batayeva is herself a writer, literary translator from and into Kazakh and cultural commentator. Fairweather-Vega is a translator from Russian and Uzbek to English and has been published in “Words Without Borders”, “World Literature Today”. The anthology features 13 women writers and takes its name from the Kazakh term “amanat” which can mean promise and moral duty, but also legacy. The selected texts were written within the last 30 years, but include references to historical periods before and after independence, including the Stalin years.
Global Voices asked them how they navigate the relationship between Kazakh and Russian in their choice of pieces and their own English translation practice. Fairweather-Vega explains that one of the goals was to showcase Kazakhstan’s linguistic diversity, so there was careful selection of texts of seven authors who write mainly in Russian and six who write mainly in Kazakh, all translated directly into English to avoid bridge translations. Noting that most of the featured authors are themselves translators, she adds:
We have tried to honor the bilingualism of each author in the translation of his work; we were sensitive to cases where a Russian word was treated as a foreign word in a Kazakh text, for example, as opposed to when this Russian word was presented as a more “normal” word.
Batayeva explains that there is a clear separation between the two linguistic communities, but that the border does not necessarily overlap the ethnic division:
The stories in our collection don’t mix the two languages because their characters do not mix with the characters of the other language group — they live in two different worlds. This reflects very well the social reality of Kazakhstan. Kazakh speakers, who constitute nearly 60 percent of the country’s citizens, have developed a culture that is profoundly different from Russian culture. Kazakh speakers with a higher level of education tend know Russian because Russian is the language of the so-called elite of the country. You have to know Russian if you want a job that pays a living wage. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Kazakh speakers prefer to stay in their own cultural environment as much as possible.
On the other side of the sociolinguistic divide are the Russian speakers, who tend to know Kazakh poorly or not at all and who prefer to interact with speakers of this language as small as possible. This lack of interest is evident in some of the stories in our collection. I do not say this as a criticism, but as an observation. Writers are human beings. Besides, if writers were becoming too aware of their own biases and blind spots, they would probably quit producing interesting stories.
According to Batayeva, Kazakhstan failed to correct the deep linguistic inequality created by 70 years of the policy of Russification of the Soviet Union, which explains the small number of bilingual or multilingual people outside the Kazakh ethnic group. She notes that few Russian speakers attach much importance to learning Kazakh and refers to Frantz Fanon’s notion of “indifference” to explain the resistance to learning and speaking Kazakh.
Otherness and the art of literary translation
One of the most interesting debates in literary translation concerns the position of the translation: how far or how far should it be from the original, and therefore from the intended audience? In other words, is the task of the translator to explain the cultural and historical context or to leave it up to the reader to ignore it or to learn about a culture that he does not know? In the case of “Amanat”, publisher Gaudy Boy has a policy of not italicizing non-English words, so words such as kolkhoz or dombyra (a musical instrument) are integrated into the text. Here’s how Fairweather-Vega sees this problem:
I am one of those translators into English who strongly oppose adding explanations footnotes in fiction. I much prefer to insert only a minimum of additional information, when absolutely necessary to prevent readers from feeling completely lost in the cultural milieu. But even letting readers feel a bit lost seems fine to me. It is fair to remind readers that they are the strangers here in this environment, and they have something to learn. A decision we made easily was to translate many Kazakh idioms, sayings and metaphors rather literally in English, to convey common elements of imagery and attitude in the English. I think Zaure did a great job in Aigul Kemelbayeva’s “Hunger”. which uses a lot of imagery that relies on plants, animals and foods that don’t often appear in English language literature. The narrator tells us “My poverty wrapped around me like a bindweed”, mentions that “a young wolf does not show its thinness, but rather lets its fur swell”.
Women are ambassadors of the Kazakhstan experience
Fairwearther-Vega makes an interesting point noting that:
There is also probably some truth in the cliché according to which translation is still often “a woman’s job”, one of those nurturing professions, in which many cultures seem to fit, women tend to excel. If translation is a nurturing activity, what do we cultivate when we translate? Better communication, I guess, through better agreement. I firmly believe that the more stories we hear or read, the more we can empathize with our fellow human beings of all genders and languages.
She notes that there are still very few Central Asian translations into English, and, given the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, there is an urgent need to introduce the diversity of partially Russian-speaking societies to English-speaking people. She asks as follows:
What if, by helping the women of Kazakhstan to tell their stories around the world, they are able to find more moral, practical and political support when the push comes to shake up geopolitically? What if it helps to prevent any dangerous idea that Kazakhstan is not a real country anyway, or is it too foreign for us in the West to care? Maybe that’s too optimistic of me, but these thoughts constantly run through my head as I translate Central Asia Literature. Increase the exposure of writers (of any gender, from any country in the region) simply must help somehow.
As the two commissioners note, the stories also tell of economic changes, social unrest from the perspective of women who have to deal with corruption, sexual harassment, making difficult choices about migration and work.
Many stories in our collection also show how hazy the past has become for us. Kazakhs. Before Kazakh writers could begin to reflect on the challenges of today and tomorrow, they will first have to find the courage to reflect on the horrors and mysteries of their shared traumatic past. As long as we don’t get over it our past, we won’t even know who we are.