Since it declared independence from Moscow in 1991, the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan has embarked on a journey to redefine its multiethnic and multilingual identity, away from imposed Soviet models of colonialism, historical censorship, and gender roles. The current Kazakh renaissance is reshaping its own definitions of culture, most noticeably in the fields of film, 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 print technology. A parallel Russophone literature then developed and was politically promoted from the 1920s as the Soviet period began. 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 become more diverse in forms, style, gender and ethnicity, something widely reflected in “Amanat. Women's Writing from Kazakhstan,” the first anthology of women's writing from Kazakhstan coming out 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 a writer herself, a literary translator from and into Kazakh and a cultural commentator. Fairweather-Vega is a translator from Russian and Uzbek into English and has been published in “Words Without Borders,” “World Literature Today“. The anthology presents 13 women writers and takes its name from the Kazakh term “amanat” that can refer to promise and moral duty, but also legacy. The selected texts were written in the past 30 years, but include references to historical periods of pre- and post-independence historical periods, including the Stalin years.
Global Voices asked both of them how they navigated the relationship between Kazakh and Russian in their choices for pieces and own practice of translation into English. Fairweather-Vega explains one of the goals was to showcase the linguistic diversity of Kazakhstan, thus there was a careful selection of texts from seven authors who mostly write in Russian and six who mostly write in Kazakh, all translated directly into English to avoid bridge translations. Noting that most of the authors featured are themselves translators, she adds:
We tried to honor each author’s bilingualism in translating their work; we were sensitive to instances when a Russian word was being treated as a foreign word in a Kazakh text, for example, as opposed to when that Russian word was offered up as a more “normal” word.
Batayeva explains there is a clear separation between the two linguistic communities yet the border does not necessarily overlap with the ethnic divide:
The stories in our collection don’t mix the two languages because their characters don’t mix with characters from the other linguistic group — they live in two different worlds. This reflects the social reality of Kazakhstan very well. Kazakh speakers, who constitute almost 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 to know Russian because Russian is the language of the country’s so-called elite. You need to know Russian if you want a job that pays a living wage. Nonetheless, 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, there are the Russian speakers, who tend to know Kazakh poorly or not at all and who prefer to interact with the speakers of that language as little as possible. This lack of interest clearly shows in some of the stories in our collection. I don’t mean this as a critique, but as an observation. Writers are human beings. Besides, if writers became too aware of their own prejudices and blind spots, they would probably stop producing interesting stories.
According to Batayeva, Kazakhstan has failed to correct the deep linguistic inequality created by 70 years of the Soviet Union's Russification policy, which accounts for the small number of bilingual or multilingual people outside the ethnic Kazakh group. She notes that few Russian-speakers see much value in learning Kazakh, and refers to Frantz Fanon‘s notion of “indifference” to explain the resistance to learning and speaking Kazakh.
Othering and the art of literary translation
One of the most interesting debates in literary translation is about the position of the translation: how far or close should it be from the original, and thus from the receiving audience? In other words, is the task of the translator to explain cultural and historical context or leave it to the reader to either ignore it or educate themselves about a culture they are not familiar with? In the case of “Amanat”, the publisher Gaudy Boy has a policy of not italicizing non-English words, thus words such as kolkhoze or dombyra (a musical instrument) are embedded in the text. Here is how Fairweather-Vega views this issue:
I am one of those into-English translators who is firmly opposed to adding explanatory footnotes in fiction. I much prefer inserting just a minimum of additional information, when absolutely necessary to keep readers from feeling completely lost in the cultural milieu. But even letting readers feel a little lost seems all right to me. It’s only fair to remind readers that they are the strangers here, in this environment, and they have something to learn. One decision we made easily was to translate many Kazakh idioms, sayings, and metaphors rather literally into English, to let common elements of imagery and attitude shine through in the English. I think Zaure did a great job of this in Aigul Kemelbayeva’s “Hunger,” which uses a lot of imagery that relies on plants, animals, and food that don’t often appear in English-language literature. The narrator tells us “My poverty was wrapping around me like a bindweed,” mentions that “a young wolf does not show its thinness, but lets it fur bloat instead”.
Women are ambassadors of the Kazakhstan experience
Fairwearther-Vega makes an interesting point when remarking that:
There also is probably some truth to the cliché that translation is, still, often “women’s work,” one of those nurturing professions, in which, many cultures seem to agree, women tend to excel. If translation is a nurturing activity, what are we nurturing when we translate? Better communication, I suppose, as a result of better understanding. I firmly believe that the more stories we hear or read, the more we’ll be able to exercise empathy for our fellow human beings of all genders and languages.
She notes that there is still very little translation from Central Asia coming out in English, and, given Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there is an urgent need to present the diversity of partially Russophone societies to English-speakers. She thus wonders:
What if, by helping the women of Kazakhstan tell their stories around the world, they’re able to find more moral, practical, and political support when push comes to shove geopolitically? What if it helps prevent any dangerous ideas that Kazakhstan isn’t a real country anyway, or is too alien for us in the West to bother with? This might be overly optimistic of me, but these thoughts still run through my head constantly while I translate Central Asian literature. Increasing exposure for writers (of any gender, from any country in the region) simply has to help somehow.
As both curators remark, the stories also tell about economic changes, social unrest from the perspective of women who have to face corruption, sexual harassment, make difficult choices about migration and work
Many of the stories in our collection also show how foggy the past has become for us Kazakhs. Before Kazakh writers can 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 recover our past, we won’t even know who we are.