Women writers from Kazakhstan make their voices heard in English · Global Voices Français

Partial view of the cover of the Amanat Anthology, which includes writings by Kazakh women in English. Contacted by editors and published with their consent.

Since declaring its independence from Moscow in 1991, the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan has sought to redefine its multi-ethnic and multilingual identity, away from imposed Soviet models of colonialism, historical censorship, and gender representations. The current Kazakh Renaissance is redefining its definitions of culture, particularly in the fields of cinema, music, modern art, and literature.

From the nomadic tradition, Kazakh literature remained above all oral until the nineteenth century, when Tsarist Russian colonization introduced the use of the Russian language as well as access to the printing press. Then parallel Russian-speaking literature developed and was politically encouraged since the 1920s, with the beginning of the Soviet era. Moscow encouraged Kazakhs and other ethnicities to write in Russian, the cross-border language at the time, by introducing Kazakh as the second-choice language. Traces of women’s writing are few until the Soviet era, but today’s Kazakh literature has diversified in form, style, genre, and ethnicity. Which is largely reflected in “Amanat. Women’s Writings from Kazakhstan”, the first anthology of women’s writings from Kazakhstan, published in English in July 2022.

Zuri Bataeva, posted the photo with her permission.

The anthology was compiled and translated jointly by Zor Batayeva and Shelley Firother Vega, two women who promote the translation of literature from Kazakhstan. Zuri Batayeva is a Kazakh writer, literary translator and cultural columnist. Shelley Fairweather-Vega is translated from Russian and Uzbek into English and her work has appeared in Words Without Borders, World Literature Today. The anthology includes 13 women writers, whose name is derived from the Kazakh term “Amanat” which refers to a promise and moral duty, but also to legacy. The selected texts have been written within the past 30 years, but provide references to historical periods before and after independence, including the Stalin years.

Global Voices asked the two how they approached the balance between Kazakh and Russian in their choice of texts and according to their practice of translating into English. Fairweather-Vega says one goal was to showcase the linguistic diversity of Kazakhstan, and then the careful selection of texts by seven authors who write primarily in Russian and six who write primarily in Kazakh, all translated directly into English to avoid cross-translations. She adds that most of the featured authors are themselves translators:

We have tried to respect each author’s bilingualism when translating their texts. We were attentive to cases when a Russian word was treated as a foreign word in a Kazakh script, for example, in contrast to cases where this Russian word was presented as a more “common” word.

Bataeva explains that the two linguistic communities are clearly distinct, but this distinction does not necessarily coincide with the ethnic division:

Not every story in our group mixes the two languages, because the characters that make up it don’t mix with those of the other language group – they live in two different worlds. This well reflects the social reality of Kazakhstan. Kazakh speakers, who make up nearly 60% of the country’s citizens, have developed a culture that is profoundly different from Russian culture. Kazakhs with a high level of education tend to know Russian, because Russian is the language of the country’s so-called elite. If you want to get a paid job, you need to know the Russian language. However, the vast majority of Kazakh speakers prefer to stay as much as possible in their cultural environment.

On the other side of the sociolinguistic divide are Russian speakers, who tend to know little – if any – Kazakh and who prefer to interact as little as possible with those who speak that language. This disinterest is clearly reflected in some of the stories in our group. I am not saying this as a criticism, but as a note. The book is human. Furthermore, if writers become fully aware of their biases and gray areas, they will likely stop creating compelling stories.

According to Bataeva, Kazakhstan has failed to correct the profound linguistic disparity that resulted from 70 years of Russification policy in the Soviet Union, which explains the decline in the number of bilingual or polyglot people outside the Kazakh ethnic group. She notes that few Russian speakers see any interest in learning Kazakh, and points to Frantz Fanon’s idea of ​​”apathy” to explain resistance to learning and speaking Kazakh.

The Other and the Art of Literary Translation

Shelley Fairweather-Vega, image posted with permission.

One of the most interesting debates in literary translation revolves around the positioning of the translation: what distance or proximity should it be with the original translation, and thus with the target audience? In other words, is the translator’s job to explain the cultural and historical context or to allow the reader to choose to ignore it or discover a culture about which he knows little? In the case of “Amanat”, publisher Gaudy Boy chose not to write non-English words in italics, so that words like kolkhoze or dombyra (a musical instrument) would blend in the text. Here’s what Fairweather-Vega thinks of it:

I am one of those English translators who are vehemently opposed to the addition of footnotes in novels. I prefer adding a few extra elements if needed so the reader doesn’t feel completely lost in an unfamiliar cultural setting. However, accepting the fact that the reader might feel a little lost seems perfectly acceptable to me. It seems natural to me that the reader does not lose sight of the fact that he is the stranger in this formation, and that he undoubtedly has things to learn from. One easy decision we made was to translate many Kazakh expressions, sayings, and metaphors almost verbatim, in order to allow the most common visual and gestural components to shine through in English words. I think Zuri did an excellent job in Igol Kimilbaeva’s “Hunger”, which uses many metaphors about plants, animals or food, which is not uncommon in English literature. The narrator tells us: “Poverty wraps around me like ulna grass,” and continues: “The little wolf does not show his thinness, but leaves his fur to swell.”

Women are ambassadors for the Kazakhstan experience

Fairwearther-Vega makes an interesting point:

Perhaps there is also some truth in the cliché that translation to this day remains mostly a “female work,” one of those “developmental” professions with which, as many cultures seem to agree, were privileged women. so sIf translation is a nourishing activity, then what do we take care of when we translate? Better communication, I think, because of better understanding. I firmly believe that the more stories we hear or read, the more we can empathize with our fellow human beings, regardless of gender and language.

I found that translations from Central Asia are still very few in English, and given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is an urgent need to familiarize English speakers with the diversity of partly Russian-speaking communities. So you wonder:

What if helping Kazakh women tell their stories around the world provided them with valuable moral, practical and political support when the geopolitical situation became critical? What if I helped fight some dangerous ideas that Kazakhstan wasn’t a real country anyway, or was too foreign for us Westerners to care about? This may be too optimistic of me, but these thoughts constantly cross my mind when translating Central Asian literature. The increased visibility of writers (of all kinds and from all countries in this region of the world) is bound to be beneficial.

As the two project leaders explained, these stories also tell of economic transitions and social tensions as seen by women who have to deal with corruption and sexual harassment, who have to make difficult choices about their careers or sometimes contemplate leaving the country.

Batayeva concludes:

Many of the stories in this anthology also show how our past is blurred in our minds, for us Kazakhs. Before they can begin to think about the challenges of today and tomorrow, Kazakh writers will first have to find the courage to reflect on the horrors and mysteries of their painful collective past. Until we find our past, we won’t even know who we are.

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