It’s been almost a year and a half since the three of us met for our first translation workshop. We now realize the significance of the place where we met—the Silk Road House, a Bay Area cultural non-profit run by renowned musicologists and cultural anthropologists Izaly Zemtsovsky and Alma Kunanbaeva.
On the one hand, there is the idea of the Silk Road, connecting the so-called East and West through multiple routes that traversed Southeast and Central Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, and Europe. On the other hand, there’s the non-profit itself, which highlights “the connections, communications, and bonds between peoples and cultures.” There we sat in a room filled with art, musical instruments, books, and souvenirs from many different places and commented on our translations from BCMS, Kazakh, Uzbek, and Russian languages.
Our conversations, too, inadvertently moved around the entanglements and connections between these languages, literatures, and cultures and the paths translations navigate to reach readers. While searching for previously published translations of Kazakh literature into English, Mirgul Kali found that an overwhelming majority of them relied on existing Russian translations of Kazakh-language originals, often by Soviet-era translators. She noticed that in some cases these translations still seemed to be oriented toward Russian readers, substituting important cultural elements as well as transliterating some Kazakh words via Russian. Such translations presented the original text through the prism of the intermediary culture. Sabrina Jaszi, a doctoral student in Slavic Literatures at UC Berkeley, noted that many of the translators who brought these works into Russian were Jewish, and that many of the translators into English were American and British expats who’d taken up residence in the Soviet Union. To her, Soviet translation—which brought diverse literatures of the Soviet Union into numerous world languages—embodied both the lost potential and real accomplishments of socialist internationalism. The translations and framing often reflected Soviet ideology and stereotypes about non-Russians, but the scale of the project was truly impressive. Ena Selimović wondered how the inter-imperial history of Turkic and Slavic languages and literatures affected the indirect translation (in this case, through Russian) of Kazakh works. She recently explored similar questions in her research on the translational network of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Balkan texts (some of them indirect translations into German and English through French, Italian, and Russian) which Goethe considered in his formulation of “world literature.”
In addition to conversations on the complex interactions between source, bridge, and target texts, we delighted in recognizing words and expressions in each other’s translations. Ena, who is familiar with Turkish, would exclaim, “I know this word!” when we puzzled over an Uzbek phrase in one of Sabrina’s source texts. The BCMS word komarac (meaning “mosquito”), so close to the Russian “комар,” was key to Sabrina and Mirgul’s understanding of a pun in a short story Ena was translating.
The idea to form a collective was there from the beginning. In October 2019, we attended a Center for the Art of Translation event featuring the translation collective Çedilla & Co. The readings and insights of Sean Gasper Bye, Elisabeth Jaquette, Julia Sanches, Jeremy Tiang, and Jeffrey Zuckerman inspired us to start our own collective. We wanted a collaborative space for workshopping our translations, sending proposals for publication and grants, writing blogs, holding readings, offering professional services, and supporting each other through all the facets of our work. The collective would not only focus on translation, but would also investigate the linguistic, literary, and historical interactions between Turkic and Slavic cultures—and beyond. Who were the people who translated and promoted Central Asian literary works into Russian and English during the Soviet era and what were their motives? How do imperial or hegemonic languages mediate the narratives of so-called small literatures? And in what ways do each of the diverse literatures that express themselves in the Russian language affect how we conceive Russophone literature? In what ways does BCMS-language literature reflect the diversity of the Balkans, which lies at the intersection of Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, French, and Venetian imperial histories?
We will use the space of this blog to further explore some of these topics and share what we imagined Turkoslavia to be: a collective of literary translators who welcome the complex linguistic and literary histories of Turkic and Slavic languages into their work.