by Mirgul Kali
Kökbalaq is a 1978 novel by Mukhtar Magauin, one of the most important contemporary Kazakh writers of the older generation. Set in the first half of the twentieth century, the novel follows Toqsaba, a man who plays a dombyra, the two-stringed Kazakh lute with a pear-shaped body and a thin, long neck. Trained in his youth by the famous master Qyzai, Toqsaba is an accomplished performer of kuis—short dombyra compositions that tell stories through music. But his career as a celebrated dombyrashy, entertaining at private and public events and competing with other professional musicians, is cut short: the political upheaval in neighboring Russia leads to changes that disrupt the traditional nomadic lifestyle of Kazakh people, stripping Toqsaba of everything that matters to him, along with his ability to practice and share his art. A poignant tale of a skilled artist whose potential is not fully realized, Kökbalaq can be read as a postcolonial narrative that explores the impact of Soviet imperial practices on indigenous cultures and as a meditation on the transcendent, everlasting nature of art.
After deciding to translate the novel in 2018, I met with Magauin to talk about the book. Having authored several acclaimed novels popular with Kazakh readers, he expressed his surprise at my choice. He wondered if the readers of my translation would be able to fully appreciate the novel—after all, he wrote it with the intention of educating Kazakhs. He warned that it would be a difficult project for me.
Indeed, more than three years later, I’m still working on the translation of Kökbalaq. As an early-career translator and someone who doesn’t play a musical instrument, I have periodically struggled with the author’s intricate writing style and the main subject of the novel—the centuries-old Kazakh art of the dombyra kui. Yet, just like Magauin had intended, the book ended up educating me about my own language and culture. Not only did it reintroduce me to the magnificence and wisdom of the Kazakh language but it also made me aware of the complex system of ancient beliefs and practices of the Kazakh people.
This system, which reveals a fascinating and spiritually rich worldview, has emerged through my research of the etymologies and histories of various things, places, and people mentioned in the novel. As I investigated the curious or obscure terms and names, I read about and listened to kuis; pored over the enormous leather-bound volumes of the Kazakh Ethnographic Encyclopedia I’d lugged all the way from Atyrau; studied the Kazakh horses and their and coat colors, which often didn't conform to the standard western breed classifications; and peered into the black and white photos made by Russian explorers of the Central Asia in the early twentieth century. Along the way, I made plenty of notes and gathered countless intriguing bits of information. Since there is no certainty that the yet-to-be-found publisher of my translation will be able to accommodate all these notes, I decided I’d share them in the new Turkoslavia blog post series titled “The Missing Footnote.” And while one doesn’t have to consult these notes to enjoy Magauin’s novel—the compelling story and the vivid imagery make Kökbalaq an engaging read on its own—they may be helpful in better understanding its context and fully appreciating the book’s underlying themes. I hope that the notes will also be useful for anyone—translators and non-translators alike—interested in learning about Kazakh culture.