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Writers From the Great Plains

The first English translations of some of Kazakhstan’s best-known fiction writers and poets.

by Gabriel McGuire 12 February 2014

 

The Stories of the Great Steppe: The Anthology of Modern Kazakh Literature, edited by Rafis Abazov, translated by Sergio Levchin and Ilya Bernshtein. Cognella Academic Publishing, 2013. Paperback $54.95, e-book $41.95.

 

 

One of the oddities of Kazakh literature is the extent to which it has escaped not only translation into English but indeed any sustained notice by Western academics. In this context, The Stories of the Great Steppe is a unique and potentially valuable artifact. The collection offers a sample of short stories, brief excerpts from novels, and poetry culled from the works of some of the most notable Kazakh authors of the second half of the 20th century, almost all of whom are here translated into English for the first time.

 

The collection begins with Gabit Musrepov’s “An Ethnographic Tale,” which was written in the 1950s but apparently set during the collectivization drive of the 1930s. A close comparison of Musrepov’s Kazakh-language original with the English-language version reveals both the promise and the perils of this translation project. Musrepov was one of the great figures of mid-century Kazakh literature. His work spans the genres of the short story, novel, libretto, and play, even as his literary career spans the eras of Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. His works, widely read in the Kazakh language, were also circulated in Russian translations, while in the postwar period he served as both secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers and as president of the Union of Kazakh Writers. “An Ethnographic Tale” thus offers a narrow window into the works of a gifted writer who stood at the center of the Kazakh literary intelligentsia.

 

Musrepov_GabitGabit Musrepov
The narrator of his story is sent by the district secretary to the village of Zhanbyrshi, tasked with discovering why its inhabitants refuse to join their village with a neighboring collective farm. The narrator discovers an impoverished village paradoxically set in the district’s richest land: yurts are ripped and not repaired, sheep are emaciated and yet not driven to pasture, and all the while the village elders sit and engage in elaborate rituals of hospitality, seemingly unaware they are starving to death. The narrator eventually discovers that the only people who remain in the town are the hereditary elite who, abandoned by a worker class that had elected to join the new kolkhozes, are completely unable to care for themselves. The message of Musrepov’s story seems to be that the great famine of the 1930s – perhaps 1.5 million Kazakhs starved to death during the collectivization drive – was caused not by the mismanagement of Soviet cadres but by the laziness and incompetence of the pre-Soviet feudal aristocracy.

 

The English translation of the story is given in fluid and engaging language, yet it often departs substantially from Musrepov’s original. Where Musrepov writes briefly that “the kolkhoz did not want them to join, and they too did not want to join the kolkhoz,” the translation contains speculation on the reason: “Maybe they’d been hearing talk of the kolkhoz where everyone wore the same clothes, slept all together under a great communal blanket, got up and went to bed on cue, like it was the army. Evidently if it weren’t for ‘getting up,’ that sort of life would have suited Zhanbyrshi just fine.” At other points in the story, lines of dialogue not found in the original are inserted in the translation, as when a village elder admonishes the narrator for his use of Russian rather than Kazakh words and for having neglected to praise Allah.

 

A quick comparison with the Soviet-era Russian translation reveals the source of these shifts: the English version is clearly based not on Musrepov’s Kazakh-language original but rather on A. Belianinov’s Russian translation, and indeed accurately captures the latter’s various emendations and additions. The cumulative effect of the story’s translation first into Russian, then into an English version with little background information is a transformation and amplification of the message of the original tale. Where Musrepov (problematically) castigates the Kazakh hereditary elite for the misfortunes of the Kazakh people, the translation directly associates these elites’ backwardness with their adherence to Kazakh culture more broadly. The translation’s village elders are implicitly ethnic nationalists, suspicious of the new Soviet life-ways and swift to correct those who use Russian rather than Kazakh words.

 

SuleimenovOlzhas Suleimenov
The example of Musrepov’s story suggests the critical importance of knowing if these texts were originally written in Kazakh or in Russian. Olzhas Suleimenov’s long poem “Earth, Hail Man,” for example, was originally published in Russian and its translation is thus presumably more precise. Oddly, however, the anthology contains neither information on the original language of the texts nor any acknowledgment that the English-language translators did not rely exclusively on the original texts. Similarly, while the anthology credits Sergio Levchin and Ilya Bernshtein as translators, it is only occasionally made clear which of the two was responsible for the translation of specific pieces. While there is a useful and detailed bibliography of English, Russian, and Kazakh sources for the study of Kazakh literature, the book contains no bibliographical information on the actual poems and stories excerpted. The reader does not know when the stories were published, in what journals, in which cities, in what language. Individual stories do sometimes end with a date, but it is not made clear if this indicates the time of setting, composition, or publication. Nowhere is it noted, for example, that Rollan Seisenbaev’s novel The Day the World Collapsed – an implicitly critical account of a Kazakh village forced to evacuate in advance of a nuclear test-bomb’s detonation – was written and published in the time of glasnost, long after the period in which the story is set. As a result, the reader loses not only the ability to contextualize the stories within Soviet history but also a sense of how the themes, styles, and permissible topics of Kazakh literature shifted from era to era.

 

The bulk of The Stories of the Great Steppe consists of poetry and prose composed by a generation of writers who were born in the 1940s and who came to dominate the Kazakh literary scene in the Brezhnev era. Musrepov is the only author excerpted who published in the Stalin era, while the post-Soviet period is represented by three of Didar Amantay’s stories of young men wandering from café to café in a seemingly hopeless search for the certainty and sense of purpose possessed by their Soviet-era grandparents. The focus, however, is clearly on writers who came to prominence in the Brezhnev era. This was a time of great intellectual ferment in Kazakh literature. Authors experimented with the Soviet genre of village prose and wrote innovative works of historical fiction and literary criticism, while such literary journals as Juldyz (Star), Kazakh adebiyeti (Kazakh Literature) and Leninshil zhas (Leninist Youth) reached mass audiences. Many of these writers survived into post-Soviet times, when they served as ambassadors, editors, and members of parliament. The works included are well-chosen, ranging from Oralkhan Bokeev and Abish Kekilbaev’s historical short stories to poems by Mukagali Makataev, Iran-Gaiyp, and Fariza Ongarsynova. Although the anthology does not include all the major figures from this generation – the novelists Ilyas Esenberlin and Abdizhamil Nurpeisov and the poet Mukhtar Shakhanov are notable omissions – it does succeed in communicating the major themes and genres of the era.

 

Mukhtar_MagauinMukhtar Magauin
Rather than including the entirety of a single chapter or short story, the anthology stitches together a series of short excerpts from a single work. Although this method has the great advantage of allowing a wider sample of a single work to be reproduced, it can also undermine the narrative clarity of the original text. The anthology provides no guidance as to how the excerpts fit within the larger trajectory of the novel’s plot or of how the individual excerpts are linked with one another. The great Kazakh writer and literary critic Mukhtar Magauin’s novella “The Hound’s Death” tells the story of a shepherd named Kazy and his dog, Lashin. The anthology excerpts two sections, a stirring account of Lashin running down and killing a wolf together with the end of the story, in which the hound, standing on his master’s grave, is attacked and killed by wolves. In Magauin’s original, these two moments are separated by a long sequence in which Kazy grows ill and dies, after which the abandoned Lashin is forced to live a feral life on the outskirts of the village. The content of the missing section is never explained, however, and the reader is left unable to know if the excerpt’s abrupt shift from Lashin hunting a wolf to Lashin killed by a wolf reflects a deliberate esthetic choice on the part of Magauin.

 

Rafis Abazov’s introduction would have been an appropriate place to clarify how the excerpts fit within the novels and short stories from which they were taken. Ideally, the selections would also have been briefly contextualized with regards to both the author’s larger body of work and perhaps with regards to the author’s own place within Kazakh literary history. Abazov, however, largely devotes his introduction to providing a broad introduction to the major themes of Kazakh literature and of scholarship on Kazakh literature. Suleimenov is the only writer to receive any detailed biographical description; other authors simply have their birth and death dates listed, together with a brief description of the genres they worked in.

 

In the end, The Stories of the Great Steppe remains an inexact fit with any audience. The stories and poems are well worth reading in their own right, and the anthology succeeds in communicating the diversity and creativity of Kazakh authors. A general audience would likely find the depiction of Kazakh culture fascinating, yet might regret the lack of explanatory context. A scholarly audience already familiar with the history and literature of Kazakhstan would be better able to put the stories into context, yet in turn may find the lack of bibliographic material limits the collection’s utility.

 

Gabriel McGuire is an assistant professor in the faculty of world languages and literature at Nazarbaev University, Astana.

 

Home page image of Kazakh steppeland by breshuk/Wikimedia Commons.

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