About the Work

by shelley fairweather-vega

A boy on horseback, swept up in a blizzard while he’s following his herd of sheep. Another boy, laid low by sand and lightning while crossing the desert with a woman called Cleopatra. A man hiking the snowy steppe, searching for his missing friend. All three characters have enough on their minds already, before nature’s wrath demands their attention. These three passages, from three very different Central Asian novels I translated, struck me with their similar landscapes and emotional tenor, though their styles are wildly different. Their authors are men of the same generation, but from different countries, and each was originally written in a different language: Hamid Ismailov’s first-person recollection was written in Russian, and used once in an earlier novel of his (but not its published English translation), then recycled in Russian Matryoshka, his new Central Asian take on the great Russian novel, as a story from his alter-ego protagonist’s past. Sultan Rayev’s scene comes near the end of his Kyrgyz-language novel Castigation, which is part absurdist religious allegory, part timeless epic. And Talasbek Asemkulov’s blizzard takes place in his semi-autobiographical tale, published in English as A Life at Noon, set in Soviet Kazakhstan. Interestingly, both Rayev’s sandstorm and Asemkulov’s blizzard subside to make way for revelations within the young men who experience them, one sexual, one philosophical. Ismailov’s slightly older and wiser protagonist learns less from his blizzard; while Rayev’s and Asemkulov’s storms resolve with a stunning beauty to replace the chaos and terror, Ismailov’s protagonist only finds relief from the howling winds and howling wolves in the stinking trailer of a stoned construction worker he can barely understand. But when there’s a storm, any shelter will do.

about trilingual translation

Turkoslavia readers know better than most what sorts of storms can brew around language and literature in Central Asia, where local, mostly Turkic languages (like Kazakh, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz) still seem stalled under a massive, lingering, Russian-speaking high-pressure zone. Throughout the past two centuries, almost without exception, translations from the “minority languages” of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union were produced by only one process: 

1. The Soviet or imperial Russian cultural and political establishment decided what “minority-language” texts would be suitable to share with the world; 

2a. The author or a Russian-educated native speaker of that language translated the text into Russian, or

2b. A Russian writer who knew little or nothing about the original language did the job, consulting with an unnamed local informant or using basic, literal translation (Russian podstrochnik) produced by someone else; 

3. That translation went through the state’s editing, censorship, and publication process;

4. Eventually, with luck, that dodgy, censored, and possibly uninformed Russian version was translated into other, non-Soviet languages. 

          That colonial fact of life has hovered in the air over Central Asia for so long that many writers there who want an international audience still consider translation into Russian their prime goal and bridge translation the obvious way to make it into English. I’ve worked with authors who were surprised, even suspicious, when I asked to see their Kazakh originals along with the Russian translations they sent me to translate. They didn’t consider translation directly into English to be a possibility. Many Western readers of English translations, though, especially those less familiar with colonial Russian literary practices, are startled to discover, first, that very different languages lurk under all that Russian, and second, that bridge translation has been such a vital part of the translation process to date. In our enlightened twenty-first century, there’s a growing consensus (in the West, and especially among translators and publishers) that the practice of bridge translations, from Language A to Language C through Language B, is a terrible legacy of the violent colonial past, a practice to be shunned and stopped immediately.

          I certainly agree with the “terrible legacy” part. But these atmospheric forces, even the man-made, colonial kind, can’t be halted so easily. They can only be encouraged to dissipate gradually. There are half a dozen or more good, prolific translators currently working in English who have found a niche publishing their translations of Central Asian literature from the Russian, or from an English crib, mostly through companies that charge the authors to publish. They still outnumber those of us with skills in Kyrgyz, Azeri, Uzbek, or any other Turkic languages who work with traditional publishers in English. There are far more texts worth translating from those languages than we few can handle responsibly. To get all these books translated into English and published and read, then, it still seems necessary to bring in the talents of people with excellent Russian translation skills, and allow them to work with texts that have excellent Russian translations. But the obvious tension here means we all need to tread carefully when we translate literature from Central Asia, whatever the original language(s) of the text. 

          My own practice begins with keeping in mind these linguistic risks, and is premised on rejecting the idea that any given Russian bridge translation is necessarily the best option. Here are the rules I’ve developed for myself over my 15 years translating and editing Central Asian literature, whether or not there is a Russian text somewhere in the mix. Rules 3 and up apply to anyone with any knowledge of a Central Asian language other than Russian. Rules 5 and up apply specifically to the use of bridge translations.

1. Respect the author’s choice of original language. Some Uzbeks write in Uzbek; some Uzbeks write in Russian; some pick and choose as the spirit moves them. That is their prerogative, and I do not let it affect my judgment of the work I’m given to translate. I’ll advocate for publication of a Russian-language work from Central Asia as passionately as I do for a work written in Tajik or Turkmen, if I think it’s any good.

2. Be transparent. I include information about my source language(s) and linguistic informants any time I’m able to publish a translator’s note and am at liberty to share that information. A Life At Noon includes my translation of Zira Naurzbayeva’s foreword to her translation, for instance. Everyone who provided you with linguistic knowledge you didn’t already have must be credited and thanked. The more open we are about what it takes to translate a great book from Central Asia, the less suspicious readers and publishers will be of the process, and the more willing other good translators might be to come and help.

3. Know your linguistic limitations. I can and do translate directly from Russian and from Uzbek, languages I’ve studied extensively. Yet Uzbek is more difficult for me, meaning it takes me about three times as long to translate well from Uzbek, including research and revision time. I’ve also studied Kazakh, but I’ve never agreed to translate any literary text that exists solely in Kazakh without a good deal of outside help. The same goes for other Turkic languages: I can decipher them somewhat, but I don’t have enough knowledge to sense where my translation might go wrong, so I don’t attempt that work. Assess and report your skills honestly—to your authors, your publishers, your readers, and yourself.

4. Apply all your linguistic knowledge. Do not default to transcribing Turkic words or translating Turkic idioms the way that Russians do, or the way that Central Asians do for Russians.

*this, incidentally, can change. naurzbayeva now publishes in english under a de-russified version of her name, “nauryzbai.” asemkulov’s name probably should have been transliterated as “asemqulov,” or with different vowels, but readability in english is also a factor when making those decisions.

5. Translate for your target audience. In the past, the first target audience for any translation from a Central Asian language was Russian. Old bridge translations often read as English-language versions of books written for those same Russians. Do not assume that English-language readers need the same explanations that Russian-language readers do or have the same background information, sociopolitical awareness, or biases.

6. Use every version of the text you can get. This is the method I used to translate the Asemkulov and Rayev excerpts here: I translated these novels from Russian, the language I know best, and consulted the original text (in Kazakh and Kyrgyz, respectively) whenever something in the Russian was awkward or ambiguous, or just seemed suspicious, or made me curious. A bridge translation done right is a valuable resource. However…

7. Know the limitations of your bridge text. If there are a lot of awkward, ambiguous, and suspicious passages in your Russian version, you must trust it less, and check the source text more frequently. But if the Russian text flows nicely and sings, if it is free of clichés, if it has a distinctive style that you can detect in the original as well, and if your spot checks never turn up a major difference or an error, you may be on very safe ground.* Knowing who produced the Russian text helps a great deal. In the case of A Life At Noon, the author’s wife and longtime research partner, Zira Naurzbayeva, translated the text from Kazakh to Russian, with editorial assistance from Lilya Kalaus. Both Naurzbayeva and Kalaus are excellent writers whom I know and trust. Their Russian translation was meant to be published, not to serve as a crib for my translation, and it’s wonderful. The case of Rayev’s novel Castigation is quite different. I have no idea who the Russian translator was, and so far, I’ve decided not to ask; there are major errors of understanding in the Russian version I was given to work with, so the Kyrgyz version played a greater role in my work on that novel.

*astute readers will immediately object that the nicely-flowing russian text is the most dangerous trap in the dicey business of bridge translation. a beautiful text can indeed lure you into a false sense of security. but knowing how much to trust the motives and professional integrity of the russian translator can reduce that danger considerably; and at worst, if you do get fooled, you will have produced a translation of a really beautiful russian text, leaving the way open for someone else to translate beautifully and faithfully from the original language, down the road. in other words, i don’t consider this outcome to be a complete disaster.

8. Given the time, re-translate or revise your translation directly from the original, if you have the skills to do it. This is the ideal, but it’s a major undertaking, and I’ve never seen a publishing contract that compensates a translator for translating a text twice, or offers a deadline long enough to make that feasible. Recently I applied for a translation grant for an Uzbek-language book for which I’ve translated excerpts from the author’s own, very good, Russian version, and argued that I needed the funding so I could take the time to translate the book from the Uzbek instead. I don’t know if the grant-givers will buy my argument, but I hope they do. 

          I also hope, fervently, that we’ll be able to discard this long list of rules sometime in the very near future, and eject Russian from the Central-Asian-to-English translation process for every author that wants it gone. That’s going to require a new cohort of linguists working from each and every Central Asian language who have the talent and training to produce high-quality, publishable translations. Right now, there are regrettably few of us. Until there are more, those of us who are already here have a responsibility to do as much work as we can, as mindfully as possible, using all the tools available to us (even the Russian language). If we do the work correctly, the demand for new, better translations from the region will continue to grow, and all those new translators will have the freedom to craft rules of their own.


hamid ismailov is a poet, translator, and novelist born in Kyrgyzstan, banished from Uzbekistan, and currently living in Prague. His inventive novels and short stories, written in a variety of languages, have been translated and published around the world to critical acclaim.

sultan rayev is a former Minister of Culture of Kyrgyzstan and currently serves as head of the Turkic Writers Union, a multinational organization promoting literature across Central Asia and Turkey. He has written two novels and many screenplays.

talasbek asemkulov was a musician and scholar of culture in Kazakhstan. He was the author of many volumes of scholarly literature, as well as screenplays and other creative works.

shelley fairweather-vega is a professional translator in Seattle, Washington, concentrating on prose and poetry from today’s Central Asia.


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