About the Work

Three translators, one poem, zero shared languages outside of English. Our translation of Shakarim Qudaiberdiuly’s 1879 poem represents a daring and perhaps foolhardy act of collaboration. Through it we faced linguistic and literary inadequacies, experimenting with the translation of languages we didn’t share and of poetry (all three of us are translators of prose). Several years ago, Mirgul was reading through the classics of Kazakh poetry when, in a volume of Shakarim’s work, she was struck by one poem in particular. Its sensuality altered her notions of how Kazakh writers of the past approached sex in their work. At the time when Mirgul shared this poem with Ena and Sabrina we were immersed in editing Issue 2 of Turkoslavia Journal, which, to our surprise, was brimming with poetry. Shakarim’s poem seemed to challenge us to take it on despite our greater experience translating prose. 

Shakarim was a late 19th–early 20th century Kazakh poet, composer, historian, and translator. Despite having no formal education, he was fluent in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, and Russian languages, versed in Middle Eastern literature and Islamic theology, and familiar with the works of Western and Russian writers and philosophers. Though he initially welcomed the changes brought by the October Revolution in Russia, he later became disillusioned with Soviet politics and lived a reclusive life in the mountains of Eastern Kazakhstan. After he was shot by NKVD policemen in 1931, his songs, ballads, and historical narratives continued to be transmitted orally or via hand-written copies among the local population. 

Steeped in the lyricism of medieval Arabic and Persian poetry and the realism of the canonical Kazakh poet Abai (his uncle and mentor), Shakarim developed an intimate, impassioned poetic style through which he explored the spiritual, philosophical, and social issues of his time. Many of Shakarim’s poems feature the figure of “жар,” the Beloved, which in Sufi poetry —particularly in the works of Hafez, whom Shakarim translated and took influence from —represents God. While Shakarim’s beloved is a mortal woman, as in Hafez’s ghazals, she is more than a mere object of desire; she is the singular source of the poet’s overwhelming emotion, compelling him to action. In his later works, Shakarim explicitly links the image of the Beloved — rendered in our translation as “truelove” — to the idea of Truth. By extension, he sees his life mission as a search for Truth through learning and writing. 

Given Turkoslavia’s mission to foreground the challenging work of literary translators, it seems appropriate to describe the successes and difficulties of our process, which lasted about a month from start to finish (or, deadline) and included independent work and joint translation sessions. Our initial plan was to compose three separate translations of the poem, from which we would pick the best lines and phrasings to create a final version. This plan quickly went out the window when Ena and Sabrina, neither of whom know Kazakh, made some preliminary attempts. Ena ultimately found that translating from a language of which she had limited linguistic or cultural knowledge flooded her with experiences she went through as a refugee. Sabrina, who translates from Uzbek and is familiar with other Central Asian languages, expected the task to be difficult but not impossible. Without the dictionaries, grammars, and corpus tools that she has cultivated for Uzbek, however, she found herself at sea in the same boat. Machine translation works only erratically from Kazakh and neither made it past the first two stanzas.

Ironically enough for a poet who died under Stalin and whose work was banned until the USSR’s dissolution, the process we arrived upon somewhat resembles the way Soviet translations were produced. Mirgul, a Kazakh-born exophonic translator, spent a week translating the poem and researching obsolete Kazakh terms and expressions, using sources from scholarly works on Shakarim to encyclopedias on flora and fauna of Kazakhstan. During our joint translation sessions she additionally narrated the meaning of each line to Ena and Sabrina. The three of us then went about creating a lyrical translation that in some way fit the original both in meaning and sound. We considered such issues as verb tense (mindful of the poet’s energetic use of the present progressive), pronouns (shifting from the “I” of the older narrator to the “you” of his younger self), and Shakarim’s driving rhyme (which we mostly avoided). In the Soviet era, translations from the more than 130 languages spoken in the USSR would often be produced with the aid of a “podstrochnik” (trot) composed by a local translator — poorly paid and rarely credited — and then “smoothed out” and made “literary” by a Russian translator with little or no knowledge of the source language. The difference in our case is that no translator or part of the process goes unmentioned.

While the sensuality of Shakarim’s poem drew us in, we became absorbed in its culturally and linguistically specific portrayal of desire and intimacy. From its images of swooping falcons to its final scene of passion inside the truelove’s white yurt, the poem is replete with eroticism informed by nomadic pastoralist culture. The movement of animals, especially birds of prey, which Shakarim was known to train and hunt with, contribute to a sense of continuous motion, mirrored in the use of the present progressive tense. Lines of varying length and position create a fluid yet structured rhythm, some quickening the movement, some slowing it, others halting the flow altogether. While Shakarim punctuates his stanzas with commas and periods, we played with punctuation not only to highlight the rhythm, but as a way to clarify meaning, given English’s lack of inflection. 

A slow start with an energetic middle and a dramatic finish—like poem, like process. Hell, we might even do this again.


This introduction and co-translation by the editors of Turkoslavia has been published in collaboration with The Dial


In the Classroom