Lost in Translation?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I used a bilingual Russian-Avar edition of Taras Bulba to kick-start my studies – a less painful and more authentic way of easing into a language than the endless cramming of grammar rules and vocabulary through sanitized textbook texts. Though riddled with typos and OCR errors, and variant spellings and dialect forms, the Avar translation is a more-or-less faithful rendition of the original.

Having finished it to my amazement, and relief (the story itself is not one of my favorites), I turned my attention to the famous Dagestani poet and author Rasul Gamzatov’s “My Dagestan” after turning up the Avar original on the internet. I was overjoyed at this unexpected find.

However joy quickly turned to frustration at the first few lines, whose Russian rendering had a rather…loose connection to the Avar original:

Хабаралде байбихьилалде цебе живго аллагьасги цIалеб батила хъалиян.
(Avar: Before beginning the telling of a story, Allah himself probably smokes a cigarette.)

Я думаю, что сам аллах, прежде чем рассказать своим приближенным какую-нибудь забавную историю или высказать очередное нравоучение, тоже сначала закурит, неторопливо затянется и подумает.

(Russian: I believe that Allah himself, before telling his close ones some entertaining story or giving yet another morality lesson, also lights up, takes a long drag, and thinks.)

(my Avar acquaintance’s response – “perhaps it was the translator who was smoking something?”)

And then:

Самолет, боржиналде цебе, цин хъудула, цинги ракьалда сверула, нахъеги хъудула, хадуб боржуна.

(Avar: Before taking flight, a plane first rumbles, then circles around on the ground, rumbles again, then finally takes off.)

Самолет, прежде чем взлететь, долго шумит, потом его везут через весь аэродром на взлетную дорожку, потом он шумит еще сильнее, потом разбегается и, только проделав все это, взлетает в воздух.

(Russian: Before taking flight, a plane rumbles for a long time, then is driven through the entire aerodrome onto the tarmac, then it rumbles even more loudly, then circles around and only after having done all this, takes off.)

Delving further into the book, the Russian “translation” got ever looser – a more and more wildly elaborate riff on the spare, laconic Avar.

And then I stumbled on a 6-page-long passage that was completely ignored by the Russian translator.

And then followed long, elaborate pieces of Russian “translation” that simply did not exist in the Avar original (or perhaps got shuffled around and are buried in some other part of the book).

Ok, I’m a translator myself, and know very well that readability often comes at the expense of accuracy, and some sacrifices need to be made. But large parts of this translation were just pure invention, and large parts were not translated at all. And that’s in only 30-odd pages of 498.

And immediately many questions arose (apart from the obvious – “how on earth am I going to finish this?”). How well did the translator know Avar (a profile lists translations from languages as diverse as Buryat, Kyrgyz, Georgian…) and how did he learn it? Did the original author have a hand in all this “poetic license”? Is it all just an elaborate joke? Or did they think nobody would notice? Because it is the official, Soviet-published edition of this book. The one by which most of the the world knows it, and the one that is the base for the translation into English.

I have thoughts about making a direct translation from the Avar into English when, and if, I get far enough in the language. But for now I’m left just a bit stunned.

Addendum: after doing a little research it turns out that it was a not-uncommon practice in the Soviet Union for translators to “translate” from languages they did not know. In the case of Gamzatov:

И так случилось, что на третьем году его учебы была в Дагестане издана небольшая книжечка его поэзии в переводе на русский «Земля моя», а стихи перевели институтские приятели — Наум Гребнев и Яков Козловский. Аварского они, конечно, не знали и воспользовались подстрочником, обращаясь иногда к автору с вопросами.

And it so happened that in his third year of studies a small collection of his poems translated into Russian, “My Land”, was published in Dagestan. The translation was done by Naum Grebnev and Yakov Kozlovsky, fellow classmates at the institute. They, of course, did not know Avar and made use of interlinear translations, sometimes going to the author for further clarification.

As for “My Dagestan”, Gamzatov confirms it later on in the book:

Гьай-гьай, цIакъго лъикI букIинаан таржамачиасда авторасул рахьдал мацI лъалебани. Амма бищунго кIвар бугеб жо буго кочIохъанасул дунял таржамачиясул дуняллъун лъугьин.
Дида лъала, цIакъ къанагIат гурони гьечIо магIарул мацI лъалел чагIи. Амма магIарул адабият гьанже анцI-анцI мацIаз цIалулеб буго. Гьаб дир тIехьги оригиналалдаса гуро, подстрочникалдаса буссинабила гIурусалде.

Of course it would be great if the translator knew the author’s mother tongue. But the most important thing is for the translator to see the world from the poet’s point of view.
I know there are very few (foreign) people who know Avar. But now Avar literature can be read in dozens of different languages. This book of mine will be translated to Russian not from the original, but from interlinear translations.

Есть русские люди, которые умеют читать по-аварски, но они, увы, не поэты. И есть русские поэты, которые, увы, не умеют читать по-аварски. Как же быть? Что делать? Приходится обращаться к подстрочнику.

There are Russians who can read Avar but, alas, they are not poets. And there are Russian poets who, alas, cannot read Avar. What to do? One has to to make use of interlinear translations.


ЦеберагIиялъул бакIалда

My fascination with mountains, and the Caucasus in particular, goes a long way back. Maybe some day I will document it in the full nauseating detail it deserves. But for now, just a brief “word instead of a preface”.


It was through this album that I first learned about Dagestan – a “stan” I’d never heard of, nestled in the restive north Caucasus mountains, next door to Chechnya. With a population of nearly 3 million, speaking 30+ languages.

Of the 3 languages featured on the album, it was Avar (the largest one with all of 730,000 speakers) that grabbed my attention, with its guttural pops and creaks that made it sound more like the speech of a fictional race of extraterrestrial warriors than anything human (the apostrophe-heavy transcriptions of the song titles – “Kh’uwativ sh’ai qu’at’azav”, “Ak’lu tle ebel” – only reinforced this Klingon-like impression), with a great, but unknown, literary and oral tradition, with its own pantheon of poets and writers, some of whose verses were set to music in those songs, lyrics only hinted at in descriptions about girls’ hearts shattering like pearls from a string and other such things.

So of course I had to learn it.

But I quickly ran into trouble – the difficulty, lack of decent (or any) learning material and the sheer impracticality of it all made me drop it as quickly as I’d picked it up.

After a few more abortive attempts I continued to feed my interest in Dagestan by reading and listening to music but otherwise dismissed the idea of ever learning it. Instead, I turned my attention to “easier” Georgian and, in an unexpected turn of events, ended up flying away to Georgia and living there for a few years.

It was about a year ago, as my Georgian adventure was nearing its end, that I made the acquaintance of an Avar and the germ of something-as-yet-unclear was planted. After a lazy, unpromising start, I finally picked up the grammar books (there is nothing that could even charitably be called a “textbook”) and a bilingual Russian-Avar edition of “Taras Bulba” and started learning again, so many years after that first wide-eyed encounter.

That was nearly two months ago and to my surprise, it keeps going. Where it will go nobody knows, indeed, it’s quite possible it will go nowhere. But anyway I decided to start this blog.