Fields of Hundreds of Half-Forgotten Curses, Full of Usurpers

Came across a longish blurb about author Alisa Ganieva, who, though she writes in Russian, is an ethnic Avar and peppers her works with Avar words and phrases:

Ganieva is your window into a new world, a fascinating glimpse of what daily life is like in Dagestan today, with its people trying to live and love as authoritarian politics from Moscow collide with fundamentalist Islamic separatist movements, as her literary Russian narrative voice is interspersed with conversations in Avar and other Turkic languages of Dagestan.

First off – Avar is not a Turkic language. It is Northeast Caucasian, as are the majority of Dagestan’s indigenous languages.

Meanwhile I began reading the story “Шайтаны” along with the English translation, simply to avoid scrolling back and forth in the Russian text, where the footnotes explaining the Avar words are all given at the very end (in the English they are at the bottom of each page), and also as an exercise to test my own comprehension of the Russian text and check my own hypothetical translations against the official one.

And, as often happens, I inadvertently stumbled onto some curious things.

The Avar words are rendered in an academic-style transliteration as if they were Russian. For example – the letter гь is given as g’ – as if it were a palatalized Russian g, when in fact this letter is pronounced as English h; й is given as i or ĭ when y would have done just as well and been less confusing.


Вай, диляй, гьание ячIе, эбелъул

Vaĭ, diliaĭ, g’anie iache, ėbel’ul (p 361)

could be rendered

Way, dilay, haniye yach’e, ebehlul

which, apart from more closely reflecting the actual Avar pronunciation, would be more intelligible to the average English-speaking reader who is not a linguist or Slavist.

The other thing was the mistranslations from the Russian, which, though minor, were enough to be distracting:

“Gh˙abdal,” Chamastak exclaimed.

“What?” Bika asked, not understanding the oath, and still too frightened
to retreat. (p 365)

– ГIабдал[10] – крикнула Чамастак.

– Чего? – не поняв ругательства, спросила Бика, еще не отойдя от испуга.

ругательство is a curse, a swear word. Not an oath (клятва).  “still too frightened
to retreat” – “еще не отойдя от испуга” – is also a mistranslation.

She was flung above fields of hundreds of half-forgotten curses full of usurpers from all ends of the earth. (p 374)

Ее метало над полями сотен полузабытых браней с захватчиками со всех концов света.

Брань, in addition to “curse-word”, also means “battle”. Given the context – Dagestan’s many wars with foreign invaders – the second definition is the better fit.

“Oh, this one boy came and brought some chh˙andu. He wanted Saida to marry him.(p 382)

– Да приходил один, чIанду[31] нес какую-то, что Саиду замуж за себя хочет.

чIанда, which the Russian footnotes give as чушь (and in English as “garbage”), means nonsense, and the expression “нести чушь”, means to “talk nonsense”, not “bring garbage”.
Furthermore, in the English the word is given as “chhandu” – which is the Avar word “ch’anda” put through the meat-grinder of Russian grammar (the -u is the Russian accusative ending).

To conclude – perhaps it’s too much to expect publishers to care enough about such a little-known language to make sure that it is transcribed properly, but they should have at least done a little research before lumping the Avars in with the Turks, and taken more care with the translation.

Nitpicking aside, Alisa Ganieva’s stories about Dagestan are well worth reading if one is interested in the goings-on of a particularly obscure corner of the world. (The language of the dialogues is also interesting, written in a peculiar Dagestani-accented Russian, but this inevitably gets lost in translation.)


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