Sounds of the Mountains

In a car heading down from Svaneti (a high mountain region of Georgia, whose inhabitants resemble the Avars in many ways) with two Americans the discussion turned to languages.

“What does Svan sound like”? – “Like the sound of stone striking stone,” I replied.
Mingrelian? – “like the watery sounds of rivers and swamps”
Abkhaz? – “like the wind whistling through the trees, or birdsong.”
“It’s very interesting how languages reflect their environment.”

And the sharp, stony cliffs themselves, shedding their rocks as we drove past, seemed to speak up in agreement.

Are Sounds Of The Caucasus Shaped By The Mountains Themselves?

Murder…Resurrection, and Murder Again

… дица хъван букIана пьеса — «МагIарулай». Гьеб лъуна магIарул гурелги, батIи-батIиял театраз. Пьесаялъул героиня Асият, кигIанго дир ракI гурхIаниги, дие захIмалъаниги, бокьичIониги, гьелда ццин гьалаглъарав дир пьесаялъул герояс чIвана. Гьеб пашманаб ахиргун лъуна дир «МагIарулай» авар театралъ.
Ва амма Дарги театралда гьеб лъолеб мехалъ, гьей гъалалги къотIун тана, цIакъго балагьарал къварид гьариларин абун. Бихьиназ ясазул гъал къотIи — гьеб Дагъистаналда цIакъго захIматаб жолъун рикIкIуна. Амма кин бугониги, магIарулай хвечIо. ЛъарагI театралъ гьей бараб жоялъ бецц гьаюна. Беццлъи балагь буго, амма хвел гуро.
Хадуб чачаназул театралъ щибго зарал ккечIого йорчIизаюна. АнцI-анцI режиссераз анцI-анцI батIайиса лъугIизе гьабуна дир героинаялъул къисмат.
Дида жеги кIвечIо чIварал рахъинаризе. Гьединал дараби дунялалъул тохтирзабазул гьечIо. Режиссераз цо героиня хвасар гьаюлеян кинабго пьеса чIвана.

I had written the play “Highland Girl”, which ran not only in the Avar theater, but in other national (minority-language) theaters of Dagestan as well. As much as it pained me and as much as I didn’t want it, I wrote it so that the male lead character killed the female lead, Asiyat, in a fit of anger. It was with this tragic ending that my play was staged in the Avar theater.
But when they put it on in the Dargin theater, they made it so that her braids were cut off, thinking her death would be too hard on the audience. For a man to cut off a girl’s braids was seen as a difficult enough thing in Dagestan. But in any case, the highland girl did not die. In the Kumyk theater she was blinded. Being blinded is certainly terrible, but it’s not the same as dying.
And then in the Chechen theater they let her survive, unmolested. Dozens of different directors resolved my heroine’s fate in dozens of different ways.
I still haven’t been able to bring the dead back to life. No doctor in the world has come up with such a drug. But in saving its heroine’s life the directors killed the entire play.

В то время я написал пьесу “Горянка”. Она шла в нескольких театрах Дагестана, и вот что произошло с этой пьесой.
В конце спектакля по ходу дела герой убивает героиню. Мне было жалко мою горянку, моя рука дрожала, когда я писал сцену убийства, и сердце обливалось кровью. Но я ничего не мог изменить. Течение событий само подводило к тому, что горянка должна быть убитой. Аварский театр так и поставил спектакль, и хотя зрители печалились и жалели героиню больше даже, чем я сам, все они понимали, что иначе быть не могло.
В даргинском театре пьесу подредактировали. Вместо того, чтобы девушка была убита, ей отрезали косу. Конечно, это позорно, когда горянке отрезают косу, может быть, даже это хуже смерти, но все-таки и не смерть.
На сцене кумыкского театра решили не убивать и не резать косу, но ослепить. Конечно, это ужасно. Может быть, это ужаснее, чем убить или отрезать косу, но все-таки горянка оставалась жива и с косой, ибо так захотели в кумыкском театре.
Чеченцы в своем театре поступили всех проще. “Зачем убивать, – решили они, – зачем отрезать косу, зачем ослеплять? Пусть героиня остается жива-здорова”.
Так каждый режиссер переделал пьесу по своему образу и подобию. Никто не подсказал им, что, жалея и спасая героиню, они тем самым убивают пьесу и не жалеют зрителей, не говоря уж о драматурге.

At that time I had written my play “Highland Girl”, which ran in several of the national theaters of Dagestan. And this is the story of what happened to it.
At the end of the play the lead male character kills the female lead. I felt sorry for my highland girl and my hand trembled as I wrote the murder scene, and my heart filled with pain. But I couldn’t change it. The course of events led to the inevitable conclusion – the highland girl was murdered. The Avar theater put it on as it was, and though the audience felt sad and pitied her even more than I did, they understood that it couldn’t end any other way.
In the Dargin theater they “edited” it a bit. Instead of her being killed her braids got cut off. Of course it was a great shame for a girl to have her braids cut off, perhaps even worse than being killed, but it’s still not the same as dying.
In the Kumyk theater they decided not to kill her, or cut off her braids, but to blind her. Of course this is a terrible thing, perhaps even worse than being killed or having her braids cut off, but nevertheless she stayed alive and with her braids unmolested, because they wanted it that way in the Kumyk theater.
The Chechen theater made it even easier – “Why kill her,” they decided, “why cut off her braids or blind her? Let her remain alive, safe and sound.”
Thus each director remade the play in his own image. No one told them that in pitying and saving the poor heroine, they were not only killing the play itself, but also showing no pity for the viewers, much less for the playwright.

On translation

(Av)

Сулейманил асарал гIурус мацIалде руссинарулев Эффенди Капиевасдасан гьесул тушбабаз гIемерал мацIал гьарулаан. Гьез Сулейманида абулаан: дур кучIдул Капиевас хвезе гьарулел ругин гIурус мацIалъ тIаде жубан, тIаса бахъун, гIемерал мухъал данде кколарилан.
— Щай, ХIабиб, дуца дир лъимал рухулел? — ан гьикъун буго Сулейманица Капиевасда.
— Дур кучIдул дур лъимал гуро, гьел мунго вуго, Сулейман-агъа, — абун буго Эффенди Капиевас.
— Гьедин батани, херав дир дагьабги хIурмат гьабизе ккелаан дуца.
— Дица, Сулейман, дур мухъазул рикIкIен цIуниялдаса жигар бахъула, дур кучIдузулъ мунго цIунизе, дур тIагъур, дур чарухъал, дур чагур, дур гьаракь цIунизе. Гьаб дида цебе бугеб чагъиралъул къадаралдаса гьалъул тIагIам цIунизе бокьула дие. Гьеб цIуничIони, гIайиб гьабе диде.
— Гьеб бищунго кIвар бугеб жо буго, — ян разилъун вуго Сулейман.

Effendi Kapiev (1), who translated Suleiman’s (2) works into Russian, was the target of many rumors thought up by his foes. They would tell Suleiman, “Kapiev is ruining your poems. In the Russian translation he adds things here, removes things there, and many lines do not match up.”
Suleiman went to Kapiev and asked, “Why, my friend, are you beating my children?”
“Your poems are not your children – they are you yourself, Suleiman-agha” (3) replied Kapiev.
“If that is so then you should show at least a little respect to your elder.”
“Suleiman, it’s not the number of lines that I must preserve in your poems, but your spirit. Your hat, your charuqs (4), your chagur (5), your voice. See this wine before us? I want to preserve its taste, not its quantity. If I fail to do this then you may criticize me.”
“Indeed, this is the most important thing,” agreed Suleiman.

1) Effendi Mansurovich Kapiev (1909-1944) – author, literature expert, publicist, poet and translator – wrote in Russian, Lak and Kumyk.
2) Suleiman Stal’sky (1869-1937) Lezgin folk poet-bard and one of the greatest Dagestani poets of the 20th century (even dubbed “the Homer of the 20th century” by Maxim Gorky). Composed in Lezgin and Azerbaijani.
3) a term of respect.
4) Traditional leather shoes (Avar: чарухъал) – these and a large karakul hat were Suleiman’s attributes, which he refused to change for a suit and regular shoes even when accepting an award in Moscow.
5) a stringed folk instrument  and another one of Suleiman Stal’sky’s attributes.


(Ru)

Эффенди Капиев был другом Сулеймана Стальского. Он же переводил его на русский язык. Эта дружба вызывала зависть мелких и никчемных людей. Они старались унизить Капиева в глазах прославленного поэта или даже оклеветать его. Они говорили Сулейману:
– Ты не умеешь читать по-русски, а мы знаем, что Эффенди Капиев, когда переводит, портит твои стихи. Где хочет, он добавляет, где хочет, сокращает, а многие строки переделывает по-своему.
Однажды во время неторопливой беседы Сулейман завел разговор.
– Друг, – сказал он, – я слышал, ты бьешь моих детей.
Эффенди сразу понял, о чем идет речь.
– Твои стихи – не дети твои, Сулейман. Они – это ты сам, Сулейман Стальский.
– В таком случае я, старик, заслуживаю еще большего уважения, чем дети.
– Но что для тебя важнее, Сулейман, количество строк в стихах или стиль и дух? Вот перед нами стоит вино. Если оно выдохнется, то его почти не убудет, но оно не будет уж тем вином, которое мы пьем и которым наслаждаемся. Дело не в количестве вина, но в его аромате, во вкусе и крепости.
– Ты прав, это важнее всего.

Effendi Kapiev was a friend of Suleiman Stal’sky, and the one who translated his works into Russian. This friendship made some small and insignificant people jealous. They tried to humiliate and even slander Effendi. They would tell Suleiman, “You can’t read Russian, but we know that Effendi is ruining your poems when he translates them. He adds things here, removes things there, and reworks many lines according to his whims.”
One day, during an unhurried discussion with Effendi, Suleiman broached the topic.
“My friend,” he said, “I heard that you’re beating my children.”
Effendi immediately understood, and replied:
“Your poems are not your children, Suleiman – they are you yourself.”
“If that is so, then as your elder I deserve even more respect than my children.”
“What is more important to you, Suleiman – the number of lines or their essence? See this wine before us. If it loses its taste, its quantity will remain the same, but it won’t be the same wine that we’re enjoying now. It’s not the quantity that matters but its aroma, its taste, its essence.”
“You’re right – this is the most important thing.”

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”.

500x500

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.