The Week in Translation

GO what:TRANSLATABLE: A Multilingual Open Mic In Honor of International Translation Day when: Tuesday, September 30, 6:30pm where: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library 901 G St NW / Washington, DC 20001 (Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro Station) more info: what: Bread Loaf Translators’… more »

New in Spanish: Miquel de Palol’s “The Garden of the Seven Twilights”

Miquel de Palol (Barcelona, 1953) is one of the signal voices of contemporary Catalan letters. An architect by trade, he began to publish poetry at nineteen, and averaged a book of verse per year before bringing out El jardí dels set crepuscles (The Garden of the Seven Twilights), the novel… more »

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature: Our Office Pool

Between the World Cup and the World Series comes high season for world literature: time to place your bets on this year's candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature. You can read two of the usual suspects, Adonis and Ko Un, right here, as well as laureates Herta Müller, J. M. G. Le Clézio,… more »

Russia is Restless: A Brooklyn Book Festival Event

On September 19, almost sixty people gathered at Karloff Restaurant in Brooklyn for dinner and conversation with exiled Uzbek writer and BBC reporter Hamid Ismailov and Russian-American novelist Boris Fishman. The Brooklyn Book Festival event was hosted by Restless Books, a Brooklyn-based, digital-first… more »

The Week in Translation

GO what: Multilingualism in the US: Do Americans need more than one language?| when:Thursday, September 25, 5:30pm Roundtable Discussion, 7:30pm Reception with European specialists where: The Graduate Center, CUNY/365 5th Ave, New York, NY 10016 more info: what:TRANSLATABLE: A… more »
Image of Where the Sidewalk Bends: In Search of Manoel de Barros’s Pantanal

Where the Sidewalk Bends: In Search of Manoel de Barros’s Pantanal

It’s an odd sensation to arrive in a place that you’ve never been before, but that you’ve already experienced through someone else’s eyes. Especially when that other person is a poet. I first learned about the Pantanal—vast wetlands in central Brazil that seep over the border… more »
Image of The City and the Writer: In Tulsa with Rilla Askew

The City and the Writer: In Tulsa with Rilla Askew

Special Series / Oklahoma 2014 If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains. —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities Can you describe the mood of Tulsa as you feel/see… more »

The Week in Translation

GO   what: Book Signing for Evelyn Trouillot’s novel The Infamous Rosalie when: Wednesday, September 17, 5 PM where: La Caye Restaurant, 35, Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, NY   what: Imaginary Gardens With Real Robots in Them: On Translating Science Fiction (Ross Benjamin, Terry Gallagher, Michael… more »
Image of Buying Time

Buying Time

As a writer of science fiction in the Ukrainian language, Taras Antypovych is a relatively rare phenomenon. In a country where the vast majority of readers can read in Russian, and where the market in genre fiction is overwhelmingly dominated by imports from Russia, it is difficult for unknown Ukrainian-language… more »
Image of My Favorite Bookstore: Magdalena Sorensen on Hedengren’s

My Favorite Bookstore: Magdalena Sorensen on Hedengren’s

Hedengrens Bokhandel, Stureplan 4, Sturegallerian, Postadress: Box 5509, 114 85 STOCKHOLM   In the most elegant part of the polished city of Stockholm, in the city’s financial center, in a luxurious mall called Sturegallerian, there’s a dark, slightly dusty place where you get no music, no shiny… more »

Most Recent Entry

Sculpting in Uzbek

Translators sometimes try to refrain from passing judgment, but I feel compelled to say that Uzbek is a strange and mysterious language. It is built on a solid Turkic framework fleshed out with some Persian and Arabic vocabulary, then gilded over with Soviet-flavored Russian. It’s the language of a country that only became a country by accident, and only recently, with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The language went through three alphabets in the space of the twentieth century. Rumor has it that Islom Karimov, Uzbekistan’s leader since the Soviet era, only learned Uzbek in 1991. A decent Uzbek dictionary is still a difficult thing to find.

I did not grow up speaking, or even hearing, any of the languages that give Uzbek its structure. I work mostly out of Russian, a language that feels very much like home to me—though as a native English speaker I remain, of course, an imposter, having learned that language only as a student and as a visitor. Uzbek, in contrast, is thoroughly foreign territory for me. It was pure chance that grants for studying Uzbek were available during my graduate studies in Russian politics and history, that some amazing instructors were on the job, and that I decided to try it out.

In Hamid Ismailov’s “The Stone Guest,” which appears in this month’s Words Without Borders, Suhrob the sculptor has somewhat of the opposite problem. He is a native Uzbek happily stranded in a foreign land, Moscow, and while he’s proud to be known as an Uzbek, his roots in that country and that culture have long atrophied. His grasp of the language is slipping and his memories of his family are vague. Even the landscapes of his childhood, the very clay of the soil so important to him as a sculptor, have become foreign to him now.

As I worked through this story in Uzbek, piecing together words and images, discerning patterns, I had the distinct sensation that I was doing not just translation work, but detective work. All the clues to the relationships and the meanings within the story were there in the words and syntax of this little-studied language—but was I reading them correctly? Was I reading too much into the two-word rhymes that are sprinkled throughout the narration? Was the abruptness with which the narrator sometimes cuts himself off an intended effect, or just a symptom of Uzbek grammar and style?

But I had good company in my struggles to unwrap the particular puzzles of Uzbek that this story presents: the sculptor Suhrob. His written Uzbek, as the narrator advises us in confidence, is atrocious (in an endearing kind of way). He can’t swear worth a damn. He is driven to distraction by the careless, crude, impolite Uzbek used by his nephew and other immigrants in a Moscow suddenly teeming with Central Asians. So it seemed rather fitting, actually, that I had to handle the language of the story with care, as long as the main character was struggling to cope as well. He and I were in this together.

Our common foes were those two boys from Uzbekistan who swaggered in, unannounced and uninvited, offering so much and delivering so little. They’re the real Uzbeks, on the one hand—natives, self-exiled to Moscow—and despite their ignorance, they seem to know instinctively how to navigate the crowded immigrant corners of the big city. They could be the key to Suhrob’s past, his chance to reclaim his heritage, to do a good deed for his family and his homeland from the comfortable perch of his new life in Moscow. But instead, they take advantage of him. They cause trouble. They send even ruder, cruder Uzbeks to deal with him. It turns out, Suhrob and I learned, that real Uzbeks stink.

Yet Suhrob and I are still the bigger imposters. We are the ones who don’t really know Uzbek. We can walk around all we like as comfortable foreigners on the streets of Moscow, smug in our own small claims to Uzbekness, but somehow these young toughs from the streets of Tashkent have a natural authenticity we cannot hope to achieve. This is not an easy truth to face.

As my detective work progressed, I started to discern just how skillfully Hamid Ismailov had woven the Uzbek words together to craft his story. Some long sentences dance in a way that reflects the rapture Suhrob feels when he sees his first Uzbek peasant in Moscow. Sometimes the language lurches about in near panic, as Suhrob must have done when the Americans rang his doorbell. And sometimes the words nag and probe, as they do to convey Suhrob’s tortured thoughts as he lies awake wondering whether he is doing the right thing, and what on earth he ought to do instead. Through an artist as skilled as Ismailov, Uzbek has shown me how deftly it can depict all of this complex emotional territory. I only hope that when re-molded into English, the form and essence of the story, its very core, as Suhrob might put it, is just as tangible.

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