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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.