Preparing to translate “Munkar and Nakir,” I reread the stories of Flannery O’Connor, whose darkly comic and grotesque portrayals of the American South are described as “Southern Gothic.” First published in the regional journal Dagestan, Alisa Ganieva’s “Munkar and Nakir” could be said to represent another incarnation of the genre—writing of the Russian South. And like the qualifier “American,” “Russian” is a complex category, which receives thorough treatment in the current issue of Words Without Borders.
Set in the ethnically and culturally distinct Russian republic of Dagestan, “Munkar and Nakir” illustrates the diversity of experiences and worldviews that fall under the heading of “Russian” or “Russophone.” From folk fertility practices to smartphones, the story depicts the specificity and variety of post-Soviet lives. Dagestan may be known to English-speaking readers, if it is known, from news articles about so-called Islamic extremism or terrorist events. And by extension, the story’s depictions of Islam in Russia may cause some readers to conflate its location with the greater Islamic world. But the religious and cultural contexts of the story do not contest its Russianness. In my translation, I sought to preserve this Russianness, which is inseparable from other features of the setting. For example, Ganieva’s characters recite Quranic verses in Russian-accented Arabic. Rather than opting for more conventional English transliteration, my translation maintains some of that diction. Likewise, I translated the head covering worn by Kebedov’s aunt as a “headscarf” rather than a hijab in order to signal the visual overlap between Islamic standards of modesty and the “babushka” style of grandmas аcross the post-Soviet world and beyond.
The story’s larger Russian setting brings about a kind of miracle: In Dagestan—a mountainous republic of small, isolated communities where over fifty languages are spoken—two strangers meet and are able to converse. It is the lingua franca of Russian, a second language for both, that makes this plausible. But where language succeeds, the message still misses its mark. In the minutes before his death, Kebedov appeals to the stranger’s human sympathy and their shared Dagestani identity, but the man’s views are fixed—he is certain that Kebedov is an irredeemable sinner because “who else would God crush with a fallen rock?” In the end, common knowledge of Russian belies vast and insuperable difference. This failure of language proves fatal for Kebedov, but affirms storytelling and the practice of translation. For although the character’s entreaties go unheard by his Russian-speaking interlocutor, they echo across two languages and reach readers.