Posts Tagged 'translation'

For the translators

Today’s post is from Leila Seitkhalilova, who teaches in the English and Crimean Tatar language departments at the Crimean Engineering and Pedagogical University, Simferopol.  Leila made the translation of Dream Land into Crimean Tatar; here she writes about the challenges of translating into her mother tongue.

Translation between related languages which share a similar structure is relatively simple. Translation between unrelated languages is more problematic. English and Crimean Tatar fall into this category: they are directly opposed (Crimean Tatar belongs to the Kipchak group of Turkic languages).

However, there is an additional issue which makes translation into Crimean Tatar language particularly difficult. The Crimean Tatars were forcibly deported from their historic homeland, Crimea, on 18th May 1944. They were sent to destinations throughout the former Soviet Union. A proportion ended up in logging settlements in the Urals, but the majority was scattered across the entirety of Central Asia.

In conditions when it was a struggle just to survive, people practically lost their native language. There were no schools, no newspapers or books in Crimean Tatar. People had to communicate in other languages – mainly, of course, Russian.

Now the Crimean Tatars are trying to revive their language in their homeland. Books, including school textbooks and dictionaries, are being published, but dictionaries are still not of a high enough standard. There are no dictionaries of terminology or good phraseological dictionaries.

This makes translation work very difficult. Because of the limited vocabulary of contemporary Crimean Tatar, translators have to fall back on dictionaries from related Turkic peoples. For example, while working on the translation of Dream Land I had to use an English-Turkish dictionary (the Larger Redhouse Portable Dictionary).

In the process I noticed the following: if the Turkish dictionary gives a number of synonyms for one word, one or two of them are invariably words currently used in Crimean Tatar. I had to conclude that the remaining synonyms were also once actively used in Crimean Tatar, but were lost during the deportation and exile. For this reason, reading and understanding their native language is hard enough even for older Crimean Tatars, let alone the younger generation.

When working on the translation of Dream Land I came across several other curiosities or difficulties. One concerned the translation of kinship and family relations. In English  the words ‘aunt’, ‘uncle’ and ‘cousin’ cover relatives on both sides of the family. Crimean Tatar is more complicated and specific. For example, my mother’s sister (older or younger) is my ‘tize’, my father’s sister is my ‘ala’; my father’s brother is my ‘emdje’, my mother’s brother is my ‘dayyi’.

I can give an example:   ‘I remember a story… and it’s one you can tell to your history teacher, because it’s about how Grandpa’s cousin Khatije joined the partisans…’ (Dream Land pg 104). I had to imagine on which side (mother’s or father’s) Khatije could be grandpa’s cousin. Thus I had to return again and again to the beginning of the novel to track who is in what degree of relationship, otherwise it was impossible to understand the kinship of the main characters.

Difficulties also arise in the use of personal pronouns. The English pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ are rendered in Crimean Tatar as one pronoun: ‘o’. In order to determine who is speaking or acting, you have to add explanatory words (‘kyz bala’ for a girl, ‘oglan bala’ for a boy), and so on. Particularly in dialogue, I had to be especially attentive to who is who and what was said.

But in translation, nothing is impossible. After all, if one man says something, then the other, so long as he has enough desire to do so, will be sure to understand. And learn to understand each other we must, in the name of peace and understanding in the world.

Children's books in Crimean Tatar at the Gasprinsky Library, Simferopol (photo by barbara Wieser)

Children’s books in Crimean Tatar at the Gasprinsky Library, Simferopol (photo by Barbara Wieser)

Mother tongue

Хаял мекяны, the Crimean Tatar translation of my book Dream Land, is making quite a splash in Crimea. There has been plenty of TV and newspaper coverage; I have even, to my amazement, been recognised on the street. It’s all a bit overwhelming. Coverage here and here for Crimean Tatar speakers, here and here in Russian.

My favourite headline, from Голос крыма, reads ‘Now Lily Hyde is a daughter of the Crimean Tatar people’

Dream Land is the first and, so far, only fictional retelling in any language of the Crimean Tatars’ return to Crimea in the 1980-1990s. To my mind, its translation into the mother tongue of the Crimean Tatars is a unique and important event. If only it has not come too late.

I spent a lot of time with Crimean Tatar families between around 2000 and 2007. To me they spoke Russian, because I don’t speak Crimean Tatar. But between themselves they spoke Crimean Tatar.

Revisiting some of those families just a few years on, I’m struck by a big change. Their children have grown older, and are spending more time in school or college or work – and they are bringing Russian language home with them. Just a few years back, the whole family spoke Crimean Tatar with a sprinkling of Russian words. Now it is the other way round.

The older people, and many younger ones too, feel this is a tragedy. But it’s one they don’t know how to reverse. One mother told me she wants to keep her son back a year before sending him to school, because she’s afraid that as soon as he goes to school he will start forgetting Crimean Tatar. Two university students told me they hope that when they have families, their children will know Crimean Tatar. They told me this in English, which they speak quite fluently. Neither of these girls speaks their own native language beyond a very basic, household level.

I wondered even as I gave them copies of Хаял мекяны, whether they would not find it easier to read Dream Land in the original English. I couldn’t bring myself to ask.  But all the interest in the Crimean Tatar translation gives me hope that it is not too late to save this language from extinction.

What happens next

is the question I’ve been asked most often in the last few days.

I’ve been in Crimea for the presentation of the Crimean Tatar translation of Dream Land, my novel about the return of the Crimean Tatars to their homeland in the 1990s. This entire nation of people was deported from Crimea, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1944, and fought a peaceful campaign for fifty years for the right to return.

People want to know if I’m pleased about the book translation (I’m absolutely delighted – I blogged about it previously here), why I decided to write the book in the first place (because I thought it was a fascinating, compelling and important story that begged to be told) but most of all they want to know ‘Are you going to write a sequel? What happens next to Safi?’

It’s always gratifying when readers want to know what happens to your characters outside the pages of the book. I myself find it hard to abandon characters after I’ve created them. The heroine of my first novel, Riding Icarus, so grabbed my imagination that I went on to write two more novels about her.

It’s a bit more complicated with Safi, because although she’s a fictional character, her story is closely based on real events. Dream Land ends in the summer of 1992 on a moment of hope, that Crimean Tatar families like Safi’s will be able to build houses with permission from the Ukrainian authorities and settle in to a new life in Crimea with support and acceptance from their Ukrainian and Russian neighbours. And in truth, this is by and large what has happened, although no one can pretend that prejudice and discrimination do not still exist. I never planned a sequel to Dream Land. I thought that if readers really want to know what happens to Safi, all they have to do is read a newspaper or visit Crimea.

Safi would be thirty-three now, if she really existed. Does she stay in Crimea or does she emigrate? I’ve been asked over the last few days. Does she remember the stories she heard from her grandfather in Dream Land? Does she teach her children Crimean Tatar language? What about her brother Lutfi – does he marry a Russian girl like the one in the book, or does he get involved in radical Islam?

I don’t know the answers. All these things have happened to my friends in Crimea, the ones whose lives in the 1990s inspired Dream Land. It would be nice if I could create happy and fulfilling futures for all these people I love and admire. But this is real life, not fiction.

There’s a fascinating, compelling and important story still to be told about the Crimean Tatar national movement since 1992. About political and social change, about the steady loss of the Crimean Tatar language, and the continuing struggle to uncover and declare the truth of what happened in 1944.

I’m amazed and honoured and touched that so many people have asked me for a sequel. But I’m not sure I’m the person to tell this story. My friend’s daughter in Crimea has just started writing stories. She’s Crimean Tatar, and around the same age now as Safi is in Dream Land. Perhaps she will be the one to write What Happens Next.

The Crimean Tatar cover of Dream Land

The Crimean Tatar cover of Dream Land

This post also appears on ABBA today

Translated again

This time into Korean, in the anthology Under the Weather (originally published by Frances Lincoln).

All the stories, by such great writers as Miriam Halahmy, Candy Gourlay and Linda Newbery, deal with the subject of climate change.

Funnily enough, my story, ‘Climate [Short]change’, is also about mistranslation. It’s set in remotest Siberia where the reindeer outnumber people, and deals with an encounter between Western European Climate Change scientists and Nenets fishers and herders.

I love the fact that my text, telling in English of the misunderstandings and friendships that arise between Russian and German speakers, now has a whole new existence in yet another language. And it’s heartening to know that all the stories in the book, about the future of the planet and its children, are now going to reach a new audience on the other side of the world.

Gained in translation

The first I knew was when I got an e-mail from someone called Leila. She wrote that she had translated my novel, Dream Land, and wanted to publish the translation.

With someone else, my pleased but surprised response would have been to refer her straight away to my agent to deal with permissions and fees. But Leila is different.

‘Like the heroine of your book, I was born in Samarkand in exile’ she wrote. ‘My childhood was often darkened by shadows, because of the deportation of our people. In 1989 we were able to return to our homeland. I lived through everything that you describe in your book. You’ve managed to perceive and impart the reality… I want to tell you that I’ve translated it into Crimean Tatar. I thought that this novel about our tragic fate should be read by every Crimean Tatar.’

Dream Land is about the ethnic group Leila belongs to: the Crimean Tatars, who inhabited Crimea (now part of Ukraine) until 1944, when the entire nation was forcibly deported. It is estimated that up to 46 percent died on the way to labour camps in Central Asia and the Urals. Those that survived had to rebuild their lives from scratch. They were banned from speaking their own language. They were discriminated against in education, employment, housing. And they were not permitted to return home to Crimea until fifty years later, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Dream Land is based very closely on the stories people told me; what happened to them before, during, and after the deportation; their sufferings and struggles and dreams. The book is fiction in that I made up most of the characters. But their fictional lives are an amalgam of the many real ones I encountered. I tried to imagine myself into the lives of the Crimean Tatars, to understand how they feel and where they come from, to be as true as possible to what they told me.

I was aware, though, that not only do I myself not speak the Crimean Tatar language, I was writing this book in English, for a British young adult audience who in all likelihood have never heard of the people it is about.

Moreover, I realised that the majority of Crimean Tatar young adults would not be able to read it. I don’t know what percentage speak English well enough to read a novel, but in my experience it is fairly small.

I do know how many Crimean Tatar children are estimated to speak their own language of Crimean Tatar. It is five percent.

Crimean Tatar is recognised by UNESCO as a ‘severely endangered’ language. During their fifty years of exile, the Crimean Tatars fought ceaselessly to keep their identity alive. It is a sad irony that now the central right for which they fought – to live once again in their own country – has been won, something else is being lost. A physical home gained for a mental home lost, perhaps.

If only five percent of Tatar children speak their native tongue, is there any point in publishing Dream Land in Crimean Tatar? I believe so, and I want to support the campaign to keep Crimean Tatar alive. Barbara, a volunteer at the Gasprinskiy Library in Simferopol, writes here about what the loss of a language means. She sums up:

Their songs would go unsung, their poetry only read by language scholars, the wealth of their literary heritage only known in translated form. As my counterpart at the library, Nadjie Yagya, said to me when I first came to the library: “If a person does not know the language of his ancestors, the spiritual losses are irreplaceable, and he cannot fully understand the culture of his people.”

The French Edition of Dream Land

 Leila, and everyone else informed about the situation, agrees that ultimately, Dream Land should also be translated into Russian, to reach not only more Crimean Tatars but also the Ukrainians and Russians who now make up the vast majority of the Crimean population. As Barbara wrote to me:

The longer I live here [in Crimea], the more I am aware of the tremendous discrimination the Crimean Tatars face and the undercurrent of ignorance and prejudice from much of the Russian speaking population. Having a Russian version of Dream Land available to school children would give them another side of a story they perhaps hear in a twisted version.

We’re looking for funding for a small print run of Хаял Мекяны – the Crimean Tatar title – and then, we hope, for Земля Мечты in Russian. But I want to say thank you to Leila, for translating this book. And to Taner, who is translating it into Romanian, so that the Crimean Tatar Diaspora there can share the story with their Romanian neighbours and perhaps through it more understanding and tolerance can be built.

Dream Land is just a novel, and one I had many fears about writing – that I would get it wrong, that I was appropriating a culture and story in a crass act of cultural imperialism. But I’m so excited and humbled by these translations. It feels like the Crimean Tatars are taking the book back and making it into something bigger, and more important, and their own.

(this post also appears over on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure today)

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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