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Translating Kazakh Poetry: the Art of the Possible

David Cooke | 2 April 2019

In an ideal world the kind of person best qualified to translate Kazakh poetry into English would be someone equally fluent in both languages, who would have a deep knowledge of both poetic traditions and would be a talented poet in their own right. Unfortunately, such individuals are, to say the least, somewhat thin on the ground. So, if an English language anthology of contemporary Kazakh poetry is to happen at all, it must be a pragmatic venture based on compromise.

This is all the more essential when one considers the differences between both languages and their poetic traditions. Linguistically speaking, Kazakh is an agglutinative language, its grammatical structure being far removed from that of English, which is classed as an analytic language.  Without getting too bogged down in technicalities, this means that Kazakh tends to consist of many polysyllabic words dense with meaning, whilst in English meaning gets broken down into simpler monosyllabic words.

As a result of this, the rhythms and poetic cadences of each language are different. In musical terms, you could say that English has a more a staccato rhythm than Kazakh, which is more legato. Another consequence of the way that words are formed by adding suffixes to a root is that it is much easier to find rhymes in Kazakh. It is the relative paucity of rhyming words in English that has led to their decline in contemporary poetry, since in the wrong hands rhyming verse can result in pastiche and banality.

As in all the Turkic languages, and their distant cousins, Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish, Kazakh has an in-built system of vowel harmony, so that when suffixes are added to root words, it is only certain vowel combinations that are permitted. It must be a great bonus for Kazakh poets to have such musicality hard-wired into their language!

The poetic traditions of Kazakh poetry

They are also far removed from that of English poetry. Contemporary Kazakh poetry still has its origins in an unbroken oral tradition. You would have to go back to the Anglo-Saxons to find anything comparable in the English tradition. The translator, or the casual reader, coming across Kazakh poetry for the first time will find  a great deal of imagery that has an immediate emotional impact on a native audience, the significance of which will have to be ‘decoded’ for the English reader.

In passing, I’d like to acknowledge that the UK translators received unstinting support from the NBT team so that the final versions of these poems are truly a collaborative effort. Moreover, the oral tradition of this poetry is still reflected in its tendency towards repetition and stock phrases, and the use of rhetorical devices such as apostrophe, not dissimilar, say, to the poetry of Homer.

The English reader may find this difficult to swallow in work which purports to be ‘contemporary’. Syntax, too, can seem at times freewheeling and ‘associative’. There is a kind of ‘emotional syntax’ in many Kazakh poems that is not based on the logical principles that the English reader anticipates. Frequently, verb tenses shift for no apparent reason or the perspective changes from third person to second person and then back again.

So how is the translator to respond to these challenges?

Bear in mind, also, that most of us weren’t actually working from the Kazakh originals. Most of us worked from English line-by-line literal versions or Russian translations.

I can of course only speak for myself, but it seems to me that there are a range of options available to a translator.  At one extreme there is what one might call the academic approach, whereby the translator attempts to replicate the formal structure of the original: its rhymes and metre.

In my opinion, it is only the most gifted poets who will meet with success, if this approach is taken and, because of the difficulty associated with finding rhymes in English, there will inevitably be a constant trade-off between choosing the best word for its meaning or simply the one that rhymes. More often than not the end result is a set of clunking lifeless stanzas that destroy all sense and musicality. At the other extreme, there is the tradition exemplified by Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell, where so many liberties are taken that the English version is far removed from the original and seems to have been hijacked by a fashionable poet’s ego.

Many of us who have regularly published our own poetry may, from time to time, have been drawn to foreign poetry and used it as a springboard for our own free versions or, to use Lowell’s term, ‘imitations’.

This is perhaps acceptable as part of the poet’s development, allowing him or her to open up new creative channels. However, for me at least, I didn’t think it was appropriate on this occasion. When one is part of a team producing a national anthology, which will, hopefully, remain as a work of reference for decades, maybe even a century, to come, one has a duty to be as faithful as one reasonably can to the originals.

On this occasion it is not about the translators. On the contrary, to quote the great Russian poet, Boris Pasternak, it is all about ‘getting to the heart of the matter’. However, this must be attempted in a way that is faithful also to the spirit of English.

Translation is ‘the art of the possible’

But one must avoid the temptation to skirt around, delete, or reinvent anything that is challenging or problematical. Nonetheless, the English versions need to be readable and have their own poetic integrity. In my own modest way, I have tried to make my versions as natural, musical and elegant, as I can.

Looking back over what I have written, I have acknowledged the challenges, However, the fact that something is difficult should not stop us attempting to do it.  By means of this groundbreaking anthology and the many volumes of Kazakh literature that will doubtless follow it, Western readers will gain access to, and grow more familiar with, Kazakh literature and will thereby broaden their horizons. They will see that in spite of significant linguistic, cultural and literary difference, these poems express ideas and emotions that are common to us all.


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