Kazakh Literature Needs English Translations, Says Kazakhstan PEN Club President

WASHINGTON – Bigeldy Gabdullin, president of the PEN Club of Kazakhstan, arrived in the United States recently with a special mission. He says he wants to open the heart and soul of the Kazakh people to the American reader through literature.

FullSizeRenderTo achieve that, Kazakhstan’s PEN Club has launched a series called “We the Kazakh People,” which envisions English translation and publications of works by the most prominent Kazakh writers. The series will include the poems of Mukagali Makatayev, “My Name is Kozha” by Berdibek Sokpakbayev, “A Lonely Yurt” by Smagul Yelyubayev, “The End of the Legend” by Abish Kekilbayev and “The Code of the Word” by Olzhas Suleimenov.

Kazakhs are proud of their literary tradition, but English-language publishers do not typically come looking for it. Moreover, Gabdullin admits, the translation itself is a great challenge: the natural rhythmic elegance and the unique expressiveness of the Kazakh language, the distinctive ethnic ‘flavour’ as well as the historical context pose significant difficulty for a translator. But the PEN wants to use the hegemonic role English plays in international communication to make the culture and ideas of Kazakh writers available to readers throughout the world.

The works by the selected authors, and, by extension, all of the Kazakh culture, offer an enormous number of intellectual and artistic experiences, which will now be available to English-language readers, Gabdullin told an audience of more than 100 people at a special event hosted by the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington, D.C. on May 21.

IMG_6643One of the selected authors is Mukagali Makatayev, a Kazakh lyrical poet, writer and translator of the Soviet era. Often called “the Kazakh Pushkin” of our times, Makatayev had a tragic fate: He was censored by the Communist leadership, lost his job and was expelled from the Writers’ Association of Kazakhstan. Unrecognised in his lifetime, he suffered hardship and poverty and died suddenly in the prime of his life. Only a fraction of Makatayev’s poems were published during his lifetime; the majority were published only after his death. Makatayev was one of the first poets who brilliantly translated into Kazakh the world’s classic literature: “Leaves of Grass” by American poet Walt Whitman, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” and many others.

Indeed, the success of the PEN’s “We the Kazakh People” project lies in the assumption that English-language readers are not only interested in their own favourite English authors, but are also interested, or are capable of becoming interested, in Kazakh authors, such as the brilliant thinker Makatayev.

It is certainly harder to market translated authors, but that is because readers lack a context for picking up an unfamiliar book in the first place. To market a translated book, Gabdullin says, their PEN Club will have to find ways to make the book relevant and inviting to readers in the West. Given the enormous difficulty of the task, Gabdullin and his partners try to be creative in developing all sorts of strategies. One of them will be reaching out to companies like Amazon to have translations freely available online to read.