METONYMY, OR DAPPLED TRANSLATION: Robin Munby translates Vadim Muratkhanov

Translator’s Preface: Metonomy, or Dappled Translation

by Robin Munby

“Cultures cannot be translated”. These are the words of translation scholar Ovidi Carbonell.[1] While shorn of their context they may sound like little more than succour for those who say that translation is all about loss, an impossible task. His point is much more interesting than that. What Carbonell is getting at is that a culture cannot be translated, in the conventional sense, because something as diffuse as a culture cannot be contained discretely within a text in the first place, let alone a translation. The culture(s) from which texts are drawn manifest themselves metonymically: in fragments, small semiotic shards through which we intuit their presence beneath the writing. The same goes for translations, only more so, hence the title of Carbonell’s essay. Maria Tymoczko, who has also written about this aspect of translation, has said that translators always ask “what larger wholes will the translation point to, stand for, be related to?”[2] It is the spectre of so many larger wholes, be they intertexts, cultures or – specifically for translations – other languages, that make translations especially metonymic. This is not to say that translations are in any sense inferior or partial, but it is, I think, an interesting way of approaching the translator’s task. “It is not a culture as a whole that is conveyed in translation”, Carbonell goes on to say, “but its shadow.”

Translators, I’ve noticed, can’t help speaking metaphorically about what we do, and when I read the sentence above I inevitably began trying to think of a metaphor, or analogy, that would relate the ideas above to my own translation practice. At first, I thought of Plato’s allegory of the cave. In this image, the shadow of a culture as conveyed in translation is like the images cast on the back of the cave, which exist for its prisoners as reality itself. But the more I thought about it the less I liked this idea. It contains all the old clichés levelled at translations by their detractors: the shadows in the cave lack all the colour, the detail, the poetry of the outside world. What’s more, the whole point of that allegory is that the people in the cave do not have any sense of the larger whole for which the shadows stand.

Fortunately, in translating ‘The City of Dappled Shade,’ Vadim Muratkhanov’s enchanting account of growing up in the Soviet periphery, I found a better metaphor. The dappled shade, under which young Vadim’s schoolmates squat, felt like just the image I needed (would I have thought of this if I had translated dyryavykh as spotted/speckled/holey?). Were we to stand there outside the school gates and look down at the dappled shade on the ground, we would intuit the presence of the horse apple trees above, but the shadows themselves would (we, or at least I, imagine) also be possessed of their own beauty independent of the boughs above. Their beauty is derived both from the patterns of light and shade upon the ground, but also, metonymically, from the object for which, and under which, they stand. If Carbonell is right that translations/translators convey the shadow of culture(s), I think it is to this kind of shadow that they/we should aspire. Fortunately for the translator, just how dappled our translations are is not at the mercy of an afternoon breeze, or the blistering Nebitdag sun. Not only are we free to ask which larger wholes our translation will point to, as Tymoczko said, but we are free to answer.

‘The City of Dappled Shade,’ for me at least, seems to exemplify perfectly the challenges associated with translating the cultures (and here it most certainly is cultures) of a text. Muratkhanov has described the “simultaneous attraction and repulsion of east and west” as not only an important feature of his work, but the “nerve of his literary creativity.” This goes for his prose just as much as it does for his wonderful poetry, which I hope will soon find its way into English as well. One of the things that makes this Muratkhanov’s essay so fascinating, both to read and to translate, is that he is describing a world at the intersection of cultures. Crucial to this is the question of language. While Muratkhanov sees himself as possessed of a particularly eastern mindset, he owes, he says, a great debt to Russian literary culture and, indeed, it is in the Russian language that he writes. Just as Russian is the medium for Muratkhanov, the writer, so the Russian language is the prism through which his younger self experiences life in ‘The City of Dappled Shade.’ In The Empire Writes Back, Ashcroft et al. refer to “[t]he gap which opens up between the experience of place and the language available to describe it.”[3] In this work, the materiality of the Russian language, transplanted to Soviet Turkmenistan, highlights not only Muratkhanov’s isolation, his difference, but also the very fact that this remote part of Turkmenistan is part of the Soviet Union. For me, this language, this larger whole, is as integral a part of ‘The City of Dappled Shade’ as any of the escapades Muratkhanov recounts within it. Since I could not write the translation in Russian, the language would have to appear metonymically, through what Tymoczko calls “consequential and telling signals or details […] saturated with semiotic significance.” It would, in other words, have to be dappled.

My first attempt at this comes with the name of the city itself. The city, now called Balkanabat, was then known as Nebitdag, a Turkmen name, yet when it appears in the text for the second time, Muratkhanov gives its Russian translation, neftyanaya gora, as well. While this could be as simple as him offering his Russian readers an insight into an interesting piece of etymology, to me it also felt like a visual rendering of the cultural juxtaposition at play in the city. “Небит-Даг – нефтяная гора”. East and West, Russian and Turkmen. I felt that this act of translation offered a perfect opportunity to metonymically evoke the spectral presence of the Russian language beneath my translation. Thus, in my version we have “Nebitdag, Neftyanaya Gora, Oil Mountain”. While the presence of the Russian transliteration may not add any new layer of meaning to our understanding of the name, it is, I hope, saturated with Tymoczko’s semiotic significance. This, it says, is a place of many languages, and one of them is Russian.

Russian once again makes its metonymic way into my translation in the form of the words detdom and fizkultura, both acronyms referring, respectively, to children’s homes and PE lessons. Not only do they appear in the text, but they do so accompanied by footnotes, considered by some a heinous crime in translation, particularly of the literary kind. I chose to include these unadulterated fragments of Russian because, not only do they once again remind the reader that this is the language through which Vadim is experiencing the world, but they are also, for me at least, particularly Russian details. That the acronym, so beloved of the Soviets, has become part of the fabric of daily life in Nebitdag is of no small significance for a town in the heart of Central Asia. By rendering these words, perhaps jarringly, in Russian, I was trying to point towards the strangeness of their very presence in this geographical, cultural and social context. For me, a footnote is a price worth paying to dwell on this fact. If these allusions pass some readers by, so be it, there is much else to captivate in Muratkhanov’s writing, but I believe that it is my responsibility as translator to leave them there for those willing to stare into the shade long enough to make them out.

There’s more to writing a dappled translation than leaving a few words in Russian, though. While I hope I’ve shown that the Russian words I have let shine through – if you’ll permit me to fudge my metaphor a bit – are there to do more than just provide a bit of foreign flavour, for my translation to be more than shadows on a cave wall I could not rely on them alone. In the passage where the work’s syncretism is pushed right to the fore, as young Vadim confesses his own struggles with the rough and ready syncretic vernacular of his classmates, a different approach was needed. The fact that Vadim presents us with this heterogeneous mix of “street slang and dialect” in fragments, shorn of context and in a paragraph all of its own makes it a perfect representation of his own status as outsider, other, able to understand the lingo but not to make it his own. To have left words here “untranslated,” as with the examples I gave above, might have given us a sense of Vadim’s difficulty grasping them, but we would have lost all sense of the elements of slang and dialect here, as well as the social dynamics at play. Instead, I decided to draw upon my own personal linguistic background, and the mix of slang and scouse dialect I grew up with and, perhaps, never quite mastered myself. I was first minded to squeeze some scouse into the text because, as a child of parents from the south of England, I felt that my own induction into the dialect as a schoolchild had more than a little in common with Vadim’s experience. The scouse lexicon is certainly rich enough to capture the subtlety and colour of the language of the Nebitdag streets, and a non-Liverpudlian English reader would, I believe, find these sentences as (un)intelligible as a Russian might the originals. Some may call out the use of scouse here as either an erasure of the source culture or/and an appropriation of the target dialect, but as someone who has grown up with the latter and thought deeply about its relation to the former, I hope I might escape these accusations. Vadim’s conflicted, ambivalent attitude towards Nebitdag, as he struggles to come to terms with his surroundings seems to come close, at times, to mirroring the attitudes of many in British society towards Liverpool in the 1980s, roughly the time he is writing about. Liverpool’s social and economic deprivation at the time certainly made it an economically peripheral city in relation to the affluent south, and came hand in hand with a certain denigration of the scouse dialect by those pertaining to the centre. I believe that drawing links here between source and target culture peripheries is precisely an act of solidarity, rather than an act of domestication or silencing of the other. At the same time, the Turkmen and Russian names still punctuate these fragments of speech, with all their metonymic power, so that the dappled patterns of Turkmen, Russian and scouse speech recreate, I hope, something of the syncretic beauty of the original.

“Well in Lyokha! We’re doin’ boss now.”


Notes:

[1] Carbonell, Ovidi, ‘Can the Other Speak? Metonymic (Re)creations of the Other in Translation’, in Writing Back in/and Translation, ed. by Raoul J. Granqvist (Frankfurt: P. Lang, 2006), pp. 55-74

[2] Tymoczko, Translation in a Postcolonial Context: Early Irish Literature in English Translation (Manchester: St Jerome, 1999)

[3] Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 2002)


The City of Dappled Shade

by Vadim Muratkhanov, translated by Robin Munby

read the source text here

(c) Photo be Madeline Robinson

Home isn’t always just where you were born, especially when you have a military man for a father. When you spend your childhood moving from town to town and from school to school every few years, you can grow up feeling like you come from several different places.

For me, Nebitdag was one of these. If this little Turkmen page was torn from my biography, my childhood wouldn’t be the same, and neither would I.

 

Nebitdag, Neftyanaya Gora, Oil Mountain. Barely a kilometre from the outskirts of the city the desert rose up without warning into a row of hulking dark brown mountains, the Great Balkan Range. There in the foreground was Balkonchik, balcony mountain, shaped like a truncated pyramid, so perfectly regular it could have been manmade. Its flat, sawn-off summit must have offered a perfect view of the city lying at its feet, a hundred kilometres from the Caspian Sea and dozens from the nearest settlement.

In post-Soviet times Nebitdag was renamed Balkanabat. The old name might have gone, but the mountain remained.

While living in Kyrgyzstan, I’d got used to the sight of the Kyrgyz capital’s bustling, yellow-green valley, cradled by the spurs of the Tian-Shan mountains. Frunze, as it was then known, spilled first into single-storey suburbs, and then petered out into villages criss-crossed by motorways and boisterous mountain rivers.

But here in western Turkmenistan, a random offshoot of the Kopetdag mountains towered over the city in triumphant, senseless magnificence, offering no protection from either wind or heat. A sand-covered highway circumvented the mountains, offering no easy destination.

Several kilometres along the highway, which was skirted by a gas pipeline half buried in the sand and overlooked by oil derricks, travellers would reach the Monument to the Desert Explorers. Hunched figures sheltering from the wind, camels in tow. Around it lay nothing but desert, itself all bluster in the winds. Laying eyes on the monument, you came to realise that in the decades since it was erected not a thing here had changed.

 

I don’t remember the train station: there was no leaving Nebitdag.

 

When you live life looking backwards, the future is only there so you can get far enough away from the past to examine it at a suitable distance. Like a spider you weave an enfilade of emptied rooms behind you.

The sand-covered room of Nebitdag, where the incessant air conditioning lets out a monotonous hum through its rusted-red grill, is the one you look back to last of all.

 

In the summer the city was completely dead from late morning to evening. Everyone stayed at home with their 24-hour air conditioning. You could walk from the hospital all the way to the central square without meeting anyone at all. Not a bird, not a dog, not a passer-by. The only hint of movement came from the pink flag atop the white stone of the municipal building.

 

There were almost no trees in the city except for the maclura, or horse apple. From the horse apples’ branches, which were prickly and covered with small leaves, hung wrinkled green globes that looked more like strange rubber chew toys than apples. When you threw them at something, a sticky bitter milk oozed out. Heavy, like grenades, you could play football with them, but only once they had dried out. The schoolkids even used the desiccated, fibrous flesh to make an improvised lyanga. Halfway between a hacky sack and a shuttlecock, they’d run all over the place doing keepie-uppies with it. In Frunze, the kids would make the lyanga from a woollen rag weighed down with a piece of lead, but this method was just as good.

One day, at break time, Denis Aleksandrov legged it away from us and climbed to the top of a horse apple. We started rocking the tree hoping to shake our classmate out. Aleksandrov fell and the tree came down with him baring its grossly shrivelled roots.

 

In the mid-80s there was only one set of traffic lights in the whole city. They faced the traffic, not the pavement, so all the Nebitdag schoolkids were convinced you were meant to cross at the red light.

(c) Photo be Madeline Robinson

 

Snow didn’t fall every winter. When it did, classes were cancelled and everyone ran out into the yard, hurling themselves at the as yet unthawed, untrampled, white islands left intact on the concrete concourse and car roofs. The snow soaked up all our energy. When you throw a snowball at someone it seems a shame to use it up, especially when you miss.

 

In Frunze I had lived out my childhood on a perfect street, attending an exemplary school with an abundance of older cousins to watch my back. And then, all at once, adolescence struck. I didn’t realise at first just what this meant.

The school lived by barbaric, half-criminal laws, enforced by the detdom boys[4] and some of the Turkmen kids from the years above.

There they are, squatting by the school gates, in the dappled shade of the horse apples – pity the new kid, beckoned over with a nonchalant wave of the hand.

 

My classmates copied off me during tests and teased me by calling me “teacher’s pet” and “try-hard.” Studying hard wasn’t the done thing here. It was only in my second year at the school, when they’d got used to me a bit and come to terms with my good grades, that they started calling me Tushkanchik, “jerboa,” because I could jump further than anyone else in PE.

And as for Ira Petrova, the number one beauty in our class as far as we were concerned, the lads called her Pedro.

I had started paying her naïve, bookish compliments from practically our first class together. Then, du

 

ring one lunch break, Ira brushed against my back with a soft sigh as I was walking past her. I wasn’t yet equipped to deal with this gift of fortune, being better versed in literature than in matters of sex.

Trouble was waiting for me at the end of the day. As I made my way out of school I noticed a load of kids from my year behind me. The crowd of boys and girls was escorting me at a distance of twenty paces. The clasps of my bag twinkled in the sun. The scariest part was the wait: they let me walk all the way to our flat and slam the door behind me. I would have to wait until the next morning to see what it was all about.

Before fizkultura[5], Roma Ilin warned me frankly that he and I would be going head to head for Pedro. I had absolutely no desire to fight for Ira Petrova’s affections, least of all in the literal sense. That’s probably why I managed to escape with only a ripped t-shirt and a bit of a fright on the day. (Our paltry scrap didn’t even bare comparison with the titanic clash that once unfolded between Batya (Batyr), a tall kid from the other class in our year, and “our” detdom boy Sergei. The walls shook in their wake and the other students, pale with fright, dodged the tangled ball of muscle as best they could as it thundered erratically across the changing room.)

That same school year, Petrova fell to Yotya, a tall, curly haired boy from the years above, and a figure of authority among the school’s criminal elements. Roma Ilin wasn’t going to risk challenging him to a duel.

The delicate, upturned nose, the ever so slightly raised upper lip, the languishing eyes… Ira really must have been attractive. But in the main it was her slightly vicious streak, rather than her outward appearance, that assured she was attainable only to the oldest kids.

 

 

The criminal environment of Nebitdag might have been down to more than just the contingent that made it their home. Its location must have helped too. Its forsakenness, its separation, its isolation, almost gulag-like, from the rest of the world. On this little island of civilisation, wrestled back from the desert through hard labour, we lived a claustrophobic existence, leaving the city limits no more than absolutely necessary.

People sometimes went to Dzhebel on business, or to relax at the narrow, elongated lake Molla-Kora, the lustreless surface of which glistened, motionless. Its waters are so salty you can’t sink – try to plunge down and you just spring back out onto the surface like a float. Afterwards, once you’re dry, you have to wash all the salt crystals off yourself with bottles of fresh water.

 

My best friend throughout the years I spent at school in Nebitdag was Vasya Besarab, a thick-lipped lad who always seemed to be smiling, even after one of his regular punch-ups, as he cleaned the blood from his fat, bruised lips. Vasya had a real mini-moped, which he let me ride around on, and, for his age, a wealth of experience with girls. “Galina will lose her shit if she finds out me and you are mates,” he would say from time to time, talking about our class teacher.

Besarab was a good mate. Otherwise there’s no way I’d have convinced him to cycle to the spring, at the height of summer, with one bicycle between two.

The road led up the mountain. We took turns sitting down, pedalling with all our weight until, by the end of the journey, we were moving at the speed of a strolling pedestrian. Vasya laid into me for “sweet-talking” him into such a stupid venture. I watched the empty flask strapped to the frame glisten, and tried to spit out some sand, but my mouth was too dry to spit. All the same, we both felt it would be a shame to turn around without having reached the spring.

Later we had a long drink, taking turns to press ourselves to the jagged metal 

 

pipe. We got back in just half an hour, dodging the cars we met along the road, the wind in our faces making us drunk. “We’re actually, like, overtaking them!” shouted Vasya, and this was worthy compensation for the long day’s torments.

A few years after I left Nebitdag, I found out that Vasya’s moped had been stolen and he’d been beaten half to death.

 

The language people spoke in Nebitdag was a mix of street slang and a dialect originating, apparently, on the other side of the Caspian.

“If yer goin’ the hairdressers, go our auntie’s. Dyakhozik gives everyone a bowl head.”

“You’re a divvy you Syava! Haven’t I told yer…”

“Dzhunya, don’t push! You’re proper arl arse you, Dzhunya…”

“Well in Lyokha! We’re doin’ boss now.”

I quickly learnt to get my head around the adult, though not mature, language of my classmates, but I never managed to master it myself.

 

I understand now that my school in Nebitdag wasn’t overrun with thugs. Obviously, some of the people there were what we might call “lawless” types, but mostly they were just ordinary kids who behaved according to their status and position in the rigid teenage hierarchy. And if the official behavioural norms came into conflict with the unofficial criminal code, preference was always given to the latter.

 

Sometimes in the evenings, I’d head over to the military hospital where Mukhamed, a curly-haired, dark-skinned lad the same age as me, used to help his dad, the projectionist at the club, run the two projectors. Occasionally, Mukhamed’s dad would leave him in charge, and I’d become his assistant. These days I don’t remember a single film we showed there. I do, on the other hand, remember the pride I would feel as I took the film reel from its box and fed it into all the right slots and grooves. The cleverest trick was starting the reel in the second projector just a few seconds before the first one finished. But try as you might, the scenes at the changeovers always ended up getting interrupted.

(c) Photo be Madeline Robinson

Once, a yellow spot appeared all of a sudden in the middle of the screen and quickly began to spread. Mukhamed turned on the light, stopped the projector, and fed the reel back through again. Then the audience all started whistling at us and shouting “cowboys”, just as if we were real, grown-up projectionists.

 

Children grew up quick in Nebitdag, and they placed a lot of value in any kind of practical skill (you’re only as good as what you can do). One of these skills, for example, was playing football.

On one occasion I had a boycott declared against me because of Sergei, one of the detdom boys. In school, people treated the detdom kids with caution. Better to avoid falling out with them than to risk recriminations. But Sergei’s simple mind and boundless energy pretty much drove everybody up the wall. My classmates didn’t dare come out openly against him, so they decided to direct their boycott against me, his friend, instead.

“From this day onward,” proclaimed Andrei Nosachev, “no knocking about or chatting with him. The only time the boycott will be suspended is during football. Pass the ball to him as usual.”

At the next fizkultura class, we poured out onto the school playing field as normal. My classmates turned out to be following Nosachev’s instructions to the letter. Everyone was passing to me, even when they didn’t really need to. Then after a week the boycott was lifted.

Another time we were playing against class 7B, and losing badly. I was in goal and they were constantly peppering me with shots from any distance.

When the score got to 8-0, something in me snapped. I got the ball and ran straight for the goal, past the bewildered opposition, and past Aleksandrov, who was sitting on the running track trying to force a bolt into the asphalt, softened in the sun. As I reached the opposition penalty area I began to panic at my own audacity, and I lost the ball.

After the game, Yotya called me over to him: “Tushkanchik, teach me to play football.” I was expecting a catch, and didn’t know how to reply. “Teach me, Tushkanchik,” Yotya said, demandingly. Eventually, he turned to his lanky red-headed friend: “Tushkanchik’s class at football, isn’t he?”

Life in Nebitdag was starting to turn out alright.

 

There was one more moment of glory in my two Turkmen years. My neighbour from across the landing was an addict called Andrei. When he got high he would pass out, completely dead to the world. One day, his mother arrived at his flat but couldn’t get in. Realising it was locked from the inside, she began to worry. She asked me to climb up to the second-floor flat via the balcony and open the door from the inside. There was a trailer with “Bread” written across it parked very conveniently right under the balcony. I had to climb onto the roof of the trailer, jump up, grab onto the balcony railings, and pull myself up. I wasn’t in the habit of saying no to grown-ups, and I did exactly as I was asked. At one point, however, looking at myself as if from outside, I imagined what my mum would say if she found me in the middle of my rescue mission.

 

Living in Nebitdag, I grew up faster than my own body. I certainly saw and learnt a few things before my time. The harsh, desert city showed me that the world isn’t just made up of people like me, and that the paradise of Soviet childhood has its flipside. Maybe Nebitdag taught me to take more responsibility for my words and actions. And after all, the best thing about places like this is that sooner or later you wave them goodbye.


Footnotes:

[4] An acronym for detskii dom, meaning children’s home in Russian.

[5] An acronym for fizicheskaya kultura, meaning physical culture in Russian, the equivalent of PE.


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