The Railway, by Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov, is one of the few contemporary Central Asian works translated into English. Alas, it is translated from Russian rather than Uzbek. Perhaps this is a hypocritical lamentation, coming as it does from a speaker of another colonial language. After all, the author is still Uzbek, writing in Russian, and, on one level, the story is presumably the same regardless of the source language. Furthermore, some might argue that Russian is equally the mother tongue of many Uzbeks these days. For that matter, Uzbek is only one of the languages of Uzbekistan. For speakers of minority languages, Uzbek could be a second language as much as Russian.
But it does seem that a book written in Uzbek would convey more of Uzbekistan’s ethos than one written in Russian. This raises the question, though, of whether this ethos can be carried over into an English translation. Perhaps, then, the original language doesn’t matter. Or perhaps writing in Russian about a primarily Uzbek setting already constitutes a translation; translating the Russian text into English introduces yet a further degree of removal from the source material. Some theorists maintain that any writing is an act of translation–translating events or ideas into words that will convey an image, idea, or feeling to other people. If this is the case, writing in Russian just magnifies this initial act of translation.
In any case, the bibliography of books translated into English contains disproportionately fewer works originally written in Uzbek than in Russian, and it would have been nice to even the scales a bit, given the opportunity. One can’t help but notice the irony that a book about Uzbekistan by an Uzbek author has been translated from Russian.
All that aside, based on my limited exposure to Robert Chandler’s work, he is a good translator, and we appreciate the fact that he has translated the book. This, however, is another post about a book we haven’t read; I stopped about 45 (out of 274) pages into it because it was a bit too provocative and explicit for my taste. That was about a year ago; maybe I will give it another try. The Railway caught my attention because it concerns, in a very different manner, an era and subject matter similar to that of Stories from the Land of Springs, by Rajab Amonov—the book I am translating from Tajiki. Both books depict the impact of modernism and the Soviet Union on Central Asia, although The Railway covers a longer time period and is a satire that radically departs from standard Soviet realism, whereas Stories is (ostensibly) strictly memoir.
Chandler prefaces Ismailov’s novel with an enlightening essay, in which he discusses not only the translation process but the some of the cultural issues behind The Railway. Chandler, also the translator of Soul, a novel about Central Asia by Russian author Andrey Platonov, includes an interesting comparison Soul and The Railway. He reports that Ismailov, “after first reading Soul … had felt so depressed that he fell ill. This had not been because the novel was itself depressing but because Platonov seemed to have said all there was to say about Central Asia. Nothing was left—Hamid had felt at the time—for him to say himself” (v).
This, of course, returns us to our original discussion regarding the intersection of Russian and Uzbek–linguistically and politically. The fact that an Uzbek could consider a Russian author to have written authoritatively and comprehensively on Central Asia raises further questions: What were the particular concerns of each author? How much had Ismailov already been influenced by Russian and Soviet thought? A close reading of both books might address these and other questions.
The Railway contains about 15 pages of endnotes, of which Chandler writes: “Soviet Central Asia is an alien world to a modern Anglophone reader, perhaps no less alien than the Spain of Cervantes. We take it for granted that there will be notes in a new edition of Don Quixote; it is my view that notes are no less necessary in a translation of The Railway” (xvii).
We will post a review of Ismailov’s book if we decide to read it. In the absence of our own assessment, a final quote from Chandler: “This short novel can be read as an encyclopaedia of Central Asian life” (xvii)… though it is perhaps the place of a Central Asian to pass final judgment on this claim.
(This article edited June 13, 2007, 11:10 a.m.)
August 2, 2007 addition:
Click here for the text of an October 8, 2005, interview with translator Robert Chandler: Ready Steady Book interview with Chandler
Click here for July 2007 interview with Robert Chandler by Hesperus Press: Hesperus Press interview with Chandler
Further discussion of The Railway can be found at the following links: