Azerbaijan International

Winter 2002 (10.4)
Pages 50-51

Article from Spring 1996

Literary Transitions
No More "Russian Language Trampoline"
by Shaig Safarov

Russian, though still widely in use in Azerbaijan, is not the prestigious language it once was. And when it comes to translations, Russian is no longer the "trampoline" from which all works must spring. These days, Azeri is translated directly into English, French, German and other languages and vice versa. There is no middle language - Russian - as there used to be. Markets are changing.

Left: Vladimir Gafarov was famous for his translations of Azeri literary works into Russian (Courtesy: Vladimir Gafarov family).

A cold room. A man in his sixties, jacket draped over his shoulders, is sitting at his desk in the editorial office of the influential Russian newspaper, "Bakinskiy Rabochiy" ("Baku Worker" in Russian). It's a new position for him. Vladimir Gafarov became Deputy Editor-in-Chief of this leading newspaper out of necessity. He'd rather be translating poetry or writing it himself, just as he did in the past.

Gafarov is one of the grand patriarchs of Russian translation in Azerbaijan. But language usage is shifting today, and this literary giant who worked for so many years to refine his language skills finds himself scrambling for a job. "Translation," says Gafarov, "is hard work, but it's generally satisfying. Translating poetry is much more difficult than fiction. The translator himself must have poetic inclinations, a sense of rhythm, and a comprehensive lexical knowledge of both languages."

Translation used to pay well. Gafarov used to live a quiet, secure life. Today, he makes about 170,000 manats (approximately $40) per month. His wife's pension is 100,000 ($22). "Is it possible to live on so little money?" he asks.

Left: Since Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991, there has been less and less demand for translations of Azeri literary works into Russian. Here Vladimir Gafarov at work (Courtesy: Vladimir Gafarov family).

On his desk are eight books of poetry ready to be published. They're significant works - some of the best in Azerbaijani literature, such as the epic of Koroghlu, the works of poetess Mahsati Ganjavi (late 11th century­early 12th century), and those of poets Molla Panah Vagif (18th century), Vahid (20th century) and Fuzuli (16th century).

Gafarov is especially fond of Fuzuli. He's convinced that there are not any good translations of Fuzuli's work in Russian. "Reading some of Fuzuli's poems in translation is like chewing on a boiled potato. I can't say whether I've succeeded in expressing his philosophy or not, but at least my translations are readable."

Gafarov has also been busy translating a collection of "bayati", 2,500 lines in total. "Bayati" is a very old poetic form (perhaps more than a thousand years old) and one of the most difficult genres to translate. It consists of only four lines, and as with Japanese verse, this succinct form is very meaningful and popular amongst Azerbaijanis. According to Gafarov, few people in the world even know of the existence of this form in Azerbaijan. He has collected many of the elegiac and sorrowful "bayati" that reflect the recent events that have befallen the nation - topics like the war, its victims and martyrs, refugees, and the struggles of life.

But these days, it's extremely hard to publish any books at all. Gafarov quotes Anar, the President of the Azerbaijan Writer's Union, who has often said, "In the past, you became a rich man after you published a book. Today, you have to be a rich man to publish a book." Not only is the price of paper extremely high, but for Gafarov, the number of Russian-language readers in Azerbaijan has seriously diminished.

He used to work for the "outer market", meaning works for export outside of Azerbaijan but within the boundaries of the USSR. In the past, many of his translations were published in Moscow or Leningrad. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of the Republics are tending towards using their own native languages, not Russian. It's a new day for the former Republics of the Soviet Union. With priorities changing, and markets changing, too, it's important for them not to completely discard the past in their rush to embrace the future. A literary legacy is at stake.

Update - December 2002

Shaig Safarov provides an update on language and alphabet issues:

These days, the Russian language continues to die a slow death in Azerbaijan. Both Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet are being used less and less, including the modified version of Cyrillic, which was used for writing the Azeri language for much of the Soviet era (1920-1991). The first evidence of this tendency began in 1990-1991, even before we had gained our independence when a few of Azerbaijan's newspapers dared to challenge the Soviet system by printing their mastheads in Azeri Latin script though the general text remained in Cyrillic.

Azerbaijan's Parliament officially adopted the Azeri Latin alphabet on December 25, 1991, a few short tumultuous weeks after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, it was one of the first items on their legislative agenda to revert to a similar Latin - modified alphabet that had been in use during the mid-1920s prior to the time when Stalin imposed the Cyrillic alphabet. Obviously, the decision had political ramifications.

By 1992, the state TV station [AZ TV] presented its Azeri language captions and headlines in the Latin script, not Cyrillic. Other channels, such as the privately-owned ANS-TV, were quick to follow suit.

Gradually, most Russian TV programming was dropped. Now only a few Russian music programs on independent channels are aired targeting teenagers. Nevertheless, one should underestimate their tremendous appeal and influence.

The next major change came in the mid-1990s when street signs and nameplates on official government buildings were replaced with the new Latin script. In place of Russian names and Azeri written in the Cyrillic alphabet, the Latin script was used for Azeri and very often English replaced Russian. But old habits die hard and, in general, Cyrillic continued to dominate, especially in terms of common usage.

However, the transition to Latin simply did not happen in reality until President Heydar Aliyev, with the backing of Parliament, made a decree mandating that all signage and all official documents had to be written in the Latin script by August 1, 2001. Only then did Baku get a real face lift. Store owners complied despite some reluctance.

Most signs in Russian, English or Azeri Cyrillic disappeared. This is the reality that exists today. No longer do the street signs and store fronts of Baku look like a Tower of Babel of languages and alphabets as they did only two short years ago.

Nowadays, Azeri is the only language used at official meetings, except when VIPs from Russia or other former Soviet republics attend as officially invited guests. On such occasions Russian is the lingua franca. It's obvious that Russians are a bit miffed when they attend our international conferences and discover that English has superseded Russian for many such occasions.

Likewise, all legal documents must be written in Azeri Latin. Not long ago, I wanted to get a document printed in Azeri Cyrillic, but the printing company refused, insisting that it was illegal.

The most recent stage in this tortuous journey of alphabet transition has been the standardization of an Azeri Latin computer font in UNICODE, which enables both IBM and Mac computers to communicate with each other. As idealistic as that may be, unfortunately, the reality is that many people don't have new - enough computer systems and programs and so UNICODE is still not widely used though this is, undoubtedly, the wave of the future.

Another trend is evident these days as well. Azerbaijani writers who are more fluent in Russian are seeking good translators to turn their novels into Azeri, an ironic twist from a decade ago. Many translators have also found another way to make money - by dubbing movies. Almost all of the TV channels (both state-run and independent) compete to broadcast Azeri versions of Hollywood movies. It's a relatively good (and unexpected) source of income for translators and actors. The going price for dubbing can be $50-100 a day, a significant sum, considering that many people can work more than a week or more to earn that amount of money.

Almost all Azerbaijanis acknowledge the necessity of learning Azeri, although not everyone has done so. I've spoken to several people who are unemployed who regret not knowing our official national language. In fact, they're admit that not knowing Azeri is probably why they are out of work. "Why don't you learn it then?" I ask. "Too lazy," is the usual reply.

Yet, on the other hand, there are many Russians in Baku, especially those in business or sales, who speak fluent Azeri. Russian speakers used to have the advantage in getting hired for the best jobs. Today, the tables are turned and native Azeri speakers are more likely to get the choice positions. In many ways, the wider usage of the Azeri language has come a long way in just a short decade though, admittedly, not without significant loss of intellectual knowledge and transfer to future generations.

Vladimir Gafarov, a poet himself and a renowned translator of literary works from the Azeri language into Russian passed away in July 2000. Though he produced many translations into the Russian languages, some volumes remain to be published such as selections from Koroghlu, Dada Gorgud along with the poetry of Vagif and Fuzuli.

Shaig Safarov currently heads the Azerbaijan Association of Mountain Regions Development (ADRIA) and is deeply involved with Azerbaijan's literary community.

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