Sounds of Language

Kurkov Andriy
Kurkov Andriy
Writer, journalist, screenwriter

Andrey Kurkov

My first encounter with foreign languages occurred when I was seven or eight years old. At that time I was fascinated by cacti and having joined Kiev’s Cacti-enthusiasts’ club, I started collecting and cultivating different kinds of cacti. Very quickly I understood that every cactus, just as a person, has a name, surname and sometimes even – as a Russian or Ukrainian person – a patronymic. Of course, all these names were Latin. As a result Botanical Latin became my first foreign language, but I never mastered it to any level of "fluency" – after all there was nobody with whom I could speak this language. In Kiev at that time – it was the 1970s – there was one unusual bookshop, called "Friendship", where one could buy books published in socialist countries. There were books from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. And it was there that I found the only books on cacti available in Kiev and these books were in German, published in East Germany. I bought the most beautiful one I could find – it was full of coloured photos of cacti and under each photo was the now familiar Latin name of the cactus. Everything else was in German but I could not read it then. Of course I wanted to know what was written there but somehow the idea of studying German to that level of understanding seemed unrealistic. And yet suddenly while gazing at that book I grasped the importance of foreign languages. I realised almost at once how rich and boundless is life!

A bit later I noticed that people around me who either spoke Russian or Ukrainian as their mother tongue were also able to read books in Polish. Moreover, at the "Friendship" Bookstore, where I found books on cacti in German, the Polish Book section turned out to be the most popular section of the shop. When, one of my own friends turned up with a Polish book under his arm, I exclaimed: "Why are you reading that?" "The books in Polish are much more interesting than the ones in Russian!" he replied, adding "By the way – these are translations from English and French! They are translated into Polish, but not into Russian!"

It was strange that books not translated into Russian or Ukrainian were available in Polish, but there could have been various reasons for this. Perhaps the Soviet censors did not read Polish and simply put their trust in their Polish colleagues.

Thus, as I prefer to believe, thanks to the linguistic ignorance of the Soviet political elite, Poland and the Polish language served as a door into the world of literature and philosophy for many enthusiastic Soviet intellectuals. For me Polish also became my first "living" foreign language, although I still respect Latin very much and even improved my Latin later during University studies. Thanks to Polish, even in the era of Soviet censorship, I knew something about the literary process in the USA, France, Canada and Argentina.

At that time, I could only read Polish, but by the age of 14-15 I had learned to speak it and I still do today. In Soviet times, Polish was a sort of a "secret language". If you spoke Polish, it meant you were interested in what was happening behind "the iron curtain". Today, 25 years since the independence of Ukraine, Polish seems to have lost all its mystery. It is now a cultural and social instrument helping to develop business and social and cultural relations with our Polish neighbours.

Having mastered Polish I could appreciate how a knowledge of a foreign language enriches your life, so I decided to take on English and this was the start of another story that would affect my life most profoundly. My brother, who is seven years older than me, was a Soviet dissident: not an activist, rather an anti-Soviet pacifist – like many people of the day. He read banned literature, some of which had nothing to do with politics, but also exchanged jokes about Stalin and Brezhnev with his friends. He had a friend who was sent into exile in the Russian Polar north. It was an extremely remote place where there was no one with whom to share his political views but his husky dogs and the wild animals. Once a month he was allowed to visit the nearest village to buy food and receive post. He asked his friends to send him dictionaries of foreign languages and spent all his time memorizing their contents. When, after eleven years, he was allowed home he was sure he knew 11 foreign languages. (I hasten to add that he was a nuclear physicist, not a linguist!) So when I mentioned to my brother that I would like to learn English, Evgeniy was recommended as the perfect person to teach me. I liked him from our first meeting and he started to teach me how to memorize words from the dictionary. Each lesson he would put a little pencil mark beside the words I had mastered, sometimes 200, sometimes only 100. Of course, I learned them in alphabetical order: abdicate, abdication, abdominal etc. We never spoke about grammar, but I knew it was important so I was trying to learn grammar myself separately from "dictionary lessons". Years later this method of learning English played a joke on me. I was a student at the Kyiv State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages and when the first group of UK Russian language students arrived I was allowed to accompany them on trips etc., since my English was better than most of the other students. I remember how happy I was at the realisation that I could understand everything they said and they could understand me. A few days into their visit one of the UK students told me: "You have a very unusual command of the English language." I sensed more surprise than praise in this comment and asked him what he meant. "The words! You use very strange words!" was his reply. This puzzled me and when I got home that night I got out the dictionary I had memorized years before and studied the inside title page. For the first time I noticed the date of publication: 1926! Even today I can remember words which have not been in use for over 50 years. Languages, like humans get old, change and, unfortunately, sometimes die. The death of a language is somehow more tragic than that of a person. It means the death of a nation, of a culture.

As a student of English, I became interested in translation. In 1980, the first visiting Professor of English from the USA, Mary Nichols, arrived in Kiev bringing with her some books in English, including some works by her friend and fellow Professor from Arizona University, Winston Weathers. I read Winston Weathers’ short stories and radio plays with great enthusiasm and immediately decided to translate them. The result was my diploma work with which I graduated from University and, I was told that my translation was good enough to publish. So I went to the Head Editor of the literary magazine "Vitchizna" which means "Motherland". He said, "OK. Leave it with me." My mother tongue is Russian, but I had translated the texts into both Russian and Ukrainian and I left both versions with the head editor. Three or four weeks later I popped into the magazine’s office and the head editor said: "Well, the texts are beautiful and there is nothing anti-Soviet, so it can be published." I left the office in jubilant mood and began the process of waiting – a process which, in the Soviet Union, was very time consuming. A year later, I felt I had let this ‘process’ go on long enough and I went back to the editor and he told me: "Sorry. I lost the manuscript." At that point I knew the work would never be published because I did not have another copy. My old typewriter would only allow one carbon copy and I had leant to it to someone else who had lost it. So my translation was lost. I do still have the books by Winston Weathers, who never became famous, but I should mention now, that I did ask his permission to make the translations.

My interest in languages developed and my favourite bookshop in Kiev was the Academy of Sciences book shop where I once found a book with a small vinyl record appended to it. The book was about a small minority known as the ‘Kuril Aynu’, some Aynu people still live on Hokkaido Island in Japan and the people of Kuril Island lived on Kuril Island itself and in the far east of the Soviet Union. The author of that book was an anthropologist from Leningrad and he describes the history of the Kuril Aynu up to the death of its last representative in 1946, whose voice the researcher had recorded before he passed away. I still have that little disk and have listened to it dozens of times, never able to decipher a single word – the book offered no translation. The effect of hearing that voice and knowing that what I had heard was gone forever has haunted me ever since. When I came to write my trilogy of novels about the history of Soviet Mentality The Geography of a Single Gun Shot (unfortunately it is not published in Catalan or Spanish) I decided to create a small and waning nation. I gave them a name ‘The Urku Yemtzi’ and, based on the sounds I heard on that little disk I created a language for them which I use in the novel, providing a bilingual dictionary for the reader to refer to. I even wrote poetry in Urku Yemtzi, again a translation is provided for the reader. It was a game and I cannot say I took the issue so seriously until, in 1990, I travelled to Dagestan, North Caucausus with my wife. In fact we wanted to go to Samakand, but all the flights were booked, so we asked which direction had seats available and were told "Mahatchkala". It sounded exotic and I had a rough idea where it was, so we took two one way tickets (returns were not available). We planned to reach a very special village called Kubachi. It is 3000 meters up in the mountains and famous for jewellery production. It was December and ice on the road meant that we had to go to the mountains via Derbent – an ancient town on the border with Azerbaijan. The fact is Dagestan is a paradise for linguists and also a linguistic cemetery. High in the mountains, each village had its own language and there are still dozens of languages used in the country and probably as many that have passed away. When we got to Derbent we discovered a wonderful walled city between the mountains and the sea populated by a small nation called Tuts, formerly inhabitants of Persia who converted to Judaism and had to flee Persia. They found refuge in Dagestan. They had no written language, but the Soviet authorities encouraged them to use Cyrillic script. One area in which the Soviet authorities occasionally excelled was the promotion of minority languages and support of writers who used them, provided there was no political threat, of course. In the case of the Tuts they were actually ordered to decide who among them should be the Tuts’ writer. They chose the chief tax inspector and he wrote fables which reflected legends existing in Tuts’ oral culture. He wrote in Tuts and Russian and his Russian works were published in Moscow as translations from the Tut language to demonstrate the Soviet zeal for multiculturalism and support of minority peoples.

When we finally got to Kubachi our host, Gadzhi Musa, was keen to take us to another village, called Amuzgi, about four kilometres away, accessible only by a narrow path along the edge of the mountain. He told us that it used to be a huge and beautiful town with its own language, but that now it was in ruins and inhabited by only three elderly people, a couple and a lady who lived alone with her goat. Gadzhi Musa offered to take us to Amuzgi since he occasionally visited the old couple with whose son he had been friends before he was killed in an accident during his army service. A treacherous walk along wooden bridges round the edge of the mountain, with sheer drops hundreds of meters down, took us to a fascinating and picturesque ensemble of buildings all in varying states of decay, including a central Mosque and a small cottage built into the hillside from which a trail of smoke floated straight up into the still air. Asking us to wait outside, Gadzhi Musa, entered the cottage and was gone long enough for us to start feeling the cold. When he reappeared, he admitted that the elderly couple did not want to see anyone, but he clearly felt ashamed and decided to try to persuade them to let us in one more time. His efforts were rewarded and we were invited into their one-room cottage with a stove which they also used as a table on which there was dried meat, bread and a bottle of vodka – the preferred drink of the local population since the Koran forbade the drinking of wine. Sadly this preference had led to there being a high proportion of widows among the mountain villagers. Their husbands all too often drink before attempting the walks between villages along the mountain and simply disappear over off the edge.

We began to talk, with Gadzhi Musa, who must have at least understood Amuzgi, translating for us. Our host told us about the other lady inhabitant of the village who, they said, would probably die before them. When we came to eat, my wife asked Gaszhi Musa to explain to our hosts that she was not eating the meat because she was vegetarian. Gadzhi Musa translated and when the elderly man responded Gadzhi Musa laughed and explained that our host wanted to know if ‘vegetarian’ had the same meaning as ‘homosexual’. Vegetarianism was not a concept he had ever come across. A term did not exist for it in any of Dagestan’s languages. Everyone there eats meat and, in fact, this question came from a culture that no longer exists. Some years later, when Gaszhi Musa visited us in Kiev, I asked about Amuzgi and the folk there. "They are all gone now." Was his response. "Nobody walks along those bridges any more. The people are dead, the village is dead and the language is dead." This language had no written culture and I don’t know whether anyone thought to make a recording.

Perhaps one day a linguistic anthropologist who happens to be good at it will create a virtual ‘cemetery’ of languages, perhaps with some recorded samples or some texts. We are living in a world where languages are still dying. Nobody hands out grants for projects aimed at creating a record for prosperity languages which are about to die. Or maybe there is such a project? Without a "museum" of this kind our lives will be less rich. Taking Russia as an example: it used to have more than 120 spoken languages, I don’t think there are more than 100 now. Ukraine is also very rich in languages, seventy nine are officially spoken by minorities, but most of these languages are spoken by bigger nations. For example, we have Greek villages in the south of the country and Mariupol, the town which is currently under siege by Russians, is populated by Ukrainian Greeks. There is ‘Gagauz’ spoken in Ukrainian Bessarabia as well as in an isolated region of Moldova with about 30,000 Gagauz speakers there. One of them, a lady writer from Ukrainian Bessarabia, has decided to write in Gagauz in order to strengthen the written tradition of the language and to encourage other intellectuals from the minority to do the same.

Coming back to literature and to translation; when the text of my first translation was lost, I felt it was a sign that I should seek a different path for my career. I had always dreamed of becoming an author. In 1988 I became a member of British Pen Club and in 1992 Index on Censorship, the literary magazine for Amnesty International, decided to publish an exert from one of my short novels The Cosmopolitan’s Favourite Song. And this was my first experience of being translated. Back then; I had no Internet, no mobile phone, so the translator was very much on her own. The novel is about an American Soldier of Polish-Palestinian Parentage who was brought up in Poland and who accidently performs an act of heroism and is rewarded with a stay at a transnational holiday resort created especially for heroes from all the world’s wars. The place resembles Yalta in the Crimea and during his stay some other visiting heroes decide to organise a coup so that they can make the resort their permanent home and don't have to go back to soldiering. During the coup our ‘accidental hero’ hides in a wine celler and drinks, pronouncing toasts as he does so. One of his toasts is " Here’s to dependence!"He does not want independence for this idyllic spot. He does not believe it is realistic and he does not want responsibility for it. My translator, however, misunderstood and assumed I had made a mistake and that I meant "Here’s to independence" and that is how the toast appeared in the publication. Thus the translator turned my deserter into a would-be-hero. Like me, this very intelligent lady, never became a translator. Instead she took up law and became a top London Barristor.

However, someone has to take on the job of translation. Without translators there would be even less understanding among nations and even more wars. As I see it the translator’s role in international relations is that of ‘fear killer’. To provide information which allays fears and facilitates understanding, so that genuine communication can take place.

Integration between countries always happens on three levels and the first level is cultural. Understanding another culture kills the fear and then trade can begin and, once trade is flourishing, political links are developed. Translation is at the heart of that first stage in the convergence between nations. The ‘other’ culture has to be made understandable. I am convinced that if more novels were translated from Russian into Ukrainian and vice versa, the relationship between our two nations would be much less bloody than it is today. But that is another story.

April 1, 2015
Support our work

We need your help to create projects and materials aimed to defend freedom of speech, popularize Ukrainian culture and values of independent journalism.

Your donation means support for discussions, awards, festivals, authors’ trips to regions and PEN book publications.

Support PEN

We recommend viewing: