A Band of Translators: In Conversation with the Turkoslavia Translation Collective

By the Turkoslavia Translation Collective

Turkoslavia is a collective of literary translators—Sabrina Jaszi, Mirgul Kali, and Ena Selimović—working from Turkic and Slavic languages. In this interview, the members of the collective discuss how they met, why they formed a translators’ collective, and their current projects.

Sabrina and Ena have contributed essays to Reading in Translation. Sabrina wrote a review of Leonid Yuzefovich’s novella The Storm, translated by Marian Schwartz. Ena wrote two reviews of Dubravka Ugrešić’s essay collections (American Fictionary, translated by Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać; and The Age of Skin, translated by Elias-Bursać). She also wrote about Maša Kolanović’s Underground Barbie for the column Translators on Books That Should Be Translated.

How did you meet?

Mirgul: Sabrina and I met in 2019 after being introduced to each other by Kelsi Vanada, ALTA Program Manager. The two of us talked about connecting with other literary translators in the Bay Area and forming a group to workshop each other’s translations. I sent an email out to ELTNA, to which a few translators, among them Ena, responded, and in September of that year we began meeting monthly. After some time most people fell away and we realized that the workshops were most enjoyable and productive when it was just the three of us. We then kept meeting monthly until Ena, who is basically our manager, talked us into starting a collective.

When did you decide to form a collective?

Ena: The when of forming a collective is so tightly intertwined with the why of it. Our first blog entry dives into this question. We were reflecting on why us, why a collective, why this collective, why now. I find that such reflections are ongoing.

We considered many different reasons in support of forming a collective. For one, there are many practical ones. We wanted to hold regular meetings to workshop our translations and supporting documents (e.g., proposals for publication, grants, fellowships, etc.); look out for each other when there are relevant postings (calls for publications, grants, and events); and report back to the group if, for example, only one of us can attend a conference. Eventually, it gave us a chance to launch our website so we could market our projects, start a blog, and offer professional services (e.g., samples, reader’s reports, translation evaluations, and editing).

Moving away from practical questions opens up even more transformative benefits related to collaboration and community. We now have a (metaphorical) space for collaboration in an otherwise largely isolated endeavor. The collective gives us a structure in which we can hold each other accountable. Like Mirgul said, it was very early on when the three of us realized that we enjoyed working with each other. We were excited about all of our projects and we looked forward to seeing long-term developments in each other’s work. At the same time, we knew that we made a good team. We have different strong points, but we’re largely on the same page. I think that’s a crucial bit—that you can disagree about details (and even be annoyed at times), but agree about style and other overarching matters. And we stuck to it and to one another. The foundation to any collective still comes down to commitment.

On the topic of different strong points, I’m also grateful to Sabrina and Mirgul for helping me learn how to tone down my anxiety-prone relationship with the information age, which makes me sound clearly out of touch. You need people who’ll tell you that you can’t get to everything. It’s great if those same people can also encourage you by constructively telling you what needs more of your attention. Knowing Mirgul and Sabrina are out there in the world calms me. It feels like we’re in a band together—we have our solos here and there, and sometimes the drummer takes a hiatus, the vocalist has a sore throat, but the band keeps going.

Plus, they let me play with website design to my heart’s content. That’s been something new and enjoyable in my life.

Why “Turkoslavia”?

Sabrina: The focus on Turkic and Slavic languages and cultural connections arose very naturally from our areas of interest—both Mirgul and I work on the literature of Central Asia, where both Russian and Turkic languages are spoken. Ena works on Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian (BCMS), South Slavic languages that, similarly, share territory with Turkic ones. These languages tend to be isolated into national categories, so we wanted to highlight their shared histories and relations. We are all immensely curious about language and never get tired of inquiring into each other’s linguistic and cultural knowledge. This is in no way limited to Turkic and Slavic languages, but we like that the category of literature that might fall under the heading “Turkoslavia” is both specific and expandable. It’s also nice that, though we don’t speak all of each other’s languages, we can usually make out a fair amount of the lexicon and grammar and can help each other with the source texts we are working from, as well as with the English translations.

Though there was nothing tactical in the way we chose this focus, we later realized that the Turkic-Slavic connection was underrepresented—many people who we spoke to about our collective were fascinated by the idea and seemed surprised that so many cultural overlaps existed. These were brought about by parallel inter-imperial linguistic histories that have created a great diversity of literary expression, as well as similarities—all of which we love to discuss in our meetings. 

On the most practical level, it’s useful to have help sifting through publishers and grant opportunities, many of which have a geographical or linguistic focus. In terms of these opportunities, we all keep an eye on the general Turkic-Slavic space, and alert each other when we see something that might suit another member of the collective.

What are some of your current projects?

Mirgul: I’m currently doing an MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa, so lately, finding time for my own translation projects has been a challenge. But whenever I can, I try to work on finalizing Kokbalaq, a novel by Mukhtar Magauin, a very well-known Kazakh writer of the Thaw generation. It’s a poignant and immensely lyrical story of a traditional musician who endures hardship during the Soviet years. I’m also sporadically working on To Hell with Poets, a collection of short stories by a young Kazakh writer Baqytgul Sarmekova, for which I recently received a PEN/Heim grant.

Ena: Like Mirgul, translation time is unfortunately harder to find at the moment. I was awarded an ACLS postdoctoral fellowship at Yale, which unexpectedly and generously and very excitingly allows me to work on my own research and writing (and read, read, read too much!)—but because it’s a one-year position, precarity remains at arm’s length and requires that I apply to as many positions as possible to secure future work. Securing work so you can get paid to apply for future work is a newly common experience that feels a bit like Kafka’s guiding the pen on the page. Balancing that task (and its attendant feelings) on top of everything else and all during a pandemic means translation gets done after regular work hours. But! I’m still pitching my translation of Maša Kolanović’s novel Underground Barbie and my co-translation with Vlad Beronja of Maša’s short story collection, Dear Pests and Other Chilling Stories. I also loved preparing a sample translation of Đurđa Knežević’s novel Vanilla Ice Cream.

Sabrina: Current projects include Uzbek short stories and childhood memoirs by Abdulla Qahhor and O’tkir Hoshimov that I am translating as part of my dissertation research at UC Berkeley. A semester off from teaching has also given me time to take on a big, new translation project: a collection of vignettes and stories by the Ukrainian Classics scholar Andriy Sodomora, to be published by Academic Studies Press. My co-translator Roman Ivashkiv and I have been making our way through these demandingly intertextual, but also joyful and atmospheric, pieces since July, and will complete work soon. I also continue to chip away at ongoing translation projects—a mostly complete collection of stories by the Russian Thaw-era writer Reed Grachev, who still amazes me with his empathy and gorgeous insights (and for whom I’m seeking a publisher), and suspenseful and transporting new stories by the Russian-Dagestani author Alisa Ganieva. Some new translations of Grachev and Ganieva will be coming out in journals soon.

What are your plans going forward?

Mirgul: We’re starting an online journal featuring translations from Slavic and Turkic languages in collaboration with the University of Iowa. The call for submissions will be announced in spring 2022. There are also plans to publish a feature with translations of three stories about women by women writers from our source languages, but we’re still looking for the stories and a journal or magazine that would be interested in such a selection. At some point we also want to do an anthology of Turkic and Slavic short fiction.

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