Translators Reflections – Julia Sherwood
I have long admired the work of the intrepid Petra Procházková, who has spent many years reporting from Russia, Chechnya and Afghanistan but it wasn’t until Stork Press approached me about translating Freshta that I discovered she wrote fiction as well. I immediately jumped at the chance to read her novel and, having read it, to translate it into English. Painting a vivid picture of the life of women in Kabul following the US and allied armies’ invasion of Afghanistan, which in turn engendered a minor invasion of Western humanitarian agencies, Petra eschews a condescending Western perspective, filtering the experience through the cultural prism of a narrator who is both an insider and an outsider. Herra, a half-Russian and half-Tajik woman married to an Afghan, remains an outsider even after twelve years of living in Kabul with her husband’s extended family. In spite of doing her best to adapt to the local customs, she still commits blunders and inadvertently gives offence as she struggles to adapt to the traditional notions of ‘decency’, ‘propriety’ and ‘disgrace’ that continue to keep women confined to their homes and deprived of opportunities to obtain an education and play an equal role in society even after the demise of the Taliban eased institutional oppression. At the same time, at the humanitarian agency where she starts working, she is the insider who has to explain and mediate the local customs to her bosses who, in spite of their best intentions, display a shocking lack of cultural sensitivity.
Using an apparently straightforward and often humorous conversational style Petra subtly conveys the interaction between three very different cultures – Russian, Afghan and American. Finding the right tone that reproduces the easy flow of the original while maintaining the effect of the various cultures reflecting and refracting each other, yet without simplifying the complex issues, might seem a considerable challenge for the translator, but it is one I find particularly enjoyable, having lived in a variety of cultures myself. However, since my travels have never taken me as far as Afghanistan I’ve had to make sure I understood and accurately conveyed all the nuances in her descriptions of local customs or language use. What exactly is the garment the ample-bosomed school headmistress is wearing on top of her loose-fitting traditional dress – does it have sleeves? What kind of weird delicacy is pig’s tail, which the narrator longs for in a Muslim household where pork is forbidden? Where do I find the English transcription for Persian words in Czech spelling, such as džuma, without knowing if it denotes a specific Muslim holiday or is a more general term? How do I deal with the legacy of a decade of Soviet occupation, manifested for example in the word mikrorayon, without going into a lengthy explanation that it’s a grey housing complex? These are the kinds of questions of a sartorial, culinary, spiritual and architectural nature that I’ve been tackling. And although we have yet to meet in person, Petra has been really helpful, responding to my barrage of questions amidst a reporting assignment in frosty Russia and taking time off family Christmas preparations.