Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Can Translating Erotica Save a Finno-Ugric Nation in the Middle Volga?

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 3 – Given Moscow’s cuts in non-Russian language instruction and declining interest among many younger non-Russians in retaining their national languages, an Udmurt editor has come up with an unusual strategy: He is translating the Kamasutra into Udmurt in the hopes of attracting a new generation of readers to that language.
In an interview with “Moya Udmurtia” television last week, Pyotr Zakharov, the chief editor of the Udmurt-language journal “Invozho,” said that at a time when readers of the national language are “becoming fewer and fewer” and “interest in a small local language is being lost,” projects like this one are absolutely necessary (
The translation of the famous Indian encyclopedia of love will first appear on the website of his journal later this month, he said, and then be published as a richly illustrated separate book, in a few copies to start but more if there is demand, all in the aid “of preserving interest in the native language” of the Udmurts.
The editor then told the Susanin News Agency that he and his colleagues in fact had begun work on translations of erotic texts in the 1990s but had then turned to other tasks. Now the fate of the Udmurt language and hence of the Udmurt nation hangs in the balance, and so he had resumed work on the Kamasutra (
The translation has not been easy, he continued, because “the book must have its own unrepeatable national coloration,” even as it “corresponds to the general idea of the original Indian variant.” At present, he said, he is involved in editing the translation, making sure that the Udmurt words about anatomy and about attitudes toward various aspects of love are correct.
“The creation of an Udmurt sex handbook must ensure the preservation and popularization of the [Udmurt] language,” Zakharov said, arguing that “if there is a Tibetan ‘Kamasutra’ and an Indian one, then there must be an Udmurt one as well.” And he said he will ensure that one does appear.
At one level, of course, this effort by an Udmurt editor qualifies as a humorous anecdote given the size of the Udmurt nation and the improbable nature of the translation of such a work into its language. But at another level, it reflects a far more serious problem, one that many smaller nations inside the Russian Federation now face.
On the one hand, both because of Russian state policy and the pressures of globalization, these languages are in many cases declining, often unable to keep enough young people interested to ensure that they will remain widely used in the next generation. (On that problem see
And on the other hand, there is a risk that some efforts to preserve these languages end by reducing them to small isolated niches or turning them into a laughing matter, much as some translations of obscure works by émigrés in Soviet times – one thinks of the Belarusian translation of the complete works of Plato, for example – did then.
But there may be another side to this story: Zakharov is using the most modern forms of communication – the Internet and TV --to promote his translation of a book many young Udmurts may want to read, and there is the precedent that languages and peoples that were a joke for some turned out to have a better future than even those supporting them dared hope.

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