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Kurdî û Werger

Kawa Nemir

Translation is an activity that emerged as an ineluctable consequence of the scattering of humanity across the globe, as a consequence of the encounters and interactions of different human communities. As an activity, translation is the condition of possibility for those unavoidable constants across humanity that we call culture and civilization. Translation is the human experience of perpetually being subject to war or peace, migration, settlement, trade, or other similar conditions with every step one takes.

What are the past and present experiences and difficulties of written translation for Kurdish—and here we mean the Kurmanjî and Kurmanjkî (Zazakî dialects), as our framework dictates—one of the most ancient languages of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, and the Kurds, to whom this merit belongs? We see that Kurmanjî, the most common dialect of Kurdish, became acquainted with written translation in the nineteenth century—very late as compared with many other languages with written literatures. According to information from Thomas (1990) cited in a comprehensive academic article by academic and translator Ergin Öpengin,[i] there is an extant translation of the Bible dating to 1825; however, because the translation is rather inconsistent and incomprehensible, regarding it as the first comprehensive Kurdish translation would be to force the issue. Consequently, the first known comprehensive and consistent translation done into Kurdish was Melâ Mehmûdê Bazîdî’s translation of Şerefname, which tells the history of Kurds and Kurdistan, written in Persian in 1597 by Şerefxanê Bedlîsî, Emir of Bitlis. Published in 1858-59 as Tevarîxî Qedîmî Kurdistan, the translation was given to Alexander Jaba, the Russian consul in Erzurum at the time, along with other handwritten manuscripts, for the purposes of preserving them. Additionally, Peter Lerch, an Orientalist of the times, included several stories translated into Kurdish from Finnish and Turkish in his book Forschungen uber die Kurden und die iranischen Nordchaldaer.[ii]

Subsequent to these translations, the Bible was translated and published in Kurdish several times due to the activities of Armenians as well as Western missionaries. There are seven extant Bibles published in Kurdish using the Armenian alphabet, all published between 1856 and 1923.[iii]

In keeping with the tradition of Kurdish literature and Kurdish publishing, translation in the Kurdish language also experienced long-lasting interruptions, owing to the fact that the Kurds have lived for centuries under occupation in a fragmented Kurdistan. Although there may have been periods when it was more or less feasible to write, translate, and publish in a given part of Kurdistan, these periods were typically very short, targeted efforts in this regard were sporadic, and there were constant interruptions to these efforts that prevented any chance of real breakthrough. In 1923, with the construction of a Republic of Turkey based on Turkism and Sunni Islam and built upon the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish language was subject to some of the most forceful and destructive prohibitions in history. As part of its foundation, the government of the republic forbid Kurdish as a language in the social terrain, prohibited publishing in Kurdish on 3 March 1924. The Kurdish language, in order to be able to continue from where it left off in the field of written literature, was forced once again to move from place to place within the same country as a consequence of the exceedingly repressive conditions. In the field of translation, Mela Mehmûdê Bazîdî’s translation and the translations of the Bible were followed by the 1931 translation of a play by Aleksandr Araratyan titled Koçekê Derewîn (The Lying Köçek). It was translated by Erebê Şemo, author of the first novel in the Kurdish language, Şivanê Kurmanca (Kurdish Shepherd), published in the Soviet Union. On the other hand, while a massive silence dominated every area of Northern Kurdistan, where millions of Kurds spoke the Kurmanjî dialect, limited possibilities for Kurdish publishing were born in French-mandate Syria as well as in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. This was made possible thanks to the publications Hawar (Outcry, 1932-1943), Ronahî (Luminescene, 1942-1945), Roja Nû (New Day, 1943-1946), and Stêr (Star, 1943-1945), presented upon the stage of history under the leadership of Celadet Alî Bedirxan and with the support of other literary actors like his brother Kamuran Alî Bedirxan as well as writers and poets like Qedrî Can, Reşîdê Kurd, Osman Sebrî, Cegerxwîn and Nûredîn Zaza. In spite of the difficult conditions they emerged under, these journals offer an extremely valuable archive of the Kurmanjî dialect of Kurdish and even today have not lost their significance. Translations by the great intellectual Celadet Alî Bedirxan, his brother Kamuran Alî Bedirxan, and writer and poet Qedrî Can were published in these journals. Kamuran Alî Bedirxan, the most renowned in this field, translated the Bible together with a monk named Thomas Bois, and also translated Metelokên Hezretî Silêman (The Proverbs of Solomon) from Hebrew to Kurdish. Additionally, Kamuran Alî Bedirxan was also responsible for a translation of 36 Çarînên Xeyam (36 Quatrains of Khayyam) as well as several verse of the Qur’an and approximately 700 hadith. Qedrî Can translated In the Land of White Lilies—a 1923 novel by Grigory Petrov that quickly gained renown and was translated into many languages—into Kurdish with the title Di Welatê Zembegê Gewir De and serialized it in several issues of the journal Roja Nû; however, this translation was left unfinished. As well, a story that Can translated from Arabic was published in issue 13 of the journal Ronahî.[iv]

As has been seen, the Kurmanjî dialect of Kurdish went into exile from the greater part of the homeland in the first half of the twentieth century. While this was the state of translation in Kurmanjî’s recent history, and while it came to its end following the publication of the last volüme of the journal Stêr in 1945, unfortunately, very few works in the Kurmanjkî (Zazakî) dialect of Kurdish were produced under these conditions.

Following these developments that took place in Syria, immediately adjacent to Rojava, other examples of Kurdish translation include the work of primarily Yezidi Kurds living in the Armenia, at the time a republic of the Soviet Union, which continued until the collapse of the Soviets in 1990. While there were some limited translations of classroom materials intended for use in schools that gave Kurdish language education in regions of Armenia like Alagyaz where Kurdish populations lived, these were not comprehensive translations. As was true in many areas where Kurdish was spoken, developments in translation came to fruition as the result of personal efforts. Linguist and writer Çerkezê Reş explains his opinions on translation activities in the Soviet Union thusly: “Particularly since the 1950s, Kurdish culture has undergone a leap in literature and the public domain in Armenia, a land far from our motherland Kurdistan. Of course, the foundations for these cultural efforts were put in place beginning in the 1930s with the efforts by Hecîyê Cindî, Ereb Şamîlov, Emînê Evdal, Cerdoyê Genco, Wezîrê Nadirî, Casimê Celîl, and others; these individuals were only able to go so far in their efforts. Qaçaxê Mirad made some particularly interesting advances in literary translation. (…) By the 1950s, quite a number of translations had been done from Armenian and Russian (into Kurdish). (…) But translations done by the 1950s, particularly translations of poetry, had hardly attained a literary quality. … In such circumstances, the emergence of Fêrîkê Ûsiv as a translator beginning in the 1950s should be seen as turning a new page in the Kurds’ history of translation.”[v]

Kurdish politicians and intellectuals who fled Turkey after the 1980 military coup and who settled particularly in Sweden because of the opportunities it offered succeeded in significant works of translation, just as with literature originally written in Kurdish. Publishing houses were opened in Sweden, Kurdish journals and books were published there, and Kurdish was being taught in schools—all major developments. Additionally, the monetary support that the Swedish government offered, particularly in the field of translation, encouraged Kurdish writers and publishers in diaspora to begin translating. Some of the most active institutions in the field of publishing translated works in this period included the Nûdem journal and publishing house under the management of Firat Cewerî, as well as Apec Publishers and Roja Nû Publishers, under the management of Ali Çiftçi. Along with a couple of other publishing houses, these publishers published dozens of books—primarily poetry, short stories, novels and children’s books—in translation from languages like Turkish, Swedish, English, German, Arabic, Persian, French, and Danish. Nûdem, a publishing house of this period that was oriented towards journals and magazines published a translation journal called Nûdem Werger (Nûdem Translation), which released its first and only issue in the fall of 1996. Nûdem Werger was one of the foremost publications of the arena and represented an initiative particularly worthy of emulation. When we flip through the pages of the journal, we see the names of those who labored in the area of Kurdish translation at the time. Writers and translators like Şahînê Bekirê Soreklî, Zinarê Xamo, Arif Zêrevan, Hesenê Metê, Felat Dilgeş, Silêman Demir, Emîn Narozî, Fawaz Husên, Mistefa Aydogan, and particularly Firat Cewerî, who undertook significant translations and who continue to travail in this field, slowly began to have an impact in Turkey and Northern Kurdistan in the 1990s. Kurdish cultural institutions were established first in Istanbul, then gradually in Turkey’s other metropoles as well as in Diyarbakır in Kurdistan, built upon the foundations of the political movement that took root in Kurdish society in the 1990s. As the new generation that gathered under the banner of these institutions began to access the archives of Hawar and other, similar journals from the time as well as in Sweden, they began to work at institutions like NÇM (Navenda Çanda Mezopotamyayê/Mesopotamia Culture Center), the Istanbul Kurdish Institute, Rewşen and Welat, kicking off a new period of progress in the history of the Kurdish language. A number of publications opened the door, each offering new space for Kurdish translation: Welat (Country) newspaper, which began publishing weekly in 1994; followed by Welatê Me (Our Country), which began publishing weekly in 1995; and after the closure of that paper, Azadiya Welat (Freedom of the Country), which began like the others publishing weekly in 1996, and then matured into the first daily Kurdish-language newspaper starting on 15 August 2006, continuing to publish today; and Rewşen (Brightness), a culture, arts, and literature journal that entered into publication in 1992 in Kurdish and Turkish; after its closure, Jiyana Rewşen (Bright Life) a culture, arts, and literature journal that began publishing in 1996; and after that, Rewşen-Name (Bright Letter), which only released three issues in 2002. The journal Jiyana Rewşen played an especially significant role on the matter of translation in that period. While it may not have been planned as a translation project, writers and poets like Rahman Çelik, Cemîl Denlî, Kawa Nemir, Mazlûm Doxan and Osman Mehmed came together in 1996 and began publishing their translations of poetry and short fiction. The work of these individuals, apart from Cemîl Denlî and A. Rahman Çelik, were converted into books starting in 2000. With time, the number of young names advancing on this path grows, and after 2000, the contemporary ‘golden age’ of translation begins for the Kurmanjî dialect of Kurdish. Over the course of this period, which began in Sweden in the 1980s and began to accelerate along the axis of Istanbul and Diyarbakır in Turkey by 2009, over 200 books in a variety of genres were translated from various Eastern and Western languages and published in Kurdish. The role in translation, particularly that played by the journal Jiyana Rewşen in the 1990s, begins to be adopted by publishing houses in the 2000s. Bajar Publishing, a publishing house started in Istanbul in 2003 that survived for only two years, has a great amount of significance in the history of translated literature in Kurdish. Subsequently, Lîs Publishing House, one of the largest contemporary Kurdish-language publishing houses and established in Diyarbakır in 2004, adopted the ideals of Bajar, publishing more works in translation than any other Kurdish publishing house. As part of their World Literature Series, Lîs has accorded the Kurmanjî dialect of Kurdish with dozens of valuable works by writers and poets such as William Shakespeare, Franz Kafka, Selma Lagerlöf, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Yaşar Kemal, Salim Barakat, Leylâ Erbil, Orhan Pamuk, and Murathan Mungan, and it continues to lead the way among publishers in this field. Avesta, one of the oldest and most influential Kurdish publishers, has also started to give weight to publishing works in translation, a sign that even greater developments are to come in Kurdish translation. At the same time, the journals Newepel and Şewçila, edited by Roşan Lezgîn, and Vate, edited by Deniz Gündüz, continue to translate various works of world literature into the Kurmanjkî dialect of Kurdish.

Ultimately, it is possible to draw some conclusions from the picture offered by this brief, concise introductory essay on the history of Kurdish translation and its contemporary state: In the field of Kurdish translation, as is true in many domains, the primary interlocutors of the issue—that is, translators and publishing houses—have not had long debates about the historical and contemporary issues particular to Kurdish translation, nor have they spoken about the road map to pave the way for a comprehensive translation operation—or even, perhaps, a translation movement. This has limited Kurdish translation activities either to individual efforts or to the stubborn insistence of a handful of publishers to publish translations despite the constrained circumstances. Kurdish translators and Kurdish publishers that have made significant headway in translation in recent years. And yet, in spite of its potential to develop and break new ground, Kurdish literature, culture, and art remains incapable of establishing a lasting or impacting relationship with the world because it hasn’t been drawn enough toward the issue of translation. If these aforementioned translators and publishers could organize and mobilize themselves around this witticism about a translation movement, it’s certain that Kurdish literature will make huge leaps in the decades to come.

[i] Öpengin, Ergin, Werger û Wergêran Di Kurmanciyê De: Paşxane û Hindek Pirsên Îroyî (Translation and Translation in Kurmanji: Background and Contemporary Issues). This article, published in the Spring 2011 issue of the journal Zend, is necessary reading for anyone with an interest in the matter of translation in Kurdish. Because of editorial deficiencies, the article was misprinted, and so the writer has uploaded a correct version at the following web address: http://www.kulturelcogulcugundem.com/news.php?nid=20410

[ii] Öpengin, Ergin, Ibid.

[iii] [iii] In the article at hand, Öpengin clarifies that the number of translations of the Bible is seven, including the translation done after 1911, the 1922 publication of Matthew and Mark, and the 1923 publication of Luke. In his 2006 work Kurdish Language Publishing in Syria and Turkey in the Past and Present, Malmîsanij claims on page 43 that the number of translations is five.

[iv] Öpengin, Ergin, Ibid.

[v] In Çerkezê Reş’s preface to the Translations section of the third volume of the collected works of Fêrîkê Ûsiv, Hijmekariya Şaîrê Duyemîn, Der Heqa Wergerên Fêrîkê Ûsiv De (The Splendor of the Second Poet, On the Translations of Fêrîkê Ûsiv), Ûsiv, Fêrîkê, Êvara Zivistanê (Winter Evening), collected works, Edited by: Firîda Hecî Cewarî, Lîs Publishing House, 2015, p. 491.