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What khokhol means in Dagestan

July 29, 2019

This paragraph from Sarah Kapp’s review of a 2018 translation of a 2015 book made me think about two issues that have come up here before:

Having translated [Alisa Ganieva’s first novel] “The Mountain and the Wall” and therefore already experienced with Ganieva’s multi-lingual prose, Carol Apollonio skillfully renders the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the original, including local slang. For example, in the Russian text, Marat’s friend Rusik has “a fancy way of talking, with no local accent, like a proper Russian.” In the original Russian, however, he talks like a khokhol, a word some readers may recognize as a derogatory term for Ukrainians, but that in Dagestani slang, as Ganieva makes clear in an interview, can be used to refer to ethnic Russians. And while the original edition released by AST Publishers provides glosses for the Dagestani and Arabic phrases that punctuate characters’ speech, the English edition preserves them in italicized transliteration without glosses. But while addition of footnotes would have allowed the translator to preserve some of the interesting linguistic dimensions of the text, these are likely to have had narrow appeal and risked overcrowding the novel.

First, it’s interesting that the offensive word khokhol can mean different ethnic groups in different places, and not just that—the group (ethnic Russians) that stereotypically would level this word against Ukrainians is on the receiving end of the same slur in Dagestan.

Second, faced with translating a text that’s mostly in Russian but includes other languages, Apollonio leaves the non-Russian, non-English words untranslated. The choice seems bold, since the words are presumably farther from most English readers’ cultural context than most Russian readers’, and the Russian edition does translate these words for the reader. Kapp seems to think it works, though. Maybe the fact that Apollonio’s translation is a translation means she felt more pressure not to overexplain than Ganieva or her editors did.

See Kapp’s review of Apollonio’s translation of Ganieva’s Bride and Groom (Жених и невеста, 2015). The novel itself sounds interesting: Kapp says it returns to the theme of xenophobia and tensions in and between Moscow and the Caucasus, treated more directly in The Mountain and the Wall (Праздничная гора, 2012), “through the unlikely framework of an Austenian marriage plot.” Disclaimer: I know the reviewer and have briefly met the translator.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    July 30, 2019 8:53 am

    but that in Dagestani slang, as Ganieva makes clear in an interview, can be used to refer to ethnic Russians

    Absolutely fascinating! Compare the peregrinations of пиндос (and of “Tajik,” mentioned at that link).

    • July 30, 2019 12:56 pm

      Thanks, Hat! A few years ago I actually looked into the origins of пиндос (which I’d seen on the internet applied to Americans) and never found half as much good information as I could have found in your 2007 post.

  2. languagehat permalink
    July 30, 2019 8:55 am

    Though of course “Tajik” isn’t pejorative; a better comparison would be “gook,” which started out as a slur for Filipinos (in the Philippine war of 1899-1902), then was repurposed to fit whatever Asian people the US happened to be fighting in later decades.

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