Afag Masud: ‘The work I am currently sticking at is the Translation Centre’

Aydın Yol: In your first interview after you were appointed as Director of AzTC, you had equated this field with building a city in a desert. If we say with your metaphor, how is the city building project progressing?

Afag Masud: Well, we are presently engaged in building infrastructure of the very “city”. The legal framework for AzTC’s current activity is still limited. To speak openly, there is a need to give effect to the normative legal acts and other related documents establishing and regulating the translation industry. The key mission and objective of AzTC is to shape qualification criteria in areas of language and translation studies, in other words, to bring this industry in line with acts and statutory rules. This is a continuous and staged process arranging from launching an educational stage for translation and translating profession to forming the translation industry in accordance with well-established norms and overseeing translation work and international documentation circulated in the country. So, relevant work is afoot.       

One of the important measures to improve the translation industry is to ensure its centralized management subject to the Centre’s rules and regulations, i.e. to create translation qualification regulating mechanisms and a register of qualified translators/interpreters in Azerbaijan. This process should pave the way for overseeing the translation industry and translating profession, as well as play the primary role of filtering inexperienced translators to avoid any undue involvement. In addition, we are taking other measures to provide centralized management of the translation industry. We have initiated to form an electronic exchange system of related information and documents. It will be such a system that will include the translation processes throughout the country, as well as international exchanges relating to the translation, thus facilitating online reception and revision of translation work, such as documents and texts.    

Aydın Yol: You have worked at the Azerbaijan Translation and Literary Correlations Centre since it came into existence. You started career as Deputy Chair and ran the Centre after the death of Aydın Mammadov, a notable Turkologist. What smooths or roughs have you faced over the past 25 years?

Afag Masud: The milestone we gained is that we could prove the possibility of doing selfless, but serious work. If you look at the Centre’s 25-year activity in the field of translation, including the list of literary, scientific and publicists work, memoirs, and literature selection, it can be manifested that the power of Literature and Love for It runs like a golden thread. Concerning the roughs, we lost Aydın Mammadov, Natig Safarov. Other roughs are significant works that we could have developed our language, literature, as well as the translation industry, and achieved comfort and renewal in the spiritual life of society over these years … And consider other measures aimed at promoting our national literature, which still trails behind worldwide literary processes, to take its worthy position in the international arena.

Aydın Yol: There has been no single state control system in the field of translation so far. This is why, maybe the amateur and independent activity of increasingly mushrooming “translation centres”, “publishing houses”, firstly, have posed a bigger threat to our mother tongue. Do you think a person who has no perfect knowledge of his/her own tongue can become every inch a translator?

Afag Masud: A shortage of qualified foreign language specialists has been on the agenda since our Centre was restructured. I am much worried about a small number of local specialists majoring in our literary mother tongue. Strangely enough, people speaking and writing literary Azerbaijani today can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Even it is uncommon to fluently speak or write literary Azerbaijani among those, who hold respectable positions, such as writers, scientists, government officials, and journalists,. This problem is mostly evinced in the translation field, particularly, in the literary translations, preparation of books on Mother Language and Literature, film dubbing, on the air, street advertising boards, official and legal documentation … namely, in all fields involving both language and translation. We can observe with a heavy heart what aftereffects amateur literary translations have created today. Genius Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William Shakespeare’s oeuvres are translated by mickey-mouse outfit translators at the cheapest price. The domestic film industry is evident. Unshaped, funny translations of foreign idioms/expressions have become the talk of the town. All these admit to only one equation - the entirely increasing erosion of the Azerbaijani language. Language specialists and experts at AzTC are currently conducting research on the creativeness of our “past masters” in the field of literary translation.  Here arise such nuances that instead of the grading scale called “Statures of literary translation”, compliance with norms or rules of literary Azerbaijani is put on the agenda.  

Aydın Yol: As a writer and head of the state-owned organization commissioned to oversee the language and translation work, what do you really think about the reasons for this erosion occurring in our mother tongue?

Afag Masud: Such erosion may occur for a variety of reasons. Here, first, one is put in mind of our recent past, Karabakh events that shattered the country’s spiritual life, strong politicization of society and public opinion, people’s deviating from literature, science, spiritual values for the sake of way of living, etc. There are other reasons as well: our unwished teaching that has been exposed to criticism and snubs for many years, especially the low quality of our Mother Tongue and Literature textbooks, a variety of bizarre teaching methods causing our children to forget how to speak and write correctly. Today, if you glimpse the names of “novelists” and “poets” in language and literary textbooks, you’ll become panic-stricken. Russian education feeds the memory and soul of first-form schoolchildren with Pushkin, Lermontov, Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, but, in the truest sense of the word, we feed our little ones with poison. We also face the same situation at our universities – not only are taught the two-volume textbook “Modern Azerbaijan Literature” recommended for Philology students, and that includes works by “novelists” and “poets” with strange pen names, but also insignificant intrigues between young writers and the Writers’ Union.  I guess reforms within this sphere will be the most important part of our activity.  I have repeatedly said: our language, thinking, self-expression capacity that are in want are just shaped in these books. Everything, including national identity and attitude to spiritual values starts here. I have written several articles about such unspeakable textbooks and manuals recommended for secondary and university students. Nevertheless, everything remains unchanged. Textbooks are reviewed and exposed to changes every year. However, these changes result in replacement of errors with others. It is not worth dressing an inborn ugly woman. Other substantive reasons giving birth to the present state are the loss of our serious literature’s values and impact, disappeared in the dust of the work written by the army of miserable literature amateurs; people’s turning away from book, literature. There are some more reasons I am going to touch upon a bit later.

Aydın Yol: Azerbaijan has built and continues to build oil and gas pipelines, as well as a railway link to Europe. The Decree on the translation industry approved by President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev embodies the establishment of spiritual bridges between Azerbaijan and the rest of the world. All AzTC staff under your leadership share in the responsibility for popularising Azerbaijan in the world and other countries of the world in Azerbaijan. What are your plans on that front?

Afag Masud: There are urgent matters that are more comprehensive and broad. We can boast of growing popularity of our national literature across the world and rich cultural heritage that made considerable contributions to the world science. I think that related works and measures we are planning to implement will produce results in the course of time. We have recently visited Sweden. That country, which is nearly known as the umpire of world literary opinion, is almost unaware about Azerbaijani literature. It is regrettable that no entity in Azerbaijan has to date received a request for the Nobel Prize in Literature sent out by Sweden. I have faced a similar problem in Vienna and Berlin.       

The Salon of World Peoples Literature launched by the Austrian Cultural Department includes a literary corner for the most backward nations in Africa, even the Yakuts, the remote northern indigenous people, yet there is no information about Azerbaijani literature there. The reason is clear, you know: translation work, literary one in particular is an area requiring a perfect and well-shaped translation system, and financing. The key here is to divine texts, preserve writer’s spirit and style, as well as to express literary delicacy in the language involved, which is, in turn, a staged and critical process requiring extraordinary talent and ability. 

The Decree endorsed by Mr. Ilham Aliyev, the Head of State, created conditions to fill gaps in this field and to establish broad ties with international institutions and organizations from the point of view of language and translation. We continue work in that direction, through preparing anthologies of poetry and prose from Azerbaijani literature in different languages and formats, launching ties and holding talks with associated entities, cultural centres in America, Germany, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, the Czech Republic, and other countries for their publication and propaganda abroad. We plan to participate in book fairs to be held next year in Egypt, Paris, Barcelona, ​​Moscow, Prague, and the city of Göteborg, Sweden. Here an important issue is the correct selection of the work to be exhibited worldwide and duly preparation for them in terms of language and literary translation. So, we are working in that direction. In order to maximize the level of literary translation of the work translated into foreign languages, it is important to build the so-called editing-translating link with novelists and poets who are qualified native speakers, or past masters majoring in the field of literary translation. One of the major projects aimed to launch international relationships is the organization of perfect literary translation of world’s leading literatures. Related work must be done to train literary translation specialists across the country. To stimulate the development and evaluate the level of translation, AzTC has announced a Literary Translation Award “Bay Leaf”.  Hundreds of translation work are emailed to our Centre. I figure that this competition will be helpful in the training of literary translation specialists. To ensure proper and fundamental organization of this area and other fields of translation, it is necessary to create Translation Academy to train professionals for the translation of specific areas in the future. 

Aydın Yol: There is a shortage of language specialists even majoring in widespread languages, such as Chinese, Spanish, etc – of course - I mean in the field of literary translation. How will you find a solution to this problem whenever AzTC will publish a book? And anyway, it would be interesting to hear your comments as to translations done from a second language.

Afag Masud: We certainly try to give the preference over the translations done from the original. However, as you know, a shortage of language specialists makes it difficult to provide a translation with the original examples of Latin American writers, who laid the foundations for Magical Realism, or of Chinese, Spanish, you mentioned above, as well as other world literatures. There are quite a few languages that are not taught in our schools, as well as Portuguese that could provide a translation with original versions of Brazilian and Portuguese literature. Any work translated into Azerbaijani is historically done through interlinear translation in the first instance. Next steps involve literary translation and editing of the text. Moreover, this process faces other obstacles, too. Since artistic/fiction thought, as well as interlinear shades of meaning expressed in the original text are lost in most cases during the interlinear translation due to textual appropriateness, thus crippling the literary content of the work that is being translated. And as the only way out of it, it is necessary to do a translation of the work from a second language – Russian we mastered not so long ago, or Turkish, which is mutually intelligible with Azerbaijani – in addition to philological translations from the original. Of course, this is not a complete solution to the problem. In order to manage this industry without addressing a second language, first of all, as I mentioned above, it is necessary to create conditions for further, continuing specialisation in literary translation and development of comprehensive education in this sphere, which are among the most important tasks AzTC is committed to implement in the period ahead.

Aydın Yol: In fact, speech errors occur when films are dubbed on TV. They also occur in subtitles available for official, high-level meetings aired on television. Has AzTC initiated measures to settle this issue?

Afag Masud: I have voiced concerns over the plight of film dubbing in one of my draft articles. I am going to have it published. The article portrays the dubbing of the film based upon the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, with a defective translated text where speeches of Hamlet, Ophelia and other fictional characters are unrelated to neither Shakespeare, nor literary, and even nonexistent in Azerbaijani, as a whole. Things are even worse in the field of literary translation. You would find such cases … for example, the name of worldwide renowned novelist Sinclair Lewis is translated and published in Azerbaijani as Lewis Sinclair. It is unacceptable as in cases like using Ganjavi Nizami instead of Nizami Ganjavi, Pushkin Alexander instead of Alexander Pushkin, or Kafka Franz instead of Franz Kafka, and it taints the educational image of our country, which is in the spotlight of more than hundred foreign missions and international organizations. Or consider our publishing houses who take pride in putting out books for not qualitative, but quantitative indicators. Worst, translation professionalism criterion is finagled by these publishing houses and private translation centres, and/or literary translation work, which is the serious art of writing, is valued at 3 - 5 manats a page. It stands to reason that professional literary translators would by no means work under such conditions. In that case, cheap amateur translators, who are ready to translate any text, would do. The results are obvious. We can speak about measures on this sphere, after the normative documents on translation work and profession become law.    

Aydın Yol: As the names imply, you have favoured professional staff. Do you have any plans to train and prepare young specialists in this field?

Afag Masud: Unfortunately, today there are no criteria for translation professionalism and mechanisms shaping the criteria. It means that there is no method, technique to detect who is a professional and who is an amateur. Therefore, more often than not, the work translated by professional translators fails to meet our expectations. There are very few professional translators in the country with whom it is impossible to regulate the huge operative translation process. Concerning the youth, it is the same. Internationally, there is a more constructive approach to this issue. Thus, an undergraduate to continue education to the magister level makes a decision which field of translation he/she is going to be specialised in; after mastering certain translation skills, he/she starts to work as a translator. But in our case, translating profession is simply taught as a foreign language, and few hours are designed for practical experience. Moreover, translation is not meant to know the language alone, or be able to speak or to write in it. It is a difficult and complicated process that calls for appropriate knowledge and terminological database on the related field. Concerning literary translation, the situation is more complicated in here. Literary translation is an ability to understand the writer/poet’s literary imagination, his/her way of expression, feel and understand his/her creative world and translate the work into the language being translated. Therefore, the translator is a co-author of the work. These peculiarities require a new approach to the translation industry. The Translation Centre is planning to organize advanced training courses on particular fields of translation. Compiling of corresponding literature, manuals, terminological dictionaries and glossaries on various languages and fields is of great importance in teaching translation as a subject.    

Aydın Yol: You have done translations consistently and systematically. You have translated into our language works by writers, such as Guy de Maupassant, Thomas Wolfe, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Julio Cortázar. You have been translating the Sufi Legacy into Azerbaijani and acting as a promoter of divine literature in recent years. Given your full programme, I would like to ask a question: will there be the continuation of texts, which are a means of communication between God and man, questioning God with man and man with God?

Afag Masud: Sufism is the magic Information Stream that entombs all literatures, those - written or unwritten - like a hidden cell. This marvel is always growing upon me. Launching into that world craves a particular circumstance and medium. Today, I am still deprived of such atmosphere. The sky is the limit – there is a full important and interesting programme in store for us. The work I am currently sticking at is the Translation Centre, which strikes as clever as Sufism. For me, above all things in the Centre are the people. The number of employees has risen with the scope of functions expanded since the Centre was restructured, you know. Nevertheless, we have inherited the fireside comfort preserved in our previous penurious Centre: this is what comes before everything. When Ferid (Media and Publishing Consultant Ferid Huseyn at AzTC)  “I feel like staying here. When I am back home, I want the time to pass faster and to go back to work again...” said at the end of a workday the other day, I remembered Natig (notable past master in the field of literary translation Natig Safarov), Aydin (the first chair of the Azerbaijan Translation and Literary Correlations Centre and Turkologist Aydin Mammadov),  and our veteran Centre we had repaired its old walls and tumbledown ceiling with feeling and words… .

Dialogued  by Yaşar