Sunday 27 January 2013

Gained in translation - Lily Hyde

The first I knew was when I got an e-mail from someone called Leila. She wrote that she had translated my novel, Dream Land, and wanted to publish it.

With someone else, my pleased but surprised response would have been to refer her straight away to my agent to deal with permissions and fees. But Leila is different.

'Like the heroine of your book, I was born in Samarkand in exile’ she wrote. ‘My childhood was often darkened by shadows, because of the deportation of our people. In 1989 we were able to return to our homeland. I lived through everything that you describe in your book. You’ve managed to perceive and impart the reality… I want to tell you that I’ve translated it into Crimean Tatar. I thought that this novel about our tragic fate should be read by every Crimean Tatar.’

The English Edition of Dream Land (Walker) 

Dream Land is about the ethnic group Leila belongs to: the Crimean Tatars, who inhabited Crimea (now part of Ukraine) until 1944, when the entire nation was forcibly deported. It is estimated that up to 46 percent died on the way to labour camps in Central Asia and the Urals. Those that survived had to rebuild their lives from scratch. They were banned from speaking their own language. They were discriminated against in education, employment, housing. And they were not permitted to return home to Crimea until fifty years later, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Dream Land is based very closely on the stories people told me; what happened to them before, during, and after the deportation; their sufferings and struggles and dreams. The book is fiction in that I made up most of the characters. But their fictional lives are an amalgam of the many real ones I encountered. I tried to imagine myself into the lives of the Crimean Tatars, to understand how they feel and where they come from, to be as true as possible to what they told me.

I was aware, though, that not only do I myself not speak the Crimean Tatar language, I was writing this book in English, for a British young adult audience who in all likelihood have never heard of the people it is about.

Moreover, I realised that the majority of Crimean Tatar young adults would not be able to read it. I don’t know what percentage speak English well enough to read a novel, but in my experience it is fairly small.

I do know how many Crimean Tatar children are estimated to speak their own language of Crimean Tatar. It is five percent.

Crimean Tatar is recognised by UNESCO as a ‘severely endangered’ language. During their fifty years of exile, the Crimean Tatars fought ceaselessly to keep their identity alive. It is a sad irony that now the central right for which they fought – to live once again in their own country – has been won, something else is being lost. A physical home gained at the cost of a mental home, perhaps.

If only five percent of Tatar children speak their native tongue, is there any point in publishing Dream Land in Crimean Tatar? I believe so, and want to support the campaign to keep Crimean Tatar alive. Barbara, a volunteer at the Gasprinskiy Library in Simferopol, writes here about what the loss of a language means. She sums up:

Their songs would go unsung, their poetry only read by language scholars, the wealth of their literary heritage only known in translated form. As my counterpart at the library, Nadjie Yagya, said to me when I first came to the library: “If a person does not know the language of his ancestors, the spiritual losses are irreplaceable, and he cannot fully understand the culture of his people.” 

The French edition of Dream Land (Naive Livres)

Leila, and everyone else informed about the situation, agrees that ultimately, Dream Land should be translated into Russian, to reach not only more Crimean Tatars but also the Ukrainians and Russians who now make up the vast majority of the Crimean population. As Barbara wrote to me:
The longer I live here [in Crimea], the more I am aware of the tremendous discrimination the Crimean Tatars face and the undercurrent of ignorance and prejudice from much of the Russian speaking population. Having a Russian version of Dream Land available to school children would give them another side of a story they perhaps hear in a twisted version.  
We’re looking for funding for a small print run of Хаял Мекяны – the Crimean Tatar title – and then, we hope, for Земля Мечты, in Russian. But I want to say thank you to Leila, for translating this book. And to Taner, who is translating it into Romanian, so that the Crimean Tatar Diaspora there can share the story with their Romanian neighbours and perhaps through it more understanding and tolerance can be built.

Dream Land is just a novel, and one I had many fears about writing – that I would get it wrong, that I was appropriating a culture and story in a crass act of cultural imperialism. But I’m so excited and humbled by these translations. It feels like the Crimean Tatars are taking the book back and making it into something bigger, and more important, and their own.


Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for this - I knew nothing about the Crimean Tatars.

Sue Purkiss said...

How wonderful that this has happened to/because of your book! What an amazing story...

Stroppy Author said...

Lily, do you know Maria Nikolajeva at Homerton College, Cambridge? She might be a useful contact. Email me if you want more info or an introduction (

Penny Dolan said...

What an absolutely wonderful post! So happy for you, Lily, and your potential readers in and from that area. despite the sadness of the context.

Clare Sandling said...

Dream Land starts a new journey - congratulations Lily, this is wonderful news.

Katherine Roberts said...

Lovely story! (I like the English cover a lot better than that French mattress, though... what will the cover be like for the Crimean Tatar edition?)

Ann Turnbull said...

What a wonderful, inspiring post! Thank you, Lily.

Ann Turnbull said...

What a wonderful, inspiring post! Thank you, Lily.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A lovely inspiring post that I've just come to quite late. What a wonderful thing if this all comes together. Your book will then reflect exactly what we all want from our stories... that they touches someone and the reader can say... yes this is me... I know how it feels. Brilliant!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Forgot to add that I went to the quiet palace of the Khans in Bakhisaray which was the Khanate of the Tatars from the 16th century. Its tucked away in a deep valley between the mountains of the Crimea where winters are snow-filled and bitter, and was stunned by their culture and love of beauty and the way the rooms were light-filled and beautiful with lozenges of colour from glass windows and fountains in every courtyard. I wrote a blog for the History Girls on the Harem there.

Lily said...

Thanks for all your comments. Ah, Bakhchisaray is amazing isn't it, Dianne. Did you go to the Tatar arts centre round the corner from the palace? The silversmith working there told me some of the stories that appear in Dream Land. The book is set in Bakhchisaray and down the road at Mangup Kalye.
I like the French mattress! I don't know yet about the Crimean Tatar cover but there are some wonderful Crimean Tatar artists so I hope we can commission something beautiful.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

No I didn't go to the arts centre but now I have to read Dream Land... (lovely title) can't wait. I'm in South Africa at the moment so won't find it here but I'll soon be back in the UK.

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Unknown said...

What a very interesting blog. I spend my time split between North Wales and Crimea. My wife is a Krim Tatar and strangely enough we visited the Silversmith several days ago when we organised a tour for friends. Such a nice gentle man who has seen so much in his long years. Bakhchisaray had many silversmiths before the deportation and thankfully this man has purposely trained 12 apprentices since his return to ensure that Krim Tatar silver jewelry skills will exist in the future. I am so happy that there is a piece of work in English which tells their story. I agree with all the comments above and about translation to Krim Tatar and Russian. Being a Welsh speaker I have some understanding of what it is to speak a disappearing language! I ll be ordering the book immediately!