One of my favorite guilty pleasures is a book called Ali and Nino by “Kurban Said.” It’s not Tolstoy or Faulkner by a long shot, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and if you have any fondness for tales of derring-do—if, say, you enjoyed The Princess Bride—you should lay your hands on a copy; you won’t be disappointed. I put Kurban Said in quotes because it’s not his real name; he was apparently born Lev Nussimbaum in Baku in 1905, converted to Islam as a teenager and changed his name to Essad Bey, and moved to Germany and wrote biographies under his own name and a couple of novels as Kurban Said. (I was lucky enough to run across 12 Secrets of the Caucasus, by Essad-Bey, in a Lancaster, Pa. used-book store a few years ago; it too is full of derring-do, and has chapter titles like “The Idyllic Robbers’ Den,” “The Master of Fragrance,” and “The Village of Poets.”) Here’s a sample from the first chapter of Ali and Nino:
I, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, had been three times to Daghestan, twice to Tiflis, once in Kislovodsk, once in Persia to stay with my uncle, and I was nearly kept down for another year because I did not know the difference between the Gerundium and the Gerundivium. My father went for advice to the Mullah at the mosque, who declared that all this Latin was just vain delusion. So my father put on all his Turkish, Persian and Russian decorations, went to see the headmaster, donated some chemical equipment or other and I passed. A notice had been put up in the school stating that pupils were strictly forbidden to enter school premises with loaded revolvers, telephones were installed in town, and Nino Kipiani was still the most beautiful girl in the world.
But I’m not here to talk about Essad Bey’s romantic prose or complicated life (someone’s said to be working on a biography, which I can’t wait to read), I’m here to talk about transliteration.
As enthralled as I was by the book, I kept wanting to throw it across the room while cursing the name of Jenia Graman. Yes, she rescued the book from a Berlin bookstall, translated it, and brought it to the attention of the English-speaking world, and for that we owe her. But didn’t the woman have any sense? She kept all the Arabic, Persian, Turkic, and Russian terms from the novel in their German guises (the book was written in German), which produces an effect in English that is at best barbarous and at worst incomprehensible. Some examples: Dshafar for Ja’far, Nikolaus for Nikolai, Seljam-Alejkum for salaam aleikum (here we have the Russian substitution of lya for la, followed by the German substitution of j for y), Sakavkasnaja Jelesnaja for Zakavkaskaya Zheleznaya (Doroga, the Transcaucasian Railway), Jasid for Yezid, and—my two personal favorites, both from Chapter 11—Dshainabi: Tewarichi Al-Y-Seldjuk for Jainabi: Tavarikh-e Al-e Saljuk and Chajasseddin Keichosrov for Ghiyas-ed-din Kaikhusrow. Some names are rendered ambiguous by the veil of transmission: is “Seyd” Zayd, Sayyid, or Sa’id? And some are just gibberish as far as I can tell, like “Teshachut” in Chapter 24. All right, it would have required some effort on her part to find the proper English renderings of some of the more obscure terms, but surely she could have gotten “salaam aleikum” right! And the book keeps getting reprinted; couldn’t some merciful publisher fix these things? I have a fairly complete list I’ll be more than happy to supply, free and gratis. Let’s rid an otherwise satisfactory translation of these unsightly blemishes, shall we?