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Translating ‘Queer’ Into (Kyrgyzstani) Russian

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This is an excerpt from Sexuality and Translation in World Politics. Get your free copy here.

As Gayatri Spivak famously wrote, ‘In every possible sense, translation is necessary but impossible’ (2007, 263). This chapter contributes to this idea by looking at how a foreign term like ‘queer’ has been translated, appropriated, and utilised in Kyrgyzstani discourses and practices of gender and sexual ‘dissidents’. In particular, I examine the translatability of the term ‘queer’ and the challenges associated with such an attempt to translate. I contend that far from being derivative, kvir in Kyrgyzstan (and beyond – in the post-Soviet space) is utilised in unique ways as part of ideological interventions and debates in activist circles. I explore the intersection between translation, political activism, and global queer politics by looking at the case of the word kvir in Kyrgyzstan.

The analysis here stems from my personal experience using Russian-English and English-Russian translations as a form of political activism while living and working in Kyrgyzstan between 2012 and 2017. The Russian language remains a lingua franca of the post-Soviet space and has the status of official language in the Kyrgyz Republic, along with the Kyrgyz language, which has the status of ‘state language’ (having a higher ideological status). I have translated iconic publications of feminist and queer history from English to Kyrgyz – such as Adrienne Rich’s famous essay “Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence” (1980/2014) and Queer Nation Manifesto (1990/2016). I have also translated the Kyrgyzstan-based School of Theory and Activism Bishkek’s (STAB) “Queer Communism Manifesto” (2013). Why do I use translation as activism? And what role does translation play in the global politics of gender and sexuality? How can one translate ‘queer’ into Kyrgyzstani Russian?

It is common in both Russian and English literary translation tradition to praise works that are marked by fluency, creating an illusion that one is indeed reading an original text rather than its interpretation by another author. Traditionally, the task of the translator was understood as that of an invisible medium communicating between discrete and distinct linguistic worlds. Yet contemporary theorists have criticised this imperative for encouraging the invisibility of translation work (Venuti 1995), while advocating for transparency in translation (Benjamin 2002, 260).

The conventional view that valued above all the ‘fidelity’ of translation, demanding that the translation process be rendered invisible, was also challenged by the feminist school of translation (e.g. von Flotow 1997). Feminist translators sought to make the practice of translation not only visible but also to make it work for the feminist agenda, contesting understandings of translation work as a form of feminine reproductive labour viewed as subservient to the labour of the ‘writer’ (Wu 2013). Through the use of translation strategies such as supplementing, prefacing, footnoting, and even ‘hijacking’ of the original text, feminist translators proclaimed an ‘anti-traditional, aggressive and creative approach to translation’ (von Flotow 1991, 70).

Queer translation theory and practice present sentiments similar to feminist approaches. Much like gender itself, translation is seen as a ‘performative practice’ rather than a direct reflection of the meaning in the original (Epstein and Gillett 2017, 1). The process of translation is an apt metaphor for queerness: forever oscillating between binaries (fidelity/infidelity, source/copy, original/interpretation), making the familiar strange and complicated, thus revealing the constructed and contingent nature of language, which is normally understood as solid, eternal, and ‘natural’ (Epstein and Gillett 2017, 1).

Translation is always a particular re-writing of an original text serving specific ideological and political purposes. A translation may constitute a political intervention, an attempt to re-signify familiar concepts through alternative interpretations of particular words, and/or to introduce new ways of thinking and talking about certain subjects. Translators have real agency and translations and are, therefore, significant cultural products in and of themselves, and not mere derivatives (Tymoczko 2010). If any translation means manipulating a text in the service of some power or ideology, then it may also serve an emancipatory agenda of gender and sexual activists. How, then can we translate ‘queer’ into Kyrgyzstani Russian?

This chapter is organised into three sections. First, I provide the essential background to Kyrgyzstani society and politics with a focus on LGBT issues. Second, I examine the various meanings of ‘queer’, and the debates that arose with its use in the post-Soviet space. Finally, I compare the two translations of Queer Nation Manifesto by ACT UP (1990) to show how competing approaches interpret the ‘queer’ in post-Soviet space.

Background: Being LGBT in Kyrgyzstan

Non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming people in Kyrgyzstan mostly refer to themselves and others in the community as tema (Russian, literally ‘theme’). This code-word means people ‘in the know’ or those with insider knowledge, suggesting secrecy and privacy of identity, and by implication, its apolitical nature. Unlike in the English-speaking world, the tradition of appropriation of homophobic slurs as positive self-designations to be used by LGBT people with both irony and pride does not exist in Kyrgyzstan. The term ‘LGBT’, associated with transnational activism, started to be used in the early 2000s by some young non-heterosexual and transgender Kyrgyzstanis as a ‘neutral’ term to manage stigma and become ‘sexual citizens’, transforming private issues of gender identity and sexuality into political matters (Wilkinson and Kirey 2010). Yet more recently, the term ‘LGBT’ gained negative connotations through its association with foreign actors and agendas in the post-Soviet space. There is a third term that co-exists with the colloquial tema and the activist ‘LGBT’: kvir. Borrowed from the English ‘queer’, this relatively new term is used mostly within scholarly circles and those associated with contemporary art. I argue that kvir is not merely a loan translation, but a term utilised self-consciously and strategically in post-Soviet space as a radical alternative to both mainstream LGBT identity politics and the general conservative turn in society.

Kyrgyzstan’s politics of gender and sexuality resonate with global trends and contradictions, especially the politics of translation (understood literally and figuratively), homonationalism and international conservative and neoliberal politics. The small state is influenced by agendas of global politics, such as population control policies, equal marriage debates, HIV and AIDS prevention efforts, development agencies’ goals and funding opportunities that shape the conversations and infrastructure of local activism (Hoare 2016). Yet there are also some distinguishing features of LGBT politics that are rooted in Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet past.

In the Soviet Union, after a brief period of radical liberalisation of sexuality following the October Revolution, male homosexuality was re-criminalised in European republics in 1934 (Healey 2001, 222). Anti-sodomy laws were introduced across Central Asia even earlier in the late 1920s. They were aimed at eradicating ‘crimes constituting survivals of primitive custom’ along with polygamy and paying the bride price (Healey 2001, 159). Sexual exploitation of boy-dancers (bacha bozi in Uzbek), as well as consensual adult same-sex practices (muzhelozhestvo in Russian and besoqolbozlik in Uzbek) were deemed ‘backward’ and at odds with the Soviet emancipation agenda for the ‘oppressed peoples of the Orient’ (Healey 2001, 160). Female homosexuality was not criminalised, but pathologised within medical discourse (Sarajeva 2001, Stella 2015). Thus, for much of the Soviet period homosexuality was designated as belonging either in prison or in a psychiatric ward. Homosexuality re-entered public discussion during the late perestroika years with the policy of glasnost. It was already the late 1980s when the first LGBT-themed publications and organisations appeared in the European republics of the Soviet Union (Healey 2017).

Kyrgyzstan became independent following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Unlike other Central Asian countries, the Kyrgyz Republic has become known for a vibrant civil society and dynamic political life. Kyrgyzstan’s early activism started with the creation of organisations dealing with HIV and AIDS. The country’s two largest cities, Bishkek and Osh, both had vibrant gay scenes, with queer clubs frequented and patronised by straight celebrities, members of the police and even orthodox priests. According to the account of Vladimir Tiupin, the founder of the first Kyrgyz gay organisation, Oasis, the 1990s were a period of hitherto unseen liberation and........

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