A Writer’s Insight: Nuraina Satpayeva and Slava Faybysh

Nuraina Satpayeva’s story, “Qará”, translated by Slava Faybysh, appears in the winter 2024 issue of The Southern Review. Here Satpayeva discusses Qazaq culture and the connection to land and the Ustyurt that influences her writing, and Faybysh speaks on the fun, if complicated, nuances that arise from translating Qazaq literature.

Emilie Rodriguez, Editorial Assistant: What inspired the military/ranger environment for this story?

Nuraina Satpayeva: As a child I lived in Aqtau, a small city on the Caspian coast. Every summer vacation, my class took a field trip to the Mangghystau Peninsula. We stayed in the Karagiye Depression, one of the lowest places in Asia, on Lake Karakol, where flamingos, swans, and endangered pelicans spend their winters. And of course, we visited the Bozzhira Canyon with its colossal mountain cliffs and steep precipices and gorgeous foothills, in the western Ustyurt Plateau. This was once the site of the ancient Tethys Ocean. Rare animals inhabit the Ustyurt Plateau, but unfortunately, many of them have been wiped out by poachers. For example, cheetahs and leopards have disappeared completely. A few years ago a leopard was discovered, but it was killed on the spot. Eduard Eversmann, a geographer, distinguished traveler, and the first to study the Ustyurt called it a “cruel land” because of its severe climate. I also call it that for another reason—the cruel people who kill animals and other people for profit. I’m not just talking about poachers, but also companies that build pipelines along the migration routes of saiga antelopes, hotels that release wastewater into lakes and kill birds, and corporations that allow oil spills to happen in the sea, causing thousands of seals to die off.

But there are also people like the ranger Yeraly, who love their land, no matter how severe and unattractive it may be. These are the types of people who can save the world, sometimes even at the cost of their own lives. It seems like they’re our only chance for survival, and I want to write about heroes like that.

ER: There’s a theme of displacement in this story; the caracals have to flee from poachers, Danik going on assignment to the Ustyurt, even Yeraly’s son at the end is forced to go to his father’s funeral where he doesn’t feel like he fits in with anyone there. How do you see displacement working in the story?

NS: Historically, Qazaqs lived an itinerant lifestyle. We were nomads. That changed only in the twentieth century, but something remained in our blood that makes modern-day Qazaqs want to go on journeys, for different purposes. We want to see the world, make friends, find work, and go to school in different countries. Eventually the time comes to return home.

In the story, Danik and Marat head to the Mangghystau Peninsula for work, the poachers go there for an easy buck, and Yeraly’s son goes to make amends with his father. There’s also the caracal Qará, who returns to her territory to reproduce, and Yeraly, who is always on the road and drives hundreds of kilometers across the Ustyurt every day. They’re effectively all nomads.

There’s also the theme of returning to your roots, and Yeraly acts as a defender of human values. They all come together in one location, the Ustyurt Plateau, a primordial place that forces everyone to show their true colors, and they are reborn.

ER: Throughout the piece, Yeraly is the one that holds everything together; he jumps to save Qará and her kittens, he stops Danik and Marat from fighting, and he genuinely fights for the land he’s working on. What does it mean for him to die, and for his legacy to be passed on to a son that doesn’t want it?

NS: Yeraly is the key character in the story. In fact, he is the shyrkashy, or guardian of his home, keeper of the flame, his native land, where a battle with criminals occurs in the blink of an eye. His son will most likely never return to his homeland, but there’s Danik, who sort of becomes the disciple Yeraly never had. Danik finds courage and confidence in himself. That gives hope that someone will be found to keep the flame alive.

ER: What other projects are you working on right now?

NS: I recently signed a contract with a Qazaq publisher called Meloman Publishing to publish a novel called The Sea Will Sing Me a Lullaby. This is the story of a young Qazaq woman named Dara, whose long-awaited path to motherhood begins with the events known as Bloody January in 2022. Protests and riots break out in the country, her fiancé disappears, and her brother goes out to protest. She ends up having to go through her difficult pregnancy alone. She loses her home and has to deal with her fiancé’s dreadfully unpleasant mother, who considers Dara to be no different than the protesters.

The only thing that keeps Dara alive is her memory of the Caspian Sea, which she adores in all its forms: whether warm or cold as ice; dark blue or the color of silver wormwood; calm or with gigantic waves that swallow up the inflatable rings of beachgoers. She hears her late mother’s voice in the sea, singing her a lullaby.

This is a book about the love of the sea, betrayal and friendship and people struggling for a better life.

ER: Were there any particular phrases or cultural nuances that you had a difficult or interesting time translating in this piece? 

Slava Faybysh: Qará was first written in Russian and interspersed with an array of Qazaq words and concepts, as well as things like unique Qazaq pieces of furniture, foods, clothing, etc. The original story was footnoted for Russian-speaking readers who are not familiar with some of these things. I wanted to take the footnotes out, and my ultimate goal was to challenge readers to learn new things, but without overwhelming them with too much new information. So I used various strategies to convey elements of Qazaq culture in as unobtrusive a way as possible. I also tried to give readers the option to look things up if they wanted to learn more about Qazaqstan, but to understand the basic gist of what was going on from context alone.

For example, I think it is meaningful in the story that things like how people address each other and curse words are in Qazaq, whereas most of the everyday conversation is in Russian. Occasionally, I tried to give readers extra help in understanding the Qazaq. When Danik and Marat first meet Yeraly, the Russian text simply has Marat saying, “Yeraly-aga,” and going straight into the rest of his speech. The “aga” ending means older brother or uncle, and it is a term of respect for any older man. But rather than explaining all that (the Russian text is footnoted) I added “After a quick, but respectful greeting in Qazaq…” I felt I needed to add that it was quick in addition to being respectful to communicate that it really only took two short syllables to satisfy the requirements of formality. I think Marat’s later speech sounds very informal, so I didn’t want readers to think he was being overly chummy in a disrespectful way. I think this is a style of speech that is peculiar to languages that use formal/informal grammatical markers or honorifics.

I did leave some things in Qazaq, such as “Malgundar!” This could have been translated as any run-of-the-mill curse, such as “Damn it!” but I instead left it in Qazaq and added that Yeraly “spit” this to drive home the point that this was an emotional outburst and that it was in Qazaq, not Russian.

Another example is where Marat says, “What are we, toqals? Sloppy seconds?” Readers can choose to look up toqal if they want to (it’s a second, unofficial wife of a married man) but I added “sloppy seconds” to give readers the basic idea. On the surface these two things are not the same, but the intention is to say, “What are we, an afterthought?”

One thing I love about this story is the wealth of detail that firmly sets it in a specific time and place. Readers can go down any number of rabbit holes and research new information about Central Asia. Or if they prefer they can just follow along and enjoy the story.

ER: What are some of the major differences you see when translating Spanish literature, other Russian literature, and Qazaq literature?

SF: This is sort of a personal question. My family immigrated to the US from Ukraine when I was less than two years old. I grew up in a bilingual Russian-English household, but because I never went to school in a Russian-speaking environment, I make tons of basic grammar mistakes in Russian (my mother frequently laughs at me). The hardest part about translating Russian is often understanding complex concepts, whereas simple day-to-day conversation seems to come more naturally.

My experience with Spanish is the polar opposite. I had no Spanish at home, obviously, but I started studying it in school at a relatively early age and continued through college and beyond. There’s also something about the relationship between Spanish and English. About sixty percent of English words ultimately come from Latin, either directly, or through French. But English is a Germanic language, and the vast majority of our most basic and important words are related to German. Therefore, generally speaking (but with exceptions) our big words are Latinate in origin and our basic words are Germanic. Counterintuitively, I would say that after getting through elementary Spanish—including grammar—complex concepts in Spanish are actually easier for English speakers than simple ones.

So the exact opposite of Russian. My strengths in Russian are my weaknesses in Spanish and vice versa.


As far as Qazaq literature, of the three Qazaq authors I’m currently working with, Nuraina seems to lean into showcasing the individuality of the Qazaq nation the most, using the most Qazaq words and firmly placing the story within its setting. I’m working with another author whose stories seem much more universal. Her stories could easily be set somewhere else, highlighting the fact that Qazaqs are no different than other peoples. The third author I’m working with is somewhere in between. I would say that the important thing for me is to let authors be wherever they want to be on that spectrum for any given story.

Nuraina Satpayeva is a systems engineer by profession, but she began writing prose and children’s stories at the Almaty Literature School. Her stories have been published in the Russian-language journals Neva, Sibirskie Ogni, and Litera Nova.

Slava Faybysh translates from Spanish and Russian. His first book-length translation is a historical thriller set in 1970s Argentina, called Rodolfo Walsh’s Last Case. His work has appeared in New England Review and The Common.

Emilie Rodriguez is a Latinx writer from San Diego and holds an MFA from Louisiana State University. She is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review and the former editor-in-chief of the New Delta Review. Her work has been supported by the Sundress Academy of the Arts Residency. Rodriguez won the 2023 Patty Friedman Writing Competition in the short story category. Her work is forthcoming in the Peauxdunque Review.

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