‘Words Without Borders’ September: Translating the Frankfurt-Bound Character of Georgia

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘Our culture is perfectly compatible with the values of the free world.’ Gvantsa Jobava is guest editor of the September issue of ‘Words Without Borders,’ as Georgia prepares to be Guest of Honor at Frankfurter Buchmesse.

Image: Alex Berdysheff, ‘Consonance’ (cropped), oil on canvas, 43 X 47 inches, 2013. Used by ‘Words Without Borders’ by arrangement with the artist and provided to Publishing Perspectives for this article

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Lullaby of the Machine Gun’
With preparations now accelerating for Georgia’s arrival as the 2018 Guest of Honor at Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 10 to 14), the translation-focused nonprofit Words Without Borders has dedicated its September edition to work from the Caucasus nation which to this day is partly under Russian occupation.

In her introductory essay, the guest editor for the issue, Gvantsa Jobava, runs head-on at the kinds of questions quietly asked by some international players about the Guest of Honor undertaking and this country of just 3.7 million people: “How will a country that remains almost completely undiscovered by the outside world cope with such a huge international project?” Jobava asks, early on in her article.

“Everyone is keen to know the reasons behind the (some might say risky) decision by the organizers of the fair to give Georgia a platform alongside such heavy hitters as the Netherlands [and Flanders, 2016], France [2017], Norway [2019], and Canada [2020].”

Candor is one of the Jobava’s strongest traits, as many Publishing Perspectives readers will recall from her March 2017 interview with us in which she described the dire threat at the time imposed on the country’s textbook producers by the government’s program of state-published content. She’s editor and international relations chief with Intelekti Publishing in Tbilisi, one of Georgia’s biggest houses, and she leads the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association and is a well-known figure in the activities of the International Publishers Association (IPA).

In a new interview Monday (September 3), Jobava now tells Publishing Perspectives that in this politically charged season, there is a level on which becoming Frankfurt’s Guest of Honor is an act of resistance to Russian—and formerly Soviet—hegemony.

“We found out we had been chosen as Guest of Honor for the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair in 2013,” she says, “five years after the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. The country was full up with the latest wave of Georgian refugees from the occupied regions, and for the umpteenth time we were faced with trying to build a free country from scratch.

“I would like to say to everybody right now that no, Georgia is not part of Russia, and yes, I learned Russian in school as a foreign language but I refuse to use it.”Gvantsa Jabova

“We want to show Europe and the western world that our culture, built up over the course of centuries, is perfectly compatible with the principle values of the free world. Moreover, we want to show that it is precisely because these values form the foundations of our culture and are therefore deeply ingrained in us that not even the 70-year ideological stranglehold of the Soviet regime could break us.”

The new Words Without Borders edition, titled The Past in the Present: Writing From Georgia, provides a succinct, timely survey of just what the nation’s Guest of Honor program’s title means,  Georgia: Made by Characters. In her introduction, Jobava writes of how critical it has been to preserve “the unique three-script Georgian writing system, which was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016.”

Like so many “small languages” of the world today—tongues spoken and written by small populations surrounded by the big, digitally-distributed languages such as Spanish and English—Georgia’s unique linguistic heritage comes to Words Without Borders as it will to Frankfurt, as a fiercely protected cultural treasure: The Georgians are reaching out to share it, not give it away.

To that end, Jobava’s guest-editing stint presents us with her own essay, translated by Philip Price, as well as eight literary works in translation. Three are fiction (one is a short story and two are excerpts from novels); four are poems; and the nonfiction entry is an excerpt from a memoir.

Georgian writers featured in the September 2018 edition of ‘Words Without Borders’ include, from left, Teona Dolenjashvili, Irakli Kakabadze, and Lena Samniashvili

‘To My Children’

Here’s the list of translations chosen by Jobava for the edition. In each case, you can hear the author reading from her or his work in the original Georgian.

  • “Meskhi vs. Meskhi” is a short story by Teona Dolenjashvili, translated by Price.
  • Two poems of Lena Samniashvili include “A Run in My Stocking,” translated from the Georgian by Natalia Bukia-Peters and Mac Dunlop, and “Military Drills,” translated by Bukia-Peters and Victoria Field. The latter includes some of Samniashvili’s most arresting phrasing in the verse, “Bringing out of our hidden kingdoms / this inherited tumor, this love not for homeland but for soil. / The lullaby of the machine gun.”
  • Two more poems, these by Irakli Kakabadze, are titled “The Children of Beslan (To My Children)” and “Seventeen Poems by Iaki Kabe” and are translated to English by Mary Childs. The first of the two poems is a tribute to victims and survivors of the 2004 Beslan School Siege. In that event 14 years ago this month, as verified in CNN’s Fast Facts archives, armed Chechen rebels took some 1,200 children and adults hostage at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia. By the time the event ended on September 3, 330 people had been killed, including 186 children. More than an 700 people were wounded.
  • “Shevardnadze and Me: The Beginning” is an excerpt from a memoir by Gela Charkviani, who recalls his early days as an advisor to Georgian president Edward Shevardnadze. It’s translated from the Georgian by Price.
  • “Little Dipper” is a bit of romance, written as a 19th-century pastiche and extracted from a novel by Naira Gelashvili, here translated by Childs.
  • “The Killer” is the other novel extract, in this case the work of award-winning war correspondent Beka Kurkhili translated by Bukia-Peters and Field, and focused on a young political activist facing violence.

More Georgian writers featured in the September 2018 edition of ‘Words Without Borders’ are, from left, Gela Charkiani, Naira Gelashvili, and Beka Kurkhili

‘I Refuse to Speak Russian’

In our exchange with Jobava, it becomes clear that Georgians involved in the Frankfurter Buchmesse Guest of Honor project very much see it as an effort in returning to the world, emerging back into the light from a terrible darkness of many decades.

Gvantsa Jobava

“I think Georgian literature is one of the best ways for the rest of the world to start to get to know us again,” she tells Publishing Perspectives. “After all, Georgian writers and publishers and Georgian literature itself have always been at the forefront of the most important developments in our country’s history. We have books to thank for all our successes.”

But defiance is never far, it seems, from the motivational energy of the country’s cultural dynamic, and it’s easily imagined with what unease the Georgians must watch the strained political dynamics in many countries around the world.

“This all takes on much greater significance in the face of the Russian occupation and the constant threats coming from that country,” Jobava says. “When even today, many in the international community think that Georgia is part of Russia and that we use Russian as our daily language, we often wonder if we’ll ever be able to escape this mislabeling.

“I would like to say to everybody right now that no, Georgia is not part of Russia, and yes, I learned Russian in school as a foreign language but these days, as a sign of protest, I refuse to use it even with Russian-speaking acquaintances, as do many of my friends and colleagues in Georgia.

“The only thing we share with Russia is territory—territory that Russia appropriated by military aggression in 1992 and 1993 and in 2008. And it continues to encroach upon Georgia today through its ongoing policy of ‘creeping occupation.’ It appears that Russia will always yearn for the restoration of the Soviet regime and the ‘glory’ of those days, but how can this be allowed in today’s world?

“You can be sure,” she says, “that Georgian writers and publishers will use the various platforms at their disposal in Frankfurt to talk about these issues. It will be the one topic nobody will avoid.”

And at Words Without Borders, you can hear an audio file of each writer reading part of her or his work in its original Georgian. Here, for example, is Kurkhili reading from his “The Killer”:

‘Freedom of Expression: The Highest Value of All’

Between 2010 and today, Jobava tells us, “around 25 Georgian books have been translated into English.”

When Georgia seceded from the Soviet Union, its young writers “wanted to irritate people a little, to declare publicly that yes, they were writers from a free country.”Gvantsa Jobava

Because Georgia is such an old amalgam of cultures, we ask Jobava if younger voices in literature have had trouble being heard amid the re-emergence of so much classic work. She talks of how the secession from the USSR (in April 1991) inevitably came with its own price of “intergenerational conflict. “On one side you had the older generation,” she says, “conservative in outlook and unable to come to terms with the new reality, and on the other the younger generation, thirsty for change.”

At times, young writers emerging with the nation’s independence would purposefully goad the establishment, she says, with texts that “often were deliberately provocative. … They were maybe also trying to free themselves of a kind of burden, and perhaps they even wanted to irritate people a little, to declare publicly that yes, they were writers from a free country and no, their books would not be constrained by any framework.”

In the 1990s the conflicts she’s describing here “felt very acute. [But] with hindsight, it all seems to have been a perfectly natural process. Maybe it was just something we had to go through.

“Some of the writers who made their debuts during those troubled times, such as Lasha Bughadze, Erekle Deisadze, Paata Shamugia, Zaza Burchuladze, and Zurab Karumidze, are still active on the literary scene today.

“In their youth, their bold words earned them the wrath of the people and the church, and yet today things look very different, with countless individuals willing to stand up and protect freedom of expression. For us, this is the highest value of all.”

There is more of Gvantsa Jobava’s exclusive interview with Publishing Perspectives, and we’ll be bringing it to you in the coming weeks and in our show dailies at Frankfurter Buchmesse. Meanwhile, there’s a special site dedicated to Georgia’s Gust of Honor program at Frankfurt, and you can find it here.

For now, more from Publishing Perspectives on Words Without Borders is here.

And our Summer Magazine is ready for your free download. It’s themed on politics and publishing and includes our extensive preview of Frankfurter Buchmesse. You’ll find that you can access it in PDF here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.