Growing up Goychay, Azerbaijan, I would always hear my grandmother telling tales of old, some more interesting than others. She always told them at night in her loud-yet-soothing voice. The ones that stuck out the most were the fairy tales that were meant to frighten, such as “Adamcil” (Man-Eater), a tale of a humanoid with long horns and claws, covered in fur, eating human corpses, and “Isah and Musah,” the tale of a bird that mimics the cries of two brothers lost in a forest. These tales had a certain eerie charm to them and always blended with the mysterious nature and sounds of the night.
One of the better ways of introducing the public to a new culture is through folklore, more specifically fairy tales. As an immigrant from Azerbaijan, I’ve seen the current trends in American society where diversity is being somewhat celebrated, despite the current political rhetoric. It made me realize that I have something of my own to bring into this country and to its culture.
Azerbaijan’s geographical position as a country between the Middle East and Europe, surrounded by countries such as Russia, Iran and Turkey, made it an ancient hub for cultural exchange, creating a relatively unique folklore. The story that reflects this the most is “The Tale of Malikmammad,” about a young prince who journeys into the Dark World and has to face creatures from European folklore, like ogres and dragons, and a creature from Turkic folklore called the Emerald Bird (Zumrud/Konrul). There are also Azerbaijani versions of western tales such as “Cinderella” (“Göyçək Fatma”) and “The Three Goats” (“Şəngülüm, Şüngülüm, Məngülüm”). There are also plenty of tales about animals, usually with human traits, such as “Trickster Goat,” which tells the story of a goat that outsmarted a bear, a wolf, and a fox.
Unfortunately, a very limited number of Azerbaijani fairy tales have been translated into English, one of them being “Jirtan: The Little Boy Who Fought Monsters,” published in Azerbaijan International Magazine in 1996. Beyond this example, it is almost impossible to find English translations for fairy tales in the language, even for those that are known well among the Azerbaijani people, and it’s a shame that so much folklore is lost behind the language barrier. Fortunately, the age of information has connected people from around the world, making it much easier for cultures to share their heritage online for all to read and translate. Other than websites dedicated to collecting fairy tales and folklore, for me personally the web makes it easier to stay in touch with my relatives in Azerbaijan on a much more frequent basis, which allows me to ask them for fairytales that have never been recorded online or in print.
It is essential that these fairy tales are translated into English and introduced to the wider public to add the voice of a culture that has been silent for years. Unfortunately, there is little interest in literarily translating Azerbaijani literature into English among those who speak both languages, and there are even fewer people versed in creative writing in English on a college level. Azerbaijani fairy tales will bring new ideas and enrich the literature that is available in English. For this reason, I have been inspired to add the cultural artifacts I brought with me, in the form of fairy tales, to the ever-growing melting pot that is the US, through literary translation.
Read Murad Jalilov and N.K. Valek’s translation of “The Trickster Goat” below.