“Jangar: The Epic of the Kalmyk Nomads”, translated by Saglar Bougdaeva

Etching by GA Echeistov featured on Soviet postage stamp (Wikimedia Commons) Etching by GA Echeistov featured on Soviet postage stamp (Wikimedia Commons)

The tradition of great oral epics survived on the Inner Asian steppe perhaps as long as any other place on earth. At the dawn of the 20th century scholars managed to record bards singing stories that might have been five centuries or more in the retelling, embellishment and polishing. Jangar is one such epic, belonging to the Kalmyk people, once the left wing of Genghis Khan’s armies, now a minority people in the Russian Federation. Russian-educated Kalmyks collected these tales, and their work somehow survived the Russian Civil War and Stalin’s ferocious persecution of the Kalmyks and their literature. Translated into English for the first time by Saglar Bougdaeva, non-Russian, non-Kalmyk readers can now appreciate these tales.

The frame for these tales is the court of the great khan, Jangar, the eponymous hero. He performs prodigious feats from the age of four. Thereafter he assembles the greatest heroes of the steppe, whose adventures are told in turn, a little like Arthur’s knights of the Round Table. Prestige and power among the steppe people is based on personal charisma. The khan wrestles, battles and shoots arrows at his rivals to assert his primacy. Defeated rivals, if they survive, pledge allegiance and are welcomed to the victorious khan’s drinking parties as boon companions. Each tale relates a hero’s adventures.

The tales are enlivened with fantasy and epic exaggeration. Heroes boast of their prowess during bouts of drinking fermented mare’s milk. Challenged to prove themselves, they gallop off on thousand-mile quests to wrestle with gigantic champions, to woo elusive damsels or overthrow steppe rivals. If there is a tower, it’s made of gold and 100 feet high. Walls are fashioned of diamond. Horses can talk and transform themselves into colts and back. Readers of Russian folk tales will be reminded of the adventures of Ivan Tsarevitch. Realistic elements of steppe life are also included, with Jangar’s realm divided into a left wing and a right wing; the khan is advised by a sagacious vizier steeped in steppe history and genealogy; the heroes consume alcoholic mare’s milk in many forms. Steppe women are empowered, and enjoy as much respect for their sagacity as for their beauty.

 

 Jangar: The Heroic Epic of the Kalmyk Nomads, Saglar Bougdaeva (trans) (University of California Press, January 2023)
Jangar: The Heroic Epic of the Kalmyk Nomads, Saglar Bougdaeva (trans) (University of California Press, January 2023)

Alongside fantasy, the episodes are ornamented with beautiful lyric passages. The fact that these are formulaic and therefore repeated frequently in different stories does not detract from their power to captivate. When the hero mounts his horse,

 

Hardly touching the stirrup,
the toe of his blood red,
fine leather boot moved
As swift as a ruby coal bouncing off the fire.

 

Elsewhere, when the rider pauses,

 

… he fastened
the horse’s slender forelegs
with iron hobbles of the best iron
And tethered them with silver fetter locks
out of the best silver.

 

The translation is fluid and muscular, echoing the Mongol verses with stress on the first word of each syllable. It is only slightly marred by the use of a few words that jar with the otherwise timeless language: a princess has “strategic” thoughts, she lives in a “multi-storied” building, and a hero rides for “kilometers”. Bougdaeva’s introduction is erudite and provides excellent literary, ethnological and historical background.

 

Readers familiar with the structure and construction of oral epics will find all the familiar elements that characterize this genre. There is less realism and psychology than Homer, for the Kalmyk audience seems to have preferred pathos and grandeur—of this there is plenty. And they wanted to be entertained with beautiful language.

This translation largely succeeds in allowing modern readers to re-experience pleasure felt by the Kalmyks passing the kumis around and listening to the singing of their bards.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.