The project is a translation of the novel Alindarka’s Children by the Belarusian writer Alhierd Bacharevič. A crude description of Alindarka’s Children could well be ‘how to lose an accent and get ahead in society’. But that is just the start. The author has produced a fable that uses the Hansel and Gretel trope (little children dumped in the forest by their father), but takes it a lot further to raise questions of language use, national identity and historical social injustice.
Something that was said to me at a dinner in an Italian restaurant on the evening of the presentation of my translation of the book of essays by the Belarusian writer Tanya Skarynkina back in August 2018 – words to the effect that ‘I had to lose my Scottish accent in order to progress in my profession’ – led me to think about a translation of the novel could be structured.
The author says that the novel is written in five languages. From his point of view they are:
‘Trasianka’ – a mixed form of speech in which Belarusian and Russian elements and structures alternate arbitrarily (Wikipedia definition). The word originally referred to poor-quality hay mixed with fresh hay or grass, literally a ‘shake-up’. This is what can most frequently be heard on the streets and in the villages.
A rigid differentiation between literary and colloquial standards is really not something with which we need to concern ourselves; it is inherited from a long tradition of linguistics in Eastern Europe.
Broadly, the issue facing the translator is how to make a clear distinction between the original two languages, Russian and Belarusian. Right from the outset I wanted to experiment with English and Scots in a translation of the book. I came to the conclusion that this was the way forward on the basis of the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages, in which both Belarusian and Scots are classified as ‘vulnerable’.
The importance of this classification is that both Belarusian and Scots are viewed as languages, at least in some quarters; both languages are under pressure from a more powerful language. In both instances, speakers of the more powerful language tend to regard the weaker language with condescension or even downright vilification: it is no more than a substandard ‘corrupt’ or ‘ugly’ dialect. In the case of Belarusian, asking for something in a shop or ordering a meal in a restaurant in the language can sometimes be met with the response in Russian ‘Can’t you speak like a human being?’ In the case of English I think that we could add sentimentality to condescension – the Scots are odd folk that use words like ‘wee’, ‘bonnie’ and ‘the noo’ and we like singing their funny little song at New Year, but there’s no real difference, is there?
Strictly from the point of view of the languages in the book:
All literate Belarusians can understand Russian;
All literate Belarusians can read Belarusian, even if they do not speak it. Those that do not read it most probably do not want to. They reject the idea for a variety of reasons (‘it was how granny in the village spoke’; ‘it makes me sound stupid’; ‘we don’t need it’).
Most Russians will not even attempt to read Belarusian. The language looks like a distorted, if not demented, type of Russian with bad spelling.
How does this situation map on to the situation of English and Scots? I look to input here from the Scots. My own experience is limited to books by eg Billy Kay The Mither Tongue, and L Colin Wilson Scots Language Learner; an introduction to contemporary spoken Scots, and what I have seen on various websites, including that of the Scots Language Association. The existence of a book to teach Scots implies that there is a standard version of what Scots actually is. But is there really, in terms of grammar, spelling and vocabulary? And what is the best definition of the difference between a language and a dialect?
Page 8 of Alindarka’s Children
Jim:‘Here we need the guidance of a Scots speaker to provide examples. What sounds are particularly difficult to get rid of, in order to have a ‘proper’ English accent? The particular difficulty for Belarusian speakers is to differentiate in Russian between hard and soft [r] and to produce a soft alveolar affricate [č].’
Petra: Whaaat? Decide to consult The Great Internetty for some Belarusian sounds.
Most obvious correlations in Scots are ‘ch’ as in loch v lock; guttural ‘r’ as in rare v rerr and hard ‘o’ as in ‘Skone?’ v ‘Skawn?’.
But it’s more than pronunciation that’s at stake.
Page 15 Alindarka’s Children
Jim: ‘…what I think is needed here is a Scots term for ‘puke’ that the English are unlikely to know, just as Avi doesn’t know how the Russians say ‘I’m going to be sick’…It may possibly help to know that a slang way of saying ‘I’m going to be sick’ in Russian is ‘I’m going to go to Riga‘
Petra: No way am I singling out any conglomerations north of Hadrian’s Wall for the Riga treatment. Luckily ‘boak’ should fit the bill/throat.
Jim: ‘I have marked up for translation all the words that are said, but also included some of the thoughts, especially those of Avi. It may be necessary to include more of the thoughts, or cut them out completely from translation into Scots. What do you think?’
Petra: Need to get my Edwin Muir hat on for this – didn’t he say that he thought in Scots but wrote in English?* Wasn’t that why him and MacDiarmid fell out?!
Suspect I think in Scots and write in English.
What Belarusian literature is already available in English translation? We have Like Water, like Fire, an anthology of Belarusian poetry translated by Vera Rich. The book was published in 1971; an electronic copy can be downloaded here: http://knihi.com/Vera_Rich/Like_water,_like_fire-eng.html#1. Her translations of the classic Belarusian poets – Janka Kupala, Jakub Kolas and Maksim Bahdanovič – have recently appeared in a bilingual edition: A Poetic Treasury from Belarus, London: Hertfordshire Press, 2019. Some of the novels of Vasil Bykau (1924-2003) have been translated into English; he was the leading writer of novels and stories about the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of Belarus in the years 1941-1944. His frankness often brought him into collision with the censors of the Soviet Union. The writer Uladzimir Karatkievich (1930-1984) did a lot to preserve the Belarusian national ideal alive during the 60s and 70s, a period of intense Russification; just one of his novels has been translated into English – King Stakh’s Wild Hunt.
Aĺhierd Bacharevič is one of the leading writers in Belarus today. To introduce the first of his novels to have been translated into English is to invite readers on a journey of exploration. Born in 1975, he reached maturity right at the time when the Soviet Union collapsed and an independent Republic of Belarus emerged. There is no better place to turn for more information than https://neweasterneurope.eu/2019/06/05/belarusian-culture-still-a-terra-incognita%EF%BB%BF/, an extended review of Bacharevič’s book Maje dzievianostyja [My 1990s] by Dr Tomasz Kamusella of St Andrews University. On Bacharevič as a writer there is also https://thereaderwiki.com/en/Alhierd_Baharevich.
Jim: ‘It is, I hope, clear that Father is going mad.’
Petra: So I need to find a way to convey a vision of language that becomes compromised without losing force.
–What to do with ‘The Pimp’ who speaks Russian but with Belarusian phonetic features? Simplest solution would be to write speech that is basically English but with Scots phonetic features…
My knowledge of anything Belarusian is scant in the extreme. Apart from the fact that their football league is garnering international attention because it has not been suspended, despite COVID-19. I am reading the Belarusian (she writes in Russian) author Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, which is traumatic. Maybe it’s better I don’t know too much.
The view is still commonly held that Belarusian is no more than a dialect of Russian. Such a view invites the question: what is the difference between a dialect and a language? The standard answer, attributed to the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, is that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, has a certain ring of truth, but a detailed discussion would open a veritable hornets’ nest; it is a topic that I do not intend to broach.
The current Constitution of the Republic of Belarus states that there are two official languages: Russian and Belarusian. It used to be said that Belarusian was the language of the countryside; it gave way to Russian when people moved to the growing urban areas. Nothing is ever that simple. Everyone in the country can understand Russian; they have to at least when dealing with the authorities. Speaking it is a different matter entirely. There is a long-standing tradition in certain circles (the Russian ‘intelligentsia’) of striving to speak and write Russian in the manner of the classic writers of Russian literature. If that is the desired standard, then many speakers fall short, in Russia as well as in Belarus. Several features of speech can betray a speaker’s origins. However, over the course of the twentieth century Russian became the ‘go-ahead’ language. Now, after nearly thirty years of an independent Belarus, we have reached a stage where the most frequently-heard language in the country is ‘trasianka’ (a ‘shake-up’ of various features of both Belarusian and Russian). It seems as though the greatest concentration of Belarusian speakers can be found not in the countryside, but in the capital city, Minsk.
What is now Belarus was acquired by the Russian Empire at the end of the eighteenth century. A lot of Poland also came under the control of St Petersburg. The peasants who were Roman Catholic and spoke Polish were easily identifiable, but what about the huge numbers who spoke something that was distinct from both Polish and Russian, and who apparently had no name by which to identify their nationality? The first people to show a real interest in them were the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz – born, incidentally, near the small town of Nowogródek, now Navahrudak in Belarus – and his circle of scholarly friends. The tsarist authorities were also interested, but for more for reasons of exerting control through agents of the state – priests of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the course of the nineteenth century several writers tried their hand at writing in the language, up to and including Frańcišak Bahuševič (1840-1900), the pioneer of poetry in Belarusian – a poet who permeates the whole of the novel that will appear in due course. Books in Belarusian appeared, although – because of the strict censorship – they were printed outside Russia, some in London. They were printed in the Latin script.
Things began to move fast in the twentieth century. The 1905 attempt at revolution in Russia, coupled with the country’s disastrous defeat in the war against Japan, brought about a degree of liberalisation. In 1906, a weekly newspaper, called Naša Niva [Our cornfield] in Belarusian began to appear in the city that is now the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius; back then the city was Wilno (in Polish) or Vilnia (in Belarusian). A regular publication helps in so many areas of language: spelling, new words, grammar. The newspaper was forced to close in 1915 because of the war. For more detail on the newspaper and its subsequent revival after 1991, see https://nn.by/?c=ar&i=198131 in English.
The war, however, apart from disaster and massed movement of populations, also brought with it the need for the new occupiers to discover who exactly they had occupied. The first grammar of Belarusian was written by a German, Rudolf Abicht, and published in 1918. A seven-language dictionary was produced to the order of the German High Command of the Eastern Front: Belarusian, German, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish. That gives an idea of the linguistic stewpot in the region.
New states emerged after the First World War. Eventually the Belarusians found themselves divided between Poland and a small Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), in which there were four official languages: Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish. Belarusian was now a language of state administration and in dire need of standardisation.
The first grammar written specifically for Belarusians first appeared in 1918; it was written by Branislaŭ Taraškievič, who went on to become a member of the Polish parliament representing a Belarusian political party. His grammar went through several editions in the BSSR of the 1920s; it provided the necessary standardised grammatical forms for teaching the language. It was looking as though another language had succeeded in reaching official status in the area where it was spoken.
Soon it all began to unravel. Stalin’s increasingly tight grip on power in the USSR in the 1930s inevitably spread to control over language as well. The spelling and grammatical norms of Belarusian were at a stroke altered by decree to make the language look closer to Russian; the new norms, with some modification, are still in practice in the Belarus of today. Inevitably, the way in which the language is written becomes a sign of opposition to established authority. In the post-1945 Soviet times, the Belarusian diaspora – in Western Europe, especially the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia – continued to adhere to the norms established by Taraškievič, or else to use the Latin script first employed in the nineteenth century and further developed in the twentieth by many Belarusians living in Poland between the wars.
The scripts used for writing Belarusian form the subject of an excellent informative article on the British Library European Studies blog: https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2018/01/three-alphabets-of-the-belarusian-language.html
The use of the Arabic script for Belarusian can be explored in: https://fias.fr/projects/belarusian-arabic/. How the Arabic script came to be used will form part of my next blog post.
As Jim explains in his third blog post, the Belarusian poet Francisak Bahusevic ‘permeates the whole of the novel’. In choosing Robert Burns to fulfil that role in this translation, I was more aware of Allan Ramsay than Robert Fergusson as a Burnsian muse, having written a response to Ramsay’s Lucky Spence’s Last Advice. (The bawdy original will strongly feature in Alindarka’s Children…)
Some time ago, whilst browsing in a secondhand bookshop (oh for those days to come again) I came upon and purchased for one pound David Daiches book Robert Fergusson, published 1982.
The library issue card and date stamp slip attached inside the cover describe it as ‘Property of Strathclyde Regional Council Department of Education – Glasgow Division – Hillpark Secondary’.
This passage on page fourteen led me to Gavin Douglas ‘…The movement…could be called vernacular Humanism: its aim was a Scoto-Latin culture, recognizing older Scots as a great literary language (eg Henryson and Dunbar) but looking to a revived Latin as Scotland’s modern literary language before the world…‘Patriotic editing led to republication of Gavin Douglas’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid with a glossary of Douglas’s Scots.’
So much for all that – Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns were all prone to donning their highly polished Augustan livery in the service of (as Max Weinreich puts it) the army and navy of the English language. Daiches goes on to point out: ‘The movement…was eventually swamped by the Scottish Enlightenment which sought to establish Scotland’s intellectual precedence by facing Europe in English dress…although with Scottish intellectual strength’.
Still, how much of the Augustan oeuvre gets trundled out every January 25th from Motherwell to Minsk?
A clue as to how Robert Fergusson travelled from Hillpark Secondary to the Oxfam biblioteka on Morningside Road might be the entirely pristine nature of aforesaid Issue Card and Date slip. Both entirely unused… but perhaps a more vernacular Humanism (loosely speaking, of course, and not just in Scotland…) can be one reaction to the Age of Global Lockdown?
by Jim Dingley
In the case of the country called Belarus, a great deal, as it turns out.
The ‘bela’ bit means ‘white’, and the ‘rus’ bit, well… Certainly NOT Russia!
The detail would be excruciatingly long, but we can start from this: the study of history in Belarus in Soviet times was dangerous. The consequences of deviation from the official line were, putting it mildly, serious. Put straightforwardly: the Belarusians were exclusively a peasant nation longing for union with their Russian ‘elder brothers’.
Following independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union the official line remained much the same, with the addition of wilful blindness to the savagery of the Stalin regime. The line seems to be increasingly relaxed these days, with the restoration of many historical monuments – castles, grand manor houses, churches – that point to a rather different historical narrative.
The (lack of) historical knowledge on the part of the people who live in Belarus, and the geographical nature of the territory in which they live have come together to restrict any sense of nationality to merely one of belonging to an immediate locality. It takes a real effort of will to develop a sense of ‘Belarusianness’.
To look more closely at how this situation came about we need to go back in time to the end of the 18th century. The Russian Empire was one of the beneficiaries of the partitions of a state called the Commonwealth of the Two Nations. The two nations in question were the Poles and the Litvins. It is clear who the Poles were, but who were the Litvins? Put simply, the word refers to all the inhabitants of an earlier state called the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. And here we are, back again to name confusion. The ‘Lithuania’ of those earlier times was not the same as the Lithuania of today. Modern Lithuania is much smaller, a fraction of the size of the Grand Duchy; it is inhabited by people who in the main identify themselves as Lithuanians. The Grand Duchy, on the other hand, was entirely different. At its largest it stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The vast majority of its inhabitants spoke Slavonic dialects, although by the sixteenth century other people had settled there: Yiddish-speaking Jews from western Europe, Muslim Tatars from further east who seem to have very soon adopted an early form of modern Belarusian as their spoken language, which they wrote using the Arabic script.
The Grand Duchy was multinational and the first European state to have a codified set of laws which both restricted the power of the ruler, and guaranteed religious equality. Many Belarusians these days look with nostalgia at the Grand Duchy as a Belarusian state. OK, the term was never used at the time, but the ancestors of modern Belarusians – peasants who tilled the land and did a great deal of the fighting and suffering – kept the state going when the aristocracy, mainly Polish-speaking, fought among themselves. So let’s call it that, even if many modern historians seem to get their professional knickers in a twist to avoid the term.
So: ‘Lithuania’ has more than one meaning. What, then, about ‘Rus’? When we first meet the word in the old chronicles, Rus means a number of different things at different times, including both Vikings (!) and the Slavonic tribes who settled along the major rivers such as the Nioman (flows tfrom Belarus through Lithuania into the Baltic), the Dzvina (flows out through Latvia into the Baltic), the Dniapro (flows out through Ukraine into the Black Sea) and the Volga (flows through Russia into the Caspian Sea)
But why ‘white’? It is impossible to say for certain, but it may have something to do with not being in that part of ‘Rus’ that paid taxes to the Mongols after the 13th century; White ‘Rus’ in this respect contrasts with Moscow. Anyway, why is the Gaelic for Scotland ‘Alba’? What does ‘Albion’ mean (apart from perfidious)? Why is Albania so called?
by Petra Reid
The Scots music in Chapter Four relies on Burns’ poem ‘On the late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations thro’ Scotland collecting the antiquities of that Kingdom’.
Burns composed two elegies to the memory of a man he admired and was admired by. He was a muse to Burns, a former soldier, architectural historian with a penchant for port and an ‘antiquarian Falstaff’ who took midnight walks through London, eavesdropping in slums, drinking dens and dockyards. One of the first to record phrases like ‘fly-by-night’ or ‘birds of a feather’ – and many believe he deserves to be as well-known as that more celebrated compiler of the English language, Samuel Johnson. However, it is arguable that his famous ‘Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’ couldn’t have been published before Johnson had published his dictionary of standard language. More on the Danger of Dictionaries in a later post…
Like Johnson, Grose did The Scottish Tour, several in fact, beginning in 1788 in order to produce his The Antiquities of Scotland, a tome which describes architectural and military antiquities. Unlike Johnson, his tours resulted in one of the most seminal of poems in Scots.
In the summer of 1789 Grose met and immediately formed a friendship with Burns while Burns was staying with Robert Riddell (a patron of Burns) at the Friar’s Carse, near Dumfries. Burns suggested to Grose that he should include Alloway kirk in his Scottish Antiquities, and Grose agreed provided that Burns provided a witch tale to go with his drawing. In June 1790, Burns sent Grose a prose tale with a variant to him, following it up with a rhymed version, ‘Tam o’Shanter’. The success of this artistic collaboration was no doubt something to do with both men view of themselves as providing an antidote to the increasing politeness of the society of their day, both North and South of the border. Language, specifically slang in Grose’s case, was an act of rebellion. Also like Burns, he had a taste for the lewd and bawdy, although he was not above self-censorship: Grose refused to define some of the most obscene terms, such as ‘Bagpipe – to bagpipe, a lascivious practice too indecent for explanation’. Grose, along with Burns, was one of a very small band of writers to explore popular culture at that time. He was the first art critic to state, in an essay published in 1788, that aesthetic emotions emerge from a specific “cultural” environment, and are not innate or universal. His drawing of Alloway Kirk feels affectionate, respectful. No doubt Burns and he had a good few nights ‘bousing at the nappy, An’ getting fou and unco happy’ in the discussion of their collaboration. Given that Grose left the army in 1751 to avoid his regiment’s posting to Scotland, it would be pleasing to think that this meeting of cultures resulted in our antiquarian Falstaff fully appreciating the Scots aesthetic.
by Jim Dingley
There was a joke in the time when Poland had a Communist government. It goes roughly like this:
A Pole finds a brass lantern, and starts to clean it. Of course it is a magic lantern, and out comes a genie who offers the new owner of the lantern three wishes. His first wish: ‘I wish for the Chinese army to invade Poland and then go home.’ He gets his wish. His second wish: ‘I wish for the Chinese army to invade Poland and then go home.’ And that is what happens. Now for his third wish: ‘I wish for the Chinese army to invade Poland and then go home.’ The genie is puzzled. ‘Why do you want the Chinese to invade Poland three times?’ ‘Ah yes,’ comes the reply. ‘It means that the Chinese will have had to cross the Soviet Union six times.’
Apart from the obvious (and natural) Polish hostility towards the Soviet Union, the joke can also tell us something about the reality of war for Poland and its neighbours to the east: the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine. First off, the name of the country derives from the Slavonic word for ‘field’ – pole, not the fondly imagined neat English field delineated by hedgerows, but a vast expanse of featureless land, with nothing much in the way of natural barriers except rivers.
In the earliest recorded history of these areas, the rivers provided the easiest means of travel for both invaders and merchants, who – in the shape of the Vikings – were often one and the same. The oldest city of Belarus dating at least from the 10th century – Polacak – was without doubt originally a Viking trading post on the River Dzvina, which flows into the Baltic Sea where Riga now stands. With portages between rivers, there is a convenient trading route from Scandinavia to the Dniapro (Dnepr), the Black Sea and Constantinople, or to the Volga, the Caspian Sea and Baghdad. What is Belarus now was part of the Viking international trading corporation. Modern experience shows that international (read: multinational) trading corporations are predatory. For sure, as the history books tell us, they traded in honey fur, wax and amber; the main commodity, however, was slaves. Violence and the slave trade are inseparable, but remember that Vikings had a history of merging with the native population of countries outside Scandinavia.
After the Vikings came the Germans, more specifically the Teutonic Order, also known as Crusaders – not crusading against the Muslims in the Holy Land, but aiming for the conversion, forcible or otherwise, of the pagans living along the eastern Baltic coast – from the original Prussians in the south to the Estonians in the north. Not satisfied with converting pagans to Catholic Christianity they expanded their missionary and military work to the east, an area where the Orthodox Christianity of the Constantinople flavour held sway. It was largely the aggression of the Germans that brought about the creation and enlargement of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The attacks from the Germans from the west were matched by attacks from the east by the combined forces of the Mongols and the Tatars. In a way it was fortunate that this particular enemy eventually kept to the lands that were to form Russia. By the 16th century Russia itself was the enemy from the east, bolstered by two pieces of historical myth – first, that Moscow should inherit the lands of the various princedoms collectively called ‘Rus’, and second, that Moscow was now – after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 – the ‘third Rome’, the head of the Orthodox Church. Invasions from Moscow remained the chief destabilising factor throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Indeed, the 17th century came to be known as the ‘Deluge of Blood’; in the following century Belarus became the battleground on which Tsar Peter I of Russia fought King Charles XII of Sweden. Then came the absorption into the Russian Empire, the first uprising of 1794, the war with Napoleon in 1812, two uprisings in 1831 and 1863, the German occupation in the First World War (one of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought near the Belarusian town of Smarhon) and the Revolution, the German occupation in the Second World War (1941-44 – at least one in four of the population of Belarus was lost), and – the most recent destructive act – the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 (true, the power station was in Ukraine, but the prevailing winds dumped most of the radiation just across the border on Belarus.
With all this aggression coming from all points of the compass, it comes as no surprise that the majority peasant population kept their heads down, always in the hope that the danger would pass over. It was difficult enough to eke out a living, let alone work out what your nationality was; much better simply to be ‘people from hereabouts’, ‘locals’, or, if you have to make a choice, go for the language and nationality of your betters, whether Poles or Russians.
On Saturday evening, thanks to the global pandemic, a ‘non-competitive’ Eurovision Song Contest 2020
will be screened across Europe and beyond. The Belarusian entry, for almost the first time, will be in Belarusian.
Despite ‘won’ being an (even more) elastic term in these strange times, I invite you to preview VAL
performing “Da Vidna” here: https://youtu.be/Jmh40xnxciM
Jim has kindly directed me to a rough transliteration of the lyrics courtesy of ‘Genius Romanizations’,
and they make the video surprisingly pleasurable to sing along with:
Zaplyatala vosyen’ yasnu kosami dy rasplyala
Zaplutala, yak zima zamyataye stsyezhki pozniya saboy dabyala
Zapytala, oy nashto mnye toy, kaho nye vybirala
Oy, zablytala da vidna, nochka tsyomna tayamnitsami i zharstsyu pawna
Da vidna, da vidna zastalasya nye adna
Davidna,davidna vostry myesyatsnas yadnaw
Da vidna,da vidna vostry myesyats nas yadnaw
Da vidna, da vidna zastalasya nye adna
I braided the autumn and then unbraided it
I got lost, for winter covered the late paths with snow
I asked myself why I needed the one that I had not chosen
I stayed confused until dawn, dark night full of secrets and passion
Until dawn, until dawn I wasn’t yet alone
Until dawn, until dawn the clear moon kept bringing us together
Until dawn, until dawn the clear moon kept bringing us together
Until dawn, until dawn I wasn’t yet alone)
Now how about something a tad less europopish: https://soundcloud.com/kykyorg/y8a48m4i0sw7 being a traditional Belarus folk song recorded by Iryna Katvitskaya. Whilst appreciating that anything older than an hour counts as folkloric in internet time, I do think VAL could have been on a winner if they’d styled Until Dawn more like the second listening choice here. The Belarusian concept of tutejszy, which means, as Jim explains, coming from hereabouts, rather than a place of defined borders, feels relevant in our present (real, not virtual) viral storm. For once those notoriously partisan Eurovision juries might have been unanimous in voting for a song that sounds like tutejszy.
Ah yes, but then we would still have the audience votes to count…
by Jim Dingley
A word of warning: what follows is but the barest outline of the history of the Christian faith in Belarus. Much has been omitted, not because there are certain aspects of this history that I regard as insignificant, but because it is not my purpose to write a treatise.
By the eleventh century the lands of the ‘Rus’ already had important trading centres. The three most important such centres were Polacak and Novgorod (New Town) in the north and Kyiv (formerly Kiev) in the south. There is some evidence that may point to the existence of Christian places of worship in these towns from an early date. If we are to believe the earliest Chronicles, the ruler in Kyiv enjoyed some kind of superiority over princes in other centres. In the year 988 Volodymyr of Kyiv adopted Christianity in the Orthodox form emanating from Constantinople. (The ‘Great Schism’ of the Christian Church occurred in 1054.) From there it spread to the other centres of the ‘Rus’ – although, by the way, not to Moscow yet; it didn’t exist at the time. Why Volodymyr chose Orthodoxy is anybody’s guess. We know that there was missionary activity coming from Rome at the time, not to mention emissaries from the Jews and the Muslims. Neither of the latter two faiths were acceptable, however; as the Chronicler says, ‘the Rus like strong drink and pork’.
Each of the main centres of the region built cathedrals of the Holy Wisdom, in imitation of the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) Cathedral in Constantintople. Once rulers chose a religion in those days, the ruled usually had to choose it as well, but pagan tradition had deep roots and were never eradicated. Religious strife became evident when from the thirteenth century onwards the (German) Teutonic Order began to spread Catholic Christianity along the eastern Baltic coast and to seek territorial expansion in the Orthodox lands to the east. This was not a simple matter of hostility between the Orthodox and the Catholics; after all, Poland – already a Catholic country – was by the fourteenth century growing ever closer to the mainly Orthodox Grand Duchy of Lithuania. So close in fact that a formal political union between the two states was drawn up in 1569. This was followed by a union of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox dioceses within the Grand Duchy in 1596, to form a church sometimes referred to as the Uniate or Greek Catholic Church; the Orthodox rites are retained and the authority of the Pope in Rome recognised. The Uniate Church could have become a national church for Belarusians, but once the territory of what was to become Belarus found itself within the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century things changed. The Uniates voluntarily (at least that is what we are told by the official history books) returned to the fold of the Russian Orthodox Church, and so it became simpler for the Imperial bureaucrats to give national identities to the citizens of the newly acquired North-Western Region: if you are Orthodox, you are Russian, if you are Catholic, you are a Pole.
Real life is of course never that simple, and the complexities rose again to the surface after the collapse of communism, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a new freedom of religious faith. The ‘Red Church’ on the central square of Minsk is emblematic. Built in 1910 and used as a cinema during the Soviet regime, it was returned to the Roman Catholic faithful in 1990. It is estimated that some 25% of the population would say that they are Catholic. Services are increasingly held in Belarusian. The same cannot be said of the Orthodox Church, which essentially remains a subsidiary of the Russian Church.
There is, however, another factor which must be taken into consideration, something that has a direct link with the UK, and with London in particular. The end of the Second World War brought a large contingent of Belarusians as refugees to the UK. Many went on to North America or Australia, but among those who stayed were two men who were destined to leave their mark on Belarusian history. In this brief sketch I want to make special mention of Fr Alexander Nadson. It is largely thanks to him that there has been a rebirth of the Uniate Church in Belarus today; the number of parishes continues to grow, often in the face of hostility from the Roman Catholic hierarchy and, inevitably, the Orthodox Church. In London a new Belarusian Uniate chapel has been built, the first wooden building to have been erected since the great Fire of 1666. The building has won the architects several international awards. There are photographs here: https://www.archdaily.com/802950/belarusian-memorial-chapel-spheron-architects.
Last year I was lucky enough to enjoy a visit to the Belarusian Uniate chapel in London. It is much more human space than I imagine Shakespeare’s ‘solemn temples’ to be, and when I was also treated to live songs of worship in the Belarusian language and singing style, the effect was both spine tingling and profound.
The experience came back to mind on reading Jim’s sixth post. On Sunday I had written this sonnet paraphrasing Prospero, but professing no religious belief myself, opted for a humanist hashtag on Twitter in honour of Mental Health Awareness Week: #KindnessMatters.
The Tempest, Act IV scene 2
Prospero to Ferdinand:
An nou, ma son, oor players hae said thair piece,
As ah tellt ye, thay wis aw but ghasties,
Nou back tae air, puir air, whare thay cease
Amangst clood cappit tours an palaises,
Solemnlike temples an oor ain dear sphere
An whit’s tae be here eftir yon; meltit
Wi this elf shot meet, aw gangin tae air
Leein no ane rack ahint. We are makkit
Fir reveries tae be built oan, oor wee while
roundit bi ane sleep. Ma laddie, ah’m vex’d;
Ah howp ma infirmite doesnae rile,
This auld yin’s heid’s aw mixter-maxter’d, hex’d.
Ah’ll tak ane turn or twa tae soothe ma mynd,
An howp whit mankynd is is tae be kynd.
by Jim Dingley
My co-translator Petra in her latest post raises the question of the title of the book we have been translating, Alindarka’s Children. Who is Alindarka? There is no one of that name in the book, but throughout there are quotations from and references to a poem written by a man who can be regarded as the first poet in modern Belarusian literature: Frańcišak Bahuševič (Frantsishak Bahushevich) (1840-1900). The poem is entitled ‘Things will be bad’.
A baby boy is born to a family of impoverished, illiterate peasants living in the North-Western Territory of the Russian Empire. The Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa (1841-1910; she came from Grodno/Horadnia in north-western Belarus) in one of her stories describes the rural poor of the area as living like earthworms. The boy is born in March, a bad month in which to come into the world, when the food laid in for the winter is almost exhausted. His parents take him to the local Roman Catholic priest to be baptized. He speaks Polish. In order to give the boy a name he asks the parents to pass him his book of saints’ days, his kalendar. The parents do not understand the word, mishear it and think that this is the name to be given to the boy. Hence Alindarka. His life starts out badly, and it does not improve. He is constantly in trouble with the authorities, and ends up in prison.
Who, then, are his children? Is the author somehow implying that modern-day enthusiasts for the Belarusian language can claim an illiterate 19th-century peasant as a ‘parent’? The Belarusian poet and critic Maryja Martysievič wrote a perceptive essay after the publication of the novel called ‘No one emerges from this book uninsulted’, which gives some idea of what to look for!
How relevant is Bahuševič to Belarusians today? Very much so. His poetry may come across as ‘rough and ready’ as far as rhythm and rhyme are concerned, but he was the first poet to put forward the idea of Belarusian nationhood powerfully in verse form. Born on an estate near Vilnia, present-day Vilnius, he eventually settled in an inherited manor house in Kušliany, near Smarhoń in the north-west of Belarus. ‘Manor house’ sounds grand, but it is in fact a single-storey wooden structure; the building is now a museum managed by a devoted individual who, as far as I can see, receives no support from the Government of the Republic of Belarus.
Bahuševič’s poetry survives not only in book form; several of his poems are performed as rap by the most outstanding contemporary rock musician of Belarus, Liavon Volski. An example can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-KYPwgv_Bo, the song is ‘Niemiec’ (the German).
by Petra Reid
Alindarkas’s Children (Things Will be Bad)
‘Things will be bad’, is the title (from Jim’s translation) of a Belarusian poem. It struck both of us as an expression of both the Rev I M Jolly/Private Fraser School of Scotticisms and a certain Belarusian state of mind. Scotch and Wry? Dad’s Army? Where do they leave us in the current debate surrounding the relevance of the Scots language when the lingua franca of most world citizens under 25 is Googleese. One Scot who didn’t want to get laughed at, Lord Reith, ensured the pre-eminence of RP from the 1950’s onward: beep beep beeeep This… is… The News. A project 500 years in the making, spreading out of South Britain from the mid-sixteenth century. Social media platforms call the linguistic tune now, although class still plays its part.
Janey Godley invites those who don’t understand and don’t want to ask what her language means to ‘scroll on’. My training as a Scots lawyer did not engender the same confidence in the language and sounds that come most naturally to me. It wasn’t so much a cringe as a requirement to serve the client’s best interests. A black gown with bit of an accent was generally ok, much else would have been a liability. But hey, let’s presume there’s no cringe and no formal requirement – do you feel comfortable speaking Scots? In my case – no.
I undertook The Alindarka Project on the basis that it would be a test of me finding out if I could get over that discomfiture. (All relevant authorities have been informed, unfortunately. Please see frontispiece of report below/above?)The good news – Reader, I did. The bad news – only to an extent. Yes it was a relief and a joy to write in Scots, albeit my own concocted version. But to speak…
Do the kids hear enough Scots spoken to feel encouraged enough to speak it? Because if they don’t, all they’ll have left is what YouTube provides in the way of relic features of their landscape’s language and personality. The same might be said for any minority language. Whether or not this means things will be bad might depend on your view as to the future of mankind. Mine is that things will be better if we speak as, and who, we are. With confidence.
by Jim Dingley
The Bible reading for today’s Post is taken from the Book of Revelations, Chap. 8, verses 10-11: The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.
The word for wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) in the languages of the part of the world where the author Bacharevič lives is chernobyl. The accident that occurred at the nuclear power plant at the place so named in Ukraine on Saturday 26 April 1986 is an event burned – sometimes quite literally – in the memory of Belarusians. Radiation does strange things.
One of the strange things about the country in which the events of Alindarka’s Children unfold is that it has a Minister of Health who gives full support to the establishment by a man with no medical qualifications of a camp where he intends to perform operations on children’s throats, so that they can speak the one pure language.
Later in the book, we learn that the camp protects the children inside from the ‘phantoms and other vicious nasties’ of the outside world. Many rulers in this part of the world have had experience of treating their countries in exactly the same way; the iron fist is needed to guard the citizen-inmates from the dangers that lurk beyond the borders. It may even be that, in the case of Belarus, the wormwood-inspired radiation of over thirty years ago has resulted in cockroaches of enormous size and fertility.
This is the year for a presidential election in the country. In previous years, there have been easily suppressed demonstrations after the elections. This year, however, two new factors have come into play: covid-19, and much wider use of modern media. One of the chief bloggers of Belarus came up with the slogan #stoptarakan, Stop the Cockroach. His wife, now standing for election, is attracting huge crowds to her campaign meetings.
Cockroaches in politics have appeared before. Only last year Ian MacEwan published a novella (The Cockroach) in which he performs a reverse-Kafka: a cockroach wakes up one morning to find itself transformed into a human being. And not just any human being, but the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who has to face PMQs later in the day.
That, however, is mere satire. Will Belarus’ own Cockroach-in-Chief, nicknamed ‘Daddy’ by the populace, win again? There is not long to wait; election Day is 9 August, but as Joseph Stalin is supposed to have said: ‘Those who cast their votes decide nothing, those who count the votes decide everything.’
Even so, there remains the fact that ‘Daddy Cockroach’ has reigned for twenty-six years by putting himself forward as the guarantor of stability. Perhaps his time is up. Thomas Myddleton had it exactly right when he ended his 1605 play ‘It’s a Mad World, my Masters’ with the words:
‘Who lives by cunning, his fate’s cast.
When he has gulled all, then is himself the last.’
By Petra Reid
Jim’s Highlander styletime travelling leap from The Book of Revelations to Thomas Myddleton’s Jacobean A Mad World, My Masters via Kafka and Chernobyl, or wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) allows me the chance to attempt some rationale for grafting what is, after all, a load of pastiche Scots onto Alindarkas’s Children.
Gaiseadh a’ bhuntata is the Scottish Gaelic term for the Highland Potato Famine, which reached its worst point in 1846 – 7, caused not by wormwood poisoning but Phytophthora infestans, potatoblight. As Hamish MacPherson makes clear in his series on the famine (The National, 21st and 28th July 2020), the exodus of Highland populations that occurred as a result of the famine can actually be tracked back to the Clearances and Culloden. The point here is that whilst the Highland Potato Famine must in no way be given equal numerical consideration with the Great Potato Famine of Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, it ‘had a similar effect in terms of population and societal shift as the Great Hunger had for Ireland’.
Debate as to ‘ownership’ of Highlander country estates has moved from the monarchical to the political sphere, but the route map can be traced back to the bloody and the brutal in our history. The battleground of language (Gaelic here) goes to a time when this member of the ancient clan of Donald would not have dared speak in what would have been her native tongue. What path will the (much, much more) horrific effects of Chernobyl carve for the Belarusian language?
Coincidentally, P. infestans was one of several plant pathogens investigated as possible agroterrorist weapons by France, Canada, the Soviet Union and indeed the United States in the 1940’s and 50’s. The title and theme (greed) of Sidney Kramer’s 1963 film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (my, how we laughed) was inspired by Myddleton’s play. Kramer was responsible for making many of Hollywood’s most famous “message” films, bringing to attention provocative social issues that most studios avoided. On first publication Alindarkas’s Children was greeted by one reviewer as a book that ‘offended everyone’.
Yes, there has been a bit of time travelling/Only Connect chicanery employed to make connection between Us then and Them now. You can blame the Highlander effect for that.
Jim Dingley & Petra Reid
Now that Alindarka’s Children have found their way to bookshops and are submitting themselves to readers’ judgements, it is time for the translators to say a little more about the hopes and intentions that led them to undertake the work. In this final blog about Alindarka’s Children the translators reflect on their process.
Jim: I was hypnotised by the challenge that the original novel presents. As a starting point we can take the book as a reworking of the traditional Hansel and Gretel story. Two young children are lost in one of the dense forests of Belarus. At the same time they wander aimlessly through a tangle of languages, oppression, physical violence, and – let us say it openly – what many people may regard as child abuse. That tangle of languages is a struggle between the language of Power (Russian), and the language of the Colonised (there, I’ve said it! – Belarusian), and of all the gradations of everyday speech where the two are mixed. Their wanderings take place in a country which welcomes a ‘doctor’ with no medical qualifications to perform surgery on children to cure them of their inability to speak the language of power properly. He does so in what is essentially a concentration camp, albeit a superficially benevolent one.
What happens when the contrast of Russian and Belarusian is transferred to English and Scots? The cultural background cannot, of course, be transferred in its entirety, but a new element must be added that is distinctively Scottish. And so, in the translation a ‘what if’ scenario emerges from the Hansel and Gretel story. What if, after 1707, the government in London had pursued a policy of ensuring that the inhabitants of the newly acquired territory spoke ‘proper’ English ‘as she is spoke’ in the centre of power? This in turn gives rise to a number of other questions, for example – who determines what a ‘proper’ language is? What is the relationship between language and identity? To finish on a historical note: the Russian Empire absorbed the lands of Belarus in the final decade of the eighteenth century.
Petra: Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviours and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. The American poet and activist Carolyn Forche says that ‘Language as a life-form bears the epigenetic signature of all that has been endured. It is in language that memory is retrieved, and in memory, both collective and personal, that language comes into being. It is not at all surprising, then, that they intersect in the same region of the human brain, the hippocampus, the deep center.’
When the ‘doctor’ is performing surgery it’s not just accent he’s altering. Patterns of speech, patterns of language, patterns of thought, patterns of behaviour are all up for grabs. That’s what’s at stake.
This is the first blog post to appear after the Book Week Scotland online event on Thursday 19 November. This blog post offers responses to the questions posed.
Jim: it is important to bear in mind, especially at this time of great unrest there, that the country’s name is Belarus (‘rus’ pronounced as ‘roos’) and the accepted adjective is Belarusian. Historically, the country is quite separate from Russia, a country which up to the 18th century was known as Muscovy.
I’m fascinated with the use of Scots poetry throughout the novel. Is this some thing the translators have added or was there Belarusian poetry there in the original novel. What made you decide to use this device.
Jim: The novel is full of references to the literatures of both Russia and Belarus (more so the latter). There is in particular one poem that runs through the book, from which the name ‘Alindarka’ is taken. Belarusian readers are expected to know this. It should be added that there are only brief quotations in the original. When dealing with a book in two languages, translators have to decide how to treat the double cultural aspect. The Scots poetry is not a direct reflection of what is in the book, but it does – we very much hope – both relate to the text and fill out the Scots/Belarusian dimension by strengthening the contrast with English.
Petra: My intention was to give some visual expression to the linguistic schizophrenia that Scots, Belarusians and other peoples have. I also wanted to explore “Scots” in different cultural contexts by moving freely between centuries and genres.
Gaun yersel Petra lovely translation. Did you find it liberating to translate into voices you might hear spoken around you – as opposed to more anglicised voices, the way we we’re ‘supposed’ to write? It felt like it must have been fun.
Jim: Petra, over to you. The only thing I would say is that there are plenty of examples in both Russian and Belarusian of what people are ‘not supposed’ to write.
Petra: Short answer is yes! I tried to get the right internal rhythms for each form of Scots in the different chapters, including my own pastiche version of The Leid, so that it sang naturally.
How different is Belarussian from Russian? And are there varieties of Belarusian – regional and social – as there are of Scots?
Jim: there are striking differences in pronunciation, morphology and vocabulary, or at least would be if the earliest grammars of Belarusian were a model for what is in use nowadays. The main difficulty is that, in the 1930s (the time of Joseph Stalin), the official grammar and vocabulary were changed to be more like Russian. Yes, there are certainly regional variations in the spoken Belarusian language, but of more importance is the development of a hybrid language that is a mixture of the two. This is what is most commonly heard on the streets; it is what one of the characters of the novel, the Doctor, wants to eradicate in favour of ‘pure’ Russian.
How was Alindarka’s Children received in Belarus? What was the reason for translating it into English and Scots?
Jim: The translation has not yet been received in Belarus, in that there has been no review of any kind. There are, I think, two reasons for this:
Firstly, only two hard copies have, as far as I know, reached the country (the author has them) – there are grounds for fearing that packages sent from abroad run the risk of confiscation by the Belarus customs authorities (they have been doing this with any items bought abroad on the frontier between Poland and Belarus). This has, for example, probably prevented the owner of the capital’s only bookshop specialising in Belarusian books from driving the short distance into Lithuania to collect copies. Copies in electronic format have been sent, but obviously hard copies are easier to use for purposes of writing a review.
Secondly: those would probably write a review are fully occupied with the political situation in the country.
English and Scots: the novel is written in two distinct languages. Readers in Belarus will have no difficulty with Russian, although some may find a few Belarusian words and phrases that they do not know. Readers in Russia may (more likely, will) find Belarusian distasteful, regarding it as a spoiled version of Russian. We tried to make a parallel: the Scots will understand Scots and English, the English will need some assistance.
Question for Petra: did you listen to Belarussian being spoken by Jim to get a feel for the sound of the language? I found it useful to hear a Bulgarian poem spoken as part of a collective translation workshop (I don’t speak Bulgarian)
Petra: We were about a third of the way through the process when I was fortunate enough to attend the 2020 Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies, as mentioned in the sixth blog post on the Scotland Street website. I don’t speak Belarusian, and this was an invaluable immersive experience, involving as it did a guided tour (in Belarusian) of the beautiful Uniate Chapel and a performance of holy songs in the Belarusian singing style. I was able to hear the language being used by Jim and many native speakers first hand in a real life setting. Slightly less profound but nevertheless very useful was the experience detailed in our fifth blogpost when I have to confess to spending quite a lot of time singing along to the Belarusian entry for Eurovision 2020.
Belarusian literature faces tremendous problems reaching foreign markets. So, many thanks to Scotland Street Press! But aren’t you afraid that adding an extra level of linguistic difficulty may discourage some English-language readers?
Jim: Yes indeed – many thanks to the Scotland Street Press! The extra level of linguistic difficulty is not really great – a few Scots words! Anyone reading a translated work of literature must expect an adventure!
Petra: I hope most readers would agree that each chapter is a strong enough entity to be read on a standalone basis if they feel it’s easier to dip in and out of the language as the fancy takes them… Good question though, and it was one of the first to exercise me in the blog.
Why have you selected the pair English and Scots instead of English and, perhaps, Gaelic?
Jim: Readers in Belarus will understand both languages. So will readers of the translation in Scotland; English speakers elsewhere may need a little help, which has been provided. On the other hand, passages in Gaelic would need to be translated into English in full. There is something else: I hope that English readers will be able to ‘hear’ the Scots in their minds. ‘Hearing’ Gaelic is, unfortunately, possible only for a small minority.
Apart from the two languages, are there many culture-specific elements in the novel and if so, how did you approach the translation? Thank you for the wonderful discussion!
Jim: yes, there are. I am thinking in particular of the provincial hotel that charges extra for loo paper, and the small town with a Lenin Square without a statue of Lenin. I do not think that translators can do anything other than acknowledge their presence, although, for example, it means accepting that there are (probably) no such hotels or such squares in Scotland. Anyone reading a novel translated into English has to accept the delusion – the people in the novel are not really speaking English (and, in this case, Scots), the street smells, the houses and the fields are probably unlike what the reader can imagine. Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” again.
Petra, so how the translation process has changed your thinking on Scots?
Petra: Well I have a much better appreciation of the history of the Scots language as well as an enlarged vocabulary that I was conscious of in my everyday during and shortly after the translation process. So the learning and research did have an effect at the time. What I think now is that if the effect is not to be short-lived I’ll need to take some conscious decision to take it further – like any other language.
Jim: I could add something here. Yes, I have become much more aware of the history of language in Scotland, and indeed of Scotland’s place in the history of the British Isles.
Was there in the past a literary Belarusian as there was a literary Scots in the 15/16th century, which has been damaged and compromised over the years? Or is there a relatively less damaged Belarusian today than the damaged language that is Scots?
Jim: I am going to say unequivocally that, yes, there was, although many linguists would disagree. The Bible translations of Francis Skaryna (c1490-c1551), born in the Belarusian city of Polatsak, are clearly not in Russian or Church Slavonic, but in a language that has many of the features of modern Belarusian. Then there are the three great Law Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, culminating in the final printed version of 1588, clearly written in a language with Belarusian features. This language ceased to be official in the Grand Duchy by the end of the 17th century, and was replaced by Polish. The language of the peasantry sparked interest in the 19th century, although attempts to use it in printed form were prohibited by the tsarist authorities. Belarusian came into official use in the Soviet times after 1917, but eventually came under great pressure either to look like Russian or to disappear altogether. It has to be said that regular speakers of what should be regarded as ‘proper’ Belarusian are these days mainly intellectuals and enthusiasts. The current political protests are accompanied by a rise in interest in the language.
Given the repressive environment in Belarus, and the provocative nature of the novel, was there any sign of an attempt to suppress the book there?
Jim: it may seem surprising, but despite the indeed provocative nature of the book, it was published in Belarus. I suspect that two things are involved here:
(i) the regime is not much concerned with purely cultural events and publications, among which we can count literature written in Belarusian, something that is likely to have a small readership.
(ii) there is a certain amount of self-censorship on the part of non-government newspaper editors, theatre directors, and writers.
Have you left place-names unchanged?
Jim: Yes. There are four place-names in the actual text, if I remember rightly: Miensk (the proper Belarusian form of the city more widely known as Minsk), Vilnia (better known as Vilnius, the capital of modern Lithuania), Moscow (presented in the novel as an imaginary, dream city), and Bremen (not just a city in Germany, but the ideal of a place to go to when you get out of Belarus).
A question to Petra, do you feel your own feeling or love or attitude to Scots has changed in your translation of the book?
Petra: The practical aspect of finding it easier to read Scots after doing a lot of research has made me more accepting of Scots in print. I certainly feel protective of it, but that’s more sympathy than love I think.
Did Jim translate the whole text, and Petra translate from Jim’s English to Scots? Who was the arbiter; was the author involved in this process?
Jim: answers in order — Yes, yes, I don’t think that either of us was the arbiter but I suppose I was ultimately, although I never had to arbitrate, and yes, but only to the extent that I told him how the book was going to be translated, and asked him for clarification on a couple of points.
I believe you said the brother’s name is rendered as Avi, which, being Hebrew, immediately made me think there might be a connection with Jewish culture. That sort of sets up the revelation that he is a golem. Is that connection also evident in the original?
Jim: Yes, I did say that the brother’s name is Avi, and yes, he is indeed a golem. The name: in the original his name is Lioččyk (Liochchyk), the slightly misspelled Belarusian word for ‘pilot’. Calling him either by his Belarusian name or by the English translation seemed to me to invite total incomprehension. It was my wife, a native Belarusian speaker, who came up with a genius solution. When the boy first appears on the scene (not at the beginning of the book, by the way), the translation has him announcing that he is an aviator; he adds ‘but ye may cry me Avi’, and so we have the Jewish connection. The ‘father of modern Hebrew’, Eliezer Perlman, was born in what is now Belarus in 1858; he has a part to play in the book. You cannot go anywhere in Belarus without being reminded by cemeteries and buildings that were clearly once synagogues or yeshivas, that before 1941 many small towns had a majority Jewish population. In the 1920s, the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic had four official languages, one of which was Yiddish. We know all too well what happened after 1941.
There is evidence of the appearance of a golem in the book, but really only if you know what the signs are. Otherwise the reader will think that there is just something strange about the boy. Petra has made him, after all, what must be the first Scots-speaking golem in history.
Petra: For several years I have frequently walked past the railings enclosing what is reputed to be the first communal Jewish cemetery in Scotland. First used in 1816 and closed once full in 1867, it is situated in Sciennes House Place, Edinburgh. Peering, as I do, through the railings is rewarded with a view of the Hebrew letterings still visible on some of the grave stones. It’s 235 years ago, just round the corner from there in Sciennes Hill House, that the “most momentous meeting in Scottish literary history” took place when a 15 years old Walter Scott was able to supply the already famous Robert Burns with the source of a poetic quote. Maybe that’s why Avi can speak Scots…
Just yesterday a recording of a meeting was released on the internet. There can be no doubt that this is a recording of a meeting conducted by the Belarus Deputy Minister of the Interior Nikolai Karpenkov, reporting to his underlings on a conversation held earlier with ‘president’ Lukashenka. How the recording reached the internet we do not yet know.
A combination of the mishandling of the coronavirus epidemic (at first the ‘president’ did not believe in the existence of the virus) and massive falsification in the presidential election on 9 August 2020 has led to ongoing protests, at least eight dead, tens of thousands of arrests (including children and pensioners), injuries, torture (including rape), large numbers of people seeking asylum outside the country. The various police structures now feel that they can act with impunity; this is borne out by what Karpenkov says in the meeting. He encourages the use of shooting to kill in order to suppress street protests of any kind. He urges young police officers to overcome any qualms they may have had about using extreme force. He wants the creation of concentration camps to house all those protestors who are arrested for a second time.
Aĺhierd Baharevič’s novel Alindarka’s Children has young people confined to a camp in Belarus in order to cure their bad pronunciation of Russian. Now we have a government minister proposing the establishment of camps behind barbed wire to house anyone who disagrees with the powers-that-be: all this in a country that knew the excesses of the Stalin regime in the 1930s and the horror of the Nazis in 1941-44, just three hours’ flying time from London.
Humans are persecuted, silenced, completely isolated in prisons and commit suicide out of despair; how much must foreign countries know before they act?
By Alhierd Bacharevič
We express our grave concern – this wonderful, yet exhausted, kind of wounded-animal sound from the West has long been the subject of disgruntled jokes in Belarus: we’re being left entirely at the mercy of the Monster. For the Monster there is no more enticing music than this empty, ritual phrase. The State Monster has once again escaped any punishment, once more has been happily delivered is the only conceivable meaning.
We express our great concern-could be the phrase printed in golden letters in the Coat of Arms of the Foreign Ministry of Belarus. Such grave concern has long been the Semi-reaction of the West which permits the Semi-facist Belarus impunity. This land of Belarus, ‘Half-russian’ in the East, and its absurd system has long garnered only half-glances at political scrutiny. –While we Belarus have only ever had to envisage a strange scale of judgement, as to where do you draw the line of grave concern from the European Union? How much concern is required, how much lawlessness to tip the scales?
In August 2020 the outrage and exhaustion erupted and tore the black mask from the face of the State. The revenge of the State was brutal. Belarus citizens hoped the West would intercede. Certainly greater concern than ever was registered-but it was after all just concern.
There has been a haunting poem circulating on Facebook in Belarus – by the Russian poet Lev Rubinstein, encapsulating the disappointment, rage and bitter irony of Belarus:
I will permit my attempt at translating the triangle:-
We express our grave concern.
e express our grave concern.
express our grave concern.
xpress our grave concern.
press our grave concern.
ress our grave concern.
ess our grave concern.
ss our grave concern.
s our grave concern.
our grave concern.
ur grave concern.
r grave concern.
So it is that concern becomes a mere line of words. Grave concern really flattens to: you’re on your own..and the rest of the world doesn’t give a monkeys. Political language doesn’t speak to your loneliness, it speaks to itself. We are concerned, hence you are saved.
It is pretty obvious that such a level of concern was what the dictatorship had in mind in May when they appropriated Ryan Air’s flight and abducted Protasewich as state terrorism. Can all the world swallow that? –Such was our question, yet even the Belarus people wondered at the reaction of the West, as it drew an invisible curtain across the skies. Such a stern reaction had yet to be envisaged. Uneasy concern! Now Belarusians felt like they were in prison. Such misgivings were the unease associated with the ‘Divided Sky’ of Christa Wolf’s forgotten novel. How might one escape? Only in the easterly direction, into the arms of the ready-to-imprison Russian Tsar. Although Turkey is one option.
Dear EU, you’re marvellous, do remember to leave a door open! So says my Belarus friend... on social media. The Western side of the air corridor is the only one available for many of my friends. It is hard for them to really grasp how concerned the EU citizens are about their own security. Splendid concerns… Words awaken deeds.
How much do words actually weigh? How high is the regard or prestige earned by words? How much do words like grave concern weigh? Some words are great deeds. Some not. Some are effective, often not. Some are only valued by those who utter them. Today I find myself mulling those words Pope Pius XI wrote in 1937, for his Encyclical, entitled, ‘With Passionate Concern’. Its critique of Nazism and Racism was required as never before. The Church had to make its pronouncement through the Pope. Were these words any good against War and genocide? No, yet they were spoken. They hit the mark. They raised doubt. They almost came in time. Words always come too late. I sense the words grave concerns were always fashioned to be timely, but also helpless…
Words from the chief news organ of the State demanded critics be hanged in public. These words could not be appreciated by readers in the West, but they were stated. Not misheard. Hanging.. Humans.. In Public. Just so everyone there knows what happens if you disobey. First candidate for public hanging, announced by the fan of the gallows-commentator, is a well-known theatre director. Then he also says: Bacharevič is in the hot-seat.
Do these words elicit grave concern? Or more than that? You could say, they’re just words. I remember a time when calling Lukashenko a murderer sounded over-exaggerated. Not any more. The word has found its mark. In October I published an essay called ‘The Last Word of Childhood. Fascism as Memory’ in which I have written about fascism in Belarus, and that needs to be called out as correctly and mercilessly as possible. This abhorrent word was a stumbling block: fascism is too strong a word, dear author, came the reply. Fascism is another thing altogether. Fascism is an impossibility in the Twenty-First Century. Such commententaries from abroad. It is very important to reflect precisely, weigh up when one can use such a word. In the calm of a study a word like fascism always comes across as exaggerated. But on the streets of Minsk it is entirely appropriate.
My wife, a poet, has been continually writing week for week to political prisoners in Belarus. She has written dozens already, with plenty of pretty adhesive stickers, as it is said the prisons lack any colour or beauty – the prisoners, who have been arrested for absurd accusations or already prosecuted, need these colours and beauty as their air. My wife is sitting in the adjoining room and I hear her breath: she seeks words, the right words... it is so hard to find them for total strangers. But she finds them.
We never know if these words find the recipients, maybe they’re read by the supervisor, maybe they are laughed at by inspectors and thrown out. Maybe they keep them in a dark box, like the humans. Perhaps they receive these letters, but are not allowed to reply to them, who can say. It’s like a message in a bottle thrown into the ocean. Still she writes. I have only written a few letters, but I know you must find the words..When you are sitting in security and the recipient dies in a cell the words are criminal, sinful. Every word... too artificial and alien… Every word I write is a crime: I am here and they are there. I hate myself. How can I be wordless? The whole of Belarus is writing letters in prison at the moment. Everyone has become an author… No one is forcing them to write.
It would be wholly sufficient to say to oneself: I don’t know these people. I’m so sorry... nonetheless I wish to express grave concerns. But they don’t: they find alternative words.
Already back in 2019 we liked to talk about the way Poetry in Belarus was experiencing catastrophe. The poetic language was more and more complicated and hermetic. – and had in our total rhyming-and-reasonable, traditional, patriarchal land (whose name older Belarus’ poets rhyme with goose –‘Bielarus-hus’ –) no chance, so we thought. Poetry became marginalised. But then in August 2020 it attained a second birth or wind. As it turned out the humans found words for their new emotions, their hopes, fears and pain.
Here we are, they are there. This title I gave to a poem in that August. I was startled at how this poem found its echo in people. I watched as my brave wife read her poems in the streets, like other poets who without fear expressed themselves – and understood how the human beings had anticipated their national poetry. As though these words had been locked up in a magical tower for twenty-six years and finally were free of this magic.
Belarus has heard its literature. In August the literary scene has divided markedly: all that is living and talented and free has chosen resistance. Everything dead has chosen to cowardly declare its allegiance to the state side or reacted with dead silence. Now there is a defined Belarus literary readership: has it spoken or remained timidly silent? Is that right? Of course not. Everyone has a right to silence. But we have allowed ourselves to write as though in a democratic land, allowed ourselves our literary wars and intrigues, we wanted so much to write like our colleagues in the free world. And if we overcome the dictatorship today we must shunt all old conflicts into the new time. The dictatorship built long artistic barriers between readers and authors. Now the great Belorussian wall is gone. And words are freer. Manage to say things and at the right time: today we have a literary chance. Whoever is silent is lost.
In April the latest Belarus version of my novel Dogs of Europe came under suspicion of extremism. My novel is a hostage. As is every reader of the work who lives in Belarus. A group of people who have nothing to do with literature read the book and seek extremism... and I don’t envy them their task: the novel has more than 800 pages and is in Belarusian and partly in an invented language, Balbuta. Why do they grasp this in this book? Whose right is it? What makes them feel the words belong to them? Those who cannot read such words have been made experts. Those who have only Text-message and judgments and only read orders.
How can I explain it in the West? In the West of Europe where words like Extremism related to Islam or rightwing crimes. How can I explain how in Belarus anything that resists the State is decried as extremist and is hounded?
Sometimes I think the solution is: to put Belarus historically in Europe and to understand it as such. Belarus as a self-determined wanderer, on its historical path. Behind the word ‘Belarus’ the country and its long road to independence. But we are just reading from the burial of Vitold Asuraks, who was murdered in Lukashenko’s prison.
We read the last testament of seventeen-year-old Dzmitry Stachouski, who was driven to suicide by Lukashenko’s police, jumping from the 16th floor. We write our words of thankfulness to the Mayor of Latvian Riga, who has put our white-red-white flag instead of the flag of dictatorship at the Icehockey World championship. It was a deed. A small deed instead of a thousand words.
Belarus sinks in government lies. We are told we lost. But how can you speak of victory or loss when the armed bands stand against the unarmed people?
It’s no sport. Belarus demands from the world that it says a word. A word that doesn’t sound like an empty formulation, it must burn with passion. The grave concern is the same as silence. No concern please. We are the same humans as you. We are bound by culture, religion, history and humanity to your threads, wanting to tear apart the regime. Belarus is in Europe. For the longest of times we kept ourselves going, crying and laughing. With tears and irony. Belarus cannot cry any more. Belarus cannot laugh any more.
Belarus is being murdered... For all to see. Belarus cries: help! Give us your word. Do your deed. Before it is too late.
The Belarussian Author was born in Minsk 1975.
He received various awards including ‘Book of the Year’ in Belarus, and ‘Alindarka’s Children’ (Дзеці Аліндаркі, 2014) is translated into English. He authored essays, like ‘Berlin, Paris and the Village’.
‘Magpie on the Gallows’ was published in 2009.
Since the end of 2020 he lives with his wife, the poet, Julia Cimafiejeva, as Guest of the Steiermark Kulturvermittlung- ‘Writer in Exile’-Program in Graz. He wrote the above text in German.
TRANSLATED BY CHARLES WISEMAN