Scotland Street Press’ recently published The Zekameron informs the curious that the book’s title “derives from the Russian word zek, an abbreviation formed by the names of two letters of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet: зк”. It stands for zakliuchonny, a word that originally referred to a convict held in a Soviet labour camp. The word now means “prisoner”. Author of The Zekameron and former Minsk lawyer Maxim Znak was incarcerated in 2020 for representing a Belarusian opposition leader. His tales of prison life are clearly inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron, but as Scotland Street Press notes, Znak is more similar to Beckett than the fifteenth-century poet when describing incarceration.
The March 1st launch event for The Zekameron’s English-language edition at Edinburgh’s Scottish Storytelling Centre offered cultural context for the uninitiated. A short opening video showed recordings of widespread protests in Belarus following the country’s 2020 general election, the ensuing police crackdown and citizens’ persecution for their struggle against a virtual dictatorship. However, Scotland Street Press’ launch also endeavoured to accommodate the more literary-inclined, with most of the event consisting of discussions about the writing, publication and translation of The Zekameron in fascinating detail.
The panel’s speakers were highly experienced in the events surrounding Belarus’ turbulent situation, both personally and professionally. Scotland Street Press’ Head of Publishing, Jean Fraser, was accompanied by Belarusian lawyer Illia Salei, who was jailed for representing the leader of the Belarusian opposition. Also present were translators Jim and Ella Dingley, who worked on this publication in a touching act of linguistic companionship. Much of the discussion focused on Salei’s incarceration, and the environment where inmates could be held indefinitely for lengthy pre-trial periods and where executions were carried out within. Belarus is the last European country to implement this penalty.
Accompanying Salei’s recollections, and his entertaining yet tragic readings from Znak’s book, was an account of the Dingleys’ translation process, the nuances of which highlight the caution that went into The Zekameron’s preparation. Certain words were probed to reflect how an English speaker would refer to places and events rather than a Russian speaker. For example, the question arose whether to use the term banya, a term which sounds rather like a penal spa. Double (or perhaps quadruple) meanings also arise from the Dingleys’ translation process. The phonetic similarity between the Spanish word baño (bathroom) and the Russian banya comes to mind, highlighting the strange familial bonds between two disparate languages: linguistic genes shared in the blood of two tongues.
Blood is certainly spilt in Belarus, with death, disappearances and oppression lurking around every corner of Znak’s incarceration and the country as a whole. As Salei noted in his description of Belarusian prison life, humour is also rife amidst the grim stasis. The Zekameron contains sprinkles of amusing and touching anecdotes, such as a request made in jest by cellmate “lads” for birthday delicacies, resulting in a slice of sponge cake being surreptitiously delivered by the guards – but only to the celebrant in question. This leads to the chapter’s irresistible closing line: “But what about the lads?”
The thematic crux of The Zekameron is one shared by other tales of historical suffering; with nothing to live for, the oppressed sometimes find humour in the bleakest circumstances. It’s a theme also found in works like Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful and Kaniuk’s Adam Resurrected. It’s certainly no surprise that Znak’s stories were sent to Jim Dingley, as he, Ella and Scotland Street Press have done a remarkable job in presenting the tales to a British audience. The Dingleys’ translation not only highlights the political situation in Belarus, but also the inherent traits and complexities shared by languages, their interpreters excavating their mysteries without becoming lost in translation.