Note from the publisher
What you are about to read is a series of blog posts written by co-translators of Scotland Street Press’ upcoming publication, Alindarka’s Children. Last year, Scotland Street Press received the PEN Translates award, which provided the funds to embark on this project. Alindarka’s Children is a novel by Belarusian author Alhierd Bacharevič, written in Russian and Belarusian. Academic Jim Dingley and poet Petra Reid (Scotland Street Press published her collection MacSonnetries in 2017) are the translators of this novel. The Belarusian will become Scots, and the Russian English. These posts feature an introduction by Jim Dingley and a dialogue-like piece between Jim and Petra about the difficulties of translating certain passages of the novel.
Please note: posts are published from most recent.
Blog Post 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.”
Blog Post 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 Highland er 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.
Blog Post 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 nineteenth-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).
Unreliable Renditions, 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.
Post # 6
Belarus and what the English do not like talking about, 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 eighteenth 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.
Post by Petra Reid
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.
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.
Post # 5
Keep your head down, 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.
How Belarus Could Have Won Eurovision 2020, by Petra Reid
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 vosyenʹ 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…
What’s in a name? 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?
Post 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 drawing above is Grose’s depiction of
Alloway Kirk. 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.
The Belarusian Language, by Jim Dingley
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.
Petra Reid Commentary
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 £1 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 14 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
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.
Dialogue between Petra Reid and Jim Dingley about issues arising; Petra reflecting on Belarusian.
By Petra Reid
-Translation of Father’s (Scots speaker) thoughts into words.
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.
by Jim Dingley
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?
More to follow…
Dialogue between Petra Reid and Jim Dingley about issues arising
– Why would a name like Alicia speak Scots?
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.