Note from the publisher
What you are about to read is the first post in a blog series 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. This post features an introduction by Jim Dingley and a dialogue-like piece between Jim and Petra about the difficulties of translating certain passages of the novel.
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.