Language Log » Translation of multiple languages in a single novel (2022)

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New York Times book review by Sophie Pinkham (6/21/22):

The Thorny Politics of Translating a Belarusian Novel

How did the translators of “Alindarka’s Children,” by Alhierd Bacharevic, preserve the power dynamics between the book’s original languages?

A prickly dilemma for a translator if ever there were one. Faced with a novel that is written in more than one language, how does one convey to the reader the existence and essence of those multiple languages? Because of the linguistic intricacies posed by the original novel and the complicated solutions to them devised by the translators, which are described in considerable detail and critically assessed by Pinkham, I will quote lengthy passages from the review (which may not be readily available to many Language Log readers), focusing almost entirely on language and translation issues.

Every bilingual country is bilingual in its own way. The principal languages in Belarus, which was part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, and which remains in Russia’s grip, are Russian and Belarusian. Russian is the language of power, cities and empire; Belarusian is the language of the countryside, the home, the nation. In neighboring Ukraine, whose history in some ways resembles that of Belarus, Ukrainian is now the primary language. Belarusian, meanwhile, is classified by UNESCO as “vulnerable.”

Translators of novels written for bilingual readers thus face a daunting challenge: how to transplant a text clinging fast to its country of origin while preserving the threads of history and power between its original languages.

ALINDARKA’S CHILDREN (New Directions, 325 pp., paper, $19.95), by the Belarusian writer Alhierd Bacharevic, is a fantasy — part Slavic fairy tale, part “1984,” part “Children of Men” — about linguistic imperialism and rebellion. It tells the story of a man who raises his daughter, Sia, to speak Belarusian and to go mute whenever Russian is spoken. For him, Russian is the “language of intrigues and fear, the language of humiliation and rape, the language of the kangaroo court where only the innocent are ever found guilty.” The state eventually takes Sia from her father and sends her to a linguistic re-education camp.

In 2014, [Bacharevic] published “Alindarka’s Children,” which was inspired by a story he had read about an educator who advised a couple to seek professional help in ridding their child of a Belarusian accent. A strong supporter of the antigovernment protest movement that began in 2020 and has met with violent repression, Bacharevic recently fled to Austria.

Writers have always been among the most important proponents of the Belarusian language, and Bacharevic’s choice to write in Belarusian is in part a political one. So is his decision to incorporate snippets of Russian into the novel. In their translation for Anglophone readers, Jim Dingley, a longtime translator and scholar of Belarusian literature, and Petra Reid, a Scottish poet whose practice involves “feeding other authors’ works through the mincer of Scots,” dive into the bilingual dilemma with reckless zeal, attempting to replicate Bacharevic’s language-mixing with English and Scots, another “vulnerable” language worn away by imperialism.

There are problems with this solution. Bacharevic writes in his mother tongue; as Reid explains in her translator’s note, she does not herself speak Scots. She has invented some of the words and grammar and has drawn on sources from Scots Law to Irvine Welsh. The reader encounters intriguing but puzzling words such as “foostie-baws” (mushrooms), “houghmagandie” (fornication) and “goury” (the refuse of the intestines of salmon).

The original novel is almost entirely in Belarusian; there are only occasional lines in Russian and in a mixture of the two languages. Dingley and Reid’s translation, meanwhile, renders the conversations and some internal monologues of the novel’s Belarusian speakers into Scots, while the rest is in English. To replicate the relationship of the languages in the original novel would have meant a novel written almost entirely in Scots, a daunting proposition for most English-speaking readers. Translating only the Russian parts into Scots might have preserved the occasional semantic switches required of the Belarusian reader (who would understand both Belarusian and Russian), but would have reversed the relationship between imperial and local languages.

Dingley and Reid’s translation strategy has an unfortunate result: The sinister Russian/English-speaking characters are easiest to understand, while the dialogue and thoughts of the more sympathetic Belarusian/Scots characters are fuzzy and slow-going for the non-Scottish reader. The trouble starts from the novel’s opening line: “Ma tittie wis eatit bi wulves.” (“Tittie” means “sister.”) Phrases like “She’s no bow-hough’d, she’s no hen-shin’d” sent me to the glossary at the end of the book — where, for some reason, the unfamiliar words were not included. The juxtaposition of language and subject sometimes produced a bizarre effect: “Yon Moscow metro runnin, yon Kremlin chimes chimin’.”

I wished that Dingley and Reid had taken the easier path and translated the novel entirely into English. For one thing, I didn’t want to miss a word of Bacharevic’s writing, which blends fairy tale and politics with often magical results. His descriptions pulse with sociohistorical meaning, as in this portrait of a Soviet-era Minsk hotel: “By one wall there was a bed, made up military-style with well-scrubbed, mended and orphaned bedclothes. On the sheet there was a large, dark prison-colored stamp with an illegible abbreviation. The greasy, lacquered wood of the bed gave off a feeble gleam, reminding the viewer that having a good sleep meant wasting precious working time.”

Dingley and Reid’s English translations, moreover, are gorgeous, bountiful: “It’s those sourish, mind-bending little berries that are to blame, those tiny wee spheres, those tablets that flood your head with all kinds of nonsense, that give you that tight feeling in your chest. Bilberries, bletherberries that befuddle the mind, babbleberries that give you a kick.” A passage like this is clearly Scottish without any sacrifice of intelligibility. One alternative might have been for Dingley and Reid to use their vibrant, Scottish-tinged English for Belarusian and a more formal standard English for Russian.

Sia and Avi are the sister and brother at the center of the novel. Avi is short for Aviator, while Sia gets her name from the Egyptian god who personified perception and was associated with writing and papyrus. Their father, known simply as “Faither” (the Scots word), revels in being the author-god of his children. He brings them into existence, he chooses their language, he assigns the names of everything in the world. He is Adam and Pygmalion and Prospero rolled into one, intoxicated by power: “A little girl that he at first imagined and then created. A language that sprouted from his seed. … He too was the Faither of a language, and that gave him the desire to carry on living.”

He goes to great lengths to have the foreign name Sia written in his daughter’s passport, though it is not in the book of standard names at the registration office. The clerk there protests that the outlandish name will be with the girl until she’s dead. Like people, Faither says, languages die — and “ah feel mair vext fur langages.” Sia is to be the “keeper o the message.”

At the camp, Sia and Avi are “treated” by the Doctor, a self-hating Belarusian who has developed a regime of medication, speech therapy and even surgery to “cure” the children of their native language. He denies the distinctive aura of a mother tongue, so charged with early childhood memories: “Substitute one word for another, clear one word away or scrap it entirely. That’s exactly what he does sometimes, and nothing changes. The office becomes no bigger, the white walls do not acquire a red tinge, that random fly does not start reciting poems.” He is an anti-poet.

Above all, he is obsessed with pronunciation. His great discovery is a throat bone that makes Belarusians speak Russian as “a primeval, animal growl.” In real life, being betrayed by one’s accent cuts both ways: During the current Russian invasion, Ukrainians have reportedly rooted out Russian covert operatives by having them pronounce the word palianytsia, which refers to a type of bread.

Faither eventually questions the wisdom of his linguistic crusade, though his doubt comes long after he has lost his children. In a dream he sees a grown-up Sia talking to her foreign fiancé. She says it’s the re-education camp — her learning of Russian, her cure — that allowed her to go to college, find a job and fall in love. She offers to read her father’s diary to her fiancé, even though she’ll have to translate it for him. “But then translation is a way of avenging yourself on language for what it has done,” she says. “Because there’s no end to it, and because it’s so powerful.”

“Alindarka’s Children” is no nationalist polemic. Instead, it’s an ambivalent exploration of the survival of a vulnerable language in a fallen world. Many of the questions it asks are now receiving global attention. Have the crimes of the Russian government rendered the Russian language toxic? What about the Russian literary canon, which Russia has long used as a tool of imperialism — even if many of its writers would have abhorred such a practice? When should linguistic pragmatism, the need to survive in society as it is, win out over idealism? Bacharevic’s rich, provocative novel offers a kaleidoscopic picture of language as fairy-tale forest, as Gulag, as monument, as tomb, as everlasting life.

Sophie Pinkham, the author of “Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine,” is working on a cultural history of the Russian forest.

Similar scenarios exist with regard to the translation of monolingual works that include extensive quotations from other languages or radically different registers of the same language.

Selected readings

  • "Trainspotting-like Voices in Chinese" (3/12/11)
  • "Dialect or Topolect?" (7/1/10)
  • "Ukrainian is not Russian" (7/26/21)
  • "'Little Russian'" (3/17/22)

[Thanks to Don Keyser]

July 13, 2022 @ 6:21 am · Filed by Victor Mair under Multilingualism, Pronunciation, Translation


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