Translation of multiple languages in a single novel

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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

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. David Marjanović said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 8:11 am

    Discussed at great length here a year ago.

  2. Martin Holterman said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 9:42 am

    Isn't this a variation of the problem of how to translate War and Peace? In my copy, the French is still shown as French, but with an English transation in the footnotes. That just about works if there isn't too much French dialogue on any given page, but I can certainly see how a translator might take a different approach.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 10:05 am

    I believes that the full review, including the content of the ellipses above, can be found here.

  4. DG said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 10:11 am

    I think most translations of War and Peace just translate everything into English, quite reasonably, since we don't expect people to know French to the same extent as the original readers did.

    I think if they took your approach, it would still be weird. Russian and Belarusian are almost mutually comprehensible, like English and Scots, and are used side-by-side and mixed in practice, depending purely on social context. But in translation it would be utterly alien, since most English readers have no Russian whatsoever.

  5. Coby said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 11:09 am

    This reminds me of the time that I wondered about the translatability of the novel Amb ulls americans ("With American Eyes") by Carme Riera. The novel is almost entirely in Catalan, with some quoted dialogue in Spanish. The text is supposedly written by an American who studied Catalan in Barcelona, the novelist presenting herself as its editor in a preface, written in her native Majorcan while the novel itself is in the standard Catalan of Catalonia. The Spanish dialogue also comes in two variants — "Castilian" and Andalusian, with the former using standard orthography while in the latter c (before e or i) and z are replaced by s. The problem here is that for the American "author", who learned his Spanish in New York where he lived with some Mexican musicians, the seseo would sound normal and he would be unlikely to give it special distinction.
    I couldn't see any way in which these linguistic details could be translated. (There is a Spanish translation by the author, which I haven't read.)

  6. David Arthur said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 12:03 pm

    I thought of something similar, but in the opposite direction, when I came across a Swedish translation of 'Waverley'. The translator had understood the Scots dialogue, even at its most difficult moments – but completely elided its difference from the English. I thought they should have rendered it as Norwegian!

  7. Peter B. Golden said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 1:13 pm

    Interestingly enough, the book's author bears the name Alhierd (Belarusian Альгерд, Russ. Ольгерд) which is the name of a Lithuanian ruler (1345-1377), Algirdas of the Grand Principality (usually rendered as "Duchy) of Lithuania, (Вяликае княства Літоўскае) which ruled Belarus' from the mid-13th century. Old Belarusian was the primary official language of the state. The language situation with which the author, Alhierd Baxarevič, deals is a common issue in Belarus. A Mischsprache of Russian-Belarusian, termed Трасянка (like Ukrainian Суржик) was already widely used in the towns in the 19th century (and probably earlier). It was the language that I spoke with my grandparents, who came from a small (but old) town, Рогачёев/Рагачоў, and a "settlement" (пасёлак), Паричи, that didn't even meet the criteria for "village" status. In everyday speech, the two are blended, often in the course of a single sentence. How to render that (e.g. the constant shifting between "g" and "h") is hard. I am not sure that Scots' English gives quite the same feeling.

  8. cliff arroyo said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 1:27 pm

    I'm wondering if a possible solution might be to have the Belarusian text in relatively normal everyday English (a particular variety) and the russian parts in a very formal bureaucratese register (since part of the difference has to do with the idea that russian has government support and Belarusian…. doesn't).

    for example (Belarusian) "He didn't close the door."

    (russian) "He failed to shut the portal."

  9. Coby said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 1:37 pm

    I should add to my comment that my guess about the author's Spanish translation of her Catalan novel, if it follows the usual pattern of Spanish-language novels about Barcelona, is that any references to the Catalan language are held to a bare minimum, sometimes zero, as in the novels of Manual Vásquez Montalbán, Rosa Regàs or Carlos Ruiz Zafón. (Which would make it a different book.) As discussed above with reference to Belarusian and Russian, the Catalan-reading audience is fully bilingual, but the Spanish-reading one is not.

  10. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 2:26 pm

    "The Catalan-reading audience is fully bilingual, but the Spanish-reading one is not"

    Remember the nationalist ideology on the translator's part would be decisive on this issue though.

  11. B.Ma said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 4:15 pm

    Sounds like it would work well translated to Mandarin / other topolect, or perhaps Beijinghua / Sichuanhua and even Standard Cantonese / Taishanese.

  12. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 5:31 pm

    I think cliff arroyo has a good suggestion. If the Russian does not lend itself to such formality, why not distinguish it typographically, instead? The Russian passages could be printed in small caps, for instance, to keep them distinct from the “ordinary” Belarus text for the body of the novel.

    I understand the desire to preserve a linguistic difference in the translation. If this were an audiobook, the Belarus could be recorded in an American or British accent, with the Russian sections recorded with Russian-accented English, perhaps even using more than one voice actor. Since the book is printed, using printing to make the distinction—rather than Scots—seems least disruptive and most informative for the reader.

  13. Peter Taylor said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 4:54 am

    @Coby, my immediate thought on reading the title of this article was Incerta glòria / Incierta gloria (which I've only read in the Spanish translation). It has some characters who speak Aragonese and a recurring phrase in Italian (although eppur si muove is significant enough to have a Wikipedia page, so it's not a big problem); but for added linguistic complication every chapter begins with a quotation, which is always untranslated, so that the reader is sent scurrying for a translation tool unless they also speak English, French, German, Latin, and I can't remember what else.

  14. Vanya said,

    July 16, 2022 @ 8:17 am

    @Martin In my copy, the French is still shown as French, but with an English transation in the footnotes.

    My Russian language edition uses the same solution – a Russian translation for the French text is provided in footnotes. It definitely seems wrong to translate the French into English.

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