This File Last Updated: 2006/09/26

Vera Rich

Poet, Translator, Author, Compiler, Editor, etc.

[ Portrait: Vera Rich, 1971 ]

Book jacket photo, Like Water Like Fire, 1971

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Open Letter from Vera Rich, June 30, 2005

Dear friends – writers and lovers of Belarusian literature,

As some of you may be aware, there is currently a project to produce a CD of Belarusian literature in translation, to be produced under the auspices of UNESCO, with some kind of participation from the Janka Kupala library in Minsk.

Unfortunately, this will not, in my opinion, give an adequate representation of Belarusian literature, and although I have done my best at "damage limitation", what seems to be a quite arbitrary time-limit has been imposed, and, alas, I can do no more. I am writing, therefore, not so much to apologize (for I have done all that was in my power – to the neglect of other work and commitments!) but to try to explain the situation.

Although I have been translating Belarusian literature for almost 50 years, and am – I think – fairly well known to Belarusian literary circles, I first learned of this project (in a somewhat roundabout manner) only in late April, 2005.

I immediately tried to find out what was happening, and why I had not been informed (particularly since the person compiling the CD had been in touch with me on a number of occasions over the past few years).

In the course of the next few weeks, I discovered the following:

  1. The project was planned at least a year ago, at which time the Belarusian embassy in London was informed of it. However the letter containing this information was apparently put aside and ignored/forgotten.

  2. The person who worked at the Janka Kupala Library who was supposed to be compiling the CD failed to return from a visit to Vilnia earlier this year, having apparently done little or no work on it.

  3. The task of compiling it was then given to Svetlana Skomorokhova (NB She prefers to spell her name in Russian) who was at that time busy completing her Candidate"s dissertation. In the avtoreferat of her dissertation she wrote that the CD would be published in June 2005 (the original deadline). When I asked about this, she said that she had given this date only as a formality, for the sake of appearances, and in the full expectation that she would be allowed more time.

  4. Later, however, she informed me that the UNESCO office in Moscow insisted that she should keep to the deadline of 21 June, or else pay a fine.

  5. I approached Jim Dingley, the head of the Anglo-Belarusian Society, an organization devoted to the promulgation of Belarusian culture in anglophone circles. He contacted Uladzimier Shchasny – head of Belarusian delegation in UNESCO... Shortly after this, Miss Skomorkhova reported that she had been given an extension of two weeks.

  6. It appeared that the material she has acquired so far consists of translations done in the USSR, from Russian intermediate versions, by persons of no literary talents in English. They are accordingly of low quality, and abound in errors... and simply not a worthy representation of the beauty and subtlety of the originals.

  7. It was impractical for me to get to Belarus to find out more just at this time. However, I was able to meet her over the weekend of 11-12 June. During this meeting, she told me that the idea of the CD is to include "everything available"... prose and verse. She said she wanted to include my translations from Like Water Like Fire!, and The Images Swarm Free (and even some from Poems on Liberty). She also wanted to use my preface from Like Water Like Fire (suitably updated) as preface to the CD. I suggested that she should also include some of my translations which have been published in various literary magazines, and also various other high-quality translations which had been published by the Anglo-Belarusian Society – including Fr Alexander Nadson"s translations of the Lives of St Euphrosyne and St Cyril of Turau, Dr Shirin Akiner"s translations of Sakrat Janovic"s Miniatures, etc. This she appeared keen to do, and has been in touch with Jim Dingley about this.

  8. However, she insisted that there was no way we could get an extension of time. After I returned from Vilnia, I sent her all easily accessible translations (i.e., material I had on file in my computer), and she e-mailed me the proofs of the poems from Like Water Like Fire to check. (This is a matter of some 300 pages of poetry, and checking them is a major task.) It was not only a matter of checking for typographic errors – some poems needed emending because of changes in the English language in the past 30 years – e.g., "gay" which used to be an appropriate rendering of "viasoly" now means "homosexual."

  9. Moreover, in the course of checking the proofs, I realized that since my translations were first published, a number of the poems had been substantially emended by the authors. In certain cases, extra lines had been added (Viarcinski"s "Every Fourth One" is now more than three times the original length!). I realized I needed to check every poem against the Belarusian text that will be used in the CD, even with the classics, since in some cases (e.g., Bahdanovic), there are differences between the versions which were given me in the 1960s and those published in the past few years.

    On 20 June I received some of the Belarusian texts (down to the letter H (Latin Alphabet). The rest were promised for next day, but never arrived.

  10. Since my translations preserve – as far as humanly possible – the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the originals, emending these translations is not a matter of a few minutes. I continued to urge Miss Skomorokhova to press for more time. She said, however, that the UNESCO office in Moscow was now insisting on a deadline of 1 July for the delivery of all texts to them. During the next few days, she informed by e-mail that Shchasny was now talking of an edition of only 200 copies of the CD which will be "non-commercial"... and that a better version could be done later... Later, this became 50 copies now ("to satisfy UNESCO") and an improved version in September... However, I cannot help fearing that he was saying this simply to calm her down. Moreover, I do not know what he meant by "non-commercial" - but if he meant free distribution to university libraries etc... then those are surely precisely the kind of recipients who should not be sent inadequate versions. However, if Shchasny"s two-stage scenario really is going to be implemented – then it seems evident to me that the 1 July deadline was entirely arbitrary...

  11. I have done what I can... But my time and strength are limited... and as the deadline approaches, I realise that I have not been sent the proofs of certain authors from Like Water Like Fire, which may simply be an oversight (but could just possibly involve considerations of "Political correctness"!)

  12. As far as my own reputation is concerned, I am not particularly eager to have my work published in conjunction with the shoddy products of the Soviet era. However, for the sake of Belarusian literature, I felt, and indeed feel, that it is important that the CD should contain at least some work of reasonable quality.

And, in particular, I have tried to take into account the emendations that poets themselves have introduced into their work – or, in the case of the classics, to work with the texts which current scholarship considers the most authentic.

Time, however – an artificially imposed time-constraint – has defeated me...

I have done what I could... Forgive me that I could do no more.

Chaj Zhyvie Bielarus!

Vera Rich


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