The First Anthology of Belarusian Poetry in English: Sponsors and Censors

For 57 years, from 1948 to 1985, UNESCO published its Collection of Representative Works, a series of books aiming to popularise major works of world literature written in lesser-known languages by translating them into more widely-used ones, particularly English and French. In 1971, the first anthology of Belarusian poetry in English appeared in this series. The book, Like Water, Like Fire: an Anthology of Byelorussian Poetry from 1828 to the Present Day, was jointly sponsored by UNESCO and the National Commission for UNESCO of the Byelorussian SSR, and published by the London imprint George Allen & Unwin.


Vera Rich, who translated all 221 poems in the anthology, came across the Belarusian community in London in October 1953 and since then took an active part in the life of the Belarusian diaspora in Britain and translated Belarusian poets. She also made an immense contribution to making Ukrainian poetry known in the English-speaking world. By the time Like Water, Like Fire appeared, Rich had already established herself as a poet, publisher of the poetry magazine Manifold, author of several books about Ukrainian and Belarusian literature, and a successful journalist.

Like Water, Like Fire begins with the only known poem by Paŭliuk Bahrym (1812-c1891), ‘Play Then, Play’, which was taught in the schools of Soviet Belarus as the earliest example of peasants’ liberation literature. Already in this choice of the opening poem the influence of the anthology’s sponsors can be detected; it is even more obvious in the later sections of the volume.

This influence wasn’t absolute: the book contains a modest selection of persecuted authors such as Jazep Pušča, Uladzimir Duboŭka and Larysa Hienijuš. But there are no poems by Alieś Harun, a talented author deeply despised by the Soviet authorities. Vera Rich addressed this omission in 1982 when she published a volume of selected works by Harun, Maksim Bahdanovič, and Zmitrok Biadulia, The Images Swarm Free.

Arnold McMillin, who later became the most important scholar of Belarusian literature in the English-speaking world, welcomed Like Water, Like Fire as “an outstanding piece of work which will serve many English readers as an introduction to an unjustly neglected corner of European literature”. He noted that the book was the product of nearly 20 years of work and “the translations adhere closely to the form and rhythm of the original poems, and in many cases Miss Rich achieves felicitous results” . He was critical, however, of a misrepresentative – to a certain degree – selection of works, particularly from the 19th century:

No representation is given to such 19th-century poets as Ravinski, Čačot and Dunin-Marcinkievič, or to the anonymous Taras on Parnassus […] It is a pity that both by her selection of poems and by her introductory survey of the development of the Byelorussian poetry […] she creates the impression of a cultural void between 1828 and 1891.

Anton Adamovich of the Belarusian Institute of Arts and Sciences, New York, also noted that “Soviet Belorussian poetry is represented most extensively […] and is translated most adequately […] But the poetry of the 1920s, the ‘years of plenty’ […] is very poorly represented with just a dozen poems.” Adamovich refers here to the translator’s comment that the “years of plenty” of the 1920s – the years of immense richness and vibrancy in Belarusian literature – were followed by the “years of dearth” under Stalin’s purges and repressions. About 90% of Belarusian writers published in the 1920s and-1930s were shot, died in NKVD prisons, were sent to the Gulag or were forced to leave the country.

It seems that Vera Rich’s work wasn’t entirely accepted by the Belarusian diaspora which had had great hopes for this publication and contributed to the translator’s efforts, as is evidenced by an extensive acknowledgements list. The book must have been seen by Belarusians in the west as a victim of Soviet ideological pressure. The Reverend Alexander Nadson, head of the Belarusian Catholic community in London, who knew Vera Rich for many years and assisted her with translations, recalled that the translator kept the exact content of Like Water, Like Fire secret. One day archival materials may shed light on the circumstances of appearance of this first – and so far only – anthology of Belarusian poetry in English.

Two curious stories relate to its publication. The first is narrated by the translator herself, who thanked “last and most definitely not least (and in view of the title, most appropriately) […] the Enfield Fire Service who salvaged the manuscript during a flood-cum-electrical-fire shortly before its completion”. Reading these words, those who knew Vera Rich would easily recall a chaotic but immensely amusing person who lived from one disaster to another and somehow even thrived on all those challenges.

The second story relates to the fact that the book appeared with two different dustjackets. One, with the former Belarusian coat of arms, the Pahonia evidently didn’t get approval from at least one of the sponsors: the Pahonia was banned in the Byelorussian SSR. The dustjacket had to be reprinted and the copies that went on sale carried a plain sky-blue jacket. A small number of copies with the original dustjacket have survived and occasionally appear in antiquarian bookshops in English-speaking countries.

The two dustjackets of Like Water, Like Fire.

Ihar Ivanou, Head of Learning Resources, QA Higher Education, London, British Library, European Studies blog

References:

  • A. Adamovich, Review of ‘Like Water, Like Fire.An Anthology of Byelorussian Poetry from 1828 to the Present Day’ by Vera Rich. Slavic Review, 32 (1973), 4, pp. 863-864. Ac.2684.e.
  • Leanid Marakoŭ, Rėprėsavanyia litaratary, navukoŭtsy, rabotniki asvety, hramadskiia i kulʹturnyia dzeiachy Belarusi, 1794-1991: ėntsyklapedychny davednik u trokh tamakh.
    Volume 1. (Minsk, 2002-2005). ZF.9.a.2546
  • A. McMillin. Review of ‘Like Water: Like Fire. An Anthology of Byelorussian Poetry from 1828 to the Present Day’ by Vera Rich. The Slavonic and East European Review, 50 (1972), pp. 118-120. Ac.2669.e
  • Rich, V. (2009) The most significant event in my life. Available from:https://belbritain.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/1-15/.

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