Belarus is famous for many things but how about its literature? Typical associations with the country are sports, quality goods, and untouched nature. However, Belarusian literature can also positively surprise you.
It might not be easy to find in English, or it may not be easily accessible, but it’s definitely worth giving a try.
Beginnings of Belarusian literature
Belarusian literature began to evolve as early as the 14th-15 centuries, on the basis of the Old-Slavonic and later Old-Belarusian languages. Psaltyr by Francysk Skaryna was the first Belarusian book printed in Prague and one of the earliest translations of a Bible text into a native tongue in general.
The development of Belarusian literature continued in 16th-17th centuries when the Old Belarusian language served as the official language of the Great Duchy of Lithuania.
During the following centuries, Belarusian literature works were also written and published in other languages and alphabets, predominantly in Latin and Polish.
The end of 19th and especially at the beginning of the 20th century marked the development of Belarusian literature as a completely separate entity that used the modern version of the Belarusian language.
This was the period when the greatest names of Belarusian literature – Yanka Kupala, Yakub Kolas, Kuz’ma Chorny, and others – appeared on the horizon.
Writes and poets of that period codified the norms of the contemporary literary standard and language grammar.
There are two big monuments devoted to Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas, the two founding fathers of Belarusian poetry, prose, and drama in Minsk. Theaters, cultural institutions, and streets are named in their honor.
Belarusian literature in the Soviet era
The period of intensive Belarusification (setting Belarusian as the primary written and spoken language of the country) in the 1920s was followed by the period of repressions and cleansings.
Writers and other representatives of the intelligentsia were the groups targeted most severely. Hundreds were arrested and shot overnight, thousands sentenced to many years of deportations, labor camps, and prisons.
The Russian language was meant to gradually substitute Belarusian in all public spheres under Stalin and his successors.
This explains why Belarusian literature is not that well known in the world as the works of literature of the neighboring countries. For example, due to repressions, translation of Belarusian literature via Russian, not from the original, was considered and set as a norm, rather than an exception.
Translations and translators
Sometimes there is a tendency, even among native Belarusians, to perceive Belarusian Soviet literature as inferior to the literature created by Belarusian immigrant writers or the writers of the post-soviet era. That’s quite an unfair attitude, as the best standards of Belarusian literature were introduced and developed during the period.
Opposition to Sovietization (1917-1957) by Anthony Adamovich, published in 1958 in New York, is a great book showing the skillful techniques that Belarusian writer employed in order to avoid Soviet censorship.
It puts many famous works in a completely different light and also shows the unique values that Belarusian literature of the period has to offer to the reader from the free world. Opposition to Sovietization is probably the best critical book in English to start the acquaintance with Belarusian literature.
Talking about the corpus of texts, it is a good idea to start from the classics. Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas’s poetry is widely available in Walter May’s Soviet translations and editions.
Vasil’ Bykau (also spelled as Bykow or Bykaw) is probably the most famous Belarusian writer who also used to have the biggest number of English and other foreign translations.
However, just like other literary works of the Soviet period, most of Bykau’s novels weren’t translated into foreign languages from the original. Bykau would translate his own works from Belarusian to Russian and foreign translator usually chose the latter as the basis.
His The Dead Feel No Pain and Sign of Misfortune available in English are brutal accounts of WWII traumatic experience. Most of the stories were the author’s personal recollections from a regular soldier in the trenches.
More on the topic:
Ales’ Adamovich’s The Khatyn Story and I Am from the Fiery Village are other examples of the post-war trauma writing. By the way, a cinematic version titled Come and See (1985), by many listed as one of the best movies ever made, is also a good form of introduction to Belarusian literature.
Besides the body of literature created in the Belarusian Soviet Republic, there were also attempts to write directly in English. Kastus’ Akula was the first Belarusian emigrant to write a novel in English. Tomorrow is Yesterday depicts the lives of Belarusian people before and after WWII.
Regarding literary critics and anthologies of Belarusian poetry, there are two people to be mentioned.
Vera Rich was a prolific translator of Belarusian poetry. She translated Maksim Bahdanovich and other classic poets into English. Her works are easily available on Amazon.
Professor Arnold McMillin, on the other hand, has concentrated mostly on writing about Belarusian literature and authors in English.
Where to find Belarusian literature in English
Talking about availability, most English translations of Belarusian literature published before 1989 should be easily accessible (sometimes via an interlibrary loan) through your local library.
More modern editions are available on Amazon, eBay, sometimes via the stores selling online editions.
Except for easily available works by Svetlana Alexievich, Belarusian literature representation in English is still quite modest.
One of publishing attempts to overcome this impasse is Glagoslav publishing house. However, the cheapest way is to access multiple historical, cultural and literary works available on Belarusian Palichka (Belarusian Bookshelf). The website is a collection of originals and translations of Belarusian literature into other languages.
Text by Vital Voranau.