Second Language

The Belarusian novel Alindarka’s Children, recently translated into Scots and English, considers the political stakes of linguistic inequity.

Yiyun Li
September 20, 2022
Mark Bullimore Photography/Alamy

Discussed in this essay: Alindarka’s Children (Things Will Be Bad) by Alhierd Bacharevič, translated by Petra Reid and Jim Dingley. New Directions, 2022. 352 pages.

Sometime in the sixth century BC, Prince Zixi, a lord from the Chu state of China, crossed a river into the neighboring Yue region. The boatman sang in the Yue language a love song for the Prince, who, moved by something both beautiful and beyond his understanding, asked an interpreter for the lyrics. “The Song of the Yue Boatman” was thus recorded as the first translated poem in China. It was said that in Yue—the part of China south of the Yangtze River where my parents came from—if one traveled to another village, across a valley or over a hill, one would find a new dialect. My parents grew up in two counties with 60 miles in between, and my mother could not communicate with my paternal grandmother.

So, it may not be accurate when I say that Prince Zixi could not understand “The Song of the Yue Boatman” because it was in the Yue language; it might merely have been a dialect unfamiliar to him. But the difference between dialect and language is a tricky one. Is American English a language or a dialect? What makes Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian distinct languages, when speakers of one will to some degree understand the others—which was not the case for my two sets of grandparents, who spoke dialects of the same language? Like borders between countries, the divide between language and dialect is an artificial one, subject to manipulations, flaws, and hierarchical arrangements. Depending on its position, a way of speaking might be called a language or it might be called a dialect; a language might be designated as vital, or it might be seen as secondary, replaceable, extinguishable.

These concerns about the political power given to one language versus another—and the meanings of that power for the speakers of the subordinated language—are at the center of Alindarka’s Children by leading Belarusian novelist Alhierd Bacharevič. Published in Belarus in 2014, the novel was translated by Petra Reid and Jim Dingley and released under the title Alindarka’s Children (Things Will be Bad) by New Directions in the US in June. The novel is set in post-Soviet-era Belarus, which has two official languages: Belarusian and Russian. This nominally shared status, however, does not mean that the languages are equal in practice. Belarusian-speaking children, for example, are often denied opportunities to be educated in their mother tongue, and as they progress in school, Russian increasingly replaces Belarusian.

Alindarka’s Children takes up this real linguistic inequity and sets it in an imaginative context. In the novel, the language represented by Belarusian (referred to in the translation by the fictional name Leid) is considered by people in positions of power to be an inferior language—less pure than the language represented by Russian (called Lingo in the translation). Willing and unwilling participants—from politicians to educators to doctors to journalists to neighbors, who also function as spies in one another’s private lives—collaborate in the endeavor to eliminate Leid from everyday usage and collective memory and to make Lingo the only spoken language. In the forest, the government establishes a reformation camp for children who speak Leid, where a determined doctor performs medical protocols to brainwash the children: vitamins for cultural amnesia, oral surgery for linguistic reform.

There is just one man left who resists this linguistic erasure. Unlike other parents, he speaks only Leid with his daughter, Alicia, and despite pressure from teachers and a speech therapist, the little girl refuses to speak Lingo at school. After his second child, a boy named Avi, mysteriously appears in the household, the two children are taken from their father and sent to the reformation camp for linguistic reeducation. The novel opens with the father and his lover rescuing the children from the camp; but an upturned nest does not give protection to new hatchlings, and the children, soon separated once more from their father and his lover, set out by themselves on a journey in the dark forest, a Belarusian Hansel and Gretel. The novel is both brutally realistic and fantastically dire—Ágota Kristóf meets the Brothers Grimm.

The interplay of languages presents a challenge for translators. In the original, the omniscient narrative is written in Russian, but when we enter the minds of the characters, who speak a mixture of Leid and Lingo, the languages intermingle; and conversations between members of the central family and scenes set in the private domain of their home are rendered entirely in Belarusian. To convey this complexity, Jim Dingley and Petra Reid made an innovative decision: They translated the Russian sections of the novel into English, and the Belarusian sections into Scots. “The choice of Scots stems from the classification of both Belarusian and Scots in the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages as ‘vulnerable,’” Dingley and Reid explain in the introduction. The result is an amphibian text where the two languages, as they mingle in the characters’ minds, whirl in the readers’—an effect close to a fever dream of the best kind.

One of the most manipulable and manipulated elements in any public life—be it in the Soviet Union or in present day Russia, in colonial America or in the United States of this moment—language can become a means of annihilation, a way to rebel, the terrain of a battle for life and death. Who we are is sometimes determined by where we live; other times, by what language we speak. It is not a surprise that many regimes’ brainwashing begins with children’s education. The loss of a language is the first step toward losing cultural and ethnic memories; an imposed official language is like a new uniform, and a uniform—I have learned from my own experience in the army in communist China—can soon be taken up as an unquestioned identity.

Because of my upbringing in a communist country, I remain interested in the relationship between language and indoctrination, even in a context as seemingly benign as a book review. A book reviewer’s job is, ideally, twofold: to speak as one of the first readers of a book, and to speak with some experience or knowledge—of the genre or the subject matter, of the author’s geographical, historical, and literary roots, of the elements that make the book uniquely its own. It is the second role that sometimes makes a book review read like a verdict, while to my mind, it’s never a reviewer’s job to give that. God knows we have too many verdicts already these days—YES! NO! RIGHT! WRONG! IN! OUT! Verdict contributes to art in the same manner propaganda contributes to thinking.

I take the position of a previewer more seriously than that of a reviewer. For this reason, I need to supplement the partial synopsis of the book I offered above with a brief summary of my experience reading Alindarka’s Children. Readers: I nearly gave up. But as I kept going, I saw how the possibility of getting lost intertwines with the opportunity to expand one’s intellectual horizons. To be lost gives rise to the promise of finding one’s way out of the maze, or, better yet, of turning the maze into a native habitat of one’s mind.

To be lost gives rise to the promise of finding one’s way out of the maze, or, better yet, of turning the maze into a native habitat of one’s mind.

I was originally drawn to this assignment because the novel’s interests overlap with some of my own: language, fairytale, translation, and history that refuses to become past—the history of communism, the history of dictatorship, and the history of propaganda and brainwashing. After all, growing up, I was trained in my school years to write essays on the glory of patriotism and the invincibility of communism that won me prizes and sent me to oratory contests. When I was in the army as an 18- and 19-year-old, I was an unhappy yet complying propagandist; I could write the best propaganda, and if I withheld my services, I would be assigned the duties of cleaning the toilets or the pigsties.

But reading Alindarka’s Children, I quickly saw that common thematic interests do not necessarily correspond to a compatible reading experience. I read English as a computer deciphers coding: There is no voice in my head reading the words aloud; it’s the order of letters and words—spelling and syntax—that forms meanings and logics in my brain. A few chapters into the novel, I was overcome by doubt. I wondered if I was like Prince Zixi, moved by the boatman’s beautiful singing while the significance of the words escaped me. Take, for instance, the titles of the first four chapters: “Ma tittie wis eatit bi wulves,” “The Tractor Driver had Six Fingers,” “Likes o maist lassies her age she wisna that fond o her name,” “Ah’m awa tae hunt oot something shairp.” Did I understand what they meant? Perhaps. Did I understand all the words? Not really. (Supposing that a native English speaker would have less trouble understanding the text written in Scots, I tested my hypothesis by sharing some paragraphs from the novel with two friends—but both said that they had to translate the words phonetically back into English to understand, a process not less painstaking than mine.)

One could live with some miscomprehension of chapter titles, but after passages and pages written in a mixture of Scots and Scottish dialect, I experienced a near panic. On the face of it, there are orienting markers; but in practice, they only compounded my confusion. For example, the translators incorporated Scottish songs and poems throughout the text—poems by Robert Burns, Robert Fergusson, Andy Stewart, Hugh MacDiarmid, and others. Unfamiliar to me, these cultural references increased my sense that this story was unfolding in a world outside of my grasp. The novel also comes with footnotes, which translate some of the Scots into English; endnotes, which give explanations of Belarusian history; a glossary, more than five pages of a Scots-English dictionary; and two sections called “The Belarusian Dimension” and “The Scots Dimension”—the former a straightforward note on translating Belarusian, the latter a detailed list of the Scots texts incorporated into the novel. How much inapprehension, I wondered, can a reviewer live with before slipping into misapprehension? At what point does a map err on the side of bearing too many legends, leading not to orientation, but to disorientation?

Because the standard deciphering tools only yielded more confusion, as I read, I found myself turning away from them altogether. I eschewed the footnotes and glossary offered by the translators.Usually an avid user of the dictionary while reading, I found myself unwilling to go to its pages. Without any aids for ascertaining clarity, I became engaged in a mode of reading foreign to me.

Clarity and precision are among the things that I usually treasure most in reading and writing, but this experience, of an approximate and uncertain understanding of a text, yielded the opposite. And in this case, the opposite of clarity and precision was not only confusion. If engaged with care, disorientation may also be a mode of reorientation, of finding one’s way anew.

While Standard English is a language of history books, Scots is a story whispered behind locked doors or in unlit back alleys, a story told in secrecy.

Let’s return to the first chapter title I invoked earlier: “ma tittie wis eatit bi wulves.” The phrase recurs in the novel’s opening, as Avi contemplates who has the power to tell tales that pass as history. The passage begins: “Ma titti wis eatit bi wulves. In the Middle Age, par example, naebuddy wud’ve been surprised wi biographical fact likes o yon, thought Avi to himself. Yon sortae thing happens, folk wid say.” I said above that I didn’t fully understand the Scots, but that’s not entirely true. I did understand something critical. My sister was eaten by wolves; Ma titti wis eatit bi wulves. These sentences describe the same event, so what’s the difference? The former, written in Standard English, sounds plain and neutral; this is the language of history books. The latter is a story whispered behind locked doors or in unlit back alleys—a story told in secrecy, not to be recorded as black words on white paper; all things written down can be used against their writers, as anyone growing up under an oppressive regime knows. And in the unlikely event that some brave soul writes the story in the latter form, it can be dismissed as fairytale or folklore, as the chattering of the superstitious and ill-educated.

But here’s the ingeniousness of the author and the translators: Avi thinks mostly in his native tongue, a language unfamiliar to me, and it is precisely because of my unfamiliarity that I listen so closely, for fear of missing a syllable. I don’t skim or skip; my reading becomes more attentive. What a surprise, then, when I encounter words like “Middle Age,” “biographical fact,” “leaders,” and “power”—cold, haughty words that have no equivalent in Avi’s language. This incongruity of borrowed vocabulary takes me aback: I feel the intrusiveness of a language that I would otherwise take for granted. Brainwashing always starts with language, linguistic erosion speeding up to linguistic erasure. A new language can be freedom, and it can be a prison, too.

Oppressive regimes estrange us from our innermost selves—our deepest thought, creative impulses, questioning spirits—in order to coerce us to conform to the social order they prescribe. As Alindarka’s Children makes strange to me the language that orders my daily life and external markers of orientation become unusable, I begin to rely more on my own intuition. Intuition can lead one out of the maze, or at least enable one to make a home there. Sometimes, it also brings one closer to the inarticulable. What do I mean by that? An imperfect parallel example: My maternal grandfather used to have a phrase to call me and my sister in the Yue dialect when we were little, which did not have a direct equivalent in Mandarin Chinese. If I had to translate it into Mandarin, then into English, the words would mean, rather flavorlessly, “a silly little girl.” This translation, however, does not induce any nostalgia, as the original phrase does when I think about it: the teasing fondness attached to the language, the love in an archaic form. Perhaps a better translation of my grandfather’s words would be: “a bonnie wee lassie.”

Yiyun Li is the author of five novels, two story collections, and one memoir. She has received the PEN/​Hemingway Award, the PEN/​Malamud Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Windham-Campbell Prize, among other prizes. Her latest novel, The Book of Goose, will be published by FSG in September.