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Jim Dingley speaks with Valdemar about his favourite contemporary Belarusian authors, wrestling (with ...
2020-03-04 08:55:00

The Art of Translation with Jim Dingley
The Valdemar Questionnaire

Illustration by Marcel Olczyński
The Art of Translation with Jim Dingley
The Art of Translation with Jim Dingley

In the Valdemar Questionnaire, we give voice to translators who reflect on their work and role as intermediaries between languages and cultures. In this instalment of our series, Valdemar takes on Jim Dingley, a translator of Belarusian and author of the featured translation of the essay “Winter Camp” from the collection A Large Czesław Miłosz With a Dash of Elvis Presley by Tania Skarynkina.

Read in 4 minutes

You can read Jim’s translation of the excerpt from Tania Skarynkina’s “A Large Czesław Miłosz With a Dash of Elvis Presley” here.

How and why did you become a translator of Belarusian literature?

In 2013, I was asked if I knew someone who would undertake to translate a novel by the writer Natalka Babina, so I offered myself. I should add that I have been involved with Belarus academically since 1965, when I was working in the Library of the British Museum (now the British Library). It was there that I first met a young Belarusian Uniate priest, Fr Alexander Nadson. I learned from him a great deal about the history of Eastern Europe that I was never told during study at Cambridge University. My fascination grew from there and I have been a regular visitor to the country ever since 1988.

What is the most difficult thing in translating texts from Belarusian into English?

I cannot identify anything difficult that is specifically Belarusian when translating. The fact that my wife is Belarusian is, of course, of immense help! The difficulties arise when there are specifically Belarusian aspects of the text that may need to be explained to Anglophone readers.

What was the most difficult thing in translating Tania Skarynkina’s A Large Czesław Miłosz With a Dash of Elvis Presley?

Probably the need to provide so much background information in the form of endnotes. I tried hard not to make them too academic, but without them the text would have been at times incomprehensible.

What quality in Skarynkina’s writing do you find most attractive? 

It is highly personal, therefore revealing, not only of her own epoch, but also of her older relatives’ lives in the Soviet Union. Too often the country is presented to us as drab.

What one word will you remember from this book?

The name of the author’s home town (Smarhoń, in Latin-script Belarusian) in five languages: Belarusian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish. This is what makes the whole region so fascinating for me.

What qualities do you associate with Belarusian literature in general?

It is really quite difficult to point to any particular quality, other than ‘Belarusianness’ – but that is not easy to encapsulate. The way in which writers from Belarus who write in Belarusian transmit the historical experience of their country is very valuable.

Is there something about the country’s literature that makes it especially difficult to bring to the English reader?

It may be that the special difficulty lies in the country’s being ‘insufficiently exotic’. It is so easy for the intellectually inactive to lump Belarus together with its neighbours.

What is the most difficult part in trying to bring Belarusian literature to the English-speaking world?

Losing control of what happens to the translation when it is published. The novel by Babina [Down Among the Fishes – E.V.], for example, was given zero publicity by the publisher and not very much by English PEN, which funded the translation. The history books I have translated have all been published in Belarus, and likewise receive no publicity outside that country (and virtually none inside, either!).

What Belarusian authors would you recommend to English readers?

Prose: Uladzimir Arloŭ, Alhierd Bacharevič, Alena Brava, Viktar Marcinovič

Poetry: Valiancina Aksak, Maryja Martysievič, Aleś Razanaŭ

(I have included only contemporary writers.)

What part of your job do you like most?

Wrestling with words. 

What part do you hate most?

Exhaustion after too much wrestling.

What would you compare the act of translation to?

Cooking and making music.

Do you sometimes feel like a medium? (Valdemar wants to know…)

I don’t know what a medium feels like, so I can’t say.

What is the book you would like to translate most?

At my age I have decided not to want too much.

What is your next translation project?

Alhierd Bacharevič’s Sabaki Eŭropy, maybe – if anyone will pay, even modestly.

What is your favourite occupation (translation excluded)?

It used to be English-style bellringing, but now it is simply waking up in the morning.

What is your idea of a translator’s perfect happiness?

A ready supply of gin and tonic on the right-hand side of the computer monitor.

What is the quality you most like in a translation?

Perfect readability.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue in translation?


Who is your favourite fictional hero?

I don’t have one anymore, but I do have a beloved collective of characters in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.

Is there any author you are afraid of (translating)? (Valdemar wants to know…)

Afraid of? Maybe James Joyce; I ought to like him and I’ve tried...

Afraid of translating? I would feel revulsion if I were ever compelled to translate something I found dull, but I wouldn’t be afraid.

If you were to die and come back as a person (but not a translator) or a thing, what would it be? (Valdemar wants to know...)

As a person: Virgil – I would love to know how easy it was to write hexameters, but I realize what the problem would be.

As an animal: Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish.

Jim Dingley:

Born in Leeds in 1942. After studies of Russian and other Slavonic languages at the University of Cambridge, he became a lecturer at the University of Reading and University of London. Since retirement in 2003, he has been active as an editor and translator. He is married to Ella, a native Belarusian speaker from Minsk. His most recent translation is Alhierd Bacharevič’s Alindarka’s Children, which will premiere in August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.


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Ernest Valdemar

is the well-known compiler of the “Bibliotheca Forensica” and author (under the nom de plume of Issachar Marx) of the Polish versions of Schiller’s “Wallenstein” and Rabelais’s “Gargantua”. A resident of Harlem, New York since 1839. A fictional character in one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, and a very real patron saint of “Przekrój”’s translators’ questionnaire.