Drink, My Girl, Drink

Drink, My Girl, Drink

by Annie Rutherford

Hapeyeva coverI’ve been working with the Belarusian poet Volha Hapeyeva for over two years now. Our paths first crossed, fittingly enough, through translation – both of us translate the same Swiss/German poet, Nora Gomringer, into our respective languages, and we met at a translation workshop high up in the Swiss alps, in a tiny spa town right out of Thomas Mann. Aware that I’d studied Russian, Volha approached me about working together to translate her poetry into English; translators from Belarusian into English are few and far between, and Belarusian and Russian are closely related (the similarities between, say, Spanish and Portuguese might be comparable), offering me a shortcut into learning and accessing the language.

Volha’s request (charmingly, awkwardly made – she was so shy about it that I briefly thought she was trying to ask me out) was followed up by a selection of poetry to see whether I might like to work on it. I dipped into English versions by poet Kim Moore and German translations by Mathias Göritz, and immediately fell for Volha’s forthright politics, her off-kilter imagery and her playful approach to both the world and the self. What I only realised gradually was that Volha also happens to be one of the foremost poets of the younger generation in Belarus – an international performer who has won a number of awards in her home country and been shortlisted for the Best Poetry Collection of the Year award. (This success has been followed by less pleasing attentions – Volha was at one point called in for an interview with the KGB, as the dictatorship’s secret police is still called, who made it clear that she was under observation.)

Translating from Belarusian into English presents similar challenges as translating from other Slavic languages. The use of cases allows for much more flexible word order than can frequently be replicated in English: a particular challenge in poetry, when inversions may prompt a rearranging over line breaks, or when tension can be built up by a key word coming at the end of a phrase. Meanwhile, adjectives and, in the past tense, verbs take on the gender of their subject, providing information about the speaker and allowing for wordplay which can be hard to translate. One of the first poems of Volha’s I worked on, ‘I never thought it this hard to wear a dress’, offers up the following quandary, for example:

забываючыся што кожная з нас
ці кожны
быў голым народжаны
ці была…

forgetting that each [feminine] one of us
or each [masculine] one
was [masculine] born naked
or was [feminine]…

This eventually became:

forgetting that every woman among us
and every man
was born naked

In addition, due to Belarusian’s lack of articles, poems which are sparse in the Belarusian can be in danger of becoming either jarringly so or overly wordy, calling for careful pruning. A word-for-word translation of two lines from my favourite poem, ‘In my garden of mutants’ would be:

знікне твар
і на месцы старога вырасце новы

face will disappear
and in place of old will grow new

In my version, this becomes:

a face will disappear
a new one growing in the place of the old

Volha’s and my translation process is very much “four-handed”: Volha sends me a poem in Belarusian, and I work principally from this original, but I also have an interlinear translation by Volha which I can refer to. If the poem has been translated into Russian or German, she also sends me these translations, and if I’m lucky, she’ll send me an audio recording of herself reading the poem. Now that I’m familiar with Volha’s voice and her style, this is no longer as necessary, but for me the sound of a poem is always the key to unlocking its translation. Once I’ve translated the poem and have a fairly solid draft, we’ll skype and talk it through line by line. Even if the translation remains largely untouched after this conversation, it’s always eye-opening, and I am often reminded how much of myself and my own interpretations I bring to any reading, any translation. And as Volha quite often (as in the case of this poem) sends me pieces she’s not long written, the translation process sometimes also becomes an editing one, where suggestions I make for the English translation feed back into the Belarusian original.

drink, my girl, drink
Volha Hapeyeva

cow bitter
bay leaf
wild rosemary

drink, my girl, drink

milk and iodine
castor oil and orange juice
can’t you hear?
did the quinine make you deaf?
you aren’t the first, won’t be the last

thank you, dearest, for answering the unasked question
being tested like this is worse than being injured
it could mutilate my life
I borrowed money, took some jewellery
went to look for a friendly Jane to help

drink, my girl, drink

don’t think I’m crazy, I had no choice
the doctor’s in the town
there’s no money to go and no one to stay with the little one
my husband’s always working
and then there’s the loans

drink, my girl, drink

anyone can judge
but when you’re standing on the edge yourself
you understand
I didn’t want it but they wouldn’t let me do it
I thought I’d learn to love it
but no: every day there are tears

drink, my girl, drink

or like a hundred years ago you could
jump from the table, bind your stomach as tightly as possible
eat gunpowder or crushed amber or phosphorus
so that later a doctor will write
that of the 13 cases he knew
all 13 died

plant yourself with onions
grow fig trees or philodendrons inside
poke yourself with horsehair, branches, iron rods
do you remember what happened in the gas chambers – how it all came out at once
it’s like this in the bathtub where the boiling water makes it unbearable to sit

but still she sits
shame and despair are always close by
talk her into patience
suggest a thousand options
999 of which are incompatible with life
though compatible with the honour
invented by
this shame, this despair

пі дзетанька пі

лаўровае лісце

пі дзетанька пі

малако з ёдам
касторку з апельсінавым сокам
не чуеш?
аглухла ад хіны?
не ты першая не ты апошняя

дзякуй, мая харошая, за адказ на незададзенае пытанне
выпрабаванне горшае за раненне
магло скалечыць жыццё
заняла грошай, рэчаў узяла што пакаштоўней
і паехала шукаць добрага дзядзю ці цёцю

пі дзетанька пі

не падумайце што вар’ятка проста выбару ў мяне няма
доктар у горадзе
ехаць туды няма грошай і малога няма з кім пакінуць
муж на працы заўсёды
і яшчэ крэдыты

пі дзетанька пі

асудзіць можа кожны
калі ж сама на мяжы стаіш
разумееш іншых
я не хацела але ўсе былі супраць
думала што палюблю
але не – кожны дзень слёзы

пі дзетанька пі

можаш як і сто год таму
скочыць са стала, бінтавацца як найтужэй
з’есці пораху ці тоўчанага бурштыну
або фосфару,
каб потым доктар напісаў
што з вядомых яму 13 выпадкаў
усе 13 памерлі

засаджвай сябе цыбуляй
вырошчвай унутры фікусы і філадэндраны
торкай у сябе конскі волас, галіны, жалезныя стрыжні
памятаеш як у газавай камеры – раз і ўсё выйшла
так і ў ванне дзе нясцерпна сядзець ад кіпеню

але яна сядзіць
сорам і вусціш заўсёды побач
угаворваюць патрываць
прапаноўваюць тысячы варыянтаў
з якіх 999 несумяшчальны з жыццём
але сумяшчальныя з годнасцю
тымі самымі сорамам і вусцішам

I love this particular poem for combining Volha’s often surreal vision with her sharp sense of (frequently gendered) injustices. It’s a piece I’ve found myself returning to again and again over the past few months – with the news coming in from Poland of the effective criminalisation of abortions, and the shake-up on the Supreme Court raising questions about the future of women’s reproductive rights in the USA too.

‘Drink, my girl, drink’ is made up of a number of voices, in part paraphrasing and quoting from letters and narratives by women in the mid-twentieth century who either had or considered getting backstreet abortions. In Volha’s original version of the poem these borrowings were italicised, but as we worked on the translation, we agreed to remove the italics, so that the different voices would interweave more seamlessly with one another.

One issue which cropped up was the question of how to translate words with very clear associations in Belarusian culture. The repeated “дзетанька”, for example, is somewhat archaic and suggests an older woman addressing a younger woman. I chose to stick with “girl”, a fairly literal translation, but added the possessive pronoun to hint at the tone of the Belarusian. At another point in the original, one of the speakers goes to seek “a kind uncle or aunt”. It’s standard for these terms to be used for non-relatives in Slavic languages and in this context in Belarusian they would clearly denote someone who would offer an abortion – an implication which didn’t come across in English. After a fair amount of consideration, I chose to use a common name in my version to capture the sense of an intimate stranger, but also to pay tribute to the Janes, who provided safe abortions in the USA when abortions were illegal. In conversation with Volha we agreed to reference only women here, recognising that many backstreet abortions were carried out by women.

Other decisions involved in translating this poem included choosing which name to use for plants when there were various options – cow bitter, for example, is properly known as tansy. I chose to stick to those which sounded closest to common or folk names, to lean on the sense of these being folk remedies.

Volha and I had quite a lengthy discussion about the phrase which ended up being translated as “took some jewellery”. The Belarusian is more general and a literal translation might be “took something precious”. As Volha pointed out, in wartime this might describe a number of goods which might not be considered valuable at other times – food or fabric which was otherwise rationed, perhaps. However, the generality of the phrase didn’t quite work in English, particularly given that this particular segment should be more conversational. The image of a woman selling or pawning her jewellery when in need is so recognisable in Western culture that in the end we agreed to specify and go with that.

Just as my comments regarding the translation sometimes feed back into Volha’s writing, our conversations and exchanges sometimes also prompt my own writing, with poems responding not so much to Volha’s texts themselves as to the scaffolding around them. As a result, we have a growing number of poems which can be seen to be in conversation with one another.

something precious
Annie Rutherford

maybe jewellery – but in wartime?
a necklace from a grandmother
perhaps a wedding ring
someone will miss it

then let’s say a watch, and stockings
next week she will go bare-legged
will paint a thin line up her legs

or warm winter boots, vodka, pork
a dozen eggs, a pint of milk
away from rationed queues

and afterwards she will walk lighter
she tells herself
and afterwards she will go home

AE Rutherford (c) Perry Jonsson (4)Annie Rutherford champions poetry and translated literature, both through her work at StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival, and as a writer and translator. In My Garden of Mutants, a dual-language pamphlet of her translations of Volha Hapeyeva, is due out with Arc Publications in February 2021. She also translates Nora Gomringer, Isabel Bogdan, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and Kinga Toth.


Volha Hapeyeva (Вольга Гапеева) is a Belarusian poet, writer, thinker, translator, and linguist, whose work has been translated into more than ten languages. She has won several literary prizes in Belarus and has received international residency scholarships in Austria, Germany, and Latvia. She is the author of numerous books, including Граматыка снегу (The Grammar of Snow), Няголены ранак (The Unshaven Morning), Сумны суп (Sad Soup), and (В)ядомыя гісторыі ({Inc}readible stories). In My Garden of Mutants, a collection of her work in English translation, is due out with Arc Publications in February 2021.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 26, 2021

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