Vera Rich and Guy Picarda – the Centipede’s Dilemma [1]

Jim Dingley
English text – January 2016. This paper was delivered at the Congress of the International Association of Belarusianists (Міжнародная асацыяцыя беларусістаў), held in Miensk in May 2015.

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
Which threw her mind in such a pitch,
She lay bewildered in the ditch
Considering how to run.

The idea for this paper stems from the process of change through which the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum is currently going. In the main these changes focus on digitisation, and thereby making the Library collection more available to readers on a worldwide scale. As a first step the Board of Trustees of the Library is addressing the digitisation of the large number of boxes of archive material; after all, these archives are one of the features of the library that make it unique.

In turn this gives rise to the thought: which of the boxes should have priority? It seems to me that, in a time of change, we need to reflect on individuals who in their lifetime made extensive use of the Library’s resources, to reassess their achievements, and to ensure that their legacy continues to serve as inspiration. A discussion of the part played by Vera Rich and Guy Picarda in the promotion of Belarusian culture is perfectly natural within this context.

I am not here primarily concerned with their biographies.[2] In this paper I wish to concentrate on archival records that shed light on their work in the field of Belarusian culture. At this point I should make it clear that the Skaryna Library holds Guy Picarda’s archives, whereas those of Vera Rich to which I have access consist of files found on her computer after her death, and papers in the possession of the executor of her will, Dr Alan Flowers of Kingston University.

Vera Rich. Unknown author
Vera Rich. Unknown author

I will start with Vera. There is just one document to which I would like to draw attention, because – as it seems to me – it offers considerable insight into not only how a translator perceives the act of translation, but also how that act of translation can itself become an object of academic study. The document – 11 pages long – is untitled and undated, although from information stored on the computer we know that the document was last accessed by Vera on 5 December 2007. It is well thought out, with footnote references, and written in Vera’s own inimitable, self-deprecating, style. The opening sentence reads “I have been asked to write a personal memoir of my work on translating Taras on Parnassus”.[3] Vera states that writing such a memoir is not an easy task because “I am not an expert in this new academic discipline of ‘translation studies’. I am simply a poet and translator.” She continues:

Certainly, my work has been the subject of – to my knowledge – one Master’s and two Candidate’s dissertations. However, I found being interviewed by the authors of those dissertations extremely difficult. Their questions were loaded with – to my mind – unnecessary technical terms and jargon, and at the same time possessed a certain naivety, indeed, banality, that made them unanswerable – except at an equally banal level. For how can one answer the question: ‘Why did you use word A here and not word B?’ – except by saying: ‘Because A seemed to me the most appropriate word in this context!’ After such discussions, I felt like the centipede of the fable, that, on being interrogated on how it managed so many legs

‘… lay despairing in the ditch,
Considering how to run’.

In other words, as soon as a translator is asked how she translates, she becomes incapable of translating. Of course, this is said partially as a ‘dig’ at the academic pretensions of those who study translation, but may not necessarily themselves actually practice translation as an art. In fact, however, Vera goes a long way to answering the question of how she translates in this ‘personal memoir’, devoting a lot of space to the intricacies of rendering the passage where Taras disputes with Zeus.

We can now turn to two of the three postgraduate students mentioned by Vera.[4] The first is a Ukrainian, Hanna Kosiw, who turned her research into a book.[5] Naturally, Kosiw focuses her attention on Vera’s translations from Ukrainian,[6] but does include one example of her translations from Belarusian, – a poem by Viačaslaŭ Rahojša (О, Беларусь,/ Каханка нябёс, загадка, мадонна!). The importance of Kosiw’s work undoubtedly lies in the detailed study of the way in which Vera approached problematic issues of translation, such as archaisms, place- and personal names, syntactic devices, and prosody.

The other scholar to whom I wish to refer is Śviatlana Skamarochava. She completed her PhD thesis – an extensive survey of as many translations from Belarusian into English as she could find – at the University of Warwick in England in 2012.[7] Her detailed study of Vera Rich’s translations is also available in Polish.[8] One of the important aspects of Skamarochava’s dissertation is her ‘re-discovery’ of the work of the translator Walter May,[9] and a valuable contrastive study of the output of the two translators. May’s translations may not always be of the same standard as Rich’s, but – as Skamarochava suggests – his work is now largely forgotten not for reasons of poetry, but because of May’s alignment with the Soviet Union. There is, of course, another reason – Vera Rich was deeply engaged with questions of human rights, and especially of censorship, in ways that May probably never considered.[10] This engagement – coupled with her intense personal feeling for Belarusian culture and history – makes her, as someone says in a response to the obituary mentioned in footnote 9, ‘well nigh irreplacable’. In fact no one has replaced her as a translator of Belarusian poetry. What Vera achieved as a translator required no artifice – it was part of her nature. This makes it imperative that we ensure the record of her translations and writings about Belarusian literature is as complete as possible.

Guy Picarda. A frame from a documentary "Ludzi z zapalienymi sviechkami" (1993)
Guy Picarda. A frame from a documentary “Ludzi z zapalienymi sviechkami” (1993)

Guy Picarda,[11] I believe, would not have been concerned about the centipede’s dilemma. A lawyer by profession, he found in Belarus a natural outlet for his true enthusiasms – music and history. The Skaryna Library is indebted to him for the many ways in which he applied those enthusiasms:

  • years of service as Secretary of the Board of Trustees and Music Librarian;
  • a collection of printed Belarusian music that may well be unique outside Belarus;
  • a collection of recorded Belarusian music on CD and cassette that may prove especially valuable now that the trustees of the Library are considering the provision of a lending facility for the Belarusian community in the UK.

His reports on his activities as Music Librarian, inter alia, record:

  • the visit to London by the composer Jaŭhien Paplaŭski in 1993 to work on the manuscript archives of Mikola Kulikovič;
  • the connections he had established by 1997 with choirs all over Belarus as well as in the UK, and his promotion of the music of Belarusian composers.

He maintained regular private correspondence with such figures in the Belarusian music world as Viktar Skorabahataŭ and Anatol Bahatyroŭ. His work on his own arrangements of Belarusian folk songs and religious music undoubtedly did much to restore these traditions in Belarus itself. A preliminary and very cursory examination of some of the material in just one of the boxes of Guy’s archives reveals:

  • a number of pieces of vocal music wrapped in a piece of paper on which Guy has written “Vocal instrumental scores. Misc. Composers”; among them are Kulikovič’s Калядоўшчыкі printed in a rotaprint edition in Bielastok in 1980 (how many other copies still exist?); another song of Kulikovič’s in a properly printed collection entitled “A Heritage of Folk Songs”, published in New York in 1964; a volume of the Збор Твораў of Mikola Ravienski published in 2003 as a joint effort of the Belarus Ministry of Culture and the Беларускі Інстытут Навукі і Мастацтва in New York;
  • numerous nineteenth-century books on Russian church music in photocopy;
  • the second volume of a collection entitled “Irish Country Music”, edited by the composer Herbert Hughes and published in London in 1915.

This last item is directly relevant to the genuinely multicultural background of which Guy was so proud – Celtic (Irish and Breton), English and French.

Guy’s close involvement with Belarusian culture extended beyond music. The early articles he wrote under the pseudonym Haŭryil Pičura for the journal Божым Шляхам deal with such disparate topics as the mysterious fifteenth-century printer who worked for a time in London, called in English ‘John of Lettow’ (Ян з Літвы), and the monetary system of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He wrote articles on Belarusian church music and Skaryna’s engravings for the Journal of Belarusian Studies. One pioneering study poses a somewhat provocative question: was there a connection between Skaryna and the Jewish mystical tradition known as kabbalah? This definitely requires further examination.

In his role as acting chairman of the Anglo-Belarusian Society during the 1990s he published several numbers of the Belarusian Chronicle as a kind of continuation of the Journal of Belarusian Studies that had had to be suspended in the 1980s. It lists Belarus-related events and containing short articles, all written by himself, about aspects of Belarusian history and culture. Production of the Chronicle continued well into the early years of the new century.

In concluding this section on Guy Picarda, I would like to single out just two of Guy’s publications for special mention. The first is his guidebook to Minsk.[12] This must surely have been the first English-language guidebook of its kind. Minsk has of course changed considerably since it was first published. I cannot help but feel that a second updated edition should be produced, together with illustrations and maps. The other is his unearthing of the ‘Cambridge Set’ (хеўра),[13] centred on the poet Rupert Brooke, Huya Onslow[14] and a student in one of the women’s colleges, Newnham, Alena Ivanoŭskaja. The final paragraph of the article is a fascinating account of the link between this ‘Set’ and the Anglo-Belarusian Society, founded in 1954. Also useful is Guy’s restoration to English literature of Rupert Brooke’s 1912 almost forgotten play Lithuania, set in a rural location near Mahilioŭ.[15]

This very brief survey of the archival material either in the Skaryna Library or in files in my possession has, I hope, given some indication of what the trustees of the Library regard as of fundamental importance: to work towards a complete description of all the archives held by the Library, and to make them more widely available by a process of digitisation. The same procedure is also being used in the case of journals, and will – with time and, of course, money – be extended to include printed books. Only in this way can we ensure that the work begun by Fr Alexander Nadson will be maintained and developed.


[1] This little poem has a fascinating background. See’s_Dilemma [last accessed 24.01.16].

[2] Plenty of information about both can be found in, eg, Наталля Гардзіенка (2010), Беларусы ў Вялікабрытаніі (Медысонт: Мінск).

[3] I do not [yet] know who asked her to write this memoir, or whether it was ever published.

[4] I have not [yet] identified the third.

[5] Ганна Косів (2011), Віра Річ: творчий портрет перекладача (Піраміда: Львів).

[6] Kosiw offers a full list of published translations from Ukrainian on pp. 206-28, and unpublished translations on pp. 228-33. Vera’s unpublished translations from Ukrainian are partially held in the library of the Ivan Franko University in L’viw.

[7] Svetlana Skomorokhova (2012), ‘“Arising from the depths” (Kupala): A Study of Belarusian Literature in English Translation’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Warwick). Available online at [last accessed 11.05.2015].See in particular pp. 245-55 and 264-88.

[8] Svetlana Skomorokhova (2008), ‘Poezja białoruska w przekładzie na angielski: Vera Rich’, Przekładaniec, 21, pp. 166-79. Available online at [last accessed 11.05.2015].

[9] ‘Walter May, a British poet and translator of Belarusian poetry in the 1960s–1980s, and a Moscow resident from the 1960s until the early 2000s’ (Skomorokhova [2012], p. 36). Worthy of note is May (1965), ‘The True Translation of Poetry’, The Anglo-Soviet Journal, Summer, pp. 51-56. Available online at [last accessed 11.05.2015].

[10] For an excellent account of Vera Rich’s accomplishments in this area, see Judith Vidal-Hall’s obituary of her at [last accessed 11.05.2015].

[11] See obituaries by Arnold McMillin in The Guardian ( [last accessed 13.05.2015] and the present author in The Times (now unfortunately inaccessible without paid subscription – I do, however, have a copy of the original text).

[12] Guy Picarda (1994), Minsk: a Historical Guide (Technalohija: Minsk). For more detail see [last accessed 13.05.2015].

[13] Guy Picarda (2005), ‘Раньняя англа-беларуская вясна (1915)’, Беларус, no. 511, online at [last accessed 13.05.2015].

[14] Helen Iwanowska and Huya Onslow, ‘Some White Ruthenian folksongs’, published in Latin-script Belarusian and English translation between 1914 and 1922 in four issues of the journal Folklore.

[15] There is an amusing aside to this play. An outraged editorial entitled ‘Rupert Brooke’s Play Is Gross Slander against Lithuania’ (Lietuva, 5 November, 1915) followed the first production of the play in Chicago – the ‘largest Lithuanian-speaking city in the world’ (Ron Grossman [2004], ‘Global City, Global People’, in Charles Madigan (ed.), Global Chicago (University of Illinois: Chicago), pp. 94-117, here p. 99). We read ‘The play depicts the characters of the most highly depraved degenerates, who are completely sunken in a life of drunkenness and immorality. It is very apparent that the author of that play never was in Lithuania and is not acquainted in any way whatsoever with real life in Lithuania.’ Online at [last accessed 13.05.2015].

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