Cracking the Belarusian Code: My Experience With the FreeAllWords Initiative

In 2022, I set out with the goal of translating more from Russian into French. Searching for new and motivating projects, I came across the FreeAllWords initiative through a tweet by the European Writers’ Council (EWC). The project aimed to find translators for literary works by Belarusian and Ukrainian writers and to provide them with a platform to raise their voices. As Russian was among the source languages, I applied.

In September 2022, the project coordinators contacted me and offered some assistance in the initial stages to help me familiarize with these languages and assess my ability to translate directly from them in the future. Motivated by my passion for learning foreign languages, particularly my deep interest in Slavic languages, I decided to embrace this opportunity and give it a try.

The Challenge of Belarusian

As soon as I agreed to join the initiative, I delved into the existing texts published on the project website. I also started to compile some useful resources such as online dictionaries and textbooks. Recognizing that translating from an unstudied language presented a formidable challenge, I acknowledged the necessity for heightened dedication. 

My first impression was that I could grasp both Ukrainian and Belarusian writings, as the grammar is strikingly similar to Russian. My proficiency in Russian facilitated comprehension of most vocabulary, while my familiarity with Czech, Polish, and Bulgarian (albeit at a basic level in some instances) also contributed. Mindful of the prevalence of false friends among Slavic languages, I decided to meticulously verify each word whenever doubt crept in, aware that I was navigating uncertain linguistic waters.

Our Strategy

Aliaksandra Dvaretskaya, a wonderful project manager with the FreeAllWords initiative, laid out a well-thought-out strategy: I would receive the first texts to be translated and then, a few days later, I would receive a translation of the Belarusian texts into Russian. Upon receiving them, I proactively began translating all the texts, be they in Russian or Belarusian. Then, the Russian versions allowed for a comprehensive comparison, enabling me to assess the accuracy of my understanding and translation of the original Belarusian texts. This was the right way to go so I could immerse myself directly into the Belarusian language and do my own research.

Later, we stopped using Russian translations as an intermediary step, and I only sought clarification on specific words or sentences I was unsure of. Most of the time, my questions revolved around cultural nuances or slang words. For instance, for one specific text written by Nobel Prize winner Ales Bialiatski, translators received a short glossary about slang words used by prisoners.

Lessons Learned

This project has enriched my understanding of Slavic languages as a whole, and my proficiency in one Slavic language facilitated the comprehension of others. It also highlighted the importance of cultural nuances and the need for a specific approach to literature translation.

This unique translation project has contributed to my growth as a translator. The FreeAllWords initiative has not only given me a platform to promote Belarusian literature and to encourage authors in exile, but has also broadened my horizons — fostering both personal and professional development. As I continue this linguistic journey, I am grateful for the unexpected opportunity that has opened doors to new perspectives and deepened my passion for languages.

Christine Biloré
Christine Biloré is a French translator, linguist, and proofreader with a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Nice. She is a member of Women in Localization and also works with Translators Without Borders.


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