Staff Writer Elijah Knodell attended a conversation with Belarusian poet-translator Valzhyna Mort presented by Literary Translation at Columbia.

How do we render the unthinkable into written word? How do we break silence and write after experiencing catastrophe?

These questions are at the heart of the work of Valzhyna Mort, a poet and translator from Minsk, Belarus, who joined Columbia professors Susan Bernofsky and Matvei Yankelevich for a conversation Wednesday hosted by Literary Translation at Columbia.

The discussion took Mort’s youth in Soviet-era Belarus as a point of departure, tracing her “love affair” with translation and poetry back to her adolescence. Mort had given up the study of music, but needed another expressive outlet, so she turned to poetry.

But when she initially put pen to paper, she did not write in her first language.

“I could not write in Russian… it was the language of everyone I was afraid of,” Mort said. 

Rather, she found her poetic voice in Belarusian, the marginalized language of her homeland. But her affinity with Belarusian remained for a long time silent, unspoken.

“I did not speak it to my friends, I did not speak it to my family… It was like a secret language. It was my own thing,” Mort said, adding, “it took me a long time to start speaking Belarusian to other people.”

Mort’s life changed when she was offered the chance to study and translate Polish literature in Warsaw. From there, her love affair with poetry blossomed into a lifelong calling.

One need look no further than the breadth of her experience to understand her dedication to the craft—she has translated works between English, Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish, receiving numerous accolades over the years.

One of the main topics of conversation Wednesday was her prize-winning translation of Polina Barskova’s book Air Raid, which explores the loss and suffering during the Siege of Leningrad in the 1940s. Barskova forces us to consider how a poet can find the words to speak after such devastation.

Yankelevich, who edited the edition, said that Barskova turns to the “inappropriate” in order to reveal the utter desolation of the events. More specifically, Barskova subverts the seriousness of the subject matter by use of childlike imagery and playful rhymes.

“How do you write after this catastrophe? Her rather blasphemous, radical, in-your-face answer is to write musically. “The rhyme will make you feel… ashamed,” Yankelevich said, also praising Mort’s ability to translate this “inappropriateness” into English.

According to Mort, “the idea of rhyme in poetry is something really pleasing,” adding to the harmony of a piece. “But here [Barskova] tricks you… It’s inappropriate to put these words together.” Mort further explained that the extremities of the violence force a shift in poetic register.

 “After you emerge out of this archive of death, you cannot speak in a normal language,” she said.

Mort further elaborated on her creative process, in which she writes all of her poetry “in parallel,” drafting the same work simultaneously in English and in Belarusian. She sees translation and poetry as coextensive, synonymous endeavors. “Poetry is the art of translation,” Mort said. “They are synonymous to me.” 

When she writes in English and Belarusian, there is not a sense of an original and a translation. They are simply two different drafts of equal primacy. 

Mort added that translation is the art of “simultaneous abundance and lack.” Something is always lost, but something unique is always gained. She explained that this nexus of absence and abundance is where she grew up, where she feels at home.

“I grew up around silence…There was this silence, but there was this abundance of literature, songs, and poems,” she said. “Lack and abundance, silence and song… is my natural habitat.”

But how does one emerge from such silence?

Like writing after catastrophe, it entails a new, “inappropriate” register.

“[I] cannot afford to use normal language, [I] have to be louder than people want me to be… because I have to scream over so much silence.”

Defence of Leningrad by Aristarkh Lentulov