Virginie Symaniec is co-founder of the association Perspectives Biélorussiennes, which promotes Belarusian culture in France. Mrs. Symaniec was born in France, but speaks Belarusian fluently. Together with Larissa Guillemet she translated selected chapters of the book “Minsk. The Sun City of Dreams” by Artur Klinau into French. Belarus Headlines talks to Virginie Symaniec about her work and the situation Belarusian culture has found itself today.
Belarus Headlines: What impression do you have about the reading by Artur Klinau in Paris on 7.11.2007?
Virginie Symaniec: It is very important for us, because we rarely have an opportunity to hear the Belarusian language in Paris. It is great to have such a place as the Maison d’Europe et d’Orient, the cultural center that can bring together various organizations working for Belarus in Paris. I got involved into pro-Belarus activities more than 10 years ago. This is the first time I feel that there are associations that want to work together instead of being rivals.
B. H.: What is the reason for such a change of attitude?
Virginie Symaniec: I think, it happened in 2006, during the last presidential elections in Belarus. Our people saw how violent the Belarusian regime is. They also saw people, who resist the brutal system with flowers in their their hands. Many friends of us were arrested. We were shocked. At this moment something clicked – we began to communicate with each other, discuss what we can do together.
B.H.: Are you saying that the protests in Minsk in March 2006 have influenced the public opinion in France?
Virginie Symaniec: Of course they did - not only in France, but generally in Europe. Two days ago some person from Switzerland contacted us. People from Germany, Belgium, other parts of Europe want to work with us. We’ll see which results this will bring in the future. In 1996, when we just began to promote and study Belarus in Paris, we were just three people. We looked into each other’s eyes and said, “Let’s do it!” Now there are other associations, such as Belprojet. There is Maison d’Europe et d’Orient in Paris, where we can organize joint projects. Our organizations try to complement each other. Rivalry is not something we aspire to.
B.H.: How was Perspectives Biélorussiennes created?
Virginie Symaniec: Our association was formed more than 10 years ago. As its founders, we were in a strange situation. We looked for information about Belarus, but couldn’t find much. We met Polish people and asked them about Belarus, but they told us Belarus didn’t exist. We consulted Russians, and they said the same. We were in some kind of vacuum until we actually traveled to Belarus.
There were Belarusian associations in France before. These people spoke Belarusian, wrote in Belarusian, and addressed their work to Belarusian-speaking people. It was like a small ghetto. At the same time they complained that local people didn’t understand them. But the French people don’t know Belarusian language. In order to change their perception of Belarus you have to use French as well.
You cannot imagine what stereotypes the French had about Belarus. If they only considered Belarus part of Russia, it wouldn’t be too bad – but many were convinced that such country didn’t exist at all. Or we sometimes would read articles in which authors claimed that it is constantly raining in Belarus, that this is a country without sun, that it is populated by sad people, and offers nothing exciting. But we felt that this was not true.
B.H.: What does your association do today?
Virginie Symaniec: Perspectives Biélorussiennes issues a quarterly bulletin in French. We try to adapt to the new situation. We will try to be more present in the Internet, but I also believe that it is time to start publishing a real magazine, which will be dedicated do Belarusian issues. Alternatively, it can be very useful to set up working groups of experts doing research on a wide range of topics – from politics to art. We are currently looking for opportunities to make this possible.
B.H.: Where did you learn to speak Belarusian so well?
Virginie Symaniec: My grandparents were Belarusian, my father was born in Belarus. I always lived in the family, which followed events in Belarus with keen interest. My grandparents spoke Belarusian, I have heard this language since my childhood. Unfortunately, I didn't speak Belarusian with them. Only after the “iron curtain” fell, I was able to visit Belarus and tried to learn Belarusian. I am still working on my vocabulary.
B.H.: Do you have difficulties while using Belarusian language in Belarus?
Virginie Symaniec: For example, if you work in an archive, and ask someone a question in Belarusian, you'll get the answer: “Let's go for a smoke”. Later, when you are in the restroom, or in the basement, where no one “unwanted” can listen to your conversation, the person will speak Belarusian to you. I could never imagine that people could have so much fear.
However, there is another aspect – Belarusians still have to do a lot to become truly tolerant to other people. When I came to Belarus, I experienced absurd situations, which, I think, are familiar to anyone who tries to learn Belarusian. You talk to people, you are not sure whether you say everything right, you surely make mistakes. You say farewell to someone and tell him “ok, I will call you”. Then the person you talk to jumps up and says “only Russians say “to call”, you should say “to phone”. Another person, if you tell him “I will phone you”, claims that this word is Polish, and you should say “to phone”. Another person, if you tell him “I will phone you”, claims that this word is Polish, and you should say “to call” instead. How can you learn the Belarusian language when you encounter people with such anti-pedagogic attitude? No wonder many people in Belarus are not able to learn their language. In Belarus you often feel as if you had no right to make a mistake. However this is one of the most basic rights of any human being – to be able to correct him or herself.
B.H.: What do you think about the recent plans of the Belarusian government to reform the Belarusian language?
Virginie Symaniec: Every regime wants to have its own Belarusian language. It is important to realize how the government uses language reforms. Does it want to enable free communication among people, or does it want to hinder it? You can implement a reform only if you have authority. But by reforming a language you intrude into a very intimate sphere of people. Also, no language reform can have immediate effect, it is always a long-term plan. Each language reform has a social plan behind it. The language of the early days of Belarusian independence is one thing, the Soviet Belarusian language is something different. The new official Belarusian language will also represent some social project. I am very interested to find out what this project is.
In Belarus, the language issue is often used to manipulate people. The referendum of 1995 was a great example of such tactics. The question whether Russian language should have the same status as Belarusian appeared on the ballots with the sole purpose of outshadowing another, much more important question of whether the Belarusians agree with the new Constitution, proposed by Lukashenka.
You can't solve all the problems in the country by dealing with the language and culture only. I probably shouldn't say this as someone working in the sphere of culture, but this is what I think. So far there are no political and economic conditions in Belarus to create culture.
B.H.: When was the last time you visited Belarus?
Virginie Symaniec: Three years ago,
which is quite a while. I miss Belarus a lot, but now I also have to take care of my newborn son. That is why I try to do useful things here, in Paris. For example, together with Larissa Guillemet we translated the play “Tutejshyja” by Yanka Kupala into French.
(The comedy play “Tutejshyja”, or “The Locals”, was written by Yanka Kupala, a prominent Belarusian poet and playwright. The action takes place during the turbulent years of 1918 – 1922, when Minsk keeps changing hands of foreign invaders. The characters of the play are Belarusians who try to find their place in the country torn between Eastern and Western ideologies of the time. Today, the play is just as topical for Belarus as it used to be in the first half of the 20th century.—BH).
B.H.: Wasn't it difficult to translate “Tutejshyja” into French considering the fact that the text is a patchwork of all kinds of languages and dialects?
Virginie Symaniec: I was always convinced that one can find ways to make “Tutejshyja” understandable for the French readers. But of course, this play is very difficult to translate. Belarusian language of the 1920s, language of the Russian orthodox church, German language, Yiddish, Polish, and the mix of all of them... People who translate the play have to be familiar with these languages. But we are from a younger generation, and it is difficult for us to understand the language of the 1920s. We went to Belarus in order to find good dictionaries. A non-formal team was formed, which helped to solve such puzzles as, for example, the meaning of the word “hertzum sroliki”. We have found four ways to translate this word, but were not sure which one was the most appropriate. We had to use the Internet to look for the researchers in Israel, who still speak Yiddish. (In the end we learned that “hertzum sroliki” means a special type of a horse-driven cab). We looked for Poles in Paris who could explain us some Polish terms. This work was fantastic. For the first time so many people came together in order to get a Belarusian book published in France. It simply makes me happy!
B.H.: What are your plans for the future?
Virginie Symaniec: I want to finish my book about language. This is the most important goal for me. I want to understand how the language issue was used in formation of the Eastern Slavic nations. I have to sift through a huge pile of documents written in Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, French, English... I think I have never worked so hard before in order to understand something. When I'm done with my book, a new life will begin for me. Of course, I will be doing new things – maybe this time not as difficult ones.
Recorded by Ales Kudrytski
Photos by the Office for a Democratic Belarus