Vera Rich: The most significant event in my life
This text was written in 2004 for the Belarusian Service of the Radio Liberty in Prague. As far as the editor is aware, the original text has not been published previously. Belarusian translation
You ask me about the most significant event in my life. The single most significant event happened in October 1953, when I was 17 years old. At that time, I regularly attended the local Catholic church – Christ the King in north London-which was run by Benedictines. At that time, the language of Roman – rite services was still Latin; but one of the monks was very keen that the young people of the parish should understand that ‘Catholic’ did not necessarily mean ‘Latin’. So he organised various events to teach us about other rites. He invited various priests to celebrate liturgy according to their own rites – I remember there was a Syrian, and a priest from the Malankara rite of India. Then, one day, he took a group of us to the Belarusian Catholic Mission, which is also in north London – about 6 km away. I remember being a little disappointed when our priest told us that, although the liturgy was the Byzantine rite, it would be in Old Slavonic, not Greek, because I had learned some Greek at school. However, I thought, whatever language it is in, it will be interesting.
And, indeed, the other young people found it ‘interesting’. But for me, it was the beginning of a new life. When I walked into that beautiful little church I suddenly had a strange feeling that for the first time in my life, I was where I ought to be. I could not get the feeling out of my head, and a few weeks later, I went back again… and again…
My mother was a little anxious about my sudden new interest. She decided to come with me the next Sunday.., and the same thing happened to her. Then my grandparents came too, to see what it was all about… And, as they say, the rest is history!
My mother and I learned to sing in the choir. I gradually learned some Belarusian – mainly through listening to the sermons. I began to translate Belarusian poetry… Then the Ukrainians too wanted me to translate their poetry… By the time I left university, I had already produced a book of translations from the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko – and this helped me both to establish myself on the English poetic scene, but also to find work as a professional translator of more down-to-earth texts.
Then came Like Water, Like Fire – the first-ever anthology of Belarusian poetry in English… or, I think, in any West European language. It is not often that a translator has a chance to be the very first in the field, and I felt it a great honour.
Shortly after Like Water Like Fire went to press, I was invited by Nature, the leading scientific weekly in the English language, to become their Soviet and East European correspondent. (I had by this time taught myself some Russian and Polish). I held this post for more than 20 years. It was a peculiar situation, since for various reasons the Soviet authorities would not give me a visa; nor would the Czechoslovak ones, nor the East Germans. But this did not prevent me discovering and writing about what was going on in those countries! And even in the ones I could visit, there were occasionally – shall we say – unpleasantnesses… But that too, is history!
I am now – by the calendar, almost 64 years old. But in my new life, which began in October 1953, I am only just over 46. Which is a good thing… as in that life there is still a great deal for me to do… if the Good Lord gives me the health and strength.