Ukrainian translations, Russian oppression, and soft power

Fragment of poster dedicated to Alla Gorska, Ukrainian artist. Poster by Design duo PKV2 for the Stop Censorship contest 2016

Fragment of poster dedicated to Alla Gorska, Ukrainian artist. Poster by Design duo PKV2 for the Stop Censorship contest 2016 

2017/03/20 • Culture

Article by: Stephen Komarnyckyj

I traveled across Ukraine by train in 1993 and spent hours staring mesmerized at the seemingly endless pastures and forests. It was hard to believe that this vast country was so invisible in Western culture. Likewise, the Ukraine has one of the richest literatures in Europe, yet it remains untranslated and the country is culturally almost invisible. Why?

In Valerii Shevchuk’s story, Birds from an Invisible Island, a wanderer is taken prisoner by a mysterious sect. Every night he dreams that a bird flies to him in his chamber, an emissary from beyond the castle walls. Shevchuk’s story conveys the sense that Ukrainians had of being exiles in their own country. Their language was always under threat, whether it was the Bolsheviks bayoneting Ukrainian speakers as they entered Kyiv or the Tsar consigning national poet Taras Shevchenko to exile. Ukraine existed within Russia like the small, suffocated figurine at the heart of a Matryoshka doll. The two countries share a common ancestor, the kingdom of Rus, with its capital in Kyiv. Many Russians still believe that they are a single nation and regard Ukrainian culture as an artificial construct dividing a single people. As a 2012 Chatham House paper noted, Ukrainian literature and culture “appear to be meaningless, second-rate or blasphemous to a large number of Russians. Generations of Russian intellectuals have turned belittling (sic) of the Ukrainian language and culture into a part of the Russian belief system … ”

Read also: A short guide to the linguicide of the Ukrainian language

Ukrainian literature was subject to repeated legal prohibitions in the Tsarist and Communist eras and, historically, the attempts by Ukrainians to appeal to the international community for help to address this oppression have gone unheard because of the greater power of Russia.The volume of literature translated into English from Russian and Ukrainian reflects the standing of the languages. The statistics published by Literature Across Frontiers illustrate that Russian was among the five most translated languages in 2000, 2005 and 2008. Ukrainian is not even mentioned. There are almost no statistics available on Ukrainian literature in translation into English.

However, a study undertaken by Nadiya Polischuk found that there were twenty-one books translated from Ukrainian into English between 2000 and 2013 and published in Europe. The figure is misleading because it includes Andrei Kurkov’s Russian language works. Kurkov, the best-known contemporary writer from the Ukraine, accounts for 17 of the translations in total and several of these are repeat publications. That means the total translated from Ukrainian amounts to a paltry four titles over 14 years.

Yet Ukrainian literature is unique in part precisely because of its situation as the language of a marginalized and oppressed people. Taras Shevchenko was probably the only major European nineteenth-century poet ever to have been owned by another human being. Ironically, as the Communists sought to legitimize their rule in Ukraine, Ukrainian literature flourished until about 1930. After that date, an entire literary generation known as “The Executed Renaissance” was culled and suppressed. Their work contains poetry and prose of the very highest order and its absence from the global literary canon impoverishes us all.

The very act of writing in Ukrainian was political and became the choice of the most inventive and daring talents. As Rory Finnin of Cambridge University notes,

“Ukrainian literature is replete with vigorous voices … It is a literature of rebels and risk-takers … whose works injected world culture with new euphonies and expanded the boundaries of human expression. They deserve our renewed study, in Britain and beyond.”

Finnin cites a number of authors, including Mykhailo Kotsiubyns’kyi, Mykola Khvyl’ovyi, Ivan Franko and Bohdan Ihor Antonych.

Read also: “Rebellious pagan” Ukrainian poet Antonych receives English translation

I have made my own small contribution to opening a door for Ukrainian literature in translation. Among my work are several translations of poetry, including work by Pavlo Tychina and a book by Ihor Pavlyuk, which won an English PEN award. The publishing company where I am a director Kalyna Language Press Limited, has published two of my translations of Ukrainian novels. But ultimately these efforts and those of other literary translators are the merest beginning; like the first glimpse of cranes on the horizon. The Empire will undoubtedly strike back, but it is crumbling now before our eyes. And Europe will gradually discover the unique voice of a lost literature. But literature, like the summer terrain of migratory birds, is never lost. The cranes are drifting home across the Steppe.


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Steve Komarnyckyj is a UK based literary translator and poet. He is one of the directors of Kalyna Language Press.

Source: This article was originally released on the Publishing Perspectives site

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  • Oknemfrod

    Thank you, pan Komarnyckyj, for your passion, your work, and exposing people abroad to Ukrainian literature the was it deserves. Paraphrasing the anthem, one could say:

    Ще не вмерли нашій мови і краса, і слово.
    В цілім світі милозвуччя не знайти такого!

    • Robert

      Yes, a big and Sacred Thank You, Stephen Komarnyckyj! The facts you present make me cry. We can turn this around! Ukraini is clearly worthy of it! More Ukrainians are learning English. I’ll be at a GoCamp school in Mariupol this May/June teaching English and learning more Ukrainian and Russian. I will present these facts there and elsewhere.

      Noble Ukrainian Literature, Art, Music, Song and Performing Arts are clearly some of the Finest on Planet Earth! I’ve been there. I’ve witnessed it. Precisely due to their endless suppression, oppression, depression and repression is this true, as Ukrainians are a Relentlessly Passionate and Incredibly Resilient People! We will turn these facts around and Ukraini will Sacredly Shine! :)

      Ukraine’s Freedom has not yet perished, nor has Her Glory!
      Upon You, fellow Ukrainians, Fate shall Smile once more!
      Your enemies will vanish like dew in The Sun!
      And You too shall Rule, Brothers, in a Free Land of Your Own!

      You will NOT allow others to rule in Your Motherland!
      Glorious Spirit of Ukraine Shines and Lives ForEver!

      Slava Ukraini!

      Heroyam Slava!!

      Slava The Volunteers!!!

    • Andrew Chmile

      Odd …. the KNOWN Ruski **MOLE** “Vasyl P.” –(ALSO A CLUMSY LIAR) up-voted you… 😉

      He don’ know Ukie! :))
      The lying little Ruski sh*t!
      He even “spoke” AT ME — in monhol!! :))

      THAT will get him far! :)

      MOST PRESUMPTUOUS THEY ARE INDEED!!!
      Truly they are SWINE!!!

      Oh, btw — “they” are accusing *ME* of being a Ruski troll! :)
      “Alex George, Marshal Kroger, Quartermaster… ” etc… dips ..

      From their comments —it would appear I annoy them … VERY MUCH!! — thus the POSTED advice is —- TO “STUK!!!” — in splendid Ruski tradition!! 😉

      MORONS!!!
      GOD HAS ALREADY PUNISHED THEM BY MAKING THEM RUSSIANS!

      FILTHY RAT EATERS!!

      RAT’S DISGUSTING! Russian restaurant serves up RAT burger to diners saying the meat has health benefits

      https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2225389/russian-restaurant-serves-up-rat-burger-to-diners-saying-the-meat-has-health-benefits/

      Rat meat burgers flooding Russian restaurant scene | Fox News
      http://www.foxnews.com/food-drink/…/rat-burgers-flooding-russian-restaurant-scene.htmlNov 29, 2016 – Do we smell a rat? … Would you eat a burger made with rat meat? Rats are invading Russian restaurants– but don’t worry, they’re not on the …

      ” P’tfu !!! ” — I spit!