As Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine continues to devastate city after city, the pain and anger felt by the Ukrainian people is reaching a huge global audience. That’s partly thanks to a group of unassuming heroes: writers, poets and translators.
Many of these individuals took up arms in the physical conflict, alongside their war of words. The fighting spirit of literary professionals in Ukraine – some of whom also witnessed and actively participated in the 2014 Russian-Ukrainian conflict – has been remarkable. Artem Chapeye, an award-winning writer and journalist, posted photos of himself in combat gear from Kyiv. Serhiy Zhadan, one of the most famous Ukrainian poets and writers, Twitter updates about his volunteer work collecting supplies amid the rubble in Kharkhiv.
Translators, too, have helped give voice to this fierce resistance. February 26, Kate Tsurkan, founding editor of the literary journal Apofenie, issued a Twitter appeal from her war-torn town of Chernivtsi, asking Western publications to publish works by Ukrainian writers: “We are not going to let the truth to shut up.” Tsurkan’s call has been answered by many translators and editors, and she now finds herself coordinating this effort while bearing witness to the war. “This is the third night in a row that we here in Chernivtsi have been woken up by the air raid siren between 2am and 5am,” she wrote in a recent post. “God, keep us safe.”
By early March, Iryna Baturevych, co-founder of Chytomo (“Readable”), a Ukrainian newspaper for publishing insiders, and her team had transformed their digital magazine into an English-language site for dispatches from Ukrainian writers. At the heart of this project are local translators working quickly to make these pieces available, but the site also includes a list of Ukrainian books “in need of translation” for foreign publishers and rights managers. Their work is not only a symbol of resistance but also a vital counterpoint to the onslaught of Russian disinformation. Baturevych told Publishing Perspectives: “We will fight and keep talking about this war.”
My own generation of writers is pretty much old enough to remember the Cold War era, an earlier period of struggle for geopolitical and literary dominance. As scholars Esmaeil Haddadian-Moghaddam and Giles Scott-Smith wrote in the November 2020 edition of the journal Translation and Interpreting Studies: “Translation. . .[was]one of the main “weapons” used by both the United States and the Soviet Union to reach the “captive peoples” behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains and the “exploited masses” in the west, respectively.
The CIA funded several literary projects, often indirectly through organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Liberty. Melvin Lasky, who edited the London magazine Encounter, as well as the German newspaper Der Monat, partly funded by the CIA, believed: “Der Monat would be a weapon against authoritarian and totalitarian ideas and tendencies”. My favorite example of CIA efforts is recounted in Duncan White’s 2019 book cold warriorswhich opens with a description of copies of George Orwell farm animalprinted on lightweight paper, raining hot air balloons sent into the Polish sky.
Then there were the Franklin Book Programs, launched in 1952, which promoted Western books in Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and elsewhere. In addition to creating bookstores in collaboration with local partners, they have carried out translation projects and printed thousands of copies of American books, including that of Louisa May Alcott. Little woman and Arthur C Clarke man and space. It is only as I write this that I remember that the Bengali translations of Edgar Allan Poe that I read as a child in Calcutta were Franklin editions.
But this battle for “hearts and minds” is not always predictable. My generation of readers in India grew up on the diet of Soviet literature at a time when Russia sent tons (literally, in ships carrying books among their cargo) of colorful children’s texts and exciting scientific encyclopedias to our country. then hungry for books. We read tales of fearsome witches like the Baba Yaga or baby tigers raised in the mountains of Alma-Ata, incorporating Russian characters into our own folk tales.
Among them I remember Ukrainian folk tales illustrated with woodcuts about mischievous cats, a little straw bull and spirited hens, which left a permanent impression in my mind of Ukraine as a place linked to – but distinct from – Russia. It is a timely personal reminder that stories carry the truth of things, they are safe from the obscurations of strong men.
I started today in India to read “Letters from kyiv”, the moving war diary of artist and writer Yevgenia Belorusets, posted on Artforum. “The war was unrealistic, absurd; this could not be imagined,” she wrote. “And when you wake up in the middle of war, it remains the same: still unimaginable.” From her diary, I moved on to earlier work by Ukrainian writers, including Maria Matios – including the 2019 novel Sweet Darusya is translated by Michael Naydan and Olha Tytarenko – and the poems of Odessa-born Ilya Kaminsky.
As the drive to translate Ukrainian literature grows, I see writers and translators as the invisible army in this war – and the creative expression of these people so strongly advocating for Ukraine’s right nationality than any of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches.
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