Wednesday , August 10 2022

An Urgent Mission for Literary Translators: Bringing Ukrainian Voices to the West

Last week, PEN America, a literary and free speech organization, held an online forum with several Ukrainian writers, including Andrey Kurkov, the president of PEN Ukraine. Kurkov’s novel “Grey Bees,” which was recently translated and published in English, is set in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, against the backdrop of a long-simmering conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces.

Kurkov said he knew several writers who had joined the military, and others who were volunteering to help deliver food and other necessities.

“This society is learning to live and survive in a time of war,” he said at the event. “We are all focusing on helping.”

Olga Livshin, a poet and translator who grew up in Odessa and Moscow and now lives in Pennsylvania, and her friend Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, a poet who was born in Ukraine and lives in Arkansas, recently organized “Voices for Ukraine,” a trans-Atlantic Zoom poetry reading. The event featured acclaimed Ukrainian poets, among them Khersonsky, Yakimchuk and Vasyl Makhno drew, drew some 800 attendees, and raised funds for Unicef and for writers in Ukraine.

Some of the poets joined from Ukraine and read poetry written in response to the invasion.

“So many of them are in a basement now, hiding,” Livshin said. “This gives them an opportunity to express themselves.”

Translators with Ukrainian and Russian language skills are also harnessing social media to give English speakers a real-time view of Russian and Ukrainian perspectives on the conflict.

On Twitter, an account called War in Translation has become a repository for English-language versions of street graffiti, videos, poetry and social media posts. It was created shortly after the invasion by Noah Sneider, an American journalist who covered Russia’s earlier military campaigns in Ukraine, and realized there was an appetite among English speakers for posts that reflected the reality of war. Within a couple of weeks, around 50 volunteer translators had joined the project.

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