R B Lemberg considers their translations of Ukrainian war poets, which reflect their own emotional response to the original poems.
On 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation mounted a brutal, full-scale military invasion against Ukraine. Like many members of the Ukrainian diaspora, I was glued to my smartphone, following the fierce Ukrainian resistance with awe and gratitude, desperately trying to get in touch with friends and colleagues in Ukraine, figuring out ways to help.
During these early days of the war, Ukrainian poets – many of them women – began sharing poetry on social media, primarily on Facebook. These powerful pieces became the community’s act of literary and spiritual resistance against an enemy that continues to seek to silence Ukrainian voices through violent acts of war and propaganda. This poetry became my lifeline too – even though I was reading it from oceans away in Kansas, USA.
On 5 March, I saw a call for translations shared by my dear friend and colleague Vitaly Chernetsky, a Ukrainian-American professor and translator.1 I was moved to contribute. I reached out to Halyna Kruk, a notable Ukrainian poet and children’s author living in my birth city of L’viv, whose poem ‘You Stand with Your Little “No War” Sign’ I had been re-reading over and over since it was posted on Facebook a few days earlier. My translation of the poem was published in National Translation Month’s special issue on Ukraine and in the International Human Rights Art Festival journal, IHRAF Writes.
This was just the beginning. Partnering with the excellent people at Chytomo, a Ukrainian literary journal which has been publishing war poetry in both Ukrainian and English, I began to translate poetry alongside other translators engaged in this effort.
My previous translation experience came as a linguistics-obsessed migrant high-schooler, undergraduate and, eventually, graduate student. I spent many happy hours translating the epic poetry and prose I was studying in languages from Medieval Welsh to Aramaic. There is a special pleasure in morpheme-by-morpheme interlinear translation with annotation and commentary.
Such translation – framed by many of my historical linguistics professors as the most faithful – emphasised accuracy that would lead to a deep understanding of the source text grammatically, lexically and culturally. This kind of translation exists as a scaffolding for the source text, allowing the scholar to be moved by the original voice. Such translation is a private act, not intended for publication. Later in life, I began publishing poetry and fiction in English, but the domain of literary translation remained untouched by me. The war changed everything. ‘You Stand with Your Little “No War” Sign’ became famous in English. In addition to my own, I know of two other published translations of this important poem.2 Its first two lines read:
Стоїш із плакатиком ‘no war’ як індульгенцією за те,
чого уже не відвернути: війну не зупинити
The Ukrainian word індульгенція (indulhentsiia)3 refers to a specific formal act, within the Roman Catholic Church, of granting absolution for sins. However, it has moved beyond its religious meaning to acquire a general sense of officially requested and granted forgiveness. It directly translates as ‘indulgence’, but in English ‘indulgence’ also has a much more common meaning – the act of indulging someone – which does not evoke a sense of doing the bare minimum to assuage one’s guilty conscience. In my own translation, I worked through a number of variants before settling on:
You stand with your little ‘no war’ sign like it’s your atonement
for what can’t be reversed now: the war can’t be stopped
‘Atonement’ conveys the original meaning without ambiguity; it is a weighty, evocative word with a single specific meaning. Later, I saw that the other translators had used ‘indulgence’ and ‘indulging’, and this makes sense. It is a faithful rendering of the original, presenting a word with a much more similar shape. Both translations are great, but I would not make a different choice with my own.
One of the concepts that keeps appearing in Ukrainian war poetry is рідний/рідна/рідне (ridnyi/ridna/ridne), which indicates kinship, emotional closeness and proximity – one’s own-ness which goes beyond blood ties. In a poem by Halyna Kyrpa, which I translated for Chytomo, the poet imagines a poplar tree crying underneath her window. In Ukrainian, which marks grammatical gender (masculine, feminine and neuter), the poplar tree (тополя; topolia) is female; she is the poet’s sister in need of consolation during times of war:
а вона тремтить.
Тремтить і плаче.
Рідна моя (ridna moia) means ‘female blood relative of mine’, which is reinforced by ‘sister mine’ in the following line. The third line describes the poplar with a diminutive: тополенько (topolenko; ‘little poplar’). Diminutives in Ukrainian indicate emotional closeness, and are frequently encountered in endearments addressed by women to children, or between women. The imagery of tree as sister, the word order of noun-adjective (rather than the usual adjective-noun) and the diminitivisation all stylistically evoke a folk lament, a traditional women’s genre in Eastern European folklore.
The older female poet writing from Kyiv makes deeply emotional use of this genre to convey her sorrow and bereavement. English does not have a concept similar to рідна (ridna), so I chose words which would elicit the feelings of emotional closeness:
My dear heart,
my sweet silver poplar!
I hug her,
and she trembles,
I added the word ‘sweet’ to help convey the sense of tenderness. Alliteration, likewise, helps create a more traditional, folkloric feel. I used alliteration again when translating Oleh Bohun’s powerful modernist poem, which makes use of the word рідне (ridne; ’one’s own/kin’) and the frequently encountered antonym чуже (chuzhe; ’not one’s own/not kin/other/alien’) in the very first line:
рідне тіло межі. щось чуже камлає потойбіч порожніючим серцем.
beloved body of border. beyond it, an alien sorcery drums with a draining heart
Since the juxtaposition of ‘self’ and ‘other’ presented by рідне/чуже (ridne/chuzhe) is not available in English, I had to try multiple variants. ‘Own body of border’ or ‘one’s own body of border’ would perhaps be more accurate, but it felt clunky to me in English. The alliteration is not present in the original, but it created a contrast between one’s beloved land (with its repeating ‘b’ sounds) and the threat to that land from the enemy lurking just outside (with its different yet similar ‘d’ sounds). I took liberties with the translation of the verb камлає (kamlaie; which can be roughly translated as performing a magical, almost shamanic ritual) and the sinister feeling the line evokes, by introducing the verb ‘drums’. This verb helps tie together the draining heart, the implied threat of explosions, and the sinister feel of the magic which comes from the other side.
The pitfalls of ‘accuracy’
Discussions in the literature helped me to adopt a flexible approach. Philip Lewis writes that the traditional expectation of accuracy “puts the translator under pressure not simply to produce a version of the original that reads well or sounds right in the target language but also to understand and interpret the original masterfully so as to reproduce its messages faithfully.”4
Postcolonial and feminist theorists, such as Gayatri Spivak and Luise von Flotow, move away from the idea of faithful accuracy to emphasise the transformative and collaborative nature of the translation process, in which the translator’s own personhood and positionality in relation to the source text become an important feature of the work.
For myself, engaging with postcolonial and feminist translation theorists for my academic research on gender and translation has not so much swayed me from the path of faithfulness as freed me – internally – to embrace my own personhood as a linguist who is also a poet. While the linguist in me strives for accuracy, it is in my capacity as a poet and poetry editor that I am most in tune with the poet’s intent to evoke feeling – the feeling of loss, of trauma, of solidarity – as I strive to embody not just the original words but the feelings they evoke.
Spivak touches on this when she writes: “The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying… First, then, the translator must surrender to the text. She must solicit the text to show the limits of its language… translation is the most intimate act of reading.”5
My scholarly translations allowed me to be moved by the source text in languages that were relatively new to me, but in literary translation it is the translated text which needs to move the reader who does not have any other way to access the original. In a short time, I came to trust myself to be moved by Ukrainian war poetry and to strive to (re)create its emotional impact in my English translation. The anxiety, bombardment and sleeplessness, the relentless and heart-rending sensory impact of war, are as important to convey as are the literal meanings of the words.
Wartime translation serves people whose voices are most urgent now, helping them to find new worldwide audiences that may be empowered to support the fight for liberty and democracy against atrocities. It is not about me, yet as an American poet and linguist born in Ukraine, I have discovered something for myself too: to do a literary translation is to open up to an organic and flawed process of textual collaboration which goes beyond the search for accuracy and into the domain of deep feeling. As translators of wartime poetry, we should not shy away from our own emotional work, from our own visceral, human responses to the original. I believe that leaning into that feeling is aligned with feminist and postcolonial translation theory.
1 I remain eternally grateful to Vitaly for his support and encouragement, and for kindly discussing these translations with me.
2 Yulia Maksymenko’s translation published in Chytomo; and a translation by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk published in Lithub
3 Transliteration in accordance with the BGN/PCGN 2019 Agreement for Romanization of Ukrainian
4 Lewis, P E (1985) ‘The Measure of Translation Effects.’ In Difference in Translation, 31-62
5 Spivak, G C (2012) ‘The Politics of Translation.’ In Venuti, L (ed) The Translation Studies Reader, 312-329