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

“It helps people who are suddenly stuck under bombardment to feel like their voice is heard,” said Boris Dralyuk, editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books and translator of Russian and Ukrainian authors who commissioned, edited and publish wartime dispatches and poetry from Ukraine. “It helps to humanize that experience, to know what’s going on in the person’s mind.”

For Dralyuk, who grew up in Odessa, giving Ukrainian writers visibility in mainstream publications, not just rarefied academic presses and journals, seems not only urgent but too late. Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine has continued since Putin annexed Crimea in 2014; a solid body of recent Ukrainian war literature already exists, Dralyuk said, but has received very little attention.

Russia’s continued aggression over the past eight years has prompted some prominent Ukrainian writers, including poet Boris Khersonsky and novelist Olena Stiazhkina, who had previously written in Russian, to switch to writing exclusively in Ukrainian, both as a political and literary statement, Dralyuk and other translators have said.

“It has been a long struggle for Ukraine both politically and culturally to establish and regain its identity,” he said. “Now we see this empowerment and centering of Ukrainian voices, and it’s very empowering.”

As violence and chaos engulfed parts of Ukraine, the laborious process of commissioning and translating work became even more complicated. Some of the perpetrators face aerial bombardment and an escalation of ground warfare. Others have enlisted in the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces or volunteer to help house and feed refugees.

To facilitate the rapid translation effort, Zenia Tompkins, who founded the Tault agency in 2019, contacted Tsurkan and started a project they called “Operation Ukraine”. Tsurkan issued a call for employment to Ukrainian writers and posted another post in English to recruit more translators. The Tault agency has 10 translators specializing in Ukrainian and the list of Ukrainian authors with whom it works has rapidly grown to reach around a hundred Ukrainian writers, compared to 13 when it was created.

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