The Words That Don’t Kill: Interview with Tetiana Savchynska

My goal was to shift to another time period as subtly as Ishiguro does in the original. ¤
Yuliya Komska is associate professor of German Studies at Dartmouth College. The language of The Buried Giant is faux-archaic, and it was a challenge as much as a pleasure to consider a Ukrainian equivalent. You make it sound easy. I was motivated by the obvious dearth of Ukrainian-language books for teens. This was a book that I had asked to translate, having seen it in English and found it indispensable. Unexploded ordnance was everywhere. Ukrainian nouns are gendered, and with most professions, the male form is mistaken for the default. Immersing myself in this stylistics had its risks: I could unintentionally overwhelm readers with obsolete words. I had to work around the deficit of up-to-date lexicographic resources. Can you think of specific experiences? Translators bring a unique perspective that comes from a deep understanding of more than just one culture. Was there a noticeable generational gap between your Soviet-trained mentors’ attitudes to translation and yours? We need more training programs that let emerging and seasoned literary translators collaborate and learn from each other. From the very first days, I realized that being a military interpreter is much like being a soldier. What was the draw of the job? In the 1940s, the field was used for POW detention and then for training Soviet troops. Specialized university programs were rare. Tetiana’s passion for her work is a reminder that translation, as Mark Polizzotti admonishes, is more than a “problem” to solve. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls must have posed challenges very different from Le Carré or Ishiguro. In my case, literary translation and interpreting have turned out to be complementary, and I am grateful to have tried my hand at both. Its dialects are so versatile that people from different parts of the country don’t always understand each other. There was nothing between children’s books and books for adults. A need to invest at least as much time and effort in building new schools, updating curricula, and training teachers as we invest in a new army. Although there was a lot to learn from it, I felt like looking so much into the past was preventing us from looking ahead and from noticing new translation trends that were rapidly developing elsewhere, especially in Anglophone countries. The military had been neglected for over 20 years before the war, and the decline in the troops’ readiness, infrastructure, and equipment was evident. Being a Nobel Prize laureate’s primary translator is a privilege and a responsibility. It’s a vehicle for the border-defying traffic of ideas and a source of intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional joy. Such situations encouraged me to work harder, if only to prove that women too can be professionals in a military setting. Working with international and multilingual material lets them look at their own country from a somewhat distanced vantage point, noticing what to others might remain invisible. Although, de jure, Ukraine has never been a colony, de facto we are a postcolonial country. In preparation, I am rereading Kafka, though the trick is not to let his prose influence the language of my translation. What’s your take on it? This cliché has had a good run. Or is it yet another tool for redrawing the national borders? They are forever “put down, nitpicked, and […] overturned.” Could translation ever be timeless — and could translators be classics, like authors of original works? We met last year at Dartmouth College, where she was completing a graduate degree in Comparative Literature. An attempt to repeal Yanukovych’s law followed his ouster in February 2014. Aside from Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and Le Carré’s The Night Manager, what else have you translated? Russian was the greatest beneficiary. A handful of professional literary translators, who had mostly been trained back in the Soviet period, had jobs. If you were to single out one great hero of contemporary Ukrainian translation, whom would you name? Mark Kamine once observed that “few writers dare to say so little of what they mean” as Ishiguro. Another obstacle was systemic sexism. This much-criticized monolingualizing measure seemingly reestablished the old equivalence between one nation and one language. 
Against this backdrop, what to make of Ukraine’s rising demand for translated books — 80 percent greater now than in 2015? When a woman is an astronaut, the proper form is “astronavtka.” Instead, you’ll hear “astronavt.” The suffix –ka is important, because it signals that women, too, follow a myriad of professional paths. What can prevent future mishaps? Once, in the middle of a tank exercise, amid this vast field with targets, we suddenly received a cease-fire signal and a command to stop but remain in place. But I tend to believe that a translation, unlike the original, grows old, and each generation needs something more up-to-date. At the time, it seemed like a good use of my skills, despite my lack of military experience. Although I translate mainly into so-called “literary Ukrainian,” my choice of language usually depends on the source. Although I was never in a war zone, the job involved risks. Education might not seem like a priority during a war, but intellectual forces are as important as military strength. In 2015 and 2016, a major publisher recalled entire printings of Stephen King’s Pet Sematery and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend due to mistakes. The Ukrainian military had a long way to go before meeting NATO standards, and seeing them master new tactics and improve was very rewarding. A Ukrainian soldier balked, saying he wouldn’t listen to a woman. My first translations were of Anne Fine’s Flour Babies and Round Behind the Ice-House, both written for young adults. Ivan Franko (1856–1916), the doyen of Ukrainian national literature, after whom your alma mater is named, translated Sophocles, Virgil, Goethe … He reached beyond the imagined community’s confines. A law was passed to restrict the use of minority languages in education, also affecting Hungarian, Tatar, Polish, and Bulgarian. After years of indifference, many of us are again listening for the words that kill, that morph into carnage. I am also trying to find a Ukrainian publisher for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work and widen the geographical scope of Anglophone literature in Ukrainian translation. In Ukraine, many dismiss this gender marking as uncommon and superfluous. That was the biggest draw. A translation of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, for example, has to reflect a number of dialects and accents from Yorkshire, the Bronx, the Scottish Lowlands, as well as the “Belgravia slur,” to name a few. The situation was different in literary translation. In 2012, the then-President Viktor Yanukovych granted minority languages special status wherever the number of speakers exceeded 10 percent of the population. Translation is often praised for dismantling borders. As a result, the program offered only one short course in literary translation practice. Some “classic” translations do come to mind. A translator needs to spend as much time and effort on working on their target language (even if it’s her mother tongue) as on perfecting the source language(s). What’s visible from this distance for you now? Not at all. I do think that the creation of translation-focused university programs was a turning point in the training of both interpreters and translators. And given Kazuo Ishiguro’s precise approach to language, I had to be especially careful with my choices and not allow myself many liberties. The US and the UK shouldn’t be the limit. Once, during close-quarters combat practice, I was tasked with interpreting the instructions of the US Staff Sergeant in charge. One such person is Tetiana Savchynska, a translator from English into Ukrainian. I knew that I might have to rework it at home, but wasting time was not an option. I used the hour to translate a passage from Le Carré’s The Night Manager on my phone, inside a tank. The past 20 years have bred stereotypes about the Ukrainian market for books in translation: that high-quality translations into Ukrainian don’t exist; that even if they do exist, they are much costlier than Russian versions (since most Ukrainians are bilingual, the price can be decisive); and finally, that the selection is much more limited than what is available in Russian. The training day usually ended at sundown, unless we had an overnight training mission or a night firing exercise. I’ve already mentioned having no other choice but to source my Ukrainian from books — originals and translations alike. Dalloway was published in 2016. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls demonstrated that crowdfunding is a great means not just of sponsoring, but also of promoting books. Fair pay is another obvious necessity. Although I met many incredible people in the field, women in military uniform are still relatively uncommon in Ukraine. In the 1990s, she single-handedly brought Ukrainian publishing out of stagnation, and did so under extremely unfavorable economic and political conditions. Since 2014, writers have been the preeminent spokespeople for Ukraine. I don’t think they should. What could they bring to the conversation? As its early graduate, do you see it as a harbinger of the profession’s changing role in society or only a change in academic branding? Publishers, together with translators, have worked hard to debunk these myths and to offer accessible high-quality books. The repeal failed, but the next month Russia invaded Ukraine under the guise of protecting the largest minority language and its speakers. To raise enough money, they need to increase their profile. I was a military interpreter by day and a literary translator by night. In the past few years, translations into Ukrainian have flourished. My go-to Ukrainian dictionary is from the 1980s, and its examples are awash with communist propaganda. The size alone has a strong influence on the Ukrainian language: one cannot expect that the population of a vast swath of land would speak exactly the same. A collateral effect of the protracted war has been a new hyper-awareness of the country’s geography. The names of the professions! In 2014, only one out of six could locate it. More than a translator and a literary scholar, she founded one of independent Ukraine’s first publishing houses to disseminate world literature classics that had previously been available only in Russian, or unavailable at all. we left for the training range, sometimes over an hour away. In addition, I’ve translated two nonfiction books, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and George Roddam’s This is Van Gogh, and, most recently, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Translators Carolyn French and Nina Karsov remarked on having to follow Gombrowicz not “only into incomparable imaginative flights, but [also] into tortured syntax, ubiquitous repetition, anachronisms, inconsistencies, crude expressions, nonsense.” What helped you with The Buried Giant? I could not devote as much time to translation as I wanted to, so I had to be creative. Although I always tried to explain that the information did not come from me, it only passed through me, I could tell I had much less authority than my male colleagues. An aspiring translator in Soviet and post-Soviet days attended a professional school or studied linguistics and foreign languages. There were also less life-threatening drawbacks. It’s hard to believe that the first Ukrainian translation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. What’s your sense of the current relationship between nation and translation in Ukraine? Isn’t translating linguistic time-warps — say, Witold Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk, written in 1953 but in a twisted sort of 17th-century Polish — infernally difficult? “Translators suffer a thankless and uneasy afterlife,” The New Yorker’s David Remnick once rued. It dismantles some borders but also preserves and guards the uniqueness of what is held within them. If I had to choose one, I’d name Solomiya Pavlychko. It’s a vast space, over 150 square miles. If it weren’t for them, we’d keep tasting verbal carrion. For example, the main character in Le Carré’s The Night Manager is a veteran, and the text is full of terms that I would have known nothing about without my background. AUGUST 19, 2018

A “WAR OF WORDS” leaves no rubble behind and no casualties. They can be evil, sure, but don’t they also guard against “the blandest global monoculture”? However, crowdfunding platforms are a recent phenomenon in Ukraine. Recovering it was especially important here. Language can connect or divide — a big topic now in both Ukraine and the US. ¤
YULIYA KOMSKA: Ukraine once spilled over most Americans’ mental maps amorphously, like objects on Dalí paintings. You have to follow a soldier’s schedule and live in the same conditions as soldiers. But since 2016, when these two translations appeared, there has been a sea change. I contemplate this possibility not only because I would be unemployed, but also because our literary world would look so different if there were no cultural and linguistic differences among communities large and small. But in Sympathy for the Traitor, Mark Polizzotti asks whether all borders are useless. Perhaps translation can work against that. TETIANA SAVCHYNSKA: Ukraine is almost the size of Texas. I can only use Kafka to decipher what lies beneath the surface of the original Ishiguro text. The trouble is that it was suppressed in the Soviets period. A typical workday lasted about 12 hours, longer in case of evening or night exercises, and we trained six days a week, rain or shine. Has your experience in in military interpreting influenced your approach to literary translation? For each, I had to find both semantic and stylistic correlates. I have a commission to translate another Le Carré novel, A Most Wanted Man, three more books by Ishiguro — The Unconsoled, An Artist of the Floating World, and Nocturnes — as well as the novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing by the Canadian writer Madeleine Thien. But that’s all the more reason to register and cherish words that don’t kill — and to credit those who care for these vital words, often in several languages. The curriculum was structured around the work of Soviet translation studies scholars. Ishiguro writes very clearly, yet he is never explicit about what he means. Serhiy Zhadan’s writings and profiles have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Longreads … Translators, by comparison, have remained in the shadows. Being Ishiguro’s primary translator allows me to do research that’s usually impossible when translating an author once or twice. The rest I learned later, on the job, as it were. The translated book market was still stagnating, if not disintegrating, during my university years. We are receiving an influx not only of new words, but also of new genres and literary forms. Ukraine’s first platform, KOMUBOOK, is up and running. It doesn’t compromise society’s key institutions and instruments, including language. Has this been a smooth process? English differentiates between translating and interpreting. But the –ka ending is native to Ukrainian. At times, however, the poor quality of translations into Ukrainian has been more than a myth. I often imagine a world without Babel, as it were — everyone still using the same language. What do you look forward to — and what do you fear — as you continue to translate Ishiguro? The surrounding countryside may look idyllic, but it hides traces of war. Neologisms have cropped up to describe the warring parties, and the entire country has taken a “wartime-linguistic swerve.” Book imports from Russia were banned. At about 7:00 a.m. A translator’s own geographical and linguistic roots matter less than her ability to grasp and harness this diversity. My biggest fear is not so much not understanding what he means, as revealing the hidden inadvertently. More specific terms could shed light on the nuances of translation and interpreting as separate trades. Suppressed and isolated over several decades, Ukrainian is now growing through translation. She finalized its Ukrainian translation soon after the news of the author’s Nobel Prize had broken, and wrote about the unforeseen burden of translating fame. One was that the job was time- and life-consuming. The permission to continue came only about an hour later. Unexpectedly, yes. What do you say to that? With gender stereotypes still so prevalent, it’s my hope that it can help ease the proverbial constraints of “Kinder, Küche, Kirche.”
What’s in the pipeline? The novel I’ll start translating this fall, The Unconsoled, is Kafkaesque. And the downsides? Initially I considered becoming a combat medic. Almost all interpreters were assigned to companies and platoons and had to be with them all day, every day of the training cycle. It’s tense but comparably benign. Coming back to the previous question, I think that in our increasingly homogenous world we need to respect and appreciate our differences. Now that the right-wing international, emboldened by Donald Trump’s singularly vituperative presidency, hurls words to incite to violence, the cliché is ripe for retirement. We struggle to resist the imperial language — Russian. What have you had to do to “de-Sovietize”? We practiced in fully equipped booths for simultaneous interpreting and had to hone this skill to be on par with our peers and working professionals. This reminder is especially necessary when not only translation, but language itself is seen as a “problem.”
In Ukraine, the so-called “language problem” seems endemic. Linguistically (though not politically), it can seem that we are inevitably headed toward a world without boundaries, with literatures becoming more uniform and less steeped in discrete cultures. But let me point out that literary translation is not the only instrument in advancing Ukrainian as a contact zone with other cultures. In the case of KOMUBOOK, their goal is to publish Anglophone books that have become classics but are still not available in Ukrainian translation. The most obvious advantages of crowdfunding are raising enough money to cover publishing costs and attracting readers’ attention even before the book is out. My interview with Tetiana centers on these questions. While reading, I always keep a notebook handy to track new words, phrases, and idioms. Ukrainian doesn’t. It could discourage university programs from advertising the blanket mission of “training translators.”
Not coincidentally, one of your first jobs was to interpret for the NATO Partnership for Peace military training center in Yavoriv, 15 minutes east of the Ukrainian-Polish border. Can translators do something so that it divides less? Her night shift was Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant. In Lviv, the western Ukrainian city where you studied, such a program only opened in 2008. As a result, readership in Ukrainian is much wider, and translation counts as an essential profession. I am much more in favor of such subtle ways of promoting the language than imposing and enforcing restrictions or bans on language use. The gap was palpable at almost every stage of my studies. The ambiguity has perpetuated the misunderstanding that translation is as simple as replacing one word with another. For example, Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad or Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. We had enough censorship in Soviet days. Crowdfunding, some say, could be the future of translation everywhere. The ensuing war has turned Ukraine into a “linguistic laboratory” in more than one sense. As Ukraine’s international visibility increased, the demand for qualified interpreters soared, significantly elevating the status of the profession. Does the blurred line matter? Reactions to my presence were mixed, to say the least. What was an interpreter’s day like? In a first-aid course at the Red Cross, I found out about the opportunity in Yavoriv. The token question now is, “What part of Ukraine are you from?” Does the answer matter for the translator’s material — language? A native of Ukraine, Komska has most recently co-authored the book Linguistic Disobedience: Restoring Power to Civic Language (with Michelle Moyd and David Gramling; Palgrave, 2018). 
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Banner image by Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. This has been a boon for the language. I have friends who grew up in Russian-speaking families, with Russian being the go-to language, and yet they watched The Simpsons and Cars in Ukrainian: the translation was better, the jokes funnier. In this particular case, I decided on an outdated Ukrainian without referencing any particular period, for a vague anachronistic effect. When the war in Eastern Ukraine broke out, I knew I wanted to do something to help the Ukrainian forces. Is translation the country’s lifeline to a cosmopolitan, internationalist future, for which thousands marched in late 2013 and early 2014? I consulted specialized dictionaries, but reading fiction and nonfiction with rich archaic vocabulary and syntax helped the most. There is now competition to print the most recent books in the best possible translation.