October 14, 2020KR OnlinePoetryTranslation

Swallows; The Letter; February

Translated from Ukrainian by Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky

Swallows

a last attempt to fly off somewhere
from this coop from this stable from
this bedroom where the urgent sweet
smells of an animal’s nest hang

there to there—to heavens touched
where electrical wires are like a pedestal
and the fiery strokes of a rainbow
the unsettled comforts of a poor life

like black mittens from our fingers
like the black and white keys of a piano
like festival fireworks at night
they fly from their native nest

they’re already there—invisible
like the endless sound of the final abyss
so fearless and so cold
the solitary flights of our lives

 

Ластівки

остання спроба вилетіти десь
із цього курника цієї стайні
цієї спальні де висять нагальні
кохані запахи тваринного гнізда

туди туди—до пещених небес
де мов підніжжя дроти електричні
і де веселки змахи феєричні
спастичні втіхи бідного життя

як рукавички чорні з наших перст
мов чорні з білим клавіші рояльні
як феєрверки в ночі фестивальні
вони летять із рідного гнізда

вони вже там—невидимі як без
кінечний звук кінечної безодні
такі відважні і такі холодні
самотні злети нашого життя

 

The Letter

You go out for bread and milk in the morning.
Returning, you see the mailwoman—
                    she’s walking away from your house.
As usual, you imagine her two schoolchildren.
It seems you and she are the same age.

Two dozen blue mailboxes.
Yours, number 20, is at the bottom on the right.
A key on the delicate ring.
Newspapers, bills, letters.

You sit with the white envelope for an hour and a half,
studying stamps, cancellation marks.
And you can neither cut nor tear
nor dissect the letters of the return address.

Hide it deep inside your writing desk
like wilted flower petals in a volume of verse,
like a handful of ashes.

If you could take and burn this body, if you could leave
only the spirit, only the X-rays on a spinal image,
only the young vertebrae under an invisible surface,
under someone’s hands,

stroking from neck to thigh.

 

Лист

Вранці підеш за хлібом і за молоком.
Повертаючись, бачиш поштарку—
                    виходить із вашого дому.
Як завжди, уявляєш її двох дітей-школярів:
ви, здається, ровесники з нею.

Два десятки синіх поштових скриньок.
Твоя справа внизу за номером 20.
На брелку із ключами крихітний ключик.
Газети, рахунки, листи.

Півтори години сидиш над білим конвертом,
роздивляєшся марки, поштові штампи.
І не можеш ні обрізати, ні надірвати,
розтинаючи літери на зворотній адресі.

Заховай його глибоко, глибоко до письмового столу,
як пелюстки зов’ялої квітки до томика віршів,
як жменьку попелу.

Якби взяти спалити це тіло, якби залишити
тільки дух, тільки промені Х на рентґені хребта,
тільки юні хребці під невидимою поверхнею,
під чиїмись руками,

що пестять від шиї до стегон.

 

February

—On the banks of the eternal river.
     Lina Kostenko, Ukrainiain poet and writer, b. 1930

It’s the last month of a long winter
we’ll survive. After all, we were at fault
for something. From the darkness,
a knife emerges like the moon. A guitar
strums about corpses and forests
while our voices endure on cassettes.

Some owe less—others more.
Some more—others, less. Out of our hands
years crawl like worms. Yet,
there’s punishment for everything.

Unfortunate earth of enslaved dreams,
of nasty words, decapitations,
of skin burned with acid!
Your nightingale tongue ripped out
and only Russian curses, a whistle, a drunken cry
heard from under scarlet robes.

My princess, wife of fish and frogs!
Your every son—a scoundrel or a slave!
Who to give oneself to and whom to love?
On the banks of the eternal river—
accountants, majors, their wives,
their children sent off to foreign schools.

What will grow from the scattered grain?
We had to see the naked field.
Though some will get to see the harvest,
the sickle will go the way of the foe.
They’ll beat with flails on the threshing floor.
On an embroidered cloth our bread will lie
like a severed head.

 

Лютий

Над берегами вічної ріки.
     —Ліна Костенко

Останній місяць довгої зими
переживемо. Все-таки і ми

у чомусь завинили. Із пітьми
виходить ніж як місяць. І ґітара
вибренькує про трупи і ліси,
і на касетах наші голоси.

Хто винен менше—більше. Навпаки—
хто винен більше—менше. Із руки
повзуть роки, неначе черв’яки.

І все-таки за все надходить кара.

Нещасна земле підневільних снів!
Мерзенних слів, одрубаних голів,
обпаленої кислотою шкіри!

Твій солов’їний вирвано язик,
і тільки мат, і свист, і п’яний крик
доносяться з-під княжої порфири.

Моя княгине, жоно риб і жаб!
Твій кожен син—негідник або раб!
Кому віддатись і кого любити?
Над берегами вічної ріки—
бухгалтери, майори, їх жінки . . .
І в закордонних школах їхні діти.

Що виросте з розкиданих колось?
Нам голе поле бачить привелось.
Але жнива таки побачить хтось.

І пройде серп ходою супостата.
І замолотять ціпом на току.

І хліб на вишиванім рушнику
лежатиме, як голова одтята.

 

An Interview with the Translators

How did you begin working on this project? What drew you to it? What in particular would you like the audience to know about the work, the writer, and/or the context?

AK: I approached Dzvinia out of the blue because I had gotten her name from our series editor, Grace Mahoney. Up to that point, Lost Horse Press’s Ukrainian Contemporary Poetry Series featured some of the giants of the 90s, but all of them men (they’ve since fixed this), so I was determined to translate a giantess of the 90s, Natalka Bilotserkivets. I honestly knew very little about Dzvinia other than that she was a Ukrainian-American poet and translator, and she might be interested and that was enough for me. I now realize how lucky I got to have a co-translator whose skills were so different from my own.

Bilotserkivets became somewhat well known in the English-speaking world for her poem “We’ll Not Die in Paris”—which I later realized had been translated by Dzvinia—but there isn’t a whole lot else available, at least not relative to everything she’s done. Perhaps this could be said about all but a handful of Ukrainian poets, but here we had an opportunity to correct it for Natalka. Bilotserkivets first became established during perestroika and the immediate post-Soviet independence. This must be taken into account, especially when reading her earlier work. As she’s gotten older, I think she has become less riled up and more melancholy, but hers is tinged with realism. She’s not merely sad; she’s frustrated and unimpressed, but she hasn’t lost hope.

DO: Over the years, I’d translated a dozen or so of Bilotserkivets’s poems as well as those of other contemporary Ukrainian poets, but never an entire collection. My earliest translations of Natalka’s poems appeared in the critically acclaimed anthology From Three Worlds: New Writing From Ukraine (Zephyr Press, 2000). As Solomea Pavlychko proclaimed in the introduction, this was “the first publication to witness Ukraine’s Renaissance.” I was thrilled to be introduced to Ali and to begin our work together.

Bilotserkivets’s lyric poems resonate deeply with me. The movement between language and voice and requisite silence echoes what I often felt growing up as a daughter of immigrant Ukrainian parents: shifts between vivid, emotionally charged recollections—shared in our community as stories or songs—and long periods of silence in which a sense of alienation and solitude were keenly felt.

Bilotserkivets is a poet of witness, therefore she’s a poet of both joy and despair. Our selection titled Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow forthcoming from Lost Horse Press in fall 2021 explores that duality and range—from daily, seemingly insignificant life affirmations to survivorship of national tragedies.

Could you briefly explain your translation process? Could you speak to your collaboration and how it impacted your process?

DO: Our process was pretty straightforward. Ali provided a first draft literal translation of each poem into English, while I transformed each literal draft into poetry.

AK: Dzvinia, who is a poet and has a poet’s ear and sensibility, spent days pouring over my drafts to put them in proper order and turn them back into poems. Then we went over them together.

I learned so much about poetry just from listening to Dzvinia talk about the choices she made and why, and I tried to absorb all the matter-of-fact nuggets she threw my way. Some lessons we’ll have to revisit! As our project went on, my annotations changed and the number of synonyms I offered grew as I became more comfortable diverting from the literal text to capture its meaning more broadly; I learned to be true to the image while still being specific. This was hard for me as someone who works almost exclusively in prose.

DO: There’s a great deal of trust in our collaboration. Ali’s literal translations are meticulously considered, but she also gives me the freedom to condense, to take leaps of faith in order for the poem to find its equivalent in English. Line-to-line revisions are discussed in phone conversations often lasting several hours and mutually agreed on before final changes are made.

AK: Natalka also allowed us considerable freedom. She told us on multiple occasions that translation is no less a process of creation than writing the original. She didn’t want to interfere in our work and gave us the liberty to change words, line breaks, punctuation—anything we needed to make the poem work in English. She was delighted that we wanted to translate her and gave us creative license. I think she wouldn’t even be upset if they turned out bad; it’s our work, after all, not hers. She was, however, very helpful in explaining images we weren’t picking up on or references that were lost on us (really me).

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you meet those challenges? What did you learn in this process?

DO: I have a tendency to want to cut back quite a bit. For example, repetition in Ukrainian has a musical, incantatory, effect that doesn’t transfer well into English. Also, some of the frequent use of exclamation marks and ellipses were, at first, difficult to work around. I felt in English they compromised the original poem’s tonal mystery. We discussed and came to a mutual agreement on any changes that altered in any way the original text.

Regarding the learning process, I often remind myself not to impose my voice on the author, whose tone and intention have to remain the true north of any translation.

AK: Ukrainian is a highly inflected language—it has seven (!) cases and verbs take gender and number in the past, for example. Natalka has said that she often writes in the present tense to avoid having to assign her speaker a gender. The inflection makes it easy to write impersonally in Ukrainian, whereas English often demands pronouns and direct objects. At times this meant we had to make decisions for Natalka, choosing who her speaker should be or losing deliberate ambiguity. Dzvinia was very good about knowing where we needed to cut or change instances of repetition to actually retain the impact of the original.

DO: Also, when translating a poem that’s already been widely translated and anthologized—and there are a few in our forthcoming book— I had to work against not getting too carried away with making our translations stand apart from the others. When too many variations accumulate as a result of too many translations of a popular poem, the poem gets pulled further and further from its original source—like the children’s circle game Telephone.

What is the state of translation of the literature of the source languages you work with? What would you recommend to translators and editors interested in working with this material?

DO: As Ukraine increasingly entered center stage in world politics, a growing interest in Ukrainian literature has followed. A number of superb anthologies have been published in recent years—Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine edited by Oksana Maksymchuk & Max Rosochinsky with an introduction by Ilya Kaminsky and an afterword by Polina Barskova, as one example.

Christine Lysnewycz Kruk Holbert, founder and publisher of Lost Horse Press and Grace Mahoney, (mentioned earlier) Ukrainian Contemporary Series, LHP do a magnificent job of supporting Ukrainian and Ukrainian-American voices in translation.

AK: In the field, there is a distinct sense that Ukrainian literature has been somewhat overlooked these last 30 years. Almost like the country itself, it has struggled to distinguish itself from its neighbors. Yet, Ukrainian literature is quite popular in Central and Eastern Europe—perhaps it is slowly working its way west. In the past, a lot of work written in Ukrainian was translated from its Russian translation. This is changing as Ukrainian publishing itself becomes more integrated globally and the cadre of qualified translators grows. I anticipate a boom in the next decade. I’m the associate director of TAULT, a young agency working to bring Ukrainian literature to American publishers. We need translators who not only speak the language, but are also fluent in the culture.

Could you share the names of your two favorite books of or on translation with our readers?

AK: The best book I have ever read in translation was Minae Mizumura’s highly underrated A True Novel (Other Press, 2013) translated from Japanese by Julie Winters Carpenter. The second best is Magda Szabó’s The Door (NYRB, 2015) in Len Rix’s translation from the Hungarian. I also have a soft spot for Constance Garnett; she has a bad rap today, but she made a prodigious amount of Russian literature available to English-speaking audiences for the first time. Oh yes, and of course Ann Goldstein.

DO: I frequently return to View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems by Wisława Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh and Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems, 1962–1972 by Alejandra Pizarnik translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert. I also have a third, more recent, favorite: What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems by Serhiy Zhadan translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps.