translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps, Yale University Press, 2019.
Interview conducted by Dzvinia Orlowsky, July 8, 2019
DO: Thank you, Virlana, for taking the time to speak with me about your and Wanda Phipp’s process in translating this extraordinary collection. I’d like to begin by quoting lines from one of Zhadan’s poems in this book:
The Lord Almighty will summon us soon,
reversing the currents of the ocean, flinging us into the dark.
Cry for me,
O blind seaweed of America,
as only you can,
as only you can.
“Neither the Smallest Girl in Chinatown” (Ethiopia, 2009)
These lines strike me not only for their dark beauty and forthright tone, but also because they suggest to me a parallel with the challenge of translating: Translation can feel like an act of reversing the currents of linguistic oceans.
If translation requires such transformation, you and Ms. Phipps have certainly found the way in. Is there any particular stage in the translation process where you feel the utmost faith in the capacity for one language to receive or to keep whole the images, tone, syntax, music—the binding threads—with another?
VT: We start by reading the original poem out loud in Ukrainian and then read the literal English translation word for word out loud. We build the translation line by line, trying to find the flow.
Rhythm, meter and rhyme change, but we hope the emotional tone and attitude stays whole. That is the heart of the poem. This is what we need to find.
Images are very important, but sometimes you can’t translate them directly. The images can be imbedded in the original language. There are figures of speech and then we have to find equivalents.
DO: These eloquent translations read as if the poems were conceived in English. Every poem transports readers to an authentic, emotional destination. But even in the best translations, however, something irreplaceable is inevitably lost. What, in your opinion, is lost from the Ukrainian for the English language reader?
VT: The historical and cultural context isn’t there. The English reader does not know the soil from which the poem is coming out of, something every Ukrainian reader would know. Sometimes you have to hint at it in the translation for the poem to be understood.
The end rhymes which are often used in Ukrainian are not there in our translations. But the music of internal rhymes and the rhythm of speech, the musicality of the poem, is what we search for when we read the poem over and over out loud.
DO: You and Ms. Phipps have worked as co-creators since 1989. Has your approach to translating changed over the years? If so, how?
VT: We have learned to read each other’s minds now. So we come up with solutions we will both like quicker.
DO: Quoted, in part, at the beginning of this interview, “Neither the Smallest Girl in Chinatown” is the only poem represented from the collection Ethiopia (2009). How did you come to the decision to choose that poem as a hallmark for that collection?
VT: Serhiy had actually asked us to translate that poem. I think he wrote it when he was here working with us on a theatre show. I guess you would have to ask him your questions about this poem.
DO: These selected works, beginning with the most recent, span seven collections written and published between 2001 and 2015. How did you decide which poems to include?
VT: We started working with Serhiy in 2002. Most poems in the book were translations we did for various Yara poetry events over the years. Our actors would read them in English, and Zhadan and other Ukrainians would read the original. We chose the poems we liked reading the best for this book.
DO: Zhadan’s 2015 publication Why I’m Not on Social Media expresses the ominous human disconnect resulting from a lack of life experience and intimacy in favor of quickly disseminated, volatile mass (grave) information. In his poem titled “Needle” he writes:
He was buried in a mass grave—that’s how they were all buried.
His personal effects were turned over to his parents.
His status was never updated.
One day some bastard
will definitely write heroic poems about this.
One day another bastard
will say there’s no reason to write about this at all.
The recorded assault on him by Russian thugs during the 2014 Maidan demonstration, I believe, went viral. How, in your opinion, is Zhadan able to balance necessary artistic aloneness with his increasing global presence via technologically available media?
VT: The poems for “Why I’m Not on Social Media” were written when we were working with Serhiy on a theatre piece about Donetsk. It was called “Underground Dreams.” Originally, we recorded young people’s dreams and made a beautiful, imagistic piece about their dreams and Donetsk history in the fall of 2013. We were to do the full production the following spring, but then came Maidan and the war and we heard about so many young lives turned upside down and destroyed. This collection was about this disruption in ordinary lives.
Serhiy seems to be able to write anywhere. He pulls out his laptop in the middle of a theater rehearsal or waiting for a train. He’s very honest about his opinions and has great respect for the people he meets. I think this is his true strong point.
DO: Before translating Zhadan’s work, which other Ukrainian poets did you and Ms. Phipps find especially pivotal in terms of introducing English-speaking readers to Ukrainian poetry?
VT: We translated Pavlo Tychyna’s “Instead of Sonnets or Octaves” and then Yara created its first show “Light from the East” using our translations. Most of the poems we have translated were on themes that were perfect for our theatre pieces. Natalka Bilotserkivets’ “May,” was about Chernobyl and we were then doing our show “Explosions.” But we feel that our work with Oleh Lysheha on his long poems “Swan” and ‘Raven,” which became theatre pieces in their own right, really set the stage for our work with Serhiy Zhadan.
DO: In your translator’s note, you share with us your 1990 visit to the Slovo (Word/Logos) Building in Kharkiv in Eastern Ukraine, home of the literary elite in the 30’s before the 1937 arrests, executions and suicides obliterated that community. You offer this visitation as a moment of initiation toward your life-time commitment of giving voice to those who gave up their lives for their art, whose works were, like many of those writing today under oppression, censored or banished
they were led out at night their dreams scattering
from their shoulders like rats from windowsills
their gray shirts were soaked with sweat
and yellow piss hid in their bodies
those who led them out enjoyed the scent
of the night scene.
“The End of Ukrainian Syllabotonic Verse”
Ballads About War and Reconstruction (2001)
VT: My experience visiting the Slovo building let me see that I could contribute to contemporary Ukrainian culture.
WP: My two visits to Ukraine brought the culture and context of what we had been translating to life for me.
Thank you Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps for making available to English speaking readers this remarkable collection of poems by Serhiy Zhadan.
I’d like to close with one of my favorite poems from the book:
Take Only What is Most Important
Take what is most important. Take the letters.
Take only what you can carry.
Take the icons and the embroidery, take the silver,
Take the wooden crucifix and the golden replicas.
Take some bread, the vegetables from the garden, then leave.
We will never return again.
We will never see our city again.
Take the letters, all of them, every last piece of bad news.
We will never see our corner store again.
We will never drink from that dry well again.
We will never see familiar faces again.
We are refugees. We’ll run all night.
We will run past fields of sunflowers.
We will run from dogs, rest with cows.
We’ll scoop up water with our bare hands,
sit waiting in camps, annoying the dragons of war.
You will not return, and friends will never come back.
There will be no smoky kitchens, no usual jobs.
There will be no dreamy lights in sleepy towns,
no green valleys, no suburban wastelands.
The sun will be a smudge on the window of a cheap train,
rushing past cholera pits covered with lime.
There will be blood on women’s heels,
tired guards on borderlands covered with snow,
a postman with empty bags shot down,
a priest with a hapless smile hung by his ribs,
the quiet of a cemetery, the noise of a command post,
and unedited lists of the dead,
so long that there won’t be enough time
to check them for your own name.
translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps
Reprinted with permission from Consequence Magazine.
Serhiy Zhadan was born in the Luhansk Region of Ukraine and educated in Kharkiv. He is the author of twelve books of poetry. His prose works include Big Mac (2003), Depeche Mode (2004), Anarchy in the UKR (2005), Hymn of the Democratic Youth (2006), Voroshilovgrad (2010), Mesopotamia (2014) and Orphanage. Zhadan’s books have been translated into English, German, French, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Russian. He is the front man for the band Zhadan and the Dogs.
Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps have received the Agni Poetry Translation Prize, the National Theatre Translation Fund Award and twelve translation grants from the New York State Council on the Arts. Their translations have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, and are integral to the theater pieces created by Yara Arts Group. www.yaraartsgroup.net
Wanda Phipps is the author of the books Field of Wanting: Poems of Desire and Wake-Up Calls: 66 Morning Poems. She received a New York Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. Her poems have appeared in over one hundred literary magazines and numerous anthologies.
Virlana Tkacz heads the Yara Arts Group and has directed thirty original shows at La MaMa Theatre in New York, as well as in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Bishkek, Ulaanbaatar, and Ulan Ude. She received an NEA Poetry Translation Fellowship for her translations with Wanda Phipps of Serhiy Zhadan’s poetry.
Interviewer, Dzvinia Orlowsky