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




A “WAR OF WORDS” leaves no rubble behind and no casualties. It’s tense but comparably benign. It doesn’t compromise society’s key institutions and instruments, including language. This cliché has had a good run. 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. After years of indifference, many of us are again listening for the words that kill, that morph into carnage. 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. If it weren’t for them, we’d keep tasting verbal carrion.

One such person is Tetiana Savchynska, a translator from English into Ukrainian. We met last year at Dartmouth College, where she was completing a graduate degree in Comparative Literature. Her night shift was Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant. 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. Tetiana’s passion for her work is a reminder that translation, as Mark Polizzotti admonishes, is more than a “problem” to solve. It’s a vehicle for the border-defying traffic of ideas and a source of intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional joy. 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. In 2012, the then-President Viktor Yanukovych granted minority languages special status wherever the number of speakers exceeded 10 percent of the population. Russian was the greatest beneficiary. An attempt to repeal Yanukovych’s law followed his ouster in February 2014. The repeal failed, but the next month Russia invaded Ukraine under the guise of protecting the largest minority language and its speakers. The ensuing war has turned Ukraine into a “linguistic laboratory” in more than one sense. 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. A law was passed to restrict the use of minority languages in education, also affecting Hungarian, Tatar, Polish, and Bulgarian. 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? Is translation the country’s lifeline to a cosmopolitan, internationalist future, for which thousands marched in late 2013 and early 2014? Or is it yet another tool for redrawing the national borders? My interview with Tetiana centers on these questions.

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YULIYA KOMSKA: Ukraine once spilled over most Americans’ mental maps amorphously, like objects on Dalí paintings. In 2014, only one out of six could locate it. A collateral effect of the protracted war has been a new hyper-awareness of the country’s geography. The token question now is, “What part of Ukraine are you from?” Does the answer matter for the translator’s material — language?

TETIANA SAVCHYNSKA: Ukraine is almost the size of Texas. 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. Its dialects are so versatile that people from different parts of the country don’t always understand each other. A translator’s own geographical and linguistic roots matter less than her ability to grasp and harness this diversity.

Can you think of specific experiences?

Although I translate mainly into so-called “literary Ukrainian,” my choice of language usually depends on the source. 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. For each, I had to find both semantic and stylistic correlates. 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 language of The Buried Giant is faux-archaic, and it was a challenge as much as a pleasure to consider a Ukrainian equivalent. In this particular case, I decided on an outdated Ukrainian without referencing any particular period, for a vague anachronistic effect.

You make it sound easy. 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 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 consulted specialized dictionaries, but reading fiction and nonfiction with rich archaic vocabulary and syntax helped the most. Immersing myself in this stylistics had its risks: I could unintentionally overwhelm readers with obsolete words. My goal was to shift to another time period as subtly as Ishiguro does in the original.

An aspiring translator in Soviet and post-Soviet days attended a professional school or studied linguistics and foreign languages. Specialized university programs were rare. In Lviv, the western Ukrainian city where you studied, such a program only opened in 2008. 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?

I do think that the creation of translation-focused university programs was a turning point in the training of both interpreters and translators. 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. As Ukraine’s international visibility increased, the demand for qualified interpreters soared, significantly elevating the status of the profession. The situation was different in literary translation. The translated book market was still stagnating, if not disintegrating, during my university years. A handful of professional literary translators, who had mostly been trained back in the Soviet period, had jobs. As a result, the program offered only one short course in literary translation practice. The rest I learned later, on the job, as it were.

Was there a noticeable generational gap between your Soviet-trained mentors’ attitudes to translation and yours?

The gap was palpable at almost every stage of my studies. The curriculum was structured around the work of Soviet translation studies scholars. 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.

What have you had to do to “de-Sovietize”?

I had to work around the deficit of up-to-date lexicographic resources. My go-to Ukrainian dictionary is from the 1980s, and its examples are awash with communist propaganda. I’ve already mentioned having no other choice but to source my Ukrainian from books — originals and translations alike. While reading, I always keep a notebook handy to track new words, phrases, and idioms. 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).

English differentiates between translating and interpreting. Ukrainian doesn’t. Does the blurred line matter?

The ambiguity has perpetuated the misunderstanding that translation is as simple as replacing one word with another. More specific terms could shed light on the nuances of translation and interpreting as separate trades. 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. It’s a vast space, over 150 square miles. What was an interpreter’s day like?

From the very first days, I realized that being a military interpreter is much like being a soldier. You have to follow a soldier’s schedule and live in the same conditions as soldiers. Almost all interpreters were assigned to companies and platoons and had to be with them all day, every day of the training cycle. At about 7:00 a.m. we left for the training range, sometimes over an hour away. The training day usually ended at sundown, unless we had an overnight training mission or a night firing exercise. 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.

What was the draw of the job?

When the war in Eastern Ukraine broke out, I knew I wanted to do something to help the Ukrainian forces. The military had been neglected for over 20 years before the war, and the decline in the troops’ readiness, infrastructure, and equipment was evident. Initially I considered becoming a combat medic. In a first-aid course at the Red Cross, I found out about the opportunity in Yavoriv. At the time, it seemed like a good use of my skills, despite my lack of military experience. The Ukrainian military had a long way to go before meeting NATO standards, and seeing them master new tactics and improve was very rewarding. That was the biggest draw.

And the downsides?

Although I was never in a war zone, the job involved risks. The surrounding countryside may look idyllic, but it hides traces of war. In the 1940s, the field was used for POW detention and then for training Soviet troops. Unexploded ordnance was everywhere.

There were also less life-threatening drawbacks. One was that the job was time- and life-consuming. I was a military interpreter by day and a literary translator by night. I could not devote as much time to translation as I wanted to, so I had to be creative. 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. The permission to continue came only about an hour later. I used the hour to translate a passage from Le Carré’s The Night Manager on my phone, inside a tank. I knew that I might have to rework it at home, but wasting time was not an option.

Another obstacle was systemic sexism. Although I met many incredible people in the field, women in military uniform are still relatively uncommon in Ukraine. Reactions to my presence were mixed, to say the least. Once, during close-quarters combat practice, I was tasked with interpreting the instructions of the US Staff Sergeant in charge. A Ukrainian soldier balked, saying he wouldn’t listen to a woman. 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. Such situations encouraged me to work harder, if only to prove that women too can be professionals in a military setting.

Has your experience in in military interpreting influenced your approach to literary translation?

Unexpectedly, yes. 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. In my case, literary translation and interpreting have turned out to be complementary, and I am grateful to have tried my hand at both.

Aside from Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and Le Carré’s The Night Manager, what else have you translated?

My first translations were of Anne Fine’s Flour Babies and Round Behind the Ice-House, both written for young adults. I was motivated by the obvious dearth of Ukrainian-language books for teens. There was nothing between children’s books and books for adults. But since 2016, when these two translations appeared, there has been a sea change. 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.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls must have posed challenges very different from Le Carré or Ishiguro.

The names of the professions! Ukrainian nouns are gendered, and with most professions, the male form is mistaken for the default. 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. In Ukraine, many dismiss this gender marking as uncommon and superfluous. But the –ka ending is native to Ukrainian. The trouble is that it was suppressed in the Soviets period. Recovering it was especially important here. This was a book that I had asked to translate, having seen it in English and found it indispensable. 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?

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. 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. The US and the UK shouldn’t be the limit.

Being a Nobel Prize laureate’s primary translator is a privilege and a responsibility. What do you look forward to — and what do you fear — as you continue to translate Ishiguro?

Being Ishiguro’s primary translator allows me to do research that’s usually impossible when translating an author once or twice. The novel I’ll start translating this fall, The Unconsoled, is Kafkaesque. In preparation, I am rereading Kafka, though the trick is not to let his prose influence the language of my translation. I can only use Kafka to decipher what lies beneath the surface of the original Ishiguro text. Ishiguro writes very clearly, yet he is never explicit about what he means. Mark Kamine once observed that “few writers dare to say so little of what they mean” as Ishiguro. My biggest fear is not so much not understanding what he means, as revealing the hidden inadvertently.

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. What’s your sense of the current relationship between nation and translation in Ukraine?

In the past few years, translations into Ukrainian have flourished. This has been a boon for the language. Although, de jure, Ukraine has never been a colony, de facto we are a postcolonial country. We struggle to resist the imperial language — Russian. Suppressed and isolated over several decades, Ukrainian is now growing through translation. We are receiving an influx not only of new words, but also of new genres and literary forms.

Has this been a smooth process?

Not at all. 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. Publishers, together with translators, have worked hard to debunk these myths and to offer accessible high-quality books. There is now competition to print the most recent books in the best possible translation. As a result, readership in Ukrainian is much wider, and translation counts as an essential profession. But let me point out that literary translation is not the only instrument in advancing Ukrainian as a contact zone with other cultures. 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. I am much more in favor of such subtle ways of promoting the language than imposing and enforcing restrictions or bans on language use. We had enough censorship in Soviet days.

At times, however, the poor quality of translations into Ukrainian has been more than a myth. 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. What can prevent future mishaps?

We need more training programs that let emerging and seasoned literary translators collaborate and learn from each other. Fair pay is another obvious necessity.

Crowdfunding, some say, could be the future of translation everywhere. Ukraine’s first platform, KOMUBOOK, is up and running. What’s your take on it?

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls demonstrated that crowdfunding is a great means not just of sponsoring, but also of promoting books. The most obvious advantages of crowdfunding are raising enough money to cover publishing costs and attracting readers’ attention even before the book is out. In the case of KOMUBOOK, their goal is to publish Anglophone books that have become classics but are still not available in Ukrainian translation. It’s hard to believe that the first Ukrainian translation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was published in 2016. However, crowdfunding platforms are a recent phenomenon in Ukraine. To raise enough money, they need to increase their profile.

If you were to single out one great hero of contemporary Ukrainian translation, whom would you name?

If I had to choose one, I’d name Solomiya Pavlychko. 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. In the 1990s, she single-handedly brought Ukrainian publishing out of stagnation, and did so under extremely unfavorable economic and political conditions.

“Translators suffer a thankless and uneasy afterlife,” The New Yorker’s David Remnick once rued. They are forever “put down, nitpicked, and […] overturned.” Could translation ever be timeless — and could translators be classics, like authors of original works?

Some “classic” translations do come to mind. For example, Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad or Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. But I tend to believe that a translation, unlike the original, grows old, and each generation needs something more up-to-date.

Since 2014, writers have been the preeminent spokespeople for Ukraine. 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. What could they bring to the conversation?

Translators bring a unique perspective that comes from a deep understanding of more than just one culture. 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.

What’s visible from this distance for you now?

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. Education might not seem like a priority during a war, but intellectual forces are as important as military strength.

Translation is often praised for dismantling borders. But in Sympathy for the Traitor, Mark Polizzotti asks whether all borders are useless. They can be evil, sure, but don’t they also guard against “the blandest global monoculture”? What do you say to that?

I often imagine a world without Babel, as it were — everyone still using the same language. 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. 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. Perhaps translation can work against that. It dismantles some borders but also preserves and guards the uniqueness of what is held within them.

Language can connect or divide — a big topic now in both Ukraine and the US. Can translators do something so that it divides less?

I don’t think they should. Coming back to the previous question, I think that in our increasingly homogenous world we need to respect and appreciate our differences.

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Yuliya Komska is associate professor of German Studies at Dartmouth College. 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.


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