December 4, 2020

Mark Andryczyk on Ukrainian literature’s perspective on the turbulence of history


Mark Andryczyk, Ph.D., manages the Ukrainian Studies Program at the Harriman Institute of Columbia University, teaches courses on Ukrainian literature and translates Ukrainian books into English. He recently complied and edited an anthology of Ukrainian literature in translation, “The White Chalk of Days: The Contemporary Ukrainian Literature Series Anthology.” Being highly involved in presenting Ukrainian literature to the world, he shares his observations on this process, its achievement and perspectives.

You have been teaching, translating and presenting Ukrainian literature for English-speaking audiences for many years. How has the perception of Ukrainian literature changed during the last decade?

Well, I’m happy to say that interest in Ukrainian literature has grown. Markedly. I’ve noticed that especially in contemporary Ukraine literature. One of the most pleasant dynamics and developments has been the fact that there have been more English-language publications, translations of this literature – again, mostly contemporary Ukrainian literature, into English. And, certainly, within the last five or six years, it’s really picked up. Although there has also been a gradual rise in the last 10 to15 years. But especially in the last five years.

Mark Andryczyk

It’s great that there’s a whole new crop of translators that seem to have emerged like mushrooms after a fall rain, which is fantastic. I have become acquainted with them online or otherwise, and it’s interesting to see where these people come from. So there seems to be a certain buzz going around. It’s still a small group, of course, but the people that are invested in it are very passionate. Maybe that energy gets passed along and that’s how these new people get pulled into it. The group of people working with Ukrainian literature translating into English has definitely grown more than publishing houses willing to publish these works have, but there still has been an exponential growth effect in the field.


The Ukrainian Studies Program at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University, held the conference “Five Years of War in the Donbas: Cultural Responses and Reverberations.” Did the war change the perception of Ukrainian literature outside of it?

I think it changed the perception inside of Ukraine and that, as a result, it would have reverberations outside Ukraine.

If we’re talking about the amount of literature that’s coming out of Ukraine and what’s reaching the reader here in translation or just knowledge about what’s happening in Ukraine, it has, because, again, I think things in Ukraine themselves have changed. War has become a topic of many works, our top writers have felt a need to address it. Of course, it doesn’t touch only literature. There are so many very good films dealing with the war with Russia as a topic, also visual art. In fact, at our conference we focused basically on those three: literature, visual art, film and music. To a certain extent war has touched all those things.

Another interesting thing that we see coming up in works from Ukraine is an idea that has always been important to Ukraine – the concept of a borderland. It periodically comes up in Ukrainian culture over how that borderland today is in the form of checkpoints. So many films, novels and stories are set at these checkpoint areas between the separatist regions and Ukraine. So it’s interesting that the idea of a borderline is still so important for Ukraine, but now in this form.

All that’s going on somehow also affects the perception of Ukraine. But as far as raising much more interest in literature, if that’s your question, I wouldn’t say much more. It’s sad to say, but the uptake of interest in Ukrainian literature that I mentioned in the last five or six years, I’m not trying to be facetious here, but it largely came down to one event. And that was during the Maidan, actually before the war, and it was when [Serhiy] Zhadan got beat up. The New Yorker writes about it and all of a sudden people are introduced to this likeable, charismatic, punk rock dude who did this brave thing. That was a really important event as far as popularizing Ukrainian literature. It’s sad this had to happen with a good friend of mine, but I’m completely serious that that really raised awareness too.


Who is studying Ukrainian literature today? I was lucky to be a guest visitor at the course “Ukrainians in New York” at Harriman Institute, and I was the only Ukrainian there.

It’s hard to pinpoint one type of student, but I can lead you through what kinds of students have signed up. We have people that focus on Ukrainian studies, not necessarily on Ukraine literature or other humanities. There are some that are just focused on the region for political science or diplomacy – Harriman students. Several of them want to specialize on Ukraine, so they’ll learn about Ukrainian literature.

Then we have students who are, let’s say, doing their PhDs in Russian literature and choose Ukraine as a minor, so they take several courses in Ukrainian and then there’s a portfolio and presentation exam tied in with that. And we’ve had students that focus on Poland or Yiddish studies and they’ve taken Ukrainian literature courses.

Also, we do have some heritage students, but every year this term becomes more fuzzy. We can talk about the diaspora being made up of people like me who were born here a long time ago, and people who came here maybe in the ‘90s or so, and they are also now American citizens. So we have these various phases of heritage students that do sign up, but not too many.

One nice category of students we’ve had is people that have no Ukrainian background or really did not study the country at all, but that had served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine and were enchanted with the country. When their shift ended, they came back and wanted more, so they decided to study the country more. They have been among the most passionate students we’ve had.


I have a few questions about teaching Ukrainian literature, which authors do students read in the classroom?

The ones that we tell them to read. No, I am joking. Because I’m teaching this in New York City I have to put together a syllabus where the works have to be available in English translation as well, because not all students can read in Ukrainian or their Ukrainian is not well enough to read a whole novel or understand a complex poem. So I start with that and, of course, it limits one very much. Thankfully, there are plenty of pretty good translations available that I have enough material to work with. I teach three different courses at Columbia, three different periods of Ukraine literature. And there are enough, more than enough translations available to teach a 14-week course.

And one of the fun things about being limited to something like that is the fact that it makes you notice that there are continually more translations coming. Every three years I update the syllabus of my courses and I have a whole new crop of English translations that I can use to teach. I can either make them part of the required reading or, more often, use them as additional readings that students can choose for their research papers, presentations. So that’s really exciting because then there’s more and more every year to work with.

And, of course, things change even more in the contemporary Ukrainian literature course that I teach every three years . When I first started teaching this course, I could teach about young authors, about “Bu-Ba-Bu” and all their youthful activities. But now these writers are, in some cases, these students’ grandparents’ age. And there’s always a new crop of writers coming in. I used to end my courses with Zhadan for many years, he was the youngest, but now he’s not quite at the end anymore. That changes as well.


So which things do students like and which things do they struggle with?

There are three courses that I teach. One focuses on the late 19th century/early 20th century, on early modernism. I also teach a course on the 1920s, and then there is my contemporary literature course. So I can just throw out some names.

From the first course, students tend to like Olia Kobylianska and they usually choose to write about her for their projects. [Mykhailo] Kotsiubynskyi is usually popular as well. For the later course [Valerian] Pidmohylnyi is always very popular. We read “Nevelychka Drama,” and people always like it very much. [Mykhailo] Semenko is always a big hit because he’s a lot of fun even for those that don’t know Ukrainian very well. Also people like to read [Mykhailo] Domontovych, there’s an unpolished translation of “Bez Gruntu” available. Speaking of the contemporary period, people love [Yurii] Andrukhovych, Zhadan, [Oksana] Zabuzhko, of course, and [Taras] Prokhasko.

As for which works they struggle with, this might be especially useful for your particular research topic. You know, they tend to like prose more than poetry. I think it’s just a little easier to teach prose in translation than poetry. But even when I have students that don’t know Ukrainian, we do read some of the poems in Ukrainian so that students can follow along with the translation to hear certain things. [Pavlo] Tychyna, some of his more experimental stuff, goes down a little harder, especially if you’re reading it in translation. From prose perhaps the most difficult thing that I have assigned to students is [Yurii] Izdryk’s “Votsyk.” But some have really enjoyed it and actually have chosen to write about Izdryk. That’s a complex work, but for some reason I thought that it would go down easier. Sometimes students have trouble with Konstantyn Moskalets’ “Vechirnii Med” as well. There’s a lot of experimentation there with narrative.


You also have translated a lot of Ukrainian texts into English. How do you choose which text to translate?

Well, I choose what I like. When I first started translating, I did it for quite selfish reasons. If I really liked a work I wanted my non-Ukrainian friends, or Ukrainian friends who can’t read Ukrainian anymore, to enjoy it as well. So I started translating for kind of a social purpose. When I got more serious about it, then I chose things that I liked and that also show diversity in Ukrainian literature.

I try to choose works that may be less expected to be picked for translation. Because I want to show a wider scope of what’s happening or what has happened. I’ll translate things that I think are missing in people’s concept of Ukrainian literature or in people’s concept of Ukraine in general. A major point for me, especially early on, was to focus on Ukraine literature that had urban motifs. I thought that it was severely lacking in perceptions both in Ukraine and outside of Ukraine, but there are great works that are set in the city. I translated Moskalets because, again, I like Lviv, his novel takes place there, and there weren’t many people writing about the city for some reason. I was surprised why nobody was setting any novels in Lviv, you know? So I thought that was cool and I wanted people to read that.

Basically, I wanted to show a bigger picture of Ukraine literature and filling in the gaps was important. Even for older stuff like, for example, [Mykhailo] Yatskiv. I liked that he’s kind of an outlier in Ukrainian literature, with his decadence and with the urban themes in his works. These days I’m working on translating [Volodymyr] Rafeenko’s novel “Mondegreen” because I think it is on a very interesting topic, as is the endeavor, that he set out on when writing this novel. And it’s a fascinating book, so I want people here to be able to read it.


What is the main issue in translating Ukrainian texts into English?

I think the most important thing is to pass along the mood. I mean as a translator you’re just passing along things, right. Important things. And I remember when I got a really good piece of advice about translating. This happened when I was on a fellowship at Harvard and was writing my monograph. One of the authors I focus on in my monograph is Volodymyr Dibrova, who teaches there. I had to translate excerpts from his novel “Burdyk” because the book had not been translated. And I asked him whether he ever tried to translate his own works into English, as his English is very good. Then he told me something very important, “don’t try to translate every word so exactly, just allow yourself to go off.”

I think a lot of people, when they start translating, try to really stick to the text. Because they’re afraid they’re doing something horrible if they don’t. But what Volodia [Dibrova] showed me is that, as an author, he wants to sound cool in English. He is not so concerned if his exact metaphor is not used or some particular detail has changed, but he doesn’t want to sound like an idiot in English, which may occur if you’re so focused on preserving everything from the original in your translation. I always try keep that in the back of my mind when I translate because you’re really trying to pass along the author’s tone and the feeling you get when you read the work in Ukrainian.

I love translating dialogues, especially contemporary ones. That’s my favorite thing as I spent a lot of time in Ukraine and picked up a lot. For me Andrukhovych was one of the easiest writers to read, I always just read him with very little effort. But when I started translating his essays, I realized how complex his writing actually is and how much work is put into it. That is why it reads so well in Ukrainian. That was an interesting experience – passing that along into English.


What is the biggest challenge in introducing Ukrainian literature to the Western English-speaking audience?

Well, the biggest challenge, especially here in the U.S., is that as a whole Americans aren’t really interested in anything except Americans. It’s a little better in Canada. I had a great opportunity living there for six years and I saw that it’s quite different there. There’s more openness to the world and especially to the Ukrainian world. Here that’s the biggest problem. You may have noticed this yourself living here for several months, that Americans do tend to be focused on themselves. It’s really hard to bring in something unless it touches on some aspect of American life directly. Maybe somebody will enjoy reading something about [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and [Donald] Trump or something, because that touches on them. I mean, they can dig deeper back and maybe find connections. But in general, I think that’s unfortunately the situation.


And what is the biggest perspective in introducing Ukrainian literature to the Western English-speaking audience?

There is actually a simple way to answer this question. Unfortunately, what people want to read most about Ukraine is Chornobyl. That’s probably the first thing that people read. And most of our authors end up writing something on Chornobyl. That’s the case. But, I think, if you dig deeper, Ukrainian literature in general, and contemporary Ukraine literature especially, presents a very interesting perspective because of how turbulent the history has been in Ukraine. And because of the diversity that is inherent to the land, and all the major issues the country has, these are global issues. Ukraine has been at the frontlines of them. So many of these can offer a really unique perspective that other, maybe more established cultures, cannot.

And Ukrainian writers, living in a post-colonial culture, I think, can pass this perspective along to other cultures. Also just the fact of working within a language that has often been on the verge of extinction gives it a certain energy, a certain drive that maybe other cultures maybe don’t have. Of course, that’s harder to pass along in translation, but I think it’s inherent in the works themselves. I think that makes it a little bit different and that should be something that is attractive to a foreign reader.


You’ve been studying Ukrainian literature for many years. You’ve been teaching courses on contemporary Ukrainian literature for 10 years. And recently you’ve edited an anthology, “The White Chalks of the Days,” that features poetry, fiction and essays by 15 of the most prominent writers in Ukraine in the past 50 years. So can you provide some hints about the contemporary Ukrainian literature process, challenges, achievements and things to do?

Well, the anthology focuses on several different generations that I include in this concept of contemporary Ukrainian literature. These authors, for the most part, came and visited us in New York and Washington. So I go back to the late ’60s, early ’70s. Writers such as Oleh Lysheha, Hrytsko Chubai, neither of them were physically present in this series. Of course, Chubai passed along a long time ago, Lysheha recently, but Taras Chubai, who writes music on their texts was physically present and performed these texts. Most of the writers in the anthology are from the “Visimdesiatnyky,” or the ’80s generation. And then we have younger writers like Andri Bondar, Prokhasko, Zhadan, and the youngest like Luba Yakymchuk, Sofia Andrukhovych, Andri Lubka, the last of whom presented in N.Y.C. and D.C. but didn’t make it into the anthology, as it had already gone to print.

So we have different periods of this contemporary Ukrainian literature each representing its own interesting things. The focus is on the Visimdesiatnyky and the important work they did, as they were the first generation who were able to write and publish freely in Ukraine for a long time. They had to take on certain things and did it brilliantly. They inherited colonial paradigms, Ukrainian national paradigms, and they did a wonderful job playing with all these, opening up Ukrainian literature in various styles, genres. The younger writers have less of a need to do that. They tend to be more self-reflective and focus more on personal things, but there’s also a wider array of topics that are taken on.

And then some of these ideas that were approached in the ’90s, for example, Yurii Andrukhovych’s exploration of nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian past, is then later addressed by his daughter Sofia. It’s fascinating to see some of these topics reappear. I noticed that several books published in Ukraine today focus on the ’90s as a period, which is interesting. So it’s kind of cyclical.


In an interview for The Ukrainian Weekly, you said that there are programs of Ukrainian studies in several universities in North America and that their programs are growing, and that Ukraine is increasingly being a subject at such universities. What should be done to boost the development of Ukrainian literature on the global perspective?

This is obviously something that I and my colleagues have been working on for a while, both through teaching courses in Ukrainian and translating. You know, Ukraine has a lot of issues and one of the issues is that Ukraine never understood the idea of soft power and of presenting itself to the world, and that is because it doesn’t know itself, what it is, at least the people that are in charge of the country, unfortunately. This is something that should have been happening for a while, like with the Polish Institute, the Goethe Institute or some Russian initiatives. It’s for the good of the country to be represented in the world and to be represented well.

And my thought has always been that our writers are fantastic ambassadors for Ukraine in the sense that, you know, they’re eloquent. They’re charismatic. They know how to present in front of an audience. Let’s not forget, writers in Ukraine have this experience that very few writers here have – presenting for massive audiences. They know how to work a stage, how to properly use a microphone. That’s huge when you’re meeting with audiences and you can do that. Ukraine should have utilized this a long time ago. And Ukrainian writers can discuss difficult issues with nuance, both in a kind of a question/answer session or on their own, by reading their works, in which many of these issues are often addressed.

I think Ukraine has to promote that as much as possible and to promote some kind of contact between our writers, artists and intellectuals with their Western counterparts. But I’m very happy that finally things like the Ukrainian Institute were set up and the Book Institute, of course, to do these things. And, unfortunately, with a bunch of budget cuts, and now with pandemic, some of that has been curtailed, but these are exactly the kinds of institutes that should continue to be supported.


Mariia Shuvalova is a Ph.D. candidate at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University.