August 19, 2021

30 years after independence, Ukrainian is now the lingua franca in U.S.-Ukraine diplomatic relations


Courtesy of Marta Zielyk

Then U.S. President George W. Bush (center) and then Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko met in the Oval Office of the White House on April 4, 2005. Marta Zielyk (right) served as the official U.S. interpreter during the meeting between the two presidents.

Marta Zielyk, a recently retired U.S. State Department civil servant, spent 25 years working as the United States’ senior diplomatic interpreter for Ukrainian. Prior to that, she was an international broadcaster working with the Ukrainian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in New York, Washington and Munich, and with the Ukrainian Service of the Voice of America in Washington. In her role as the State Department’s senior diplomatic interpreter for Ukrainian, Ms. Zielyk served as the official interpreter for meetings between presidents of the United States and Ukraine, as well as many other high-ranking government officials from both countries, during some of the most pivotal moments in Ukraine’s history as a post-Soviet, democratic country. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the celebration of Ukraine’s renewed independence, The Ukrainian Weekly asked Ms. Zielyk to share her perspectives on the evolution over the past 30 years of Ukrainian as a language of diplomacy.

Courtesy of Marta Zielyk

During his second visit to Ukraine, then U.S. President Bill Clinton addressed a crowd of more than 50,000 Ukrainians in St. Michael’s Square in front of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv on June 5, 2000. Marta Zielyk (center) served as Mr. Clinton’s official interpreter during the president’s trip to Ukraine.


I spent New Year’s Day in 1996 with 200 strangers on a transatlantic flight to Kyiv. The weather had turned bitterly cold, snowy and windy on both continents, but, as they say, the show must go on. In this case, the show was the high-stakes visit to Ukraine of Secretary of Defense William Perry. I was serving as his Ukrainian interpreter. As part of our program, we were to join our Ukrainian military hosts and fly together to Pervomaysk, south of Kyiv, where Ukraine, in accordance with its international obligation to become a non-nuclear state, was dismantling its nuclear silos.

We waited in a cramped Ukrainian military aircraft at Boryspil airport to take off for the short flight. The pilots were attempting what I thought was a dangerous takeoff on an icy runway. All around me were members of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, mostly generals, in full dress uniforms. Upon arrival in Pervomaysk, Dr. Perry was to give a short speech and his speechwriter handed me an advance copy of his remarks. Glancing at it, I was dismayed to see that it contained a quote from a poem by Taras Shevchenko. The lines were in English, of course, with no indication from which of Shevchenko’s hundreds of poems the speechwriter chose it. I panicked. In less than an hour, if we made it to Pervomaysk alive, I would have to interpret this into Ukrainian, quoting Shevchenko’s words accurately. It was highly unlikely there was a copy of Kobzar on board. And even if by some miracle a Kobzar was found, how would I ever find the right poem with the right lines? With nothing to lose, I caught the attention of the nearest Ukrainian general. I explained my dilemma and gave him a few clues, and a rough translation of the quote from English back into Ukrainian; it was not much to go on. He thought for a moment and then turned to his seatmate, also a general. “Sasha,” he asked in Russian, “do you know this?” He and Sasha consulted in a loud back and forth and then started reciting some lines, at first hesitantly searching for words, but gaining confidence as the poem went on. At about the fourth line, their third seatmate joined them. Then the colonel sitting behind them enthusiastically added his voice to the chorus. Soon, I had three rows of high-ranking Ukrainian military officers reciting “Archimedes and Galileo” for me in unison, in beautiful flowing Ukrainian. As they spoke the last four lines: “There will be no foe, no rival, there will be instead a mother, and a son, and there will be people on earth,” I knew I had gotten my quote and quickly wrote it down to be interpreted upon arrival. It was a surreal moment, yet somehow perfectly natural: a snowed-in airport, a rickety Soviet-era prop plane, Russian-speaking Ukrainian generals, a desperate U.S. government interpreter, all united by Ukrainian poetry. As they say in Ukraine, “normal’no” (all’s normal).

It was also “normal’no,” that, even then, five years after Ukraine’s independence, the existing linguistic dilemmas would take decades or more to be resolved. Attitudes toward the use of Ukrainian were highly complex, to say the least, both in Ukraine as well as in the State Department, where I worked as the U.S. government’s first – and so far, only – Ukrainian diplomatic staff interpreter.

Courtesy of Marta Zielyk

Then U.S. President George W. Bush (center) and then Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko met in the Oval Office of the White House on April 4, 2005. Marta Zielyk (right) served as the official U.S. interpreter during the meeting between the two presidents.

The Ukrainian language crept quietly onto the world’s diplomatic stage in those first euphoric months of 1988, in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and perestroika. The occasional Ukrainian dissident visiting the U.S. would request a Ukrainian interpreter for a very low-key meeting with a low-level U.S. government bureaucrat. I was in the right place (Washington, D.C.) at the right time (the early 1990s) with the right credentials (I spoke Ukrainian) and was hired frequently for those freelance jobs. Over time, higher level visitors from Ukraine began arriving for meetings with Cabinet secretaries and under secretaries. Eventually, official Ukrainian visits to Washington became so regular that it was deemed a matter of financial expediency to pay a salary to a Ukrainian staff interpreter. It had become too troublesome to rely on the unpredictable schedules of contract interpreters. So, in April of 1995, after years of freelancing for the government, I became a civil servant. For the next 20 years, I interpreted for four U.S. presidents and their vice presidents, seven secretaries of state, six secretaries of defense and numerous other high level government officials, as well as during countless lower-level interactions between the U.S. and Ukraine.

The U.S. government wisely maintains a cadre of professional, non-partisan interpreters, who are based in the State Department’s Office of Language Services. They do not turn over with new presidential administrations and, just like the president, they take an oath to the Constitution. This office originated with Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state in 1789, and since then has provided language support for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in close to 50 languages. Ukrainian had never been one of them. Until the late 1980s, all official meetings between the U.S. and delegations from any of the 16 Soviet republics were conducted in Russian.

Naively, I believed that being hired by the State Department as a full time Ukrainian staff interpreter meant that the linguistic struggle was over. Like many Ukrainian Americans, I was programmed from childhood to correct misconceptions about Ukraine (not Russia) and the Ukrainian language (not a dialect of Russian). For decades, I attended demonstrations for dissidents, wrote letters to newspaper editors, carried banners of support for Ukraine’s independence down New York’s Fifth Avenue. Now that Washington had seen fit to add a Ukrainian interpreter to its roster of linguists, that language, I reasoned, will become the default language when Kyiv met Washington. I was wrong.

On one of my first trips to Kyiv as interpreter for a U.S. official dealing with nuclear disarmament, the State Department was so uneasy about the language issue that they sent a senior Russian interpreter with me. When I questioned the decision, I was told “just in case.” Just in case what, I asked? Just in case the Ukrainians don’t understand Ukrainian, was the answer. Unspoken was probably the fear that this newbie Ukrainian contractor might not be ready for such a high stakes assignment. I am happy to say that the Russian interpreter had nothing to do during the whole trip, our Ukrainian hosts all understood Ukrainian, and I managed the stressful visit just fine.

In those first years after Ukrainian independence, I sometimes felt like I was the only one at the table to whom it really mattered which language was being used for interpretation. In any bilateral meeting between countries not conducted in a mutually understandable language, the priority is ease of communication. In the case of the U.S., which language better facilitated that – Ukrainian or Russian – was often immaterial. While the U.S. was happy to accommodate the linguistic choice of the Ukrainian side, to them it was not a decision that came with decades of linguistic ambiguity.

Some U.S. government officials, though, had difficulty accepting the new reality. Their default meter was still set to “Russia.” It was a struggle to convince them that, yes, Ukrainian and Russian are not the same; yes, the Office of Language Services has qualified Ukrainian interpreters; yes, they did as good a job as the Russian interpreters, and, yes, the Ukrainian visitors will understand Ukrainian. In time, however, this benign ignorance gave way and they learned to accept the new linguistic protocol.

Courtesy of Marta Zielyk

Then U.S. Vice President Al Gore (left) meets with then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma (right) in Mariyinsky Palace in Kyiv on July 22, 1998. Marta Zielyk (second from the left) served as Mr. Gore’s interpreter during the trip, while Mykhailo Skurativsky (second from the right) served as Mr. Kuchma’s interpreter.

My own Russian colleagues on staff (there were four of them when I joined the State Department) were somewhat unsettled by the hiring of a Ukrainian interpreter. My daily presence and very active interpreting schedule undermined the preeminent position that Russian held in the Slavic interpreting world and curtailed their interpreting opportunities. Yet we maintained a collegial and cooperative professional relationship.

Harder to deal with were those in the U.S government who were downright hostile to an independent Ukraine. Echoing what I heard while growing up, they insinuated that not only was Ukrainian a mere dialect of Russian, but Ukraine wasn’t a “real country.” And even if it was a real country, it wouldn’t last, so why invest in Ukrainian interpreters?

They had no desire to reexamine their imperialistic attitudes and had no problem letting me know that. I remember an incident when a U.S. military officer responsible for a visit of several high-level Ukrainian parliamentarians and military officers had arranged for both Russian and Ukrainian interpreters to accompany the group on a U.S. tour. When one of the Ukrainian generals demanded that only Ukrainian be used, the American lieutenant commander called this request “ridiculous and unreasonable.” And this was in 1999, almost a decade after Ukraine’s independence! Even my Russian colleagues on that trip stood up for the Ukrainian language, characterizing the statement as egregiously insulting. Thankfully, extreme attitudes such as this were not too prevalent.

For our Ukrainian visitors, the language issue carried with it much unresolved cultural baggage. Which language was used depended on the makeup of the delegation (military, political, economic, cultural), the level of the visitors (ministerial, parliamentarian, citizen exchanges), and the linguistic abilities of the head of the delegation. I chose the word “used” consciously, because the language requested, and the one spoken during the visit, were often two different things. Ukrainian interpretation was most often officially requested, but Russian was liberally used during official meetings. This was especially true in the first few days of a visit, until the Ukrainian visitors felt more comfortable speaking in their “derzhavna mova” (the official state language). Some were never able to make the switch because of their unfamiliarity with the language and embarrassment at not speaking it well. Others, who spoke to me with surprising frankness, admitted to finding it difficult to shed the Soviet-imposed notion of the superiority of the Russian language. The lingering effects of Soviet attempts to erase all traces of Ukrainian or at least demean it as unfit for diplomatic discourse were still quite evident in the early years of Ukrainian independence. Many visitors also could not believe that I did not understand Russian when I politely refused to interpret from and into that language.

They thought I was just being difficult or was trying to make a point. If this happened during a meeting already underway, I always proposed a solution: I could call back to my office for a Russian colleague. It must be noted that not a single delegation accepted that offer.

Occasionally, I was quite literally the only person at the table using Ukrainian, as during a 1995 visit of a Ukrainian border guard delegation to the U.S. The Ukrainian visitors were speaking Russian; their interpreter was interpreting into English for the U.S. side to understand. The Americans were speaking English, of course, and I was interpreting into Ukrainian, which all the visitors understood. How ironic, I thought, that the only one speaking Ukrainian was a U.S. born and raised American citizen.

I must underscore, that the higher the level of the Ukrainian visitor, the fewer issues there were with choice of language. Every single U.S.-Ukrainian interaction on the presidential level, from 1992 to the present, in Washington, Kyiv or anywhere else in the world, was conducted with the assistance of Ukrainian interpretation. Of course, each president of Ukraine exhibited his own degree of facility with Ukrainian, but there was never any question regarding the choice of language, from either side.

As the decades passed, the upheaval regarding Ukrainian versus Russian for officials on both sides of the Atlantic dissipated to a large degree. During this time, my duties included finding, recruiting and training Ukrainian language contractors. Therefore, when the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship grew to include scores of yearly interactions, the Office of Language Services was ready to supply all of them with highly skilled contract interpreters.

When I retired from the State Department several years ago, I was dismayed but not really surprised to learn that my office would not hire a full-time Ukrainian interpreter in my place. Instead, it would rely exclusively on contract interpreters. I see no bias in this decision and believe Ukrainian is being treated no differently than any other language.

After 30 years of Ukraine’s independence, more and more Ukrainian delegations are conducting business in English, professionally trained Ukrainian interpreters are more plentiful on the U.S. market and the U.S. government is leaning heavily on contractors to provide services that had been traditionally the responsibility of full time staff. The effort that the Office of Language Services put into helping the Ukrainian language assume its rightful place in international relations three decades ago is now reaping rewards.

Notwithstanding the current situation in Ukraine, where Ukrainian is still fighting for its ascendancy, in one small corner of the world – the diplomatic interpreting world – the struggle is over.