Larysa Kosach-Kvitka – known by her literary pseudonym Lesia Ukrainka – was born on February 25, 1871. She died on August 1, 1913, at the age of 42 following a life-long battle with tuberculosis. The illness struck when she was still a young girl. It developed first in her hands, then her legs and finally in her lungs. As a result of both her illness and the treatments she received at the time to fight her tuberculosis, she could write only in irregular intervals. She spent much of her life seeking medical help in the Caucasus, Egypt, Germany and Italy. Despite the severe and often debilitating physical struggles she endured, Ukrainka maintained a deep optimism and hope for the future.
“Yes, I will laugh despite my tears, I’ll sing out songs amidst my misfortunes, I’ll have hope despite all odds, I will live! Away, you sorrowful thoughts!” she wrote in the poem “Contra Spem Spero” (Hope Despite all Odds).
Ukrainka lived at a difficult time, a period of oppression and Russification. All printing in the Ukrainian language was prohibited by the authorities. From her earliest years, Lesia knew what her mission in life should be and pursued it with passion despite oppression and illness. It was a nine-year-old child who, in her first poem titled “Nadia” (Hope), wrote “Ni doli, ni voli u mene nema/Ostalasya tilky nadia odna” (Neither fortune, nor freedom have I/Hope alone remains). We can only imagine what Ukrainka must have felt at such a young age to write about such deep suffering, and yet express such remarkable optimism, determination and bravery.
Ukrainka is rightly regarded as one of Ukraine’s leading literary figures. Sadly, her work has not received the attention it deserves in the English-speaking world. It is often noted that her work – unlike Taras Shevchenko’s – has not been widely translated into English.
The translations that do exist are said to lack the lyric quality and fire found in the original Ukrainian. The problem, as the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute recently noted, is that “the complexity of her work – ancient tropes, complex meter, etc. – make it particularly challenging to translate in a way that conveys both meaning and form.”
There is, however, reason for optimism. The Ukrainian Institute London recently announced that, to mark the 150th anniversary of Ukrainka’s birth, it has launched a competition to translate her work from Ukrainian to English (For more information about the contest, readers are encouraged to visit
http://ukrainianinstitute.org.uk/news_853/). We hope that, as a result of this competition, English language translations of Ukrainka’s work will emerge that better represent the full power, beauty and complexity of her work. Until then, we join others in celebrating the life and accomplishments of one of Ukraine’s greatest literary figures. Mnohaya Lita, Lesia Ukrainka!