How do you translate a poem into a single language when it is interested in the liminal space between two languages? That was the first question my cotranslator Reilly Costigan-Humes and I asked ourselves when we read Danyil Zadorozhnyi’s “Letter to Ukraine,” a poem that explores questions of national and cultural identity from the perspective of a Ukrainian poet writing in Russian. In this post, I will do my best to reenact the creative process of answering it.
Since Russian and Ukrainian are distinct yet related languages, and many contemporary Ukrainians know both of them well enough that they can actually choose which, if either, to favor in their relationships with their fellow citizens, expressing oneself in a particular language is often not an unconscious default but an active choice, and a politically and philosophically weighty one at that. It was in this context that we encountered the poem’s most difficult line, “пере[во/хо]дя с языка на мову.” The first word plays with the related concepts of moving through space and moving from one language to another, since those concepts can be expressed using the same prefix in Russian. That device, at least, yielded readily enough to translation; “trans-late” means “to carry across” in Latin, and the same prefix gives us “trans-it,” literally “to go across.” That left us with “trans[lat/it]ing from iazyk to mova.” Iazyk means “language” in Russian; mova means “language” in Ukrainian. To put it bluntly, what were we supposed to do with that?
A translator’s job is not merely to reproduce the semantic content of a text, but also to give a thoughtful reader of their English text the same experience a thoughtful reader of the original would have. We considered simply “trans[lat/it]ing from Russian to Ukrainian,” but that translation would deny the English reader the experience of this line as a reference to the speaker considering meaningful choices in his own linguistic behavior. Fortunately for us as translators, English-language discourse around Ukraine does include calls to consciously change our use of language. The decision to refer to Ukraine’s capital city as “Kyiv” rather than “Kiev,” i.e., to represent transliteration from Ukrainian rather than Russian, has been discussed in the New York Times, and its significance is intelligible to English readers. By translating this line as “trans[lat/it]ing from kiev to kyiv,” we could offer a more accurate reflection of the multilingual play going on in the original, and of its political and cultural significance.
It would be impossible to discuss every fascinating challenge Zadorozhnyi’s poem posed for its translators, but this line was undoubtedly the most representative one. It was dense with information, but our goal was to resist the temptation to merely decode that information. Instead, we had to give the reader the tools necessary to integrate that information independently. The extent to which we have succeeded is the extent to which your experience of that line in English escaped being purely intellectual and became aesthetic.