Many Languages of War!

Dr. William Blacker is the author of Memory, the City, and the Legacy of World War II in East Central Europe. He has published widely on Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian literature and culture. He has translated the work of many Ukrainian authors, including Oleg Sentsov’s short story collection Life Went On Anyway. Oleg Sentsov is a writer, Social activist and filmmaker. He fought against Annexation of Crimea in 2015 and was jailed. Released a part of a prisoner release agreement between Ukraine and Russia, he continued opposing oppression by Russia. Right now, he joined the Ukrainian Military and fighting against Russian aggression. In this interview, Dr.Blacker spoke about translations, Contemporary Ukrainian literature, the way ongoing war affected writers and literature in Ukraine, and the book Life Went On Anyway.

Harshaneeyam: Dr. Blacker. Welcome to our podcast, Harshaneeyam.

Dr.Blacker: Thank you. Thank you so much for the invitation.

H: Can you tell us about your love for languages and literature? Where are the beginnings from?

B: Yeah, it’s a good question. I was thinking about how to answer this question. You know, because I didn’t, in school, I didn’t really study languages very intensively in school. I had French language and Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic. But I only took them to the, the kind of lower level of qualifications.

I didn’t do higher, which is the highest school level of qualification in languages. So, it wasn’t something that I was particularly focused on when I was growing up. But I was, I did grow up in a part of Scotland which does have bilingualism, so the people, it’s in the northwest of Scotland, people there speak Gaelic, so I was used to hearing two languages in everyday life.

So maybe that had some kind of, subconsciously, somehow kind of informed my interest and kind of been intrigued by that. But I was also just really… I really loved reading and I read in translation you know, as a child, as a teen, more as a teenager. I was always aware of, you know, the big world of literature.

I guess when I got to study in university, I did think, well why not, you know, learn one of the languages of the literatures that I was interested in, that I was reading. And as a teenager I read quite a few books translated from Russian, and that’s why I decided to learn Russian when I went to Glasgow University.

And it was more just as a kind of thing to do on the side, like as something kind of interesting in addition to the main focus of my studies, which at that time was Scottish literature. I wanted to do a degree in Scottish literature, but I liked learning Russian so much that I decided to change my degree to Slavonic and East European studies. I just, somehow, I don’t know what happened, but I found that I was quite good at learning Russian, you know, I had a sort of knack for it. And then through that, at the, at the department in Glasgow, I was able to learn Polish as well which I also really enjoyed, and, you know, picked up fairly quickly. And that’s, that sort of brought me to… to Ukrainian just through travelling to both Russia and Poland. You kind of come across Ukraine, which is in between them. And that was a place that really, I knew very little about. I could see that it’s a huge country. From what I was learning, it had a very interesting, complicated history, very interesting and complicated sort of cultural landscape.

But in the UK, at least, nobody seemed to know. anything about it. It wasn’t really possible to study it. The language wasn’t available anywhere that I could see. I was able to learn Ukrainian a bit formally when I lived in Poland. After my studies, I moved to Poland for two years. So I was learning Ukrainian through Polish, which was quite an interesting experience.

Yeah, and that’s, that’s sort of how I, how I came to learn Ukrainian and then start translating.

H: Which is the first book you translated?

B: So, the first complete book, I guess, would be a novel, a short novel by a Ukrainian writer called Taras Prohasko. He is one of the most important Ukrainian writers of the sort of 2000s. He… is quite an experimental writer he writes, he’s very philosophical, he has a, he comes from a botanical background, that’s his kind of training, so his literature has lots of plants and nature and landscapes. He comes from, the western part of Ukraine near the mountains, so I was taken by his way of talking about the natural world, but in this very kind of philosophical way.

He has this very aphoristic style of writing. And the novel is called The Unsimple. And it’s written, yeah, and this was my sort of neologism to, to, to… Convey that title. And it’s written in these short chunks, these short little numbered fragments, which, and it’s almost like a kind of philosophical tractate.

And there’s, there are bits from references to Wittgenstein in there. So, and it’s kind of. Doing something a little bit similar, but it’s based in, it’s very much about landscape, Ukrainian landscapes, the Western Ukrainian landscapes, the Carpathian Mountains, but also history. This, it’s got this very interesting experimental way of writing about history through these, through this character who keeps being reborn.

This, central character, Anna keeps being reborn in the story throughout the sort of 20th-century history of Ukraine. It’s not a historical novel. But history is always in the background of this. Sort of quite a strange, fragmented style of writing. And it’s, some people compare him to the kind of South American magical realist writers.

And I think, you know, there’s, there’s something to that, although his writing is a lot more, I would say, Condensed and focused, you know, he writes concise texts, not these kind of long novels like you know, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but yeah, so that was the, that was the first one I read, I read, and it was good for learners.

His writing is good for learners because it’s short chunks. So I was learning Ukrainian, I was reading these short texts, and I thought, I’ll try and translate a couple of them, and I thought, well, why not just do the whole, the whole novel.

H: Can you introduce us to the contemporary Ukrainian literature?

B: Yeah, it’s contemporary Ukrainian literature is very diverse. It’s something that I’ve been following for really, 20 years. You know, I did my PhD on contemporary Ukrainian literature, Ukrainian literature of the mainly post-independence period. It’s over that time that I’ve been watching it and reading it, it’s undoubtedly expanded, and it’s grown.

You know, the one thing that’s happened that’s been very important I think, especially in the last decade or so, has been just the kind of institutional growth of it. So there are now, there’s been a sort of surge in the number of publishers and bookshops in things like support from, you know, the state for literature and culture, which, when I started studying Ukrainian literature, basically didn’t exist.

The state was I mean, Ukrainian politics is an exciting and often complicated and problematic subject, and especially, you know, in the 90s and 2000s. The state was very poor, but it was also a state that was, whose resources were being sucked out by various oligarchs, and not much money was going back, going into things like culture.

So writers are kinda on their own. The publishing industry was, you know, is struggling in very difficult circumstances. There were, you know, in terms of my first visits to Ukraine, it’s actually quite hard to find Ukrainian books in bookshops. Many, many more Russian books, and Russian language books in bookshops than Ukrainian books.

That’s, that is changing, and especially in the last few years it’s changed dramatically. And in that time, Yuri, you can see, you can see that there are, the number, I would say the number of writers has grown, the number of professional writers has grown. And it’s kind of hard to generalize what they’re writing about, they’re writing in all genres, in all different kinds of forms, you know, from intellectual poetry to genre fiction.

Obviously, a big topic these days is the war. Ukraine now has this very… I mean, it’s, it’s already quite a well-developed war literature because it didn’t, it didn’t start in 2022, it started in 2014 when Russia first invaded Ukraine. Many writers have been, there are many writers have been serving in the army, and there are many who have been displaced from eastern Ukraine by, by the fighting. There are many writers who write about the experience of the civilian population in, these parts of Ukraine. And that’s, that is a big theme of the literature. And Ukrainian writers are, you know, today, I wonder if there’s any place in the world where writers are writing more perceptively and also, you know, critically.

And interestingly about war, but, you know, I wouldn’t, I certainly wouldn’t reduce Ukrainian, contemporary Ukrainian literature to writing about the war. You know, there’s, there’s much, much more to it. You know, one thing that stands out to me in particular is the poetry. Ukrainian, Ukraine has always been a place where poetry was kind of like, I would say, you know, consider the number one genre, the most important genre for many reasons, you know, for, for a long time, Ukrainian literature has struggled under various states and empires which tried to oppress it to varying degrees in those circumstances it’s quite challenging to become a novelist, yeah, because you need time, you need resources to publish novels it’s more practical to write poetry which can be done quickly and can be distributed more efficiently without the support, without the sort of infrastructure of publishing.

So Ukrainian literature has always focused on poetry a lot and today the poetry, poetry about the war but not, also not about the war, is really, really strong. So that’s one thing that really jumps out at me. And also, I would say, non-fiction has become a big thing. Which, you know, I would say like 15, 20 years ago, you wouldn’t find much non-fiction amongst, in Ukrainian literature, but now there’s a lot of… So autobiographical writing, essayistic writing, travel, writing, all of these kinds of genres. And that, that’s also, I think, related to the war. ’cause there’s a lot of very interesting documentary literature being written about the war. You know, I think writers feel that it’s important to collect testimonies, to document what’s happening directly, you know, without fictionalizing.

H: Can you talk a bit about Tompkins Agency for Ukrainian Literature in Translation, (Tault)

B: It’s certainly a very, very important initiative too, which was set up, I think specifically to help connect publishers with translations of Ukrainian literature. You know, I think this, for a long time, Ukrainian literature sort of struggled to be, to reach, you know, big Western I mean, this is focused on the English language publishers.

So I think, you know, the people who set it up, who, I don’t really know personally, I’ve sort of, we’ve had some contact, but I don’t know them, them well. Yeah, they thought that just, it would be good to have some kind of mechanism, I think, to, to help Ukrainian writers get into translation and get, get to the publishers, get, you know, make that link between writer, translator and publisher, which is, It is a difficult link to make, you know, and without an agency and agents, it’s quite, it is difficult to get translations to big, good publishers. I think, it’s a great initiative and very, very much needed.

H: Before we get on to the book, you have been the judge for this year’s International Booker Prize, which eventually was awarded to ‘Time Shelter’ by Angela Rodel. Can you talk about that experience and a bit about the books, too?

B: Yeah, so it was a interesting experience. I mean, one of the most interesting things I’ve done in my whole life. You know, and the chance to read books from so many different countries, which otherwise I would never have read was just, just amazing. And, and also the, you know, the ability to discuss them with my fellow judges who were, you know, people from very different places and backgrounds but who all had It’s just such beautiful things to say about literature. It was just a real privilege to be part of the conversation.

And also, I have to say, you know, the Booker Foundation was just a great, great organization to be part of for a while. It’s an organisation that cares very, very deeply about literature and literature in translation. And, what I love about it is that they treat the translated literature on the same level as the English language literature.

You know, they have two prizes. But they are given sort of equal footing. It’s not sort of like the translated literature is considered less important in some way, not at all. And I think, you know, that’s, that’s a wonderful thing. There were a lot of books, so we read more than 130 books.

I think we started reading them in August of 2022. Would that be right? And yeah, and then obviously we finished them by, I guess, May in 23. Sort of, I remember working out it’s almost a book a day at some point. I mean, obviously, some books are very short, you know, so it’s, you can, sometimes you could read It’s two or three in a day because they’re nice and short, but some are very long, and you need two or three days.

So yeah, the books were from all over the world. Some parts of the world are better represented than others. The… the process was just to read them and, you know, read, they come, they come gradually. So we read like the first 30, 40, then we discuss, then, you know, that’s, that’s how it goes.

We met every few months. I don’t remember exactly, but it was like every two or three months we met over that period. And then obviously you have more meetings for the long listing and then for the short listing. I was really struck by how diverse this kind of literary landscape was, you know, how the prize is for a novel but what is considered a novel and what a novel can do.

Is a very open question, and you could see that writers in different parts of the world are approaching it in different ways. But also, sometimes doing very, doing kind of similar interesting things in different parts of the world seemingly simultaneously. It was, I would say, the submissions were generally dominated by European literature.

But there were also many from South America, from Latin America. You know, that was a particularly strong area. Also, you know, Japan, Korea. Quite a few very strong submissions from there. One of the shortlisted books was, was from Korea. But you know, there are some parts of the world which are sort of underrepresented.

For example, I… I think there was only one book translated from Arabic which was submitted. From India, there was only one book submitted, you know, and I’d say from the whole of South Asia, I think there was only one book. maybe I don’t remember something, but it was very few. Which is, you know, which is a shame. There was one book that’s Perumal Murugan’s Pyre, Translated By Aniruddhan Vasudevan, which was, as far as I remember, was long listed. And that was a great book, but you do sort of wonder where are all the Indian books and it’d be nice. Some of those are written in English.

H:  coming to the book, ‘the life went on anyway’. When did you first come across the book? And how could you get the book published?

B:  I first came across since of, I guess, when he was arrested, he was in Crimea at the time when Russia annexed it. I can’t remember if he was there or if he sort of went back when it was when it was annexed, but anyway, he was, he was there at that time. He was an activist standing up against the annexation. He was arrested by the Russians… Forces taken to Russia. He was tried, you know, in a sham trial, accused of terrorism, you know, just sort of ridiculous made-up charges, and he was sent into, sent to prison in Russia.

He subsequently was on hunger strike for a long time, protesting his innocence. He and that, that was when, I heard about him when, at that time, when he was arrested, because in Ukraine it was it was quite a, a big deal. There was a lot of media attention to him. And I picked up his collection of short stories which I read and I thought they were, they were very interesting.

You know, he’s a, known primarily as a film director, but he is a, he’s also a writer. He’s, he’s written quite a few books now. And, Yeah, so I’ve had this idea to translate him. That would be a good idea to translate him. I did a couple of short texts, which at that time, I was part of a theatre group, a Ukrainian, like a Ukrainian theatre group in London.

And we recorded some videos of just us reading the texts. You know, we’re just trying to raise awareness of his case and then the initiative came from Pen Ukraine to translate the whole book of the short stories. So they put a call for a grant for someone to translate these stories and then, you know, publish them and have them out there so that, you know, to put his work out into the world, but also to draw attention to his case.

And I applied because I’d already translated him, and I won the grant, and yeah, so I translated it into… into English and to apply for the grant, you had to have a publisher already lined up. So I contacted Deepvellum, and they were very quick and very happy to To take part, in the application and it was successful.

H: The translator’s foreword, in fact, whenever I read a translation, I verify whether there is a foreword from the translator because it gives a context. For people like us, you know, who are away in a different country, right? This particular foreword, not only for the stories in the book but also about the writer, one of the very well-written forewords.

B: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Yeah, it’s, I, I actually like, I enjoy writing that kind of thing. You know, I haven’t written so many, but I’ve written a few sort of introductions to translators or, or, you know, translators. Forwards, and I think it’s a really actually interesting genre, you know, and it gives you a chance to talk about, obviously, this writer that you value and that you and sort of just tell the reader why they’re worth reading and why the text is worth reading, but also just.

You know, because your translation, it’s your work of art, it’s your text, but it’s, obviously, it’s nothing without the original, and you have those two texts which exist in your, in your head as the translator, but they don’t exist in the head of the, the reader of the translation together. So you have to kind of, Introduce those two texts to one another, show them sort of coming into contact somehow. And it gives you a chance to just, yeah, there’s, you know, with every translation, there’s always some kind of interesting little nuance and little detail and little adventure that happened. Some little story that you can tell, and that’s, that’s the place to do it, you know.

H: Stories, though they are autobiographical mostly, are very engaging, Your prose was very fluid in English, very, very fluid. But how do you describe Sentsov’s style of writing?

B: Yeah, well, thank you for saying that about the translation. His style is very straightforward. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, it’s pretty direct. You know, he doesn’t go in for stylistic fireworks.

You know, it’s not flowery stylistically. He tells the story in a very, sort of, laconic way. He doesn’t waste words. It’s very conversational, very colloquial, I would say. You know, it feels, does feel like someone is sitting there. You’re sitting at a table, and someone is telling you this story in a, in this quite dry, quite funny way, you know, it’s kind of understated humour, quite dark humour sometimes.

I tried to write prose in translation that would somehow feel… Would not feel too formal, that would feel, that would, that would kind of retain that kind of lightness. And, like you say, fluidity, it does feel like someone who’s good at telling stories. But who’s just telling you the story? they’re not focusing on producing a very sort of elaborately constructed text on the page. It’s more like, it’s the voice. In the moment, telling the story. So I tried to keep that.

H: Now, two of the stories from the book. The first one is the dog. Dog is the story that talks about the relationship between the pet and the human in a very interesting way. What are your reflections about this?

B: Yeah, the dog story is really heartbreaking, and I mean, it’s a story that many people, I guess, can relate to if you’ve had a pet. When you’re a child, you know, you probably feel this story. And I did, you know, I had a big dog when I was a child, and I maybe not quite like the dog in the story, but yeah, I could, I could certainly identify with it.

But I think… You know, what’s, what’s happening in that story, he’s really, it’s something to do with how we build relationships, how we build emotional attachments, you know when we’re children, and then what happens when they are broken or destroyed in some ways, when we lose, when we lose things. A lot of the stories are about those early experiences of loss, which you, you go through as a child and, and which sort of, you know, Prepare you, but also sort of don’t prepare you for later life, you know, because it’s, it never gets easier, I suppose, but you know that it’s that, it’s that being introduced to being attached to loving and then losing.

And I thought that’s, but he, you know, he does it in such a way that’s. It doesn’t, it’s not over-sentimental, it’s, you know, in some ways it’s, it’s quite a formidable storyteller. But, at the heart of the stories, there’s, there is a real emotional experience, you know, and an absolute emotional honesty.

H: And the other one is grandmother.He starts the story by saying he didn’t like her. Yes, yeah. And the story, suddenly when it gets into that second person narration, that makes the story very powerful. Yeah,

B: I mean, that’s, that’s true. It’s, that, that opening is it’s really, again, that’s, that’s his that’s very characteristic of Sentsov. You know, he’ll just like, say something, which is, you’re just like, oh, that’s blunt, you know, that’s direct. But that’s, that’s kind of how, how he works, you know, and if you meet him in person, he’s like that as well. I met him a couple of times. I actually met him almost, like, the day after he was released.

He was in prison for a long time in Russia, and then eventually, his release was negotiated, he was brought back to Kiev, and I happened to be there at that time, and it was in touch with Tetyana Terin, who’s the head of the PEN Ukraine branch. And she said, do you want to come and meet him?

I’d been in touch with her about that. she was the one driving the translation, actually, you know, that whole initiative. And yeah,, we met him in Kiev and it was very interesting. I think he was still kind of in shock after, after being released, but. Yeah, so that was, that was my first, first time meeting him.

And yeah, in some ways, he does, his personality is reflected in these stories, in that kind of directness. That sort of, there’s a sort of unfilteredness about the way he communicates, you know. But yeah, again, I think that one also, it’s it’s that. It’s just that’s a very complicated, you know, he’s, he’s, he’s very open to talking about how relationships are very complicated and how. The people you love, you also hate them as well. I mean, not always, but obviously that, sometimes that happens, especially in families, you know, because you’re bound together, by blood, by living together, and by this kind of love. But it’s also, it’s often very, very difficult. And especially if you live, you know, like he grew up in the 90s in Crimea, it was very poor.

People are struggling to make ends meet, and you can, you can see that in the, in the stories, you know, absolutely in the way that the sort of grandma lives, you know, it’s not an easy time and place to be living in, even though, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of beauty in, in that place and it’s, it is a beautiful part of the world.

But you know, for, for people in the 90s, when he’s writing about, you know, before, it’s not easy and the kind of, yeah, the tension within families is brought out really well there. And I think it’s really refreshing to read a writer who just is so disarmingly, brutally honest, about these things. You can say, I didn’t like my grandmother, but then can kind of get under the skin of my grandmother and explain why my grandmother was like that. And so it’s this kind of. There’s resentment, but there’s also real empathy. And I like that sort of emotional complexity of these stories.

H: And the way he says it’s easy to love a person who is far away, but hard to love a person who is nearby. it’s also easy to write about all. But hard to do anything about it. it resonates deeply actually, that last sentence, you know, but hard to do anything about it because he lost her.

B:   He has this kind of like quiet he likes coming up with these phrases and these, you know, rules for life sort of thing, you know, and I think that line also, you know, it’s easy to write about this, but it’s hard to do anything about it.

And this, you know, this is a book about his childhood and it’s a book about these things which so profoundly affect you and shape you as the person you are, but they happened a long time ago, and there’s nothing you can do about them apart from talk. You know, and that’s, that’s what he’s doing.

You know, there’s, it’s a sort of, I would say there’s a kind of therapeutic nature, a therapeutic aspect to this. But obviously, you’re talking about things that you can’t change, and you have to accept that. And I think that every story here is about something. Something happened, and it’s inside me, and it’s, you know, it’s deeply inside me, and it can be traumatic. Or it could be some moment of just, you know, great beauty and freedom I felt as a child. But a lot of it is. The more dramatic things. And it’s there, and I have to accept it. I can talk about it, but I can’t make it go away, you know.

H: What is very interesting is that you know, writers, as a form of protest, write about inequalities in society, oppression and all that. But Sentsov seems to be a man of a totally different nature. I believe he’s fighting the war now.

B: Yeah. So he’s he joined the armed forces, you know, when the full-scale invasion began he’s been fighting for a long time already. He’s been injured several times. So it’s just where, you know, those of us who know his work and who translated him, there are a few. I’m not the only English translator of Sentsov. There’s Kate Zorkan, who’s an excellent translator. Daisy Gibbons is another excellent translator from Ukrainian. Dmytro Kayan, I think, is another one who’s translated him. You know, I think all of us as translators are sitting wherever we are and watching those writers that we know and praying that they’re safe.

And some of them are on the front line. You know, there’s another writer called Artem Chek, who’s been serving for a long time in the military, and he’s one of the best contemporary writers. That’s the writer that Daisy Gibbons has also translated. And we just sort of… I think, you know, being a translator of Ukrainian literature is part of that experience is just looking through social media and checking that those writers are still alive and one of those, one of the writers, one, one prominent contemporary writer, Victoria Amelina, she was killed a few months ago in a missile strike and she was someone who I had met a couple of times. I translated one of her poems. We did an event in London with her. She sent me a poem a few days before and said, I’d like to read it.

Could you translate it?

I did. And then that, that poem became after, after she was killed, it became, you know, it was very widely distributed. I just thought I was translating it. You know, what at the moment for this particular event, and then it ended up in the Guardian alongside her obituary, which is just, you know, it’s a very, very strange experience. It’s, it speaks to, I think, what Russia is trying to do in Ukraine, which is to destroy Ukraine as a state, but also destroy Ukrainian society and destroy its culture.vAnd they are, they are targeting writers, you know, another writer, Volodymyr Verkulinko, who was kidnapped in eastern Ukraine, was murdered. So, you know, it’s, it raises the stakes with… the status of the writer, and it also increases the stakes in terms of what translation means.

H: What are the projects that you’re currently working on?

So, I have a couple of different projects, oh, too many as always. But yeah, so the, I guess three, three translation projects I’m working on. One is a book, which is actually an academic book I’m translating which is by a wonderful literary scholar called Tamara Hunderova, who’s one of my sort of literary scholar heroes in Ukraine.

She’s written, you know, excellently about so many different aspects of Ukrainian literature and she wrote a book about the Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka, who was writing at the turn of the 20th century. She was a modernist, a feminist she wrote these wonderful plays which kind of are about Ukraine in, in, in, in sort of indirect ways, but she uses settings from ancient Greece or biblical settings, you know, she’s very, very plugged into kind of classical culture or world culture, she, and taking in all the variety of latest hard time trends in European literature, she was very much a moderniser of Ukrainian literature, really, really interesting. Her, her plays are being translated at the moment. So there’s a wonderful translator, Nina Murray, who’s translated Lesya Ukrainka’s Cassandra into English.

And this book by Tamara Hondorova is about Lesia Ukrainka’s life so I’m translating that. I’m also working with a wonderful poet, Irina Shovalova. She’s one of the most prominent contemporary Ukrainian poets, and I’ve been doing her poems for a few months now. So, we’ve published a few here and there.

I think she’s a, she’s a really brilliant poet, and she’s written some wonderful poetry. In relation to the war as well. The last one is a writer called Mike Johansson. So it doesn’t sound Ukrainian, but he is a Ukrainian writer who was writing in the 1920s, the beginning of the thirties. He was shot by the N Q V D in 1937, I believe.

And he was an avant-garde writer, an experimental writer. And, I’ve translated his novel, which is called “The Learned Dr. Leonardo’s Journey into the Switzerland of the Steppe with his future lover, the beautiful Alceste’.

H: Who is publishing it?

B:  So that’s been published by the Harvard University Press, and the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute has a series of translations published through Harvard, Harvard University Press.

So that’s, that’s one of them. And it’s, it’s very, very, it’s, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a very experimental novel. It’s funny, it’s playful, it’s very typically kind of avant-garde, lots of irony, lots of wordplay, which is so very difficult to translate. Lots of experiments. Yeah. It’s delicious fun. I was just working on the forward this morning, just before our conversation.

H:  It’s lovely talking to you, Dr. Blacker. Thank you. Thank you very much. And all the very best to you.

B: Thank you so much.



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