Translating Post-Soviet Wor(l)ds: An Introduction

by Caitlyn Garcia

Nobody ever reads as often as they used to. It’s not something to be proud of—just one of those sad truths about life. Sometimes, I think back on what it was like before being accepted to a PhD program. There were always several books in my bag. There still are now, too—but back then, I actually read them. Not only did I read them, but I read them in their entirety. And then I’d read them again. What is it about a doctoral program, that is, the place of ultimate devotion to a subject which in reality drains one of all their love for it? As a first-year doctoral student, there are countless gatherings in which you are honored before left to your own devices in a moldy, windowless basement of the faculty building. To fill an awkward silence at one of these gatherings, I naively once asked a professor if they had read anything interesting over the summer. “Oh, I don’t read for pleasure anymore!” they laughed. How to respond? Laugh along with them? But how? Hadn’t everyone in that room decided to pursue a career in academia because they, first and foremost, loved to read? What was so amusing about not reading for pleasure anymore? Who were these people? Had I made some terrible mistake by coming here? Years later, I came to understand how distinct academia is from the world of literature. In academia, the living become the dead and the dead become the living. These two worlds come together only out of necessity. 

That world—my world, as I knew it—ended after learning Russian. Such life-changing events in one’s life cannot be avoided. In hindsight, one might take notice of the small clues offered up by the universe leading up to it, but never are you truly prepared for that decisive moment. And once it happens, there’s no turning back. The idea of devoting the next five-to-six years to the French language and its literature seemed less and less promising. I had wanted to write about Jules Verne, even though there are already countless dissertations about his works in existence. Well, there are only two remedies under such circumstances: keep reading, keep looking. After awhile plot lines mix together, characters’ names are forgotten. Side-effects may include: swollen tongue, muscle spasms and sensitivity to light. Left untreated these symptoms result in hallucinations, violent aggression and brain death. There was an additional requirement to completing my dissertation which took me even further from the original path: passing a translation test in a second foreign language. There is some grand notion behind this idea, that is, you will eventually be able to conduct research across numerous languages and fields of study. So, yours truly chose to enroll in a Russian course and see where it would take them. Other students asked why I didn’t just enroll in an intensive Spanish course over the summer and be done with it. Well, you know... why do we do anything? Isn’t there something noble about pushing yourself to your intellectual limits? Jules Verne, like many French authors of his time and those before him, was fascinated by Russia. It was something. Verne’s novel Michel Strogoff (1876), set in Russia’s far East, might be considered one of his best—but the Russia depicted in this novel, like in countless other novels, has never existed.

All that mattered after that first Russian lesson was that my world grew a little bigger. And then for reasons that are mine and mine alone, this decision ultimately brought me to Ukraine, and to focus on learning Ukrainian instead. To know only one language, one lifetime is to say “I am content with being incomplete”. And here in Ukraine, the more I learn about the existence of great books that I cannot yet read, the greater my anxiety becomes. Falling in love with literature again does that to you. Either I can open a grammar textbook and hope for the best, or wait years for a translation that might never come. Now the sight of yet another unread book shortens my breath, a translation even more so. To hold such a book in your hands is to step outside of yourself, to acknowledge that the world goes on regardless of whether you’re there or not. How small we become, and how quickly it happens once that book’s spine cracks open! Someone you’ve never met before is responsible for this vanishing act. They have shaped your worldview. You let them.

Someone who fancies themselves a great thinker of the highest caliber once declared that I would never be able to appreciate Ukrainian literature, be it in Ukrainian or in English translation, because this literature exists in the hearts of Ukrainians and of Ukrainians alone. And I, the hopeless American... Well, what does this mean for those non-native Ukrainian speakers whose hands tremble with excitement as they open to the first pages of a book by Yuri Andrukhovych or by Serhiy Zhadan? Does it mean that we live in some sort of an illusion? Is it a sickness of the mind, to love Ukrainian literature and to not be from Ukraine? Or to love any kind of literature, for that matter? Who has the right to tell a reader that what they feel is not sincere? Aren’t we as young students guided through a reading of our classic literature, because it is at first beyond our reach of time and understanding? So, does that mean we should forget Shakespeare and Racine, too? I chose to begin writing this column as a way of reconciling with my shortcomings, you might say. There are always some linguistic acrobatics which are lost in translation, some historical and cultural nuances which cannot help but fly over a foreign reader’s head. Let’s accept it and move on. These should not be deterrents for the reader, but rather the most delightful kind of provocation. Keep reading, I say—that’s all that matters. 

Let’s pick up next time with Yuri Andrukhovych’s Twelve Circles... 

Caitlyn Garcia