‘Resurrected genes, steppe’: a word from the translator with Steve Komarnyckyj

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. This time we speak to Steve Komarnyckyj, whose translation of Ihor Pavlyuk’s poetry collection A Flight Over the Black Sea won a prize in Spring 2014


I bear the rose flesh of this mussel home,Ihor jpeg
With my anguish, scalloped as a wave,
Foam crested. I am full to the brim
With the prophecy of cuckoos,

The lament of the breeze in a field in Volyn.
The sea has not permeated me with salt in vain,
For I will preserve within myself
Perspectives, sadness, that which does not exist.
But what is worth dying for…

The voice of a gull warms itself in the boat,
We near the sun bleached rock, the water
Wrinkles its forehead in righteous anger,

The wind languishes in its own enchantment.
The mussel shell lies on my table,
Filled with the whisper
Of distant tides. The ships

Drift through me, each transparent sail
Waving goodbyes.

Extract from A Flight over the Black Sea by Ihor Pavlyuk, translated by Steve Komarnyckyj

Interview by Rebekah Murrell

On translating the untranslatable

Poetry is closely, inextricably even, connected to the language in which it is written: content, language and meaning all feed into one another. How do you respond to words, syntax, proverb, metaphor and other idiosyncratic literary devices/features?

The translator cannot duplicate every feature that is in the original in the target language. We often talk about fidelity to the source text. However, the translator must also reckon with the demands of the target language. A poetic device that works in the context of the original may fail dismally in the target language. For example, I am translating a science fiction novel by Yuri Scherbak, which is called Time of the Death Christs in Ukrainian. This title simply does not work, so we have opted for a tag from the great Ukrainian author Ivan Franko, Realm of Darkness as the book’s English title. When I translate poetry, I translate, to a degree, as a poet working in English – the traditions of the target language are as important as the traditions of the source language, and the translation has to exist as a poem in the new language. If I were to offer a simple characterisation of my method, I would say that I remake the original as an English poem.

On reading poetry in translation

Pavlyuk’s poetry has been translated into several languages, including Japanese, French, Polish, Russian and English. What do you think is gained by translating poetry? What is the cultural importance and significance of reading poetry in translation?

A translated text exists as a dialogue between two literary traditions. When we translate a work we often enrich the target language, opening it up to new possibilities. T. S. Eliot imported the traditions of French symbolism and fused them with the indigenous British tradition of metaphysical poetry – several poets have used translation to reinvent their own voices. When we translate poetry, when we talk across cultures, we foster understanding between language communities and we enrich literature. I believe that the ecstatic pantheism of writers such as Antonych and Tychyna can transform and enrich my own use of language and the English literary tradition. Ihor’s poetry, similarly, articulates questions about human freedom which are rarely touched on in English poetry. Equally, the West’s perception of Ukraine has been colonised – for centuries we have heard only the voice of the Empire; we have looked on Ukraine with Russian eyes – and as a major European war unfolds we need more than ever to listen to Ukrainian voices. Ihor articulates the predicament of Ukraine more simply and clearly than any number of political commentators: And we are free / Of Europe and Asia alike, at liberty / To live… which means to die slowly. Ukraine is hanging between the despotism of Putin’s Eurasian project and the Western democracy to which it aspires. Ihor’s lines here describe that pseudo freedom of perpetual non realisation.

I have talked of Ukrainian poetry, but I would say that poetry, indeed literature, enables one to see with the eyes of other people. Scherbak’s Ukrainian vision of how the world will develop in the period up to 2077 touches on themes, such as the reinvention of fascism for the digital age, which until now, rarely impinge on the consciousness of the Anglophone world. However, reading translated literature helps you to realise that we are all, ultimately one people. We must cherish both our cultural diversity and our common humanity and we must facilitate the global conversation between cultures. The most important aspect of translated literature is its ability to facilitate what I might describe cumbersomely as trans-cultural empathy. I have recently translated Episodic Memory (2007) by Lyubov Holota. The book depicts life in a rural Ukrainian community whose voice has effectively been excluded from Europe’s literary canon. Translated literature enables us to hear everyone’s voice. I am currently working on a collaboration with Swedish photographer, Jan-Peter Lahall and Ukrainian poet, Yuri Buryak; Lahall took photographs of Ukraine, Yuri responded to them with short epigrammatic verses that I am translating and a Swedish poet (I do not know who, but a well-known figure) will translate my translations. I love the richness of this project.

On poetry and politics

Pavlyuk was sentenced to hard labour for his decision to leave the St. Petersburg Military Academy in order to pursue his love of poetry. While translating A Flight over the Black Sea, did you get a sense that poetry, politics and personal beliefs are closely related for Pavlyuk? What are your own thoughts about the interrelation between poetry and politics?

It is, unfortunately, impossible to eschew a link between poetry and politics in a Ukrainian context. The very act of writing in a language that has been subject to centuries of repression is a political act. This is because a substantial number of Russians believe that Ukrainians and Russians are a single people and Ukrainian culture is an aberration. Unfortunately this view currently dominates Russian foreign policy and has resulted in the terrible military conflict we see in Ukraine. In terms of poetry, we should remember that 2014 is the bicentennial of the national Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko’s birth – we now know that the ousted president, Yanukovych, agreed on the details of how that event would be commemorated with Putin. The Russian president was afraid that the celebrations might be a further affirmation of a distinct Ukrainian identity. However their plan failed as the attempt to stifle Ukraine by violence, particularly the deployment of Russian special forces and snipers along with brutal Ukrainian riot police, triggered an uprising.

I have discussed this at some length because Pavlyuk is not primarily a political poet. He creates a world of subjective symbols, a kind of confessional poetry. It is true that Nestor Makhno, the Ukrainian anarchist leader who was most active in the nineteen twenties, appears in the poems. He is, however, perhaps best understood as a symbol of freedom from social restraint. Ihor’s poem is an exploration of someone on a trajectory taking them beyond social parameters, a bullet ‘fired into emptiness’. Makhno pays a price, for the poem touches on how he is haunted by the men he has killed, but also on his freedom from constraints. Ihor is primarily a writer who finds freedom among the lost peoples and gods of the Slavic forests. However, unfortunately, even history and language are being affected by the politics of a renascent empire. Shevchenko was arrested for writing in Ukrainian, Pavlyuk was punished for spurning the Soviet military for a career as a Ukrainian poet, and we are seeing a renewed attempt to destroy Ukrainian culture. The marginalisation of Ukrainian culture within the Empire finds its mirror image within its marginalisation as translated literature – unfortunately the branding of the literature as provincial has affected the perceptions of English people. I am one of the directors of Kalyna Language Press Limited, a company that aims to popularise Ukrainian literature and indeed other marginalised literatures, however, Ukraine’s re-emergence will result in a revision of the European literary cannon.

On the natural world

The poem My Family begins, ‘Have been farmers since my grandfather’s grandfather/So I am just a part of the field’s lake of blue…’ This sense of the connection between nature and the eternal are prevalent features in the collection. What do you think the Black Sea and nature in general represent?

Ihor grew up in the landlocked province of Volhynia, which crosses into Polissya, an ancient Slavonic territory. Polissya itself straddles across the borders of Belarus, Poland, Russia and Ukraine and several Ukrainian regions. Its culture is a living museum of ancient Slavonic and Ukrainian traditions and its very name combines the ancient words for marshland and forest. Ihor frequently spends time roaming the forest and I think, for him, it symbolises the only kind of immortality we can be sure of, the regenerative power of nature. In one poem where he talks of his dialogue with the woods he says, ‘my genes dance awaiting resurrection’. However, a part of each of us, our DNA helix, is resurrected in generation after generation and we know the presence of our forebears through that cultivated nature – the blue lake of the fields, but also relics such as the Scythian stone women who haunt Ihor’s poems. The Black Sea is a curious element in Ihor’s work, alien to the Slavic forests and marshes of much of his poetry. Perhaps it symbolises an escape from the landlocked provinces of his youth where every detail of the landscape speaks of some ancestral connection, he calls its expanse ‘our boundless possibility’. No Ukrainian writer can evade writing about the Steppe, which was traversed by the horse riding warriors who destroyed Kyiv-Rus, by the Cossacks and by Nestor Makhno. Ihor’s work on this theme is part of a broader dialogue with Ukrainian literary tradition. The Steppe is vast and distinctive but also indeterminate, the inchoate freedom of Ukraine seemingly poised forever between Europe and Asia.

In three words…

Describe the collection in three words.

Resurrected genes. Steppe.


Steve Komarnyckyj is a poet and translator who was born in Yorkshire in 1963 but maintains strong links with his ancestral Ukraine. His literary translations and poems have appeared in Poetry Salzburg Review, The North, and Modern Poetry in Translation. His book of translations from the Ukrainian poet Pavlo Tychyna, The Raspberry’s Eyelash (Poetry Salzburg, 2011), was described as a ‘revelation’ by Sean Street. His translation of Vasyl Shkliar’s Ukrainian novel, Raven, was published in April 2013. He runs Kalyna Language Press with his partner Susie and three domestic cats.

Read more about A Flight Over the Black Sea, Steve Komarnyckyj and Ihor Pavlyuk on the World Bookshelf

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