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How Translators are Addressing the War in Ukraine

By Niina Bailey, Alice Reynolds and Toby Smollett

The escalation of the war in Ukraine has brought unprecedented attention to literature from the country people want to familiarise themselves with the past and present of Ukraine, to add recognisable reality to their preconceived notions of the country. Facilitating this are translators in translating Ukrainian stories, they are also translating Ukraine itself. For those who may be unfamiliar, we’ve highlighted three particularly significant projects that look to bring Ukrainian literature to the rest of the world.

You Don’t Know What War Is: The Diary of a Young Girl From Ukraine by Yeva Skalietska. Published by Bloomsbury in 2022.

You Don’t Know What War Is is twelve-year-old Yeva Skalietska’s diary, chronicling twelve days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It follows her and her grandmother’s journey to safety from Kharkiv to Dublin. Yeva decided to write her story while seeking shelter in a damp basement. The book features hour-by-hour recollections of what happened as her and her grandmother fled to Dublin. In addition, it includes personal photographs, messages between Yeva and her friends, and news headlines. Three maps drawn by Kharkiv-native Olga Shtonda help with tracking Yeva and her grandmother’s route through Europe.

The book was originally written in English, which is extraordinary, given Yeva’s age. Despite the book not being translated into English, it still highlights the importance of translators as it has been translated into twelve other languages (for example, French and German) and counting. Translating the book into other languages is very valuable and makes it accessible to even more people. In this case, it is especially important as translators play an important role in making first-person accounts of conflicts, such as the war in Ukraine, accessible to a larger number of people. The aim of this book is to try to make people understand what war is really like and how it affects people. The fact that this account comes from a child makes it even more devastating.

UNESCO and NORAD’s Translate a Story Ukraine Campaign

An important way that book translators have addressed the effects of the war in Ukraine for children is through the Translate a Story campaign. This initiative, set up by UNESCO, in cooperation with the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and others in April 2022, aims to continue the education of displaced children in Ukraine whose educational institutions have been damaged or destroyed.

At its creation, the campaign set out to translate at least 100 digital books for primary readers into Ukrainian, which will be proofread and available on the Global Digital Library (GDL) and local Ukrainian online platforms. Importantly, these will be made accessible for free via mobile devices and learning platforms. Speakers of English and Ukrainian can sign up as translators and proofreaders. This continues UNESCO’s Translate a Story global initiative, which aimed to ensure that young children had access to reading resources during the COVID-19 school closures.

UNESCO’s initiative demonstrates the importance of translated works in global education. It also transforms the role of the translator into that of preserving equal opportunities and access in times of injustice. Through this transformation, novel sites for translation are established, as online platforms make books more accessible and broaden who can be a translator: the only credentials for online translation now being fluency in both languages.

The Tompkins Agency for Ukrainian Literature in Translation

It is not only individual translators who are responding to the current war in Ukraine but also groups that are composed of or represent translators.

The Tompkins Agency for Ukrainian Literature in Translation (TAULT) describes itself as “a non-profit literary agency and translation house devoted to the visibility and availability of contemporary Ukrainian Literature in the English-speaking world,” and the war in Ukraine has led to an increased interest in literature from the region.

For an agency that looks to spread Ukrainian literature in the anglophone world, this surge in demand is welcome, but this attention can be quite overwhelming. It’s also worth noting that the current precarity in Ukraine touches publishers and authors, who are therefore extremely conscious of their own security. As such, TAULT has taken on the role of liaising between these authors and publishers, and the presses of the world.

Speed and efficiency are key with the eyes of the world on you, and so TAULT now sends out samples, catalogues, author biographies and much more to interested parties. They also act as the "middleman" (what is a translator, if not a middleman?) between these presses and these authors.

TAULT are still seeking more translators and editors, as they continue in their quest to spread Ukrainian literature to anglophones like us the attention is certainly not dying down.


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