On Ukrainian Bookstores, Translating Hawking, and Hemingway Haunts: An Interview with Translator Hanna Leliv

by Reilly Costigan-Humes

This interview between Ukrainian translator Hanna Leliv and ALTA emerging translator mentee Reilly Costigan-Humes was conducted over email.

Reilly Costigan-Humes: You’ve studied translation theory both in Ukraine and America. Are there any fundamental differences in terms of what schools of thought are emphasized or deemphasized?

Hanna Leliv: I had a chance to study translation theory at the University of Iowa’s MFA in Literary Translation program during my Fulbright fellowship there and, eight years ago, at the Lviv Ivan Franko National University in Ukraine where I did my MA inhemingway_birthplace_oak_park (1) English Language and Literature. I must admit, though, that translation studies were not my major back then and I took only a few related theoretical courses and workshops. Still, certain fundamental differences are obvious. In Ukraine, the reading list—at least eight years ago—covered classical translation theory (Schleiermacher, Benjamin, Nida), but more contemporary theorists were missing. Again, the situation might have changed over the past eight years. One of the aspects I really appreciated at the University of Iowa’s program is that the syllabus—while covering the classical approaches at length—leans toward the contemporary theorists (Spivak, Venuti, Chamberlain) and the latest trends. When I did my MA, the issues of gender in translation, the politics and power dynamics of translation, various ethical and advocacy issues related to translation did not exist in our theory classes. At the same time, the Ukrainian syllabus covered not only Western schools of thought, but also Ukrainian and Russian schools of translation. Looking back, I find it interesting to compare those approaches with the Western frameworks, tracing the similarities and the distinct features of the Ukrainian / Russian schools. I think it would be worthwhile if Western syllabi gave some insights into what’s going on in the translation studies domain in the Central and Eastern Europe, Asian countries or other, non-Western, regions. So far, those areas seem to be overlooked in a traditional syllabus. 

R.C.H.: You translate both into and from English. What are the most pressing challenges you face when working into Ukrainian? What about into English?

H.L.: I have a much longer experience of translating into Ukrainian, my mother tongue, than into English. It was only after I arrived in the USA on a Fulbright and enrolled in the translation workshops that I ventured to try my hand at working into English. I say “ventured”, since the ability or “right” of someone to translate into their second language is still a subject of heated discussions and triggers certain reservations and anxieties. The experience of working between the languages proved invaluable for me, as the nature, the inner mechanisms, and the subtleties of both languages—Ukrainian and English—became even more vivid and distinct, once each of them started to act as both a source and a target language. As a mediator in this two-way communication, I became more aware how these languages work in the interplay with one another and in which ways their systems differ. The challenges of translation remain pretty much the same, regardless into which language I work—how to build an authentic voice, how to render the author’s individual style into another language, how to recreate natural dialogues and deal with informal speech, slang, obscenities, dialects, etc. Punctuation works differently in these two languages, so this is something I should constantly keep an eye on so as not to create a nightmarish overload of m-dashes, colons, and semicolons in English or commit an error of frequency in Ukrainian. The issues of tone, register, temporal fabric are always there, as well, regardless which language are you working into.

R.C.H.: In 2009, most bookstores in Kyiv had a rather small selection in terms of Ukrainian-language titles. In 2016, the vast majority of books were in Ukrainian, instead of Russian.  To what do you attribute Ukrainian publishers’ commitment to translating and retranslating a wide range of books, from business literature to the classics, into Ukrainian?

H.L.: I’d say there are a number of reasons behind these changes, political among them. After the Revolution of Dignity and the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014, the volume of books imported from Russia dropped due to political and economic reasons. According to Oleksandr Afonin, president of the Ukrainian Publishers and Booksellers Association, the correlation between the books published in Ukraine and in Russia in the Ukrainian market was roughly 50/50. It was 60/40 in the Western Ukraine leliv interview 1(in favor of Ukrainian books), and 40/60 in the Eastern Ukraine (this time in favor of Russian publications). At the same time, over the past seven years, Ukrainian-language publications have outnumbered those in Russian. Another reason, as I see it, is the overall revival of interest toward Ukrainian culture and literature in particular in the wake of the Revolution of Dignity. People who used to read mostly Russian books turned their eyes to the shelves with the Ukrainian authors and discovered that their texts are no less engaging. Reading Ukrainian became trendy. Readings, lectures, and book festivals, concentrated mostly in Western and Central Ukraine, reach Eastern terrains more and more often, with Ukrainian texts and authors playing prominent part. I believe it was this combination of factors which spurred Ukrainian publishers to work more with Ukrainian authors and translate foreign books into Ukrainian. When it comes to classics, one of the intentions is to give a contemporary Ukrainian voice to the texts translated back in the Soviet times. This is true as in the case with the large-scale Hemingway re-translation project launched by a major Ukrainian press, the Old Lion Publishing House. Men without Women, the short story collection I re-translated, was first rendered into Ukrainian back in 1968, exactly fifty years ago. The language and the translation methodologies have evolved ever since, so it’s only natural that we’re seeing Hemingway being given a contemporary, fresh voice in the third decade of Ukraine’s independence.

R.C.H.: You mentioned at last year’s ALTA conference that Hemingway was “haunting you” while you were translating a collection of short stories by him. Did the great American novelist’s spirit come to you in dreams or something like that? 

H.L.: No, it took more realistic dimensions! I just noticed that after I started translating Hemingway’s short stories, he followed me everywhere. I went into a pub in Lviv—and spotted his portrait hanging on the wall, Hemingway winking mischievously. I arrived in an Air BnB in Minneapolis for the ALTA conference—and The Sun Also Rises was right there on the table. His picture was even hanging on the wall of an Iowa City rental apartment where I came for a showing (there was no way I could say no to that place after seeing this great American writer smiling on the wall). He made a cameo appearance in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris I watched the other day, and right in the middle of Fight Club the protagonist also—surprise!—quotes good old Hemingway. This year I also visited his birthplace in Oak Park and had lunch at Hemingway’s bistro—but that was intentional, no spirits involved. I’m now translating Winner Take Nothing into Ukrainian and I’m very curious to see where Hemingway will appear or take me next. 

R.C.H.: You’ve translated several of Stephen Hawking’s young adult books into Ukrainian. What motivated you and the Old Lion Publishing House to undertake these projects? 

H.L.: A young adult book series by Stephen and Lucy Hawking has actually become my gateway to the Ukrainian literary translation scene. These are five books about the cosmic adventures of a teenage boy George and his friend Annie. The authors skillfully hemingwayinterweave a fascinating fictional plot and the actual, “serious” scientific facts, helping young readers to learn about the science behind the workings of the universe. I picked the first book from this series, George’s Secret Key to the Universe, myself, when scrolling through the list of New York Times bestsellers. I had participated in the collaborative translation of Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time before, so his YA book immediately grabbed my attention—I have to admit I didn’t even know he wrote popular science books for kids, as well. It occurred to me it might be a good fit for the Ukrainian book market, as this niche—children’s or YA literature which combines the elements of both fiction and non-fiction to help the readers grasp complex concepts in a fascinating, entertaining way—was almost empty at that time. So, I translated the first chapter of the book and pitched it to the Old Lion Publishing House. I admired that press for what it had been doing for the Ukrainian children’s literature. Later on, I have also translated Gilbert and Hemingway for them. But getting back to Hawking’s series, I must say that this project has turned out to be tremendously successful. One of the key reasons behind it is that the demand for children’s creative non-fiction was—and still is—very high. The author’s name played its role, too, of course. Also, the publishers commissioned an amazing book cover from Agrafka, a very successful Ukrainian team of designers, whose books won several Bologna book fair awards. The design of the first book was experimental—the planets drawn on the cover were coated in a special scratch-off material, like on a lottery ticket. The readers had to take a coin and scratch it off to see what planets were hiding underneath. All in all, the project has been very successful for a number of reasons, and I hope that my translation also contributed to it. The last, fifth book from this series is forthcoming this May. 


Reilly Costigan-Humes lives and works in Moscow, and translates literature from the Ukrainian and Russian. Reilly and his colleague Isaac Wheeler have translated Serhiy Zhadan’s Voroshilvogradand Mesopotamia, and they’re currently translating Lena Eltang’s novel Cartagena as part of ALTA’s Emerging Translator Mentorship Program.

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