An Urgent Mission for Literary Translators: Bringing Ukrainian Voices to the West

“It does help people who are suddenly stuck under bombardment to feel that their voices are being heard,” said Boris Dralyuk, the editor in chief of The Los Angeles Review of Books and a translator of Russian and Ukrainian authors who has been commissioning, editing and publishing war dispatches and poetry from Ukraine. “It helps to humanize this experience, to know what’s going through the person’s mind.”

For Dralyuk, who grew up in Odessa, giving Ukrainian writers visibility in mainstream publications, and not just in rarefied academic presses and journals, feels not only urgent but overdue. Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine has been going on since Putin annexed Crimea in 2014; a robust body of recent Ukrainian war literature already exists, Dralyuk said, but has gotten very little attention.

Russia’s ongoing aggression over the past eight years prompted some prominent Ukrainian writers, including the poet Boris Khersonsky and the novelist Olena Stiazhkina, who had previously written in Russian, to switch to writing exclusively in Ukrainian, as both a political and a literary statement, Dralyuk and other translators said.

“It’s been this long struggle for Ukraine both politically and culturally to establish and recover its identity,” he said. “Now we see this demarginalization and centering of Ukrainian voices, and it’s very empowering.”

As violence and chaos engulfed parts of Ukraine, the laborious process of commissioning and translating work has become even more complicated. Some of the authors are facing aerial bombardments and an escalating ground war. Others have enlisted in Ukraine’s territorial defense forces or are volunteering to help house and feed refugees.

To facilitate the rapid translation effort, Zenia Tompkins, who founded the Tault agency in 2019, reached out to Tsurkan, and started a project they called “Operation Ukraine.” Tsurkan put out a call for work from Ukrainian writers and posted another message in English to recruit more translators. The Tault agency has 10 translators who specialize in Ukrainian, and the list of Ukrainian authors it works with has rapidly grown to around 100 Ukrainian writers, up from 13 when it was founded.