Translation Troubles Beleaguer Ukraine

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

Ukraine TridentWriting for forUm, Daryna Schwartzman bemoans the state of translated works in Ukraine, saying “[the] modern Ukrainian book market is having hard times, especially the sector of books in translation, and poor quality of translation is a major problem.”

One avid reader, Oleksandr Budnyk said that “I just do not trust translations. Many translators cheat and translate not from the original, but Russian or Polish. My friends said they’ve even seen machine translation.”

And this, says Schwartzman, is an on-going trend: books translated into Ukrainian not from the original language, but via an intermediate language. And, “as a result the quality of translated texts get worse…”

One Ukrainian writer, Ilya Strongovski, was not afraid to name names when it came to books translated not from the original, but from Russian: “I tell you what has been proved. One of the commercial publishers translates all [Swedish] books, in particular by Stieg Larsson, from Russian. Moreover, collected editions [of] Sherlock Holmes…are also translated from Russian. Even many books for children are not translated from the original. For example, in Uncle Remus books, you can see a reference ‘translated from Russia,’ meaning the publisher does not even hide that [the] translation is not made from the original.”

Other languages also serve as way stations on route to Ukrainian. Hungarian books, for example, usually go by way of German.

According to publicist Volodymyr Vyatrovych (and perhaps not surprisingly) books are generally translated from intermediate languages for the simple reason that it’s less expensive: “High-quality translation from English is more expensive than from Russian. Sometimes I see, especially in fiction books, if the translation is made from Russian. The text is full of Russianisms, which would not be there if the translation was made from the original to Ukrainian.”

And translator Nadezhda Herbish agreed, “Publishers save time and money. Translation from Russian costs way [less] from English, German or French, and takes less time. Obviously it is sad, and I do not approve of such practices.”

But according to writer Oksana Zabuzhko, there’s more than just economics involved, there’s also “an old trap” set by Moscow. It seems that back in the 1990s, one Moscow agency sought to buy up the foreign language rights for all countries formerly in the USSR, and “geographically disoriented” foreigners agreed. “It often happens that when a Ukrainian publisher makes a request about translation of this or that author, foreign colleagues say, ‘rights for Ukraine have been sold, call Moscow.’ And in return, Moscow then raises prices or demands that publishers buy Russian translations.

However, the director of a “well-known” Ukrainian publishing house offers a slightly different perspective: “We lack good translators from such languages as Chinese, Finnish, Norwegian. Thus we have no choice but to translate these from Russian, English, [and] Polish,” assuring readers that the “Quality and style of the book are preserved.”

And while Schwartzman agrees that the varying perspectives of readers, writers, translators and publishers “are true and complement each other,” she adds that “While modern Ukrainian literature is entering the XXI century, Ukrainian books in translation still cannot leave behind the XX century. The country lacks translators, financing, and elementary human decency.”

But can anything be done to remedy the situation? Publicist Volodymyr Vyatrovych says the responsibility lies in part with readers who need to “stop buying such literature and search for better quality.” Oksana Zabuzhko calls for a boycott of publishing houses that publish books in translation via other languages.

And intriguingly, writer Ilya Strongovski said that Ukrainians should follow the example of the Japanese in the fight against bad translations. “At first, readers were criticizing poor translation in social networks, but they went on a mass strike, ‘storming’ the publishing houses and demanding to [get] their money back. As a result, the publisher apologized to readers and announced a new, revised version…would be published soon, while the old one would be withdrawn from sale and recycled.”

Legal actions should also be considered. “In Russia, for example, publishing houses regularly sue each other, claiming billions [in] income losses and millions [in] moral damages.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.