In June 2010, when Pennsylvania-born Peter Fedynsky was nearing the end of his tenure as Voice of America’s Moscow Bureau Chief, a talk with some Tajik construction workers in Russia led him to a fateful decision. The casual conversation, he recalled in an interview recently, made him ponder the difficult lot of ordinary Russians and Ukrainians. “They are both wonderful peoples that have suffered under callous leaders, corrupt elites and rigged justice,” said Fedynsky. “As I crossed a bridge over the Moscow River, I looked at the nearby Shevchenko monument, and a feeling swept across my chest that said, ‘Translate The Kobzar,’ because its depiction of that lot is still relevant, and the poems are enormously entertaining to boot. I rushed to my apartment, which was about five minutes away, pulled out my laptop and started.”
This past October 11th, Fedynsky, now retired from his 30-plus career as a journalist, stood on a podium at the Ukrainian Institute of America (UIA) in New York to introduce the public to the fruit of that decision: the first-ever English translation of the entire Kobzar, Taras Shevchenko’s iconic collection of poetry. The book presentation was one in a series of events the UIA, one of the book’s sponsors, has organized to mark the Bicentennial of Shevchenko’s birth in 2014.
It’s a sure bet that just about every Ukrainian would be familiar with at least some of Shevchenko’s work. While parts of the Kobzar have been previously translated into English and other languages, the significance of Fedynsky’s translation of the complete Kobzar may well be that a good part of the rest of the world can now get a much broader perspective on Shevchenko’s genius and relevance, according to attendees at the book presentation.
“This full English translation makes the seminal 19th Century masterpiece, long a national treasure, immediately accessible to a broad, international audience,” said Andrew Horodysky, a private art consultant. “For both the lay and academic public, It opens the door to the spiritual and psychological condition of Ukraine,” he added. “It is at once contemporary in linguistic treatment, yet vehemently maintains and defends the relevancy of the poet’s sensibilities and prophetic observations.” Echoing Horodysky, Sofika Zielyk, a pysanka artist, noted that it was “high time the rest of the world hears Shevchenko’s prophetic voice and understands why we consider him the greatest poet of our nation.” And from the perspective of a Ukrainian language teacher who tutors children and teenagers in the Ukrainian language, culture and literature, she said that thanks to Fedynsky’s translation of the Kobzar her pupils, “whose native language is English, will be better able to appreciate Shevchenko’s genius.”
Asked about his own views on Shevchenko’s relevance and appeal to non-Ukrainians, Fedynsky held that the poet’s treatment of topics such as love, brotherhood, justice, envy, fame, religious faith or lack thereof, as well as hope and despair are universal themes that transcend time and place. “Non-Ukrainians can learn from Shevchenko about Ukraine and perhaps wonder how it is that such a large piece of real estate and its people were kept hidden from the rest of the world for centuries. The world may also learn that slavery and authoritarian rule are more pernicious than they imagined, but also that hope springs eternal.” Of added interest to non-Ukrainians, he said, is that Shevchenko’s poetry spans a broad geography, taking the reader “on a journey involving about 20 countries, from Egypt, Israel and the Holy Land, through ancient Rome, Turkey, Poland, The Czech Republic, Russia, and on to Kazakhstan, with China, Japan and the United States making brief appearances.”
Fedynsky also sees parallels between the dark side of life in Shevchenko’s day as described in the Kobzar, and the social and political upheavals in today’s Ukraine. “What is today’s sex trafficking of Ukrainian women by the hundreds of thousands if not the rapes of Ukrainian women in serfdom described by Shevchenko? What are mazhory, the spoiled and law-breaking brats of today’s elites, if not Shevchenko’s lordlings (panychi)? What are the bitter political rivalries of contemporary Ukraine if not struggles involving such infamous figures depicted in the Kobzar as Galagan, Kisil and Kochubey-Nahay?” Still, said Fedynsky, despite the “downers”, Shevchenko leaves the reader “with a sense of beauty and hope that those problems can and will be solved.”
At the UIA presentation, Fedynsky also addressed some of the more controversial passages in the Kobzar, such as perceived anti-Semitism, xenophobia or anti-Catholicism. The Kobzar is not without “dissonance,” he said, but Shevchenko resolves the dissonance “through appeals to brotherhood as well as explicit condemnations of the hate that some accuse him or harboring.” For example, while Shevchenko denounced Russian czars, he praised writer Mikhail Lermontov as a saint and reformer Alexander Herzen as an apostle, Fedynsky noted. Moreover, most of Shevchenko’s negative portrayals of Jews “were expressed by characters that were demented or drunk.” Other negative portrayals, he said, struck him as “gratuitous” or in the vein of literary anti-Semitism seen in such writers as Dostoyevsky, Dickens, T.S. Eliot and others. “In real life,” he added, “there is a documented instance of Shevchenko running into the burning home of a Ukrainian Jew to help save his belongings, and then chastising others for not helping. Shevchenko and other Ukrainian intellectuals also signed an open letter to a St. Petersburg newspaper in support of Jews, which was a very bold move for its time, especially considering that it came soon after his release from ten years of exile.” In his foreword to Fedynsky’s translation, Michael M. Naydan, professor of Ukrainian Studies an Pennsylvania State University, similarly notes that Shevchenko’s basic humanity was recognized by Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who wrote that “Shevchenko gave his people and the entire world brilliant and unshakable proof that the Ukrainian soul is capable of flying at the highest reaches of cultural innovation.”
While previous translations of some of Shevchenko’s poetry tried to retain the rhyme of the original work, Fedynsky opted for free verse. The reason, he said, is that while most literary translations involve a compromise between aesthetics and meaning, “the problem is particularly acute with Shevchenko’s Kobzar, because his language is so light and eloquent that even translators in other Slavic languages have trouble conveying it. So instead of focusing on how Shevchenko wrote, I decided to translate what he wrote, because his content is as compelling as his language is beautiful.” Fedynsky said he kept only two rules for his translation: “strict adherence to the meaning of the original, and a constant rhythm, which was facilitated by the rich vocabulary of English.”
Judging by audience reaction at the UIA event, Fedinsky may have a hit on his hands. The sizable crowd was entertained by a rollicking presentation that ranged from the reading of excerpts from the translation, to displays of replicas of some of Shevchenko’s most renowned paintings, to musical interludes selected to show the range of Shevchenko’s taste—such as Beethoven– and reflecting the songs he mentions in the Kobzar.
Readings and performances were given by Fedynsky; the Ukrainian-American poet Dzvinia Orlowsky, a teacher of poetry at Pine Manor College near Boston; Bob Holman, founder and proprietor of New York’s Bowery Poetry Club and teacher of creative writing at NYU and Columbia University; violinist Solomiya Ivakhiv, the artistic director of the UIA’s Music at the Institute (MATI) concert series; pianist Pavlo Gintov, who studied at the Lysenko Conservatory in Kyiv and the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow; Jurij Fedynsky, a North Carolina native who moved to Ukraine in 2002 and where he has been active in helping revive kobza and similar Ukrainian musical instruments traditions; and Bridget Cory, an American singer who tours with British rock star Rod Stewart. Cory performed a rousing rendition of Yes My Darling Daughter, by American songwriter Jack Lawrence. The tune, a major American hit in 1941, was based on Oy, ne khody Hrytsiu, a melody that Shevchenko mentioned.
Shevchenko, no doubt, would have been pleased.
By Roman Czajkowsky
This article was published in The Ukrainian Weekly on October 27, 2013.
Paperback and hardback editions of the English-version Kobzar, published by London, U.K.-based Glagoslav Publications, are available on amazon.com. A gift edition – a hefty tome that weighs in on 500 pages and contains numerous illustrations of Shevchenko’s paintings, drawings and photo-portraits—as well as electronic versions are available on the publisher’s web site, glagoslav.com. The publication also has a Facebook site, Kobzar Tweet.