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A performance by Slava Vakarchuk and Kharkiv musicians in the demolished courtyard of the Palace of Labor, photograph by Serhiy Zhadan.

Sky Above Kharkiv: A Conversation with Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler

In Sky Above Kharkiv: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front, Ukraine’s beloved literary and activist voice Serhiy Zhadan provides an intimate account of resistance and survival in the earliest months of the Russian-Ukrainian war. In this Q&A, we talk with the book’s translators Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler about the process of translation and power of literature to respond to trauma.

What inspired you to pursue careers in translation?

As we imagine is the case for many literary translators, the initial impetus for us to pursue this kind of work was, to be blunt, selfish enjoyment. We were motivated by love of literature, and translation has been described as “an extreme form of reading;” like many extreme thrills, it proved addictive. Translation requires obsessive engagement with texts, and that obsession must come from either internally generated passion or strong external motivation.

While we started with the former, our time spent as practicing translators has tended to shift us toward the latter. When we translated our first book, Serhiy Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and first saw it in the hands of readers, that was a transformative moment. The reader had existed for us as a kind of placeholder in our translation process; obviously any translator choosing between two different phrasings of an idea should be thinking in terms of what the reader will do with each one, but that reader remained an abstraction. When we first witnessed human beings holding books that were in English because of the endless hours we spent on it, our perspective changed. The coolest cool aunt who ever lived bought a copy for her niece who had literary aspirations and asked us to sign it for her. That alone would have been worth it, but there was a whole room full of living, breathing readers. When we had said “we work for our readers” in the past, it was a philosophical statement; after that, it became an interpersonal one.

Tell us about your relationship with Serhiy Zhadan. How did you meet? And how has your relationship evolved since your first translation of the novel, Voroshilovgrad?

Reilly reached out to Zhadan in 2014, simply because he was his favorite author. In fact, Reilly’s decision to learn Ukrainian came about because he read Russian translations of Zhadan’s work. Then Isaac, in his capacity as crazed fan, introduced himself to Zhadan at a reading in New York. Zhadan reacted very generously to his literary stalkers by suggesting, very simply, “why don’t you try translating Voroshilovgrad.”

When we truly got to know each other was when we were translating Mesopotamia, which is one of those lovely books where the city is a central character, so it would have been impossible to translate the way Zhadan explores the physical space of Kharkiv without walking it ourselves. Isaac had to write his own poem about how having those hills under your feet changes the sky above your head. That was when we really got to know Zhadan, too.

You have been long-time translators with Yale University Press, translating Mesopotamia and The Orphanage. What does your collaborative process look like?

The distinct thing about our collaborative process is that there are two distinct roles we play, which might loosely be called “translator” and “editor.” Depending on the project, we might trade hats, but there is always a clear distinction. We conceptualize translation as a hierarchy of conflicting demands; no translation can simultaneously reflect every possible nuance of the original and function as an aesthetic experience in English that has the same value as the Ukrainian original. Translation is a process of constant compromise, of reconciling goals that are often in tension with one another.

When we work as a team, we can externalize that process. The translator encounters the original in all its irreducible particularity; the editor insists on honoring the needs of the English text that will emerge at the end of the process. This is an almost adversarial relationship. Schleiermacher wrote that “either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.”1 In our partnership, the translator is the advocate arguing for the Ukrainian author (or, more accurately, text) while the editor is the advocate arguing for the English reader. It is in playing out tension that we try to find a balance that leads to the best final product we can manage.

Sky Above Kharkiv: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front includes Zhadan’s Facebook posts reporting on the earliest months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What was the translation process like for this collection?

The effect of translating in the context of an ongoing war was to raise the stakes on both sides of the tension we were describing in our last answer. When advocating for the original, the translator had to hold himself responsible to the real people whose lives and deaths were being described in the text. When advocating for the reader, the editor had to hold himself responsible to the urgent need for the English-speaking world to understand what was happening in Ukraine.

How has the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected your translation of Russian and Ukrainian authors? Have you seen more translation requests for work on both sides?

Fortunately, we can say that we have certainly seen more requests for translations of Ukrainian authors, and we are eager to help share their work with the English-speaking world. Conversely, we have not sought out projects involving Russian authors, though Isaac has translated some Russian poetry since the invasion of Ukraine because that poetry was explicitly anti-war and anti-Putin.

How do you balance the art of translation with direct reading, especially when tasked with translating in the midst of crises?

The description of translation as an “extreme form of reading” is once again relevant here. If we had infinite time and resources, we would translate all of the literature being created in contemporary Ukraine, because we view translation as the maximum amount of attention a text can receive. Furthermore, contemporary Ukrainian literature merits an extreme form of reading, because it is being written in extremity, written with courage in the face of the terrible realities of our time. At the risk of begging the question, we do not experience translation and direct reading as being in tension.

What is your favorite aspect of Zhadan’s new collection, Sky Above Kharkiv: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front?

Given the context in which Zhadan wrote this book, it is truly astonishing that he has managed to do so with such a positive, humane spirit. His writings encouraging his fellow Ukrainians and their allies to hope for victory manage to be genuinely bracing despite unflinchingly describing the terrible reality of the war. His eagerness to help others, yes, eagerness, not desperation, even now, is an inspiration to us.

Zhadan’s commentary on writing in this situation is just as valuable as the posts themselves. He asks the question of whether Facebook posts written in a time of crisis can be literature with admirable frankness. Zhadan is aware of the awesome responsibility entailed by writing in a situation like this, and it would be impossible for him not to ask the question of whether literature can truly respond to trauma. Having translated his book, we believe that it can. That is without a doubt what we most admire about this book. It’s also why the image for the cover was so well chosen—culture among ruins, dignity in the face of inhumanity.

  1. Schleiermacher, Friedrich, “On the Different Methods of Translating,” trans. Susan Bernofsky, pgs. 43-63 in “The Translation Studies Reader,” ed. Lawrence Venuti, third edition, 2012, Routledge, London and New York.

Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler translate contemporary Ukrainian literature.

Serhiy Zhadan is Ukraine’s beloved literary and activist voice. He has received the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, the German Peace Prize, and several international literature prizes. His previous books include Mesopotamia; The Orphanage; and What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems. He lives in Kharkiv.

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