Translation As A Hybrid Weapon: A View From Ukraine
A ban on a Russian translation of British historian Anthony Beevor's book "Stalingrad" was announced on the 10th of January by a Ukrainian government body entitled The State Committee for State TV and Radio Broadcasting.
Published in 1998, the fusion of academic military history and narrative storytelling became a hit and, some critics said, changed the way we read the genre.
It's not without irony, as Russian hybrid warfare claims its own place in history, that Stalingrad has become a front in a war once again.
" Minutes of the meeting where the ban was announced state that it infringed the criteria required for distributing publications in Ukraine in connection with inflaming inter ethnic, racial and religious hostility. The committee's public statements on the ban were inept "
Last June I interviewed Ukrainian writer Steve Komarnyckyj, which resulted in a long read entitled Alternative War: Beyond The Front Line. We've kept in touch and today
Komarnyckyj contacted me and informed me Beevor's book had been banned in Ukraine.
"The media assumed that the ban applied to Beevor's original book, which can still be purchased freely in Ukraine. The press quite understandably were critical and Beevor himself reacted angrily to the ban stating that he was 'dumbfounded' in an interview with RFERL and describing the ban as 'outrageous' in The Guardian," Kormarnyckyj told me.
"The minutes of the meeting where the ban was announced state that it infringed the criteria required for distributing publications in Ukraine in connection with inflaming inter ethnic, racial and religious hostility. The committee's public statements on the ban were inept, with Beevor's usage of Soviet sources, a common practice among Ukrainian historians, being criticised."
According to analysis by Kormarnyckyj, an award winning poet and translator among other things, the Russian text which has been subject to the ban was published in 2015 by the Moscow based Azbuka-Atticus publishing group and is significantly different to the original text.
"The censor.net.ua site has produced some images of the banned book, which demonstrate that the text was deliberately manipulated," he told me.
The original English text refers to 'two police battalions' having participated in the massacre at Babi Yar but the 'translation' refers to 'two battalions of Ukrainian nationalists'.
"I have obtained a copy of the Russian translation and confirmed the accuracy of these images. Indeed I have found a further distortion in the translation which is also clearly politically motivated and was quoted when the ban was issued," Kormarnyckyj added.
This second "manipulation" concerns the Bila Tserkva massacre of Jewish children and reads:
На следующий день детей расстреляли украинские националисты, чтобы «поберечь чувства» солдат зондеркоманды.
Which Kormarnyckyj states may be translated back as:
"The ninety Jewish children were shot the next evening by Ukrainian nationalists, to "save the feelings" of the Sonderkommando."
However, he highlighted, the original reads:
"The ninety Jewish children were shot the next evening by Ukrainian militia, to save the feelings of the Sonderkommando."
Kormarnyckyj believes, and I agree, the distortions in the Russian text were aimed at creating a distorted impression of the organisations and individuals responsible for these horrific acts of genocide. The subtle change to identify nationalists fits with onging Russian disinformation narratives against Ukraine.
"This translation is quite simply wrong and designed to confuse the reader and stigmatise a political movement rather than faithfully reflect Beevor's text," Kormarnyckyj told me.
"The history of Ukrainian nationalism cannot be reduced to the terrible crimes of these units and their personnel"
"It should be noted that the translator may not be to blame and that the text may have been tampered with. The Ukrainian police/auxiliaries will have included many nationalists and had organisational links with some elements of the nationalist movement. However the history of Ukrainian nationalism cannot be reduced to the terrible crimes of these units and their personnel," he added.
According to Kormarnyckyj, this element of the translation is "utterly unjustifiable and designed to stigmatise a political creed and its adherents" rather than faithfully reflect Beevor's text.
"A thorough proofing of the original against this version is required because there will probably be other, systematic, discrepancies. The Russian politicians understand their target audience- in the thirties their predecessors perpetrated the largest act of genocide within the boundaries of a single European state, which comprised an artificial famine, the Holodomor, and mass killings on Ukraine," Lormarnyckyj told me.
"They were subsequently able to influence perceptions of Ukraine so that the countries enormous losses at the hands of Stalin and Hitler before and during WW2, which are between 10 and 20 million, are largely ignored in the west and Ukrainians are stigmatised, iniquitously, as collaborators," he added.
It's clear the Russian translation of Beevor's book has effectively been weaponised and Ukraine remains a continuous source of learning material when it comes to Russia's new type of war.
"Unfortunately the west lacks a strategy to deal with Putin's endless active measures and the inability to hear Ukraine's voice when it is most needed here will result in the destruction of democracy in the UK and US within the near future," Kormarnyckyj concluded.
The purpose of such translation is clear, to me at least. Firstly, it embeds the concept of a modern group which Putin finds undesirable with historical acts otherwise not directly connected. A smear which enters the psyche as indisiously as all other Kremlin disinformation. Secondly, it created a perfect response: the ban of a book, which brought with it criticism of Ukraine, which was hard to defend until the damage was done.
Only the night before, I had been discussing the current inadequacies in Britain's capability to respond to Russia with a defency strategy chief, highlighting our current reliance on the traditional would continue to see us fail on every front in the transformed landscape of conflict.
We live in dangerous times. The most dangerous times. And we are not yet equipped for them.