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A War of Words and Ukrainian Authors Part 9: Pavlo Tychyna plays a solar clarinet...

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Stephen KomarnyckyjUkraine, the world
A War of Words and Ukrainian Authors Part 9: Pavlo Tychyna plays a solar clarinet...
Pavlo Tychyna one of Europe's greatest poets, remains relatively unknown outside Ukraine, yet this author like all great writers can enhance our understanding of the human condition

When you wander through a labyrinth of magic mirrors at a fairground your face is distorted in fantastic ways – one can acquire a huge Mekon-like head or a thin and distended one, like stretched chewing gum. I feel that a similar process of distortion happens with the translation of a poem. What the translation shows us is not the poem, but the poem warped by the vision of the translator. A dozen different Dantes stare back at us from the various English translations of the Divine Comedy, from Mark Musa’s dark pared-down Dante, bereft of rhyme to a Dante who appears in tinkling triple rhyme in Sayer’s version. It seems to me that Musa’s version is more faithful to the original. In abandoning the rhyme he achieves the feeling of natural speech – the illusion of reality which is crucial to Dante and so powerful that the writer was pursued through Florence by the cry ‘behold the man who has been in hell’. Sayers’s version, on the other hand, by adhering faithfully to the rhyme scheme of Dante, loses the poet’s conversational tone. Musa, by betraying the original rhyme, stays faithful to the spirit of the poem. 

These issues were powerfully present to me as I translated Tychyna’s book Solar Clarinets. ‘Whose book?’ you will probably ask. Pavlo Tychyna ( 1891- 1967) is the major Ukrainian poet of the twentieth century. His first collection, Solar Clarinets (1918) focused on the themes of nature, music and, in a certain sense, religion. These poems evoke the landscape of central Ukraine and the poet’s experience of revolution and civil war, but combine these elements into free standing musical structures. The first poem, which can be read as an epiphany experienced while playing the clarinet, focuses on the musical theme and acts as a manifesto for the rest of the collection. The speaker of the poem (the musician) experiences the intrinsic structures of reality through music, and conveys this experience through a series of striking metaphors focused around the clarinet. In the majority of the subsequent lyrics the speaker of the poem will be audience, rather than performer, to the math or melody of reality: 

Over the road stands the willow 

Catching the resonant strings of rain 

Bowing with its branches as if saying 

Sorrow, sorrow 

Such years, such without end 

On the strings of eternity I play 

A willow, solitary. 

Unfortunately the relatively liberal conditions of the 1920s during which Ukrainian poetry blossomed like the sunflower on the dust jacket of Tychyna’s first collection were followed by the Stalinist inferno. Two hundred and twenty-six Ukrainian writers were executed or rendered inactive by the Soviet Police. They died in the underground basements of police stations, in Arctic labour camps; they were shot and tortured; they died of hypothermia, exhaustion, malnutrition. During this period millions of Ukrainian peasants died in the artificial famine of 1932-1933, known as the Holodomor – Ukraine was surrounded and food was taken at gunpoint in order to crush the nation’s ability to become a culturally and politically independent entity. Tychyna was one of the few surviving members of this generation, which is known as ‘the Executed Renaissance’. The price he paid for his survival was writing ream after ream of Stalinist doggerel. The most notorious and typical example of this poisonous material is “the Party Leads” a celebration of mass murder which was parroted by generations of crimson neckerchief wearing Soviet Pioneers (the Pioneers were communism’s answer to the boy scouts : 

We will we will we will beat 

Bourgeise and bourgeoisie  

And all the Lords into One Pit 

Translating Tychyna’s work and conveying it to the English reader presents two major challenges. To begin with Ukraine, territorially the largest country entirely in Europe is weirdly invisible in terms of mainstream European culture. A lack of skilled Ukrainian translators, a naïve tendency to trust the official Russian line on an Empire which, like most empires, was welded together by violence means that Ukraine is for many people still a part of Russia: the Ukraine – a mere area and not a country with a language that is not a language but a dialect. In historical terms this is similar to saying that Dutch is simply a dialect of German or Portugese a dialect of Spanish – meaningless but potentially symbolic of a wish to undermine a national culture. 

In presenting the poet you have also to present his country and assume that the reader will simply not have a mental vision of Ukraine within which to place the work. It is easy to imagine Rimbaud by the Seine or Dante in the streets of Florence but behind Tychyna looms an enormous void. The biggest challenge is presented by the infinitely complex grammar and endlessly flexible word order of Ukrainian. The language has seven cases, verbs may exist in two forms, the word order is as flexible as a bendy balloon. The agreement between case endings which is echoed in the sound of the words also creates endless possibilities for internal rhyming fully embodied in Tychyna’s work. The language itself really is the Solar Clarinet of the title poem. The problem is of course that the effortless music of Tychyna’s verse, which grows out of the syntactical structures of the Ukrainian language, cannot be reproduced in English. 

However, there is at the heart of his work a vision of nature and the world which survives the transition into English. The last poem in the book  was written before Crow by Ted Hughes and before T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland – but all of these poems seem to echo one another or resonate in unison like strings set to the same pitch. These days translators of poetry are moving away from a clunking attempt to reproduce the verse structure of a foreign poet and towards a more elusive quest for that most vague of qualities – the essence of a text. If there is a similarity between the aforementioned poets it is not because Tychyna was familiar with their work, but because there is an elusive similarity between the greatest writing; a congruence of themes and emotions. Tychyna, like Hughes and Eliot, was able to stare directly into the furnace of the twentieth century and into the blank enigma of the human heart.  

Stephen Komarnyckyj is a PEN award winning literary translator and poet whose work is published by Kalyna Language Press and features on the PEN World Bookshelf. You can e mail him on stevekomoffice(at)

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