Ukraine Film Series and “Ukrainian Fury”

My colleague Sofiya Asher worked together with the Ryder in Bloomington to put together a series of films last month. The series, “Stand With Ukraine,” featured seven recent Ukrainian films (10 if you count the four shorts collected around the “I Love Mariupol” screenings) and an insert in the Ryder magazine, which is here.

The insert includes seven essays: “The People’s President,” by Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed; “City Under Siege,” by Sofiya Asher; “On Refugee Relief Efforts,” by Mason Cassady; “History Debunks Putin,” by Hiroaki Kuromiya; my own “Translating Ukrainian Fury” (on which see below); “Super Folk Heroes Spark Joy and Glory for Ukraine,” by Sarah D. Phillips and Sofiya Asher; and “Jazz Nights in Ukraine Equals Love,” by William Morris. There are also very cool illustrations by Iryna Stasiuk, including the cover image of “Ukrainian Fury.”

Getting this together, as anyone who has ever tried to pull together a multi-authored anything with a quick deadline will know, was quite an accomplishment, so I am virtually bowing to my colleague. I recommend them all, which you can read at the flipbook linked above. Here is my contribution, which I should have called “Giving Voice to Violence,” with some links and edits.

Many years ago, I was asked by Christopher Merrill, Director of Iowa’s International Writing Program, to translate a poem by the then indicted Bosnian war criminal Radovan Karadžić for inclusion in a segment on an NPR program called The World. Karadžić had sent the poem, which Merrill found tucked inside a book in the program’s library, in approximately 1974, likely as part of a bid to be invited for a residency. The poem was called “A Morning Bomb.” Everyone agreed that it was a good poem, and everyone also agreed that it was disturbing at the same time, partly because it seemed prophetic of the war in some ways, but even more so because we all forgot that poetry and music and art don’t automatically make us better people, and that some of the ugliest, most immoral people in history have been great lovers of such finer things. Why does this keep surprising us?

I suspect this experience—along with the sense that I had in effect given Karadžić a voice in English—is the main reason that I don’t, as a rule, translate war poetry or war songs. But like many things about the current war that Russia has waged against Ukraine, I have found myself on unstable ground. So when a request came from Ukraine through my Sofiya to translate the lyrics to Khrystyna Soloviy’s “Ukrainska lyut’” (“Ukrainian Fury”), I said yes without hesitation. The song is an adaptation of a well-known Italian folksong, “Bella ciao,” which itself was adapted during World War II by the Italian resistance movement in their struggle against fascism. Soloviy, a prominent Ukrainian folk singer, gave it new words and performed it with guitarist Oleksiy Morozov in a video available on YouTube that has had two million views since March 7 of this year.

Besides the melody, the only similarity between the Italian and Ukrainian versions is the first line, which is about waking up to find the invader in one’s midst. Otherwise, where the World War II song highlights the sense of one’s own mortality in the cause of liberty, where a person might be buried, and the beautiful flower that might sprout from one’s grave, Soloviy’s version is a rallying cry for stopping the invaders who have set foot upon Ukrainian soil by killing them—she uses a strong verb for “to slay” in the song and draws a finger across her neck. The invaders, moreover, are labeled as Russians (the invader in the Italian song is never named), but she is careful to use the slang term “Roosnia” to indicate that these are the sort who blindly believe Putin’s propaganda and have come to lay waste to the country.

The result is a much more violent and direct song than its predecessor, and when I had finished my version, which I did my best to make singable to the same melody and rhythm (it’s a song after all), I could not help feeling a tinge of the old uncertainty regarding these words I had given it in English. There is a thing we translators sometimes do: when we translate something that people like, we say, yes, I chose those words carefully to try and make it effective; when we translate something that someone finds offensive, we raise our hands in defense and say, “That’s just what the original says!” Both are true. I won’t make excuses.

One early morning

Approaching dawn

The earth was shaking and quaking, our blood began to boil

The sky rained rockets

Tanks lined the roads

And the River Dnipro roared

The sky rained rockets

Tanks lined the roads

And the River Dnipro roared

No one had thought it

No one had seen it

What true Ukrainian fury could turn out to be

We slay tormentors without mercy

Those who trample on our lands

We slay tormentors without mercy

Those who trample on our lands

And our defenders

The finest boys

Heroes themselves fight on our side in service of Ukraine

Along with Javelins and Bayraktars

For Ukraine to beat the Roosnias

We’ll use the Javelins and Bayraktars

And Ukraine will beat the Roosnias

And all our people

Beloved Ukrainians

Against the Roosnias we’ll fight and unite the whole world

And soon the Roosnias will be no more

And peace will reign across the earth

And soon the Roosnias will be no more

And peace will reign across the earth!

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