Under shelling and in occupation: The story of two translators who worked on Cortázar's Bestiary during the war


On April 10 Ukrainian publishing house “Babylonian library” announced a new book which was a translation of the Bestiary by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. The unusual feature of this announcement is that both translators – Oleksandra Laktionova and Inna Adruh were completing work on the translation under the shelling of the Russian military. The former remained in Kherson, and the latter stayed in Chernihiv. Kherson is still under the occupation of Russian troops, and battles are underway for the city. Chernihiv is now liberated from Russian troops. During the city's blockade from February 24 to April 2, more than 700 people were killed.

Suspilne journalist Mariia Blindiuk talked to both translators about how they managed to work during active military operations nearby, why they stayed in their native towns, and their love for Spanish-language literature.

Ukrainian version is available here.

Translated from Ukrainian by Maryna Bakalo.

We communicate with both translators by texting. Oleksandra from Kherson explains that the city is relatively quiet, and communication is not always stable.

The translation story began two years ago, during the first lockdown. Both translators dearly love the Argentine author. For Oleksandra, translating one of her favorite South American writers was a dream that had been forming for many years. Through the Argentine TV series “Wild Angel”, songs from which I wanted to understand Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, and, of course, Julio Cortázar.

Inna always wanted to learn how to write like Cortázar, feeling his style well. Preparing to discuss the story called “A letter to the señorita in Paris”, Inna read the Russian translation since there was no Ukrainian. However, the translation was poor. So, she offered Oleksandra a gamble to translate stories together since one of them knew Spanish well, and the other deeply felt the author's style. Oleksandra did a literal translation, and Inna made a literary text out of it, adhering to the author's style and reading out sentences in Spanish aloud to convey the melody in Ukrainian.

It was the first short story in the Bestiary collection. At that time, only two of Cortázar's texts were translated by Yurii Pokalchuk. Russian translations were inaccurate, sometimes even ridiculous. For instance, the “Captured House” short story lacks a paragraph. Its translator removed the dreams of the characters and the dreams of the heroine.

Having found the publishing house “Babylonian library”, the translators worked actively. On the eve of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, Inna and Oleksandra received their edited translation. They discussed what notes to make and hoped they would have time to publish the book for the “Book Arsenal” International Festival.

On February 24, at 5 am, the Russian invaders began shelling the Chornobaiivka airport. The most famous place has already become a meme of the war because Russian troops defeated there 17 times in two months, which was 10 kilometers from Oleksandra.

There is fighting all around, and the sounds of artillery and explosions are constantly heard. Many Ukrainians in active combat zones say they have learned to distinguish sounds: what fell, how far, and whether the air defense worked.

Oleksandra says she still has no opportunity to leave: “There was not a single evacuation convoy from Kherson since the first days Russian troops closed the city for entry and exit.” There could be a chance to leave, passing through Russian roadblocks in the first few days, with checks of cars, things, and phones. Some are lucky, and others are not. However, Oleksandra had to take care of her sick grandmother, who died in early March, so even such an uncertain option of leaving was not considered.

But Chernihiv is now liberated. In an intercepted conversation, the Russian military confessed to his mother that Chernihiv was being leveled to the ground. It was March 31. On April 3 Mayor of Chernihiv said that 70% of the city was destroyed. A month of shelling, shootings of minors, and civilian homes and infrastructure destruction.

Inna stays in her hometown because of her cats. Before the war, she had 12 of them, and even then, she understood that she would stay with the animals and help those left by their owners. Consequently, in the first week of the war, there were already 20 cats, and she “stopped” with this number for now. Inna says that she has no idea how difficult it is to be in a strange city, especially with dozens of animals: “At least there is something to cling to.”

In the early days of the war, they couldn’t think about work. Although, Oleksandra says the short story called “Captured House” was constantly spinning in her head, echoing the reality in Ukraine. Inna immediately sent her work to her brother in Poland while she had the internet and electricity. Oleksandra also transferred all the files to cloud storage and sent access to a friend abroad to avoid losing her improvements. Two weeks later, she wrote to Inna that she had started adding comments and notes.

“When it became quieter during the day, and I overcame the fear of going into my office with huge windows, I started working,” recalls Oleksandra. Then Inna's internet and electricity had disappeared, so they chatted through text messages. Inna eventually got used to shelling and was able to work. She recharged her laptop from friends and somehow managed to get Wi-Fi from the reserved SIM card. She read the edits, wrote her own in a notebook, and then sent them via messages.

For Oleksandra, working on the book kept her from being discouraged: “I was also motivated by the fact that if I didn't do it, then who would? If I am gone, then my work will not be seen; how can this be allowed to these invaders? And it's not the healthiest motivation, but it worked out.” She worked only at home, and the room with books and dictionaries became an island of ordinary life. As soon as there were explosions, gunshots, or an air alert, I went down to the basement. Then the work stopped because it was challenging to put all the thoughts together. Oleksandra couldn't leave what she loved so much, even though she lived, fell asleep, and woke up with explosions.

The work was also complicated by demoralizing news. Sometimes it seemed that the southerners were left alone with the enemy. But each time, they managed to restore their faith, foremost because their favorite author could be read in Ukrainian.

Now it is difficult for Inna to return to the idea of writing her book: “those that were before the war are no longer relevant, and I am not ready to write about the war yet.” These days, the “Green Stage” literary festival was supposed to open in Chernihiv, where Inna would be a curator. “Instead, I walk around the city and feed all the cats I meet,” she says.

Oleksandra admits that she does not know where the strength to work comes from: “there is food in the city, but it is expensive. People started taking the Russian one. The city has no medicines.” On the day we chatted, Oleksandra said that at night the center of Kherson had been hit by a missile without an air alert at the time. Oleksandra lives nearby. A few minutes later, a message about the explosion appeared on news Telegram channels.

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