Roma Franko Interview for Nasha Doroha with Oksana Bashuk

1. Why did you get involved in translating Ukrainian literature into English?

I never planned to be a translator of Ukrainian literature into English, but when I was Head of the Department of Slavic Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, I realized that although my students, most of whom were fourth- and fifth-generation Ukrainian Canadians, had a keen interest in their heritage, they could not understand Ukrainian literature in the original. And so I began developing courses in Ukrainian literature in English translation. As I worked on these courses, I grew increasingly frustrated because there weren’t enough good translations available. After discussing this with my late sister Sonia, who at the time was Assistant Dean in the College of Education at the same university, we both decided to opt for early retirement in 1996 so that we could devote ourselves to translation and publication projects by setting up a two-person firm, Language Lanterns Publications.

2. What has been the most difficult aspect of establishing and operating your publishing firm, Language Lanterns Publications?

Operating a small firm that publishes books for a niche market is never easy, because you have to do everything yourself: select the stories, do the translating and editing, work with printers, publicize, distribute, keep accurate records, fill out all sorts of government forms, etc.

But the main difficulty is finding funds to publish and distribute books. Fortunately, our husbands and families were very supportive of our project so we could devote our university pensions to cover the publication and distribution costs. In addition, we were fortunate to receive three grants from The Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko; a grant from The Ukrainian Community Society of Ivan Franko, Richmond, B.C.; a grant from The Ukrainian Studies Foundation of British Columbia; and the first Annual Arts Award from the Vesna Festival Board in Saskatoon. And our sons, Roman and Ivan Franko, thought it would be appropriate to fund the printing costs of Behind Decorum’s Veil, a book containing two novellas by Ivan Franko.

3. What has been the most rewarding aspect of your project?

The response of the readers! When we published our series Women’s Voices in Ukrainian Literature, we included brief biographical sketches of the authors, and many of our readers were amazed not only by the translated stories but also by those biographies. Both our non-Ukrainian university colleagues and our Ukrainian friends readily admitted that these books radically changed their perception of Ukraine and Ukrainians. They were impressed that these women came from families with a tradition of education, that they travelled widely, belonged to the intelligentsia, and used their writings to further the cause of social justice and women’s rights in the years leading up to the twentieth century.

And when we published the two books Passion’s Bitter Cup and Riddles of the Heart with stories written by Ukrainian male authors in the same time period, from 1880-1920, one reviewer wrote: “Anyone who left Ukrainian school with the misplaced idea that Ukrainian writers of that era were stuffy old men is certainly in for a surprise.” These books present a surprisingly frank male view of the social issues raised by their female counterparts.

The book that has resonated most widely in the community is A Hunger Most Cruel. It features three authors, Anatoliy Dimarov, Yevhen Hutsalo, and Olena Zvychayna, who wrote with unflinching honesty about the horrors of the artificially created terror-famine, the genocide that took millions of lives during the Soviet period of forced collectivization in Ukraine in 1932-33. Translating these works was a heart-rending experience, and no one who reads them, or who hears excerpts from them declaimed by Fr. Ed Evanko in his eloquent and sensitive performance of “Be Well and Prosper, My Beloved Ukraine,” can remain unmoved.

4. Who is your favourite author?

My favourite author is the one whose works I happen to be reading at any given moment. I need to read, just as I need to breathe, and the most frustrating years of my life were during the past decade when I was doing a lot of translating while waiting to have two cataract operations! I used magnifying glasses, but I did not stop reading, and I did not stop translating.

5. Do you have a favourite Ukrainian author?

I’ve always been a great fan of Ivan Franko. The man’s genius never ceases to amaze me. You name it—he wrote it: lyrical poetry, historical, political, and philosophical poems, dramas, short stories, novellas, and novels about every social class, about a huge variety of topics. And then there are all his translations of poetry from a number of European languages, his literary, ethnographical and linguistic studies, his essays and articles about politics, economics, and so on and so forth—and he did all that while working as a journalist and an editor, and without any of our modern technology that allows us to delete, spell-check, and move passages around!

Sonia was also a big fan of Ivan Franko, and we thoroughly enjoyed working on the four books that we published in 2006 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth. In addition, we included seven of his novellas and short stories in Passion’s Bitter Cup and Riddles of the Heart, and several more of his works will appear in two of the books that I’m working on right now. I should mention that in selecting his works—or those of any other author—for our translation projects, we always tried to avoid translating those stories that were already available in English translation. There is so much Ukrainian literature that remains to be translated, that it seems pointless to duplicate work.

6. Tell us what it means to undertake collaborative efforts with members of a family, in this case, your sister.

From our earliest years my sister Sonia and I collaborated on many Ukrainian-related projects, and therefore, when we decided to embark on our translating venture, it was just a natural progression of continuing to do what we had been doing all our lives. And when Sonia and her husband moved from Saskatoon to the Vancouver area in 2001 to be nearer her children and grandchildren, and when we moved to Toronto in 2002 for the same reason, we knew that there would be no problem in continuing with our translating, because we could always communicate by email and voice over the Internet to do the bulk of what had to get done, and then take advantage of occasional visits to do some intensive dawn-to-dusk editing.

Both of us were avid readers, and we truly enjoyed working together. We shared so many memories that triggered a good laugh or a deep sigh as we worked on a particular passage; we were well aware of and appreciated each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we knew that we could always rely on one another to get the job done. At the time of Sonia’s untimely passing in April 2007, we were working on five books that we had set aside so that we could complete the four Franko books in his anniversary year. I am now trying to finish these books, but it’s hard, because I miss her so terribly. I am truly fortunate, however, that Sonia’s son, Paul Cipywnyk, who was her assistant editor, has agreed to finish editing these books with me, and my daughter-in-law Karen Yarmol Franko is also pitching in and helping with the final edit. And so the family tradition continues!

7. Despite all your work and efforts, Ukrainian classical literature, music, and art are not known or appreciated in Canada or elsewhere in the world. What needs to be done to turn that around?

I wish I had a magic button that I could press to effect that change, but as individuals there is only so much that we can do. And, after speaking to people in Ukraine, it has become obvious to me that much has to be done to increase the appreciation of Ukrainian classical literature, music, and art in Ukraine itself. The emphasis over there now seems to be, understandably perhaps, on becoming as Westernized and “Hollywoodized” as possible, and it is not only the various classical arts that are suffering; age-old traditions, customs, rituals, folksongs etc. are also falling victim to globalization.

On a personal note, Sonia and I undertook our translation project to make Ukrainian literature accessible to readers of English so we donated hundreds of these books to university libraries across the USA, Canada, and Ukraine, and to most of the public libraries in all the provinces of Canada. We also donated numerous sets to various Ukrainian churches and organizations for their libraries, for various fundraising events, silent auctions, door prizes etc. That’s about all that we could do. Now it is up to the public to borrow or buy these books, read them, and spread the word..

I know of several reading groups that have focussed on discussing one or more of our books, and that kind of activity—reading and discussing various books, attending art shows, going to classical concerts—is something that more members of our many and varied organizations could become involved in.  Sonia and I both thought that most women, if not men, of Ukrainian background would want to read Women’s Voices in Ukrainian Literature, but that has not happened. And so we stopped the series at six books.

I think we’ve all become too caught up in the immediacy of the information (or misinformation!)  provided by modern technology.  Perhaps we could sooth our nerves and our souls if we would put down the TV remote control, exit the chat rooms, turn off the computer, put away the video games, and spend an hour or two with a good book. I believe that there is something to be said for removing ourselves from the unending onslaught of distracting, flashing visuals and the unremitting din of vacuous jingles and ads, and settling in to commune in blissful solitude with an author—or an artist, or a composer—who actually has something significant to say.

8. Do you have a website, and how can someone contact you if he/she is interested in buying your books?

Yes, we do have a website:

Reprinted with permission.

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