Andriy Sodomora
by Bogdana Romantsova
Short profile

Andriy Sodomora is a translator, writer, scientist, known primarily for translations of ancient authors, including Horace. Member of the National Union of Writers of Ukraine, a member of the Shevchenko Scientific Society. Winner of the Maxim Rylsky Prize, the Hryhoriy Kochur Literary Prize (2010), the Antonovych Literary Prize, and the Mykhailo Vozniak Regional Prize. Honorary citizen of the city of Lviv (2012).

We are recording the interview with Andriy Sodomora in a bomb shelter under the Franko House in Lviv. Just now, a public discussion about what gives us strength in dark times has come to an end. Now Andriy Oleksandrovych and I are sitting at a long table in a basement, one-on-one. I look around the room out of habit: if the windows are nearby, whether there are mirrors opposite of us. My eyes stumble upon the visage of Ivan Franko. He stares from the portrait, not straight ahead but somewhere to the side, in the presumed direction of a window. Thankfully, there is no window. This scene – it is the third month of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and I am speaking with our main translator of antique literature in a basement – will remain with me forever. And this, too, is why we fight.

Only afterwards do I turn on the audio recorder.

Your first published translations date back to the ’60s, Menander’s “Dyskolos” and translations of Horace for a university journal among them. Who was your role model back then among translators?

– I myself can hardly believe that my first attempt at translation is already 61 years old. It was one of the odes, that is, Horace’s songs, addressed to his friend who had just returned from war. Friendship, war and peace, wealth and poverty, humans and society… universal themes; the antique ones wrote about the eternal, that’s why they are “here and now”. It so happened that Horace, a great lover of life and a genius poet, is always present throughout my life. It’s no wonder they say that he, the singer of the golden mean, of the soul’s balance, is relevant in all situations of life. Horace also represents all of antiquity with his works: a Roman by birth, he is possessed by the Hellenic spirit (studied at Athens).

But a year later, in 1962, “Dyskolos” appeared – the work of Menander, a representative of the so-called “new comedy”. It caused a massive stir in the world of philology when an almost complete transcript of the comedy’s text was found on a papyrus in the sands of Egypt. Back then I had just finished my studies at the university in Lviv (classical philology). We were taught Greek by a famous Hellenist, doctor of historical and philological studies, Solomon Lurie. It was he who suggested I translate the newfound comedy (there was already an edition of the original in book form). I remember getting flustered and asking first and foremost which language I should translate it into (Solomon Yakovych, having just moved into Lviv, had been teaching us in Russian)… “Ukrainian, of course”, I can almost hear him saying it. By the way, when we were having practical studies in Crimea, on the grounds of ancient Greek colonies, Solomon Yakovych would ask us to sing Ukrainian songs in the evenings… Overall the publication of “Dyskolos” (that’s what the comedy was called) in Ukrainian is practically a detective story in which incredibly interesting people played a part, above all – a great Ukrainian patriot, famous scholar, and then-rector of the Franko University, Yevhen Kostyantynovych Lazarenko. All of it is in my book “A Story of One Translation”, which was published at the “Litopys” printing house in 2017. I translated “Dyskolos” again, not looking at the first edition, so the reader of that “Story…” has the opportunity to compare the two translations and see what 50 odd years of constantly working with words are worth. Having the opportunity, I’d like to mention another one of my books – “The Lines of Fate”, where I’ve put literary portraits of the professors from the University of Lviv, all those that guided us through the world of antique culture, encouraged us to translate. More of that is also in the essay-novel “Under Someone Else’s Shadow” – a lot about translation, life in general, student life, and more…

A similar story happened with Horace. The translation, after being “shelved” for a good decade, was published in 1982 in the “Dnipro” printing house in Kyiv. I remember someone saying: “Dear Horace has waited for two thousand years, he can wait a bit more”. Though, looking back at those times now, I understand that I shouldn’t have started with Horace, not with the most difficult. I’ve always felt guilt towards the great Roman poet… And so, I dedicated this first year of COVID to another attempt at even slightly approaching the height of ingenuity of Rome’s greatest lyricist. Of special note is the rhyme-rich, polyphonic verses, because the poetry is written in hexameter (satyrs, epistles) was much easier to translate. What I couldn’t recreate in translation – and there’s plenty of that – I talked about in the lengthy foreword and commentaries on each page. So only forty years after the Kyiv edition, the “updated” Horace in a hefty book (over 400 pages) has seen the light of day in the Lviv printing house “Apriori”. As for the translations I had made all the way back in the ’60s, those are strongly connected to the brilliant interpretations of Mykola Zerov, which had once captivated us, students of classical literature. Back then I hadn’t yet understood the dimensions of untranslatability because I read Horace, so to speak, “horizontally”, without diving into the depths.

Are you talking about the untranslatability of poetry as a whole?

– No, I’m talking about the untranslatability of a select poetic work – that is, as I mentioned before, mostly of the lyrical miniature. It is here, like in a drop of water, that we find the depths of untranslatability. In those depths we discover for ourselves “strange pearls”, but to try to “extract” them by means of another language to amaze the reader is folly. That kind of truly genius work is, for example, Goethe’s “Über allen Gipfeln…”, Paul Verlaine’s “Autumn Song”, the lyrical miniatures of Garcia Lorca, and many others. That’s to say nothing of the “Kobzar”, for example, about such a line as: "[My vkupochtsi kolys rosly, / Malenkymy sobi liubylys - Ukrainian; Approximate translation: “Once we had grown up together, / As little kids each other loved”]? How do you translate that feeling into, say, English?

So, what do we do – give up?

– Of course not. Translation must happen, but first – define the genre: translation, a cover, an emulation, an adaptation… And also, in a few words at least, in a remark, direct the reader’s attention to those insurmountable difficulties that make your translation not a translation at all. And it’s not because our language or some other language is worse, it’s because it is different. Take a bandura and try to recreate some autumnal, monotonously-dragging violin motif, like what Verlaine had… Just look at the French hermit’s “Autumn Song”: “Les sanglots longs / Des violons / De l’automne/ – the voice of nature, the horizontality of wind (“autumn’s violoncello”), the long-drawn nasal sound, and after – the deep lyrical verticality, the tuning fork sounding the noun «cœur», heart: Blessent mon cœur / D’une langueur/ Monotone”. How can this “geometry”, this word-music of emotion (there are no visual images here) be translated into Ukrainian, which has a much smaller palette of vowels – hence why each verse of ours is a “painting” of its own. We should probably remember our own “Autumn Song” here – “Zhurba” by Leonid Hlibov, where literally everything is painted to us, down to the last leaf.

You mentioned in-depth editing of Horace. Do you think your translation is done? Any text can be perfected indefinitely.

– When perfecting a translation, it is important to stop at a certain point, to put down a period at the right time as a painter does when he or she last touches the canvas. Because afterwards, instead of bettering, it’s possible to worsen. The painter leaves the canvas mostly satisfied with his or her work. The translator, no matter how much he or she works, isn’t always satisfied. And those who translate poets of antiquity, especially lyricists – those, I’ll allow myself such a solemn observation, are almost never satisfied. The most respectable reason for it is difference in lyrical systems. As an architect works with space in his art, so does the antique poet work with time: an antique system of verse is a meter that relies on alternation of long and short syllables. This is where the antique poet achieved the highest emotional influence over the listener.

By the way, antique poetry is sound-based poetry. The word, even when read, was sounded (we only began reading silently around the 2nd century AD). Let’s take the Latin “umbra” (shadow), which is a keyword in the pearl of Horace’s, or even all of Europe’s poetry – I am referring to his Ode to Torquatus. In this word, the dark (and it really is dark) “u” was pronounced long – a complete opposite to our “тінь” [Ukr. “shadow” – ed.], which almost seems to imitate something transient, uncatchable, like the shadow of a moth that flies over a sunny field. So how can we translate the grim darkness of the otherworld, which in this ode is in stark contrast to the magnificent spring of the world under the sun?... And that is but a crumb of a whole mass of untranslatability…

We say: “Ancient poets didn’t know rhyme”. But they didn’t need it. Horace’s stanzas are themselves “rhymed”, harmonic: the sound patterns, the wordplay, the melodicity of rhythm – everything here is made with music, with union of sense and sound that is high poetry. But in translation, sadly, the meaning (“contents”) takes priority; only some percentage of the verse remains. I speak about all this in my book “The Studies of One Verse”, where half of the book is dedicated to Horace’s poetry and the other – to some lyrical works of new European poetry. I’ve dedicated some thirty pages to the above-mentioned miniature by Goethe; every word, every sound was viewed “through a microscope”.

So how did you feel the “taste” of antique poetry after all?

– Decades passed and I still hear: «Негоже нам, о Левконоє, знати / Яку нам суджено в житті наземнім путь; / Халдейських віщунів не будемо питати: / Халдейських чисел нам ніколи не збагнуть», [Direct quote from Zerov’s translation of Horace’s “Ode 1:11”. English translation: “Ask not ('tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years, / Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers. / Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past, / Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;” – taken from Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. John Conington. trans. London. George Bell and Sons. 1882. –ed. ] – our Latinists would read to us practically in whispers (back in those times Zerov’s works were still outlawed). “Dead” languages – yet suddenly such liveliness, such consonance with our student lives, since we, too, went on dates… Years passed until I realized that there are two paths that a translator can choose before their journey into the world of foreign languages: the first, long and difficult, will lead to the author, the other, shorter one, – leads to the reader, who seeks instant enjoyment. Mykola Zerov with his brilliant interpretations of Horace’s poetry practically invited us to the world of live antiquity. By the way, in the “Molod” Kyiv printing house I published a book in 1983 under the same name – “The Live Antiquity”, which had been reprinted a couple of times by the Lviv “Sribne Slovo”.

I think that to the Zerov you recall, antiquity was a sort of refuge, a cozy world of high culture, completely different from the Soviet reality. Did it become that for you, as well?

– “O, quiet harbour of the work table”, sighed Maksym Rylskyi, who was, like Mykola Zerov, a neoclassicist. Antiquity is, of course, a refuge, but at the same time – it is a wide horizon, wonderful nourishment for the soul, and in the circumstances of “the Soviet reality” – it was the invigorating breath and the bliss of spring water we drank while suffocating. “Ad fontes” was Zerov’s motto. But the totalitarian age demanded its pound of flesh… We know how difficult it had been for Rylskyi, Tychyna, for many others… We know the tragic fate of Zerov… For me, antiquity is the constant labour of the word, the revelation of the world within the word, the juxtaposition of the human, the microcosm, and the grand universe, the macrocosm. Back at school, and this was a village school some five kilometres away from my village, I especially loved two subjects – psychology and astronomy. The world of the human soul, which, as Heraclites said, is boundless, is at the core of ancient poets. Antiquity to me is a grand school of writing and thinking. If antiquity hadn’t been in my life, neither would my original writing – at least, not the way it is now…

Where should non-philologists begin getting acquainted with antique literature?

All of us, regardless of our chosen professions, have to be philologists in some sense – that is, those who love words, and philosophers – just people who love to think. Humanities, if we are to properly educate the human, should become more important in the education system, not less. “How beautiful is a human, if it truly is a human!” – those are the words of that same Menander, the author of “Dyskolos”… I had this thought inspired by this proverb: “The word exists not by the human to become a word – the human exists by the word to become human”. All of the ancients’ education “orbited” the word. Because in the word is light, with which education was once filled… A doctor, or some other learned person could readily speak about “antique” subjects… Oftentimes, when meeting someone, I hear: “I read Seneca…” or “I read Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. On the one hand, it makes me glad, but on the other – it’s saddening: dozens and dozens of other, no less interesting authors whose works have been published in Kyiv and Lviv lay on the shelves… One can start with any author. Time is a harsh critic. It brought to us the voices of the worthiest. But reading the ancients is slow reading. For example, when opening some “antique”, I put the book down frequently. Not because it’s uninteresting, but because I captured some kind of idea, a thought that I want to remain beside for a while longer, and walk my own path with it. An author of late antiquity in his “Distichs of Cato” advised his son: “Therefore, so read my precepts that thou mayest understand them, for to read and not to understand is equivalent to not reading” [Translation taken from The Distichs of Cato: a famous medieval textbook. tr. Wayland Johnson Chase, University of Wisconsin Studies in the Social Sciences and History, Number 7, 1922 – ed.]. That’s how I read Shevchenko, and Franko, and other classics – slowly and curiously. I shared my enjoyment and benefits of such reading in the book “Shevchenko’s Garden and Franko’s Field”.

It is important to feel the presence of the antique writer, to see him (many have left behind their poetic self-portraits), to listen to his voice, and then it may be possible to feel as though we are walking in his shoes: a glimpse of something, millennia apart, has connected us for but an instant. Recently I translated the poem “Works and Days” by the first real European poet, Hesiod (Homer is a half-legendary figure). He was a true farmer, but all the same – “the chosen of the Muses”; then came the era of “cottagers”, as Hasparov once humorously said about Vergil, the author of the “Georgics”... So, while translating “Works and Days”, I stopped on a certain line that I didn’t simply read, but vividly saw: across the snow, bent down almost to the ground, walk hunched figures, black against white… For a brief moment they called me back to Shevchenko’s “Thoughts…”: “Why have you ranged yourselves on paper / In your ranks of sorrow?” … White paper… Black hunched letters… Foreign snows: “Go then to Ukraine, my children” [Translation taken from Taras Shevchenko “Song out of Darkness”. Selected poems translated from Ukrainian by Vera Rich. London, 1961, p. 8–10. – ed.]. And then Ovid, the exile, who also sends his books, his “children”, from the snowy Scythia to the homeland, to Rome… Images, motives, emotions that unite people on the highest, most spiritual level… And even direct dialogues: “Неси ж мене, коню, по чистому полю, / Як вихор, що тутка гуляє, / А чень, утечу я від лютого болю, / Що серце моє розриває” [Direct quote from Ivan Franko’s untranslated poem “Безмежне поле в сніжному завою” (“O boundless field in snowy gales”). Approximate translation: “Then carry me, steed, across the open field / Like the winds that yet play here / Who knows, perhaps I’ll escape the ache / That tears my heart to pieces” – ed. ]. Just look, over two years apart, as though talking to Franko himself – Horace says in one of his odes: “But Fear and Menace climb up to the same place / where the lord climbs up, and dark Care will not leave / the bronze-clad trireme, and even sits / behind the horseman when he’s out riding” [Translation taken from Horace: The Odes. Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2003 All Rights Reserved, from – ed. ]… By the way, speaking of emotions. This delicate theme was first spoken about by the founder of lyrical poetry Archilochus: “The emotions of humans,” we read in one of his fragments, “are alike to the lamp with which Zeus lights the earth”. The first observation of the connection between the human, the microcosm, and the state of the sky, that is the weather… On this, once again some three thousand years later, spoke Blaise Pascal – approximately: “I don’t care what sky is up there. I have my own weathers, fair and poor”. Solomon Lurie, our professor, liked Archilochus especially – as a free, headstrong, independent individual.

No wonder. Archilochus to me is all but the greatest lover of life.

– Yes, the Greeks really do love life. Yet at the same time, we hear from them: “It’s best not to be born at all, and to those who have already been born – hurry down to Hades”. The happy, sunny day has another side – “hours of despair and minutes of happiness”, as Zerov called it in his translation of one of Horace’s Odes… In the Lviv “Piramida”, a series of  ancient Greek lyricists also included the poetry of Archilochus, where I put my Ukrainian translation of Solomon Lurie’s short story “Nevhamovnyi” [Ukr. “restless”, “indomitable” – ed.]. It was he, the indomitable Archilochus, warrior and poet, had given start to themes of spiritual balance that Horace, a great worshipper of Hellenic culture, would later take up with great enthusiasm.

The translator is a shapeshifter, one who speaks under another’s name, the connector between cultures. When did you feel the need to enter the polylogue yourself, to produce your own texts?

– A writer is, in a certain sense, also a translator: what he thinks, what he feels, he “translates” onto the pages. Ever since I was a child, I loved drawing (I even wanted to apply to the Polygraph College, study artistic design of books and magazines), I loved music, and singing; I loved writing all the same. I remember, my teacher of Ukrainian literature once left me at school, that is, after classes, so that under his guidance I would write a re-telling about Oles Gonchar’s “Flagbearers” (I think I wrote it…) As years came and went, the word came out victorious, the word in which, I hope, I managed to unite music and drawing to some extent. I started writing late because of my translator “niche”: I inherited Greek from Borys Ten, Roman – from Mykola Zerov. Truly inherited: Mykola Zerov died in Karelia in November of 1937, and I was born on the 1st of December of that same 37th… Some other translators had to fill massive “blank spots” that were left for well-known reasons in the foundation of our translated literature… As for my original writing, much of the antique has become my own, “original”, most times you wouldn’t even notice. Let’s say, for example, in this emotional excerpt: «Бузок запахнув біло, фіолетово − / Дитинства дим... / Стежок на тлі зеленім босе плетиво, / За тином − тин. / На перелаз ступивши, завагаюся: / Що там?.. Що там?.. / Душа бузкова в ніч переливається, / Як в Океан. / Бузок запахнув біло, фіолетово / В два голоси. / В Ніщо розвіється з маєвим леготом / Душа Краси...» [Direct quote from Andriy Sodomora’s own untranslated poem, approximate translation: “The lilac smelled of white, of purple - / My childhood’s smoke… / A barefoot wicker-work of paths on green, / You stand behind the fence. / I hesitate when stepping on the stile: / What’s there?... What’s out there?... / The lilac soul blends into night / Like an ocean / The lilac smells of white, of purple / With two voices. / To Nothing fades with gentle winds of May / The soul of Beauty…” − ed]. This is the home of my childhood, of my “Ithaca”, the antique contrast of green and white (youth and age), the search for an “edge” to the horizon in Lucretius’ philosophic poem, “the beginning of things” and the void (Nothing), the musings of the ancients about beauty, about the fate of the human soul in general – the motif of the song “The May night breathes with a breeze” (lyrics and music by L. Lepkyi)…

Many good stylists today are united by the fact that they all participate in translation: Andrukhovych translated Shakespeare, Zhadan – Celan and Brecht, Taras Prokhasko – Vincenz and Stasiuk. Is sharpening the stylus through translation worth it for every author?

– Some prefer translation work, others – original. I think I’ve managed to balance both. Maybe it’s because I listen to Seneca’s advice: “Hurry to me, but first of all – to yourself”. Some encouraged me to translate, others – to make my own writing. I remember the handshakes – Roman Ivanychuk, his friendly, pushy “Translate!” (he mentioned then the “Metamorphoses”) – and Roman Fedoriv, and I hear his “Write!” as well; shaking my hand – he mentioned my novella “Father Gural” from the book “The Smile of Things”: “How did you do it?”… I’m grateful to them both – and I translate, and I write… By the way, returning to “Father Gural”. My father, a priest, participant in the freedom competitions – he was from an old Zaporozhian (Cossack) bloodline, related to Solomiya Krushelnytska, so in our house, even if quietly, one could often hear songs – of the Cossacks, the Riflemen, the rebels. I spoke about parents, about family in the book “Father’s hand”, which was published in the Lviv Polytechnical University’s printing house in 2014… As for translation – it may just be the best way to sharpen the stylus. Horace advised to rub it more often – that is, to erase what you’ve written: “If the poet misses by but a hair – straight to oblivion he goes”, he warned all those who write.

How does the war influence your writing?

– I remember the Second World War well, and I heard about the First from someone who participated, a person from my village (more details in the novel «Uno, due, tré», in “The Smile of Things”). And here comes another, one where the battle of light and dark is especially pronounced. The war pushes to more deeply examine such things as “homeland”, “patriotism”, “truth” and “falsehood”, “courage”, “humanity”, “compassion”, “language”, “song”… All of it has deep roots in antique culture, and so, many curious analogies come up to the surface, examples and histories. About this I write for “Zbruch”… I also try some things for the future book “The Memory of Things”, which would act as a conclusion to the previous two: “The Tears of Things” and “The Smile of Things”. They all represent my favorite theme of “man and things”, which originates from Virgil’s famous line: “There exist, after all, the tears of things, and that which is mortal touches the heart”. If someone wishes to write a “biography” of that line, of its life in European literature – they’d have a hefty tome…

You often talk about the aura of things and how, in our modern times, we are losing our connection with things, we don’t feel their history. Tell us about something that is precious to you, a particularly important artifact.

– Like many other people, I get attached to things. Given the opportunity, I’d like to mention a few lines from our song about dudaryk (“My Grandfather, Dudaryk…”): «...лиш пищики зосталися, / Казна-кому досталися...» [Direct quote from Ukrainian folk song “My Grandfather, Dudaryk”. Approximate translation: “…only the pyshchyks remain / God knows who got them…”. “Pyshchyk” refers to a type of musical instrument akin to a pipe. – ed]. There were those pipes, those pyshchyks – grandpa’s, he talked to them heart to heart, and now “God knows who got them…” The same way, an old shepherd from Virgil’s “Eclogues” gives his younger friend his pipe (so it isn’t left to “God knows who”) with the words: “You’ll be its second”… Humans go, things remain, and they all have their own memories… I remember an especially upsetting “tearful goodbye to books” of Stefan Yavorskyi, translated from Latin by Mykola Zerov… A line from Takuboku: “What’s left, I wonder, of that ball that I had kicked back then onto the school’s wooden roof?” And another, from Ray Bradbury: “Ask me, then, if I believe in the spirit of the things as they were used, and I'll say yes”… I treasure old books, ones that have been in many hands, their pages full of writings by their previous owners. And whenever I lose something that has served me for a while, even something insignificant, I am sad because “I’ve grown close to it”. One word – “memoried things”, fragments of the soul… My first prose miniature spoke of this subject – “The Glove”, about a woman’s black glove lost in the snow.

We talk a lot about the little things and the importance of details. Your texts all emanate an attention to the beauty of the gentle: a thin stem, a village mouse. What is beauty and happiness to you today?

– A Polish, though Ukrainian by birth, painter and thinker Jerzy Nowosielski admitted in his “Thoughts”: “I don’t know what beauty is”, and yet he sees in it something of the highest, something of the utmost importance. I don’t know what translation is, though I know what it is to translate – to walk a path that is not without adventure, obstacles, and sudden twists and turns: to grow closer to the original text, one often has to grow farther from it… As for beauty, something unseen allures me, something that needs to be closely watched. Some peculiar enchantment in a black-and-white illustration, something special in a dark depth, a setting sun, a quiet autumn, in the soft outline of rolling hills that were once grand mountains… From this I draw a melancholic, thoughtful mood, like that of Shevchenko: “Saturn wipes clean”… From this also – Horace’s sad smile, even in his famed advice “Carpe diem”… Even in the writing on Apollo’s temple in Delphi: “Know yourself” (try to know the unknowable)…

As for happiness, then there are so many different definitions that it’s impossible to settle with just one of them. There are happy moments, that is, from Latin “movements of time”, when suddenly we feel ourselves to be part of the Whole, when our “tiny tuning fork” is in tune with that of Nature (once again remember Archilochus). It may be a solemn tone such as, for example, with Vingranovskyi: “The grey above the meadow…”, or a momentary enlightenment like with Shevchenko: “My thirteenth year was wearing on…”[Translation taken from Taras Shevchenko “Song out of Darkness”. Selected poems translated from the Ukrainian by Vera Rich. London, 1961, p. 89 – 90. – ed.] And sometimes, there is a lasting feeling of happiness. Here, I would take a quote from Euripides: “Happiness is when we feel that with each day, we are getting better”. It is movement. It is the ability to deepen our feeling of the beauty that surrounds us and sharing that feeling with other people, searching, in the words of Horace, those who feel like “the same soul as us”…


Translated from Ukrainian by Daniil Korsunskyi

Short profile

Andriy Sodomora is a translator, writer, scientist, known primarily for translations of ancient authors, including Horace. Member of the National Union of Writers of Ukraine, a member of the Shevchenko Scientific Society. Winner of the Maxim Rylsky Prize, the Hryhoriy Kochur Literary Prize (2010), the Antonovych Literary Prize, and the Mykhailo Vozniak Regional Prize. Honorary citizen of the city of Lviv (2012).