Natalia Ivanychuk
by Ganna Uliura, translated by Anna Petelina
Short profile

Natalia Ivanychuk is a Ukrainian translator from German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and English.

Natalia Ivanychuk translates from German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish into Ukrainian. She made her debut in literary translation in the mid-1980s, and since then, her portfolio includes over a hundred books of various genres and styles. In 2018, Natalia Ivanychuk was awarded the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit for her significant contribution to the development of Norwegian-Ukrainian cultural relations. This event falls into the category of those that should be talked about and remembered; it represents an important achievement in cultural diplomacy and is the result of one person's tremendous effort. The Royal Norwegian Order of Merit is a highly prestigious honor, and a Ukrainian has rightfully received it. Moreover, for many years, Natalia has been teaching Norwegian at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv, specifically at the Faculty of International Relations. Most of the translator-Scandinavists currently working with us are her students.

Growing up with Moomin tales, moving through Anton or Uvi's adventures, exploring life's meaning with Jostein Gaarder, immersing in imaginative worlds with Linn Ullmann, pondering existence with Knut Hamsun, and feeling emotions with Gustav Meyrink... Natalia Ivanychuk's translated books provide a varied and enjoyable reading experience. Now, let's take a moment to learn about her own reading habits, which haven't allowed much time for simple pleasure and relaxation.

I notice charming pictures featuring a garden and books on your Facebook. Do you reside in the outskirts of Lviv?

– Located fifteen kilometers away from Lviv, in the village of Navaria (I'm uncertain about the name's origin), our property is named the Kingdom of Navaria. I've resided here for sixteen years, fulfilling a long-held dream of having my own home. First, we lived with my parents, then I got divorced, got married for a second time, and eventually settled into a house with my mother-in-law in my mature years. These past sixteen years, living separately from others, feel like the time when I truly embrace life.

I rarely visit Lviv and prefer not to do so more frequently. The city has undergone changes: increased crowds, a lot of hostile language (Russian language) – something that used to bother me and is even more prevalent now. Perhaps it's an age-related perspective. I find myself irritated by many things more quickly than before, and I aim to avoid such frustrations. Moreover, going to the city involves walking, which has become challenging for me. I need frequent breaks to catch my breath and let my legs rest. It's part of aging, and I must admit, I'm not fond of it. We're all growing older.

Once I'm home: I unlock the gate, step into my domain, seal it shut behind me – and tranquility. It's my personal kitchen, my sanctuary, just the two of us now since the kids have grown and ventured out on their own. Thankfully, we enjoy a healthy marriage, with thirty-two years of working and living together. We constructed our house ourselves – my husband, Andriy, and his colleague built it in two months without hiring workers. It follows the frame construction method used in the north. The interior work extended over sixteen years, with some areas like the hall still pending completion. These are minor details, not immediately visible, and I lack the energy for such repairs now. However, for my fiftieth birthday, Andriy gifted me a room – an office, and within ten years, a library beside the bedroom on the second floor. It's a delightful space. Andriy takes care of cooking exceptionally well, handles cleaning (he joked about my supposed fear of the vacuum cleaner, and I'm fine with that), and does all the repairs. Honestly, if he ever thought of replacing me with a younger woman, I'd be utterly defenseless.

His support grants me a considerable amount of free time.

When was the most recent occasion you took a break between two translation projects, perhaps a two-week vacation?

– In my life, it happened once, but not within the last five years. During that week, I completed the translation of a book, precisely on a Friday evening. "Excellent," I thought, "I have the weekend to relax, maybe go somewhere and not do anything." However, I woke up at five in the morning to unfavorable weather, had coffee, smoked, watched the news, felt stressed, and then, just intending to write the title, read the first paragraph, or peruse a single page of a new job, I found myself getting drawn in – and there it went!

I have a lot on my plate, which I enjoy. I'm still doing a bit of teaching; I aim to wrap up the last two groups, marking the end of my teaching career. Since the pandemic, most classes occur online. The workload is substantial: between teaching and the recent surge in translation assignments, it's becoming quite demanding. I now decline orders if they don't captivate me (previously, I accepted even less interesting ones, with fewer opportunities for self-realization), simply because time is limited. I fear I won't be able to manage it all. However, I've acquired the skill of balancing time and workload.

I typically wake up around five when it's still dark. If it's six, I feel I've overslept and might not fit into the norm. Andriy refrains from getting up before ten to avoid disturbing me. I work until noon, aiming to complete the task: ten pages for a serious book, or fifteen to twenty pages for a children's book with large letters and sparse text (which is my current project). Afterward, I take a break before fatigue sets in, avoiding excessive strain on my mind. The brain tends to tire faster than the body.

After the comprehensive shutdown in the book publishing industry, everything fell silent. All the projects I was involved in requested a pause. Initially, I felt the need to devise a survival strategy. However, after two months, there was a gradual recovery. Remarkably, Anetta Antonenko's publishing house operated continuously, akin to a perpetual motion machine. On the evening of February 23, I submitted the manuscript of Per Olov Enquist's "Downfall" to them. Surprisingly, the book didn't vanish; it was swiftly published—within less than a month, it seems. This success provided a boost to my spirits. During the initial months, Norway played a significant role; Norwegian publishers decided to translate several books for refugee children, exclusively for Norway and its libraries—books that weren't even available in Ukraine. During this downturn, I found something to live for—psychologically, it was quite palpable. Then, the book got saved. I don't just say “I or we saved“; I emphasize that it indeed got saved. "The Sun Guard" by Maja Lunde, featuring illustrations by Lisa Aisato and published by Old Lion Publishing, went to print in Kharkiv a month before the onslaught. Unfortunately, the printing house was bombed, and the entire print run burned. However, against all odds, the book was resurrected, experiencing a one-year delay but eventually making its way to publication. The sense of achieving the impossible was profound.

The increase in book sales for the summer of 2022 caught me off guard. People began to engage more in reading...

– ...and purchasing more. Nora-Druck, the publishing house I work with for translating crime novels and melodramas, always complained about low sales. To publish the first book by Chris Tvedt, I must have read around one and a half thousand pages – various novels and excerpts from them to find the one suitable for a start. Although I generally avoid reading the crime novels I translate in advance, as it would make the translation less interesting. However, with that book, I made the right call: "Death's Circle" sold out its print run, but they didn't do a reprint. It was quite unexpected: crime novels, a purely commercial genre, weren't selling, how is it possible that Scandinavian crime stories aren't popular with us? And this summer, publishers are saying: it's astonishing, books are flying off the shelves, crime novels are in demand. There might be less money, but more books are being bought.

Exactly! Individuals are putting together libraries to have in their homes that will undoubtedly endure.

– It's like a scene from science fiction.

In a decade, there might be annotations in novels detailing the libraries amassed during bombings. I've noticed your interest in exploring the realities of other cultures. The precision in reproducing details is apparent, and I get that... Alright, you translated "The Fathers' Lies," where almost half the book comprises fabricated facts masked as a documentary. How did you handle that?

Tom Egeland writes these bizarre crime novels, claiming to be the first after Dan Brown; personally, I can't stand his crime novels. However, "The Fathers' Lies" (allegedly a family saga) intrigued me; I worked on the translation for an extended period, about five months, and the book itself spans over five hundred pages. Yes, fictional biological species – some fish, imaginary trees and fruits, made-up countries and cities, fictional Nobel laureates. Since I'm translating, I need to know what that fruit tastes like! I did everything: I googled, perused dictionaries, asked acquaintances, sought answers on Facebook. Finally, as a last attempt, I reached out to the author. He responded with such hearty laughter that I could almost envision him sitting there, bursting out, "I fooled everyone, including you." Subsequently, he wrote a column in a Norwegian newspaper, sharing our communication and how he managed to deceive the translator. Although we met in person, the conversation somehow didn't unfold as expected, leaving that laughter as the lasting memory of our interaction.

I have an aversion to footnotes in books, especially explanations in fictional texts, as they tend to be distracting. I prefer seamlessly incorporating the explanations into the text to maintain a sense of inconspicuousness. For instance, terms like "May 17th," "May 17th parade," "let's go on May 17th" sound natural to Norwegians, but our readers wouldn't grasp the significance. Placing references at the bottom of the page would divert attention, so I opt to write, "On May 17th, on Constitution Day." It's crucial to translate realities effectively.

Children's literature presents its own challenges, particularly when it comes to translating slang. While working on the four volumes of Nina Grøntvedt's Oda series (which contained a lot of Americanized teenage slang), I rode trams near schools, where students gathered, eavesdropped on conversations, and even consulted younger acquaintances for their youth slang. However, it turned out that it wasn't slang per se; I approached it more as a stylization of teenage language. Unfortunately, there isn't suitable children's slang in our language.

Recognizing you in books is not merely about vocabulary; your language is both rich and diverse. However, when a translator becomes recognizable, it is typically viewed as a technical flaw. The prevailing notion is that a translator doesn't have the privilege of asserting their own style, lacking the authorial intonation that writers strive for, and that translators might not necessarily possess. How do you navigate this?

– I make an effort to eliminate it, addressing both vocabulary and my reading preferences, shaped by my experiences as a reader.

I personally propose books, not the majority, often balancing around fifty-fifty. Authors like Knut Hamsun, Ketil Bjørnstad, and Tarjei Vesaas are among my suggestions. Tom Egeland was recommended by me because he is undeniably one of my favored authors. The new addition, Kerstin Ekman, is also a personal favorite, though her inclusion was suggested by the publisher. I find joy in translating intricate intellectual prose, even though it's a source of inner turmoil. In the early 2000s, Tarjei Vesaas's works, "The Ice Palace" and "The Birds," were featured in "Litopys." It's heartbreaking for Vesaas – he went largely unread. Despite my extensive efforts to promote his work, many people overlooked him. I speculate that his prose is profoundly Scandinavian, perhaps too much for our tastes, steeped in Scandinavian noir and its inherent gloominess. Unfortunately, readers tend to shy away from noir as it involves navigating through dense psychological narratives, a task that requires time and effort, and bedtime isn't an ideal setting for reading Scandinavian noir. Readers, by and large, tend to be more on the lazy side. However, my perspective is limited to my own circle: those who write, translate, publish, and engage in discussions about books. This circle tends to appreciate authors like Vesaas.

In my conceptualization of translation theory, I am meant to be a servant of the author, but unexpectedly, I find myself becoming a co-author and allow myself to embrace that role.

In your youth, you aspired to write original works. It must have been a challenge for Roman Ivanychuk's daughter, right? I've heard the significant narrative that your father either declined or forbade you from writing, providing somewhat negative encouragement, in brief. Did that desire vanish?

– I made attempts at prose, writing short stories, around 9th or 10th grade, and it's evident what kind of texts those were. Being the daughter of a father who writes, surrounded by his friends who also write, it was only natural for me to follow suit. I brought my absolutely brilliant short story to my dad, and his response was, "Why did you write this? What did you want to convey?" I replied, "It's beautiful!" To which he retorted, "Beautiful for you. Is chocolate with black bread beautiful?" In my story, the heroine ate chocolate with black bread because she was extraordinary, unlike everyone else (I myself ate chocolate like that, and I still do). He concluded, "To become a writer, you have to write better than me. And you won't write better than me. So don't bother."

He believed that my writing was not driven by an internal need but influenced by the environment. Later, while editing his diaries from the early 1970s, I found a line: "Natalia has a sense of the word. She writes much better than I did at her age." However, Dad had advised against it, and I believed him, without harboring anger or offense; we shared a special, friendly, and trusting relationship.

Those words had so deeply ingrained themselves in me that even now, I struggle to write anything from within – I can't even compose an annotation for a book; the fear lingers. I attempted it in adulthood, with my peak being writing on Facebook, but that doesn't qualify as literature. Dad suggested channeling my sense of words into a different format; he recommended translation.

However, when the editor of "Vsesvit" claimed that I didn't know how to translate, that's when I became angry and didn't believe.

Is this at the very beginning? Are you referring to that legendary "Vsesvit" magazine in the mid-to-late 1980s?

– I excelled in languages, so I naturally gravitated towards them. I attended a gymnasium-type school with a focus on advanced German. During my university years, I took the initiative to learn Norwegian independently, entirely without exposure to the language. Nina Bichuya, a friend of my father, suggested exploring Scandinavian studies, emphasizing that there were already numerous translators from German, while at that time, only Olga Senyuk and Halyna Kirpa were involved in Scandinavian studies. Facing limited options, I decided to venture into that niche.

I regarded Senyuk as my mentor; she also treated me kindly, but she held high expectations: either you translate exceptionally well right away, or you refrain from translating altogether because you don't have the right to learn. Now, as I witness my students engage in translation work, my perspective has evolved. I offer support where I see potential, encourage them to experiment with different formats, navigate them through publishing processes, collaborate on manuscript discussions, and engage in mutual learning. Currently, six of my students are active in the field of translation. I presented Senyuk with my translations, yet not a single one gained approval from her, a perfectionist.

Olga Senyuk's translations are like magic to me. How did she pull it off? She had a literal translation, almost word-for-word, and yet it resonated in our language. How?

It's a mysterious phenomenon: Senyuk was a brilliant literalist. She meticulously adhered to the text, creating a work that captured its essence. If I were to translate literally, it would result in a mere string of words. I believe that translations should convey meanings, not just words – that's a principle I uphold.

So, after Senyuk criticized your translations, did you submit them to publishers?

– I had challenging and painful experiences with publishers in the early days. One might think that having a famous father would be advantageous, but, on the contrary, it proved detrimental. There was an editor at "Veselka" who insisted, "Your father is translating for you!"

On the flip side, Olexander Terekh, the editor at "Vsesvit" who translated from English, never managed to finish Joyce before his death. He was tough and demanding. I presented him with the Norwegian novel that Senyuk had criticized. He remarked, "Child, translation is not for you; please don't translate." However, he accepted the novel: Nils Jørgen Rud – his prose is truly weighty and philosophical, and the novel was titled "The Well." You can still find it in the archives of "Vsesvit," but there, you won't find my intonation. It's well-crafted, but it's Terekh's work. In short, I believed my father but not Terekh. I was frustrated: well, I'll prove you wrong!

A couple of years later, I submitted "The Don Juan of Kolomyia" by Masoch to "Vsesvit," and they promptly accepted it. When I returned for the fee, Terekh stormed into the hallway like a whirlwind, grabbed my shoulders, shook me like a rag, and exclaimed, "This is an excellent translation! I am happy!" That's how I rubbed it in to those who doubted me. And I left, triumphant. Home.

Short profile

Natalia Ivanychuk is a Ukrainian translator from German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and English.