Decolonising Eastern Europe: Found in Translation


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At the London Book Fair this discussion with a special focus on translation and practical tips was a part of Ukrainian Guest Spotlight country programme, called “Sensitive Content”, held at the Literary Translation Salon and supported by British Council, English PEN and Literature Across Frontiers.

If the defining problem of being part of a colonial system is how to get independence, the defining problem of living in a post-colonial society is how to actually be independent. Mostly this is a problem of identity and cultural patterns applied. The Eastern Europe context with its intriguing geography of converging post socialist and post colonialist histories inspires us to unpack the question of colonial legacies and different decolonising practices.

The classical dilemmas of life in the post-colony are when the language and structures and standards of the former system still persist in common practice in many ways and the main question is how to embed the cultural transition, getting rid of the imperial violence or its consequences.


We tried to explore the common and different decolonising experiences from the Balkans, Georgia, and Ukraine showcasing decolonising exercises – specifics of writing, linguistic practices, including the “bridge translation”, trends, and challenges faced by translators working today.


The panel gathered at one stage Nina Murray, an American-Ukrainian accomplished poet and translator, who holds advanced degrees in linguistics and creative writing, Tanja Tuma, Slovenian writer, President of PEN Slovene and Board member of PEN International, former publisher with 25 years of experience in the bookselling industry, and Iva Pezuashvili, award-winning Georgian writer and screenwriter, also President of PEN Georgia. Moderated by Olha Mukha, Ukrainian cultural analyst and culture manager, based in London and working for PEN International.



The term decolonisation usually refers to a historical and political process in the former European colonies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that ended colonialism and led to independence and the establishment of nation states based on a European model. In a way we are only opening and defining a big discussion in the Eastern Europe context. All the panelists start by sharing their countries’ insights. “Things changed since we are not part of the ‘Soviet system’ anymore,” says Iva Pezuashvili. “I probably represent the last generation, which was forced to study russian as a second language. The new generations speak Georgian and English – they barely understand russian or don’t understand it at all. However, we are still being overshadowed by the empire politically – the last political development in the country shows it very clear.”


Nina Murray states that her personal story is a perfect illustration for the colonising practices – being born and raised in Western Ukrainian city of Lviv, exactly the area regularly accused by russian propaganda of being a “heart of nazis”, she used to speak russian in her childhood. Over many years in the USA, she developed her interest in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, de facto being a cultural ambassador of Ukrainian literature abroad.


The Slovenian context is quite different: “The first time when Slovenian was recognized as an official language was under Napoleon in 1809 until 1814 but the seed was planted – Slovenians got aware of their culture, language, history. There was a nationalist movement in 1848, a bit later Slovenska matica was founded and the pan-Slavic movement gained popularity. The first time Slovenians were a constitutive part of a state was in 1918 when after the First World War the new kingdom of Slovenians, Croatians and Serbs was formed. The first attempt to unify all Yugoslav languages dates from 1930 when out of three, the king wanted to make one language. The second attempt was in the 1980s with common school curricula that was meant to advance Serbian language and culture. We all learnt this Serbo-Croatian at school. Russian was never the culture and language that would be dominating.



We were lucky that Tito and Stalin quarreled after 1948 when Yugoslavians were afraid Stalin would occupy Yugoslavia. The generations who lived or remember this are not easily influenced by Russian propaganda even today. It is the later generations, their children, who are easy prey for it,” explained Tanja Tuma. “But we have different experiences of ‘brotherly domination; – there was a very good initiative put to life 17 years ago, a collection of 100 Slavic novels by a foundation Forum of Slavic Countries. The idea is simple – each country selects 10-12 titles written after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lists are exchanged and novels translated from one Slavic language into another, e.g. from Bulgarian into Slovenian, from Ukrainian into Serbian. It worked up to a point so today we have 96 publications, three on the way. The base of the forum and the novel collection is the idea of panslavism and Slavic nations being brothers. Well, some brothers wanted to dominate the theater while others never joined the initiative – the Višegrad group did not want to be part of it while Russians, Serbians and Macedonians embraced the idea.”

It seems that any good idea in its realization can be abused for political purposes and some participants regularly dominate the tone.

In theory, there is not a language superior to another, in practice the situation is more complex. The prestige of proficiency in the coloniser’s language is still an issue even for those who relieved themselves from the official colonisation. And in translation practice it comes to the use of the “bridge translation,” which in a post-colonial context means mostly using the language of the coloniser.


“Well, bridge language is good for communication or gathering information. However, translation should be direct, even though it is a tough job,” – says Tanja Tuma.“I think one of the best practices are translation residences and workshops when translators and authors get together to make a new work – translation. Translation is an art; it is not easy to transport one culture, life, circumstances, political systems from one reality into another.”


Translation from minority languages is a crucial aspect of preserving and promoting linguistic and cultural diversity within Europe indeed. It is important to recognize the value of translation from minority languages as it can contribute to a broader understanding of cultural and linguistic diversity, fostering empathy and understanding between different communities. Also, to create a richer and more nuanced representation of Europe’s cultural heritage.


“Isn’t it human nature – to explore something new?” asks Iva. “So maybe we can offer the European and English-speaking audience something new and exciting, they never thought about. Literature is a bridge how to learn the country’s culture – you can only get Georgia through such a writer like Archil Kikodze, Zurab Karumidze, Besik Kharanauli, Irakli Samsonadze and others – those authors can influence European literature, those are fresh new voices, never heard before. But unfortunately, we have only one translation programme in our country, we don’t have literary agents, we complete all the promotional work by ourselves.

Another problem is linguistic capacity – most of the older generation writers, well, even me, we had russian as our second language. But we are not interested in the market of the country which has occupied 20% of our territory. Georgian writers don’t sell our author rights to russia, however it’s challenging to find an international publisher and a skilled translator”.

So, developing a market and empowering translation processes become a key point. The Slovenian way was to establish a network of cooperation without the intermediary language of translation like Traduki, not translating Ukrainian authors via russian, but directly. Good news, all the Ukrainian translators in Slovene are very busy. Bad news – there are only four of them. This is why Creative Europe programs for literary translation and cooperation projects are very important tools to achieve such accountability.


In Ukraine we had the translation subvention program Translate Ukraine Grant Program was temporarily suspended due to the war, but on May 19, UBI was able to relaunch it. “It has been instrumental in making Ukrainian books available to more readers. Allocating some of the funds to advertising the books, and supporting robust, innovative marketing campaigns for these titles would go a long way to making them more visible and attractive. Nina shares her working tips — encouraging others to act too. “And of course, reviews matter, so I encourage everyone who reads and appreciates Ukrainian books to publish reviews of them, including on Goodreads and Amazon,” she says.

“Amazon also routinely assigns Ukrainian books to its “Russian and Soviet” category under World Literature. These books are, quite obviously, neither Russian nor Soviet, and it’s simply incorrect and should stop.”

Lee McIntyre in his “Post-truth” finds that post-truth is “an assertion of ideological supremacy by which its practitioners try to compel someone to believe something regardless of the evidence,” and the only way to deal with it is naming things as they are. Here is another strictly related context to unpack – 80% of Slavic Studies curriculum in most of the universities around the globe is dominated by russian studies.


“Good knowledge of Russian or another Slavonic language from your first-degree course is expected,” – states the first sentence of advertising for the Slavonic studies for Oxford University. Russian is the only culture named there, all the others are hidden under the “Central European” umbrella – Literature, Culture and History – all in one. Only russian literature is featured as a separate course, none of the other Slavic literatures got such a recognition.


“It all starts in Academia” – says Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, an art historian and one of the most prominent contemporary Lithuanian writers and a very attentive listener of the discussion, on confronting the topic of “Eastern Europe”.

“We should be very precise using those terms – where Northern Europe, Central and Eastern are situated and make the media stop using “Eastern Europe” not in a geographical way but as one big stereotype of post-Soviet, post-communist countries.

The media is a second point of this fight. Lobbying the media, correcting the media, and reacting each time you see the umbrella term of Eastern Europe placed incorrectly is another tool to correct post-colonial reality as this is a way of denying nations and their cultures and dignity.”


Sometimes this way to dignity lies through non-translation: all agree that Oleksandra Matviychuk giving the historic first Nobel speech in Ukrainian was an important statement itself – it’s about the right to stay authentical and right to be translated.


Frantz Fanon wrote in 1961 that “Decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon,” meaning that “the violence of colonialism can only be counteracted in kind.” The Ukrainian way of gaining independence is not a peaceful one, but rather bloodshed and marked by long-term struggle. These are five stages of decolonisation, required to come through the whole process: rediscovery and recovery, mourning, dreaming, commitment, and action. I asked each panelist to name the actual stage for their countries:


“I guess, we passed the mourning one,” laughs Iva. “So, Georgia is dreaming big!”


“In Slovenia, it is commitment and action. Our publishers are among the most successful at the tenders for dissemination of literary works. Also, our book agency offers tenders with which a publisher can translate and print a Slovenian author in his language. We’ll be guests of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year – the biggest book fair in the world, so we will use the opportunity to the maximum,” says Tanja.



“All of the above for Ukraine, frankly speaking,” comments Nina, after giving it a thought.

Indeed, each phase can be experienced at the same time or in various combinations. And I agree, like the steps of colonisation, these phases of decolonisation do not have clear demarcations between each other, both phenomena are too complex. Ukraine is experiencing the real earth shake and a huge leap right now, mourning, dreaming and acting at the same time. Being a “minority” language can add to the challenges in terms of being heard and having our cultural and linguistic heritage represented in broader discourse. But in our case finding ourselves in the decolonising process is a process of thoughtful rebuilding of our identity. Sometimes this identity can be found exactly in translation.


Editing: Maria Bragan, Jared Goyette