Lesya Ukrainka

The best Ukrainian literary classics available in English translations


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2023. A performance of Lesya Ukrainka’s play Cassandra appeared on the theater stages of London, and later in Cambridge and Oxford. Could Ukrainka, an intellectual, writer, and translator and titan of Ukrainian classical literature who was also known as Larysa Kosach, ever have dreamed of such a thing?

Unfortunately, Ukrainian classical literature has not historically been frequently translated into English as it was banned for centuries, and remained in the shadow of russian imperial culture, which persecuted Ukrainian creators.

However, we were able to find some of what was published in English during different time periods. Explore which Ukrainian classics are available to read now.


The article is published with the support of the British Council Ukraine and the Ukrainian Institute as part of the UK/Ukraine Season of Culture.

Taras Shevchenko


It is not surprising that translations of Ukrainian classical fiction into English were of academic interest to literary scholars of the Ukrainian diaspora, especially in Canada. In 1988, Marta Tarnawska compiled an extensive list of translations in the bibliography to her work Ukrainian literature in English: books and pamphlets, 1890-1965 (Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta).


Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), a poet, prose writer, classic of Ukrainian literature, and national symbol of Ukraine, naturally dominates the list in terms of references. His works have been actively written about and translated since the late 1950s. But, of course, there are earlier references. For example, in 1916, a book by Canadian writer and journalist Florence Randal Livesay entitled Songs of Ukraine with Ruthenian Poems was published in London and New York. It includes translations of Ukrainian folk songs, as well as selected poems by Taras Shevchenko and other poets. The author collected materials for the book with the assistance of Ukrainian emigrants.


Another publication also demands our attention. According to literary scholar Marta Tarnawska, this publication stands as the earliest distinct work on Ukrainian literature in English. We are referring to the biographical essay T. Schevchenko, the National Poet of Ukraine.


Published in London around 1911, this twelve-page essay was sparked by the story of a “good Russian” from over a century ago. Lev Rastorguev, a lawyer who participated in the First russian Revolution of 1905, authored the booklet. After fleeing abroad he wrote about Shevchenko, describing him as “equal in genius to the famous poet Pushkin.”


It’s also worth noting that before the aforementioned boom in translations of Taras Shevchenko that began in the late 1950s, a biographical sketch as well as a translation of Shevchenko’s poetry were published in the United States in 1922 and 1936.

Marko Vovchok


Marko Vovchok is the pen name of Mariia Vilinska (1833-1907), a Ukrainian writer and translator who advocated for feminist principles. Though russian by birth, Mariia Vilinska married Ukrainian folklorist and ethnographer Opanas Markovyc and not only moved to Ukraine but also wholeheartedly embraced Ukrainian customs, culture and language.


In 1871, she published her novel Marusya, a work about the adventures of a Ukrainian woman called Marusya and her efforts to help liberate Ukraine from occupation by the russian empire and the Polish Empire in order to restore Ukraine’s independence. This story had a fascinating fate after its publication, going through a ban on the use of the Ukrainian language, an attempted plot theft during its translation into French, as well as recognition, popularity and numerous editions published in other countries.


The French-language version of Marusya found its way into the Parisian magazine Le Temps in 1875. Vovchok had collaborated with the French publisher, writer and translator Pierre-Jules, and purportedly had sent him her translation prior to this publication. However, Etzel didn’t like the text, so he creatively reinterpreted the story, so much so that he added additional chapters. Subsequently, this version of Marusya was published in many different editions and was recognized by the French Academy.


It was this French-language version that then became the primary source for further translations into German, Italian, and English.


So in 1890, Maroussia, a Maid of Ukraine was published in New York. Although the researcher Marta Tarnavska, who we have already mentioned, suggests that there may have been an even earlier translation of Marusya into English in 1887. In fact, Maroussia, a Maid of Ukraine can be considered one of the first translations of Ukrainian literature into English.


It is clear that at that time Marko Vovchok did not belong to the canon of Ukrainian classics, but the fact that her work was popular among foreign audiences is all the more important, as it underscores the desire of readers from other countries to learn about the history of Ukraine.

Lesya Ukrainka


It is hard to imagine classical Ukrainian literature without another outstanding woman. Lesya Ukrainka, or Larysa Kosach (1871-1913), was a unique personality. She wrote poetry, drama, prose, and journalism. Her engagement extended to folklore and active participation in the national revival of the Ukrainian women’s movement.


Larysa Kosach devoted much of her time and attention to translation. Through her efforts, the works of Heine, Hugo, Mickiewicz, Shakespeare, Byron, Maeterlinck, and Homer reached Ukrainian readers. But what about her own literary contributions?


One of the earliest mentions of a translation of Lesya Ukrainka’s poem was found in the book Five Russian Plays, With One From the Ukrainian, published in 1916. The British writer, lawyer, and journalist Carl Eric Bechhofer compiled a collection of drama that included works by Anton Chekhov, Ivan Yevreinov, and Lesya Ukrainka’s The Babylonian Captivity. Bechhofer noted that Larysa Kosach imbued the language she wrote in with depth and vocabulary, making it difficult to ascertain whether her work belonged to Ukrainian or Little Russian literature.


If we are discussing a full-fledged collection of the works of this prominent Ukrainian writer in English, the most complete edition appeared in 1950 in New York entitled Spirit of Flame: A Collection of the Works of Lesya Ukrainka. The translation was done by Percival Cundy, who, in his spare time from his literary work, served as a pastor. The book was published with the support of the Ukrainian National League of Women of America.


Larysa Kosach’s poems continued to grace the pages of Canadian periodicals in English. Additionally, a translation of the work of literary critic Kostiantyn Bida Lesya Ukrainka. Life and work was published in 1968. This is by no means an exhaustive list of English-language publications devoted to Larysa Kosach, but it does shed some light on the earliest translations of her works.

In addition…


The Canadian literary figure Florence Randal Livesay, already known to us from the previous story about translations of Shevchenko’s works, contributed to rendering dramatic novel Marusya by Ukrainian novelist, playwright, literary critic, and public figure Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovyanenko (1778-1843) in English. The translation was published in 1940.


Percival Cundy also made significant contributions to the book Ivan Franko. The Poet of Western Ukraine. Selected poems, which includes the works of Ivan Franko (1856-1916), a prominent Ukrainian poet, prose writer, playwright, literary critic, publicist, translator, scholar, public and political figure. Notably , this book appeared earlier than the translation of Lesya Ukrainka’s works in 1948, but it was also published by a New York publishing house.


And finally, let us acknowledge the first complete English-language anthology of Ukrainian poetry, The Ukrainian Poets. 1189-1962, compiled by Constantine Henry Andrusyshen, a Canadian Slavic scholar, translator, and literary critic. The book was published in 1963 and covered a huge period: from The Tale of Igor’s Campaign to the poems of Andriy Malyshko and Mykyta Mandryka.


Having covered these seminal translations, we’ve touched on the foundational milestones that shape the representation of Ukrainian classical literature on the global stage. There were and will be other books following these that will tell the world about Ukrainian authors, as they have something to say to foreign readers. We also hope, as we began this story by mentioning a play based on Lesya Ukrainka’s work, that Ukrainian classics will continue to grace theater stages, captivating audiences and leaving lasting impressions.