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The Ukraine: country lost in translation30.01.2024
“The Ukraine” is a collection of fiction and reportage about various nooks of Ukraine and the different people inhabiting them. The author of this book, Artem Chapeye (real name Anton Vodianyi), has now joined the Ukrainian army, but before that he was fond of traveling, published travel notes and wrote novels “Weathering” and “Strange People.” His travels resonate with ethnographic expeditions as they are a complete exit from one’s bubble and an opportunity to hear what people think and how they live in the most remote corners of the country.
“The Ukraine” is now available in English, and we offer our readers the keys to understanding this text.
On the road
Texts in “The Ukraine” are, for the major part, describing traveling around Ukraine. However, these are neither sightseeing, nor trips for writing reportage. Chapeye’s travels are the so-called “Skovoroda-like lifestyle” which refers to Hryhorii Skovoroda, Ukrainian philosopher and teacher of the 18th century, and his system of ideas and views. Skovoroda practiced a kind of downshifting.
He had little interest in making a career in the center of the empire, instead went around Ukraine on foot with scarcely any belongings, staying in farm houses where he told his fables and entertained people with intriguing conversations. Modern “Skovoroda-like lifestyle” means having interest in life in Ukrainian provinces and traveling to remote villages, which admonishes amateur ethnographic expeditions. Being the process that is opposite to pilgrimage, it is a movement from the center of the country to the periphery, not to the center. Not kneeling in front of famous attractions for tourists or an upfront corporation, but rather being curious about what is happening in the heart of the country.
Skovoroda-like lifestyle in Artem Chapeye’s book is an alternative to admiring the road for beatniks and fans of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road.” It’s riding a motorcycle to various inconspicuous nooks in Ukraine. To do what? To discover new people and find out what they live for. Thus, Chapeye created a series of verbal portraits of very different Ukrainians.
Chapeye’s travels often involve staying overnight with strangers or little-known people who greet and invite you with open arms into their homes because you’ve faced bad weather, your motorcycle is broken or you have some other problem on the road. Diving deep into the local cultural context is an integral part of traveling. Only relatives, friends and neighbors come for a visit in the countryside. A stranger can’t go unnoticed. To be here, you must get rid of the illusions and rules of the world of megapolis, you have to discover and experience local traditions and become friends among strangers at least for an evening.
Lost in translation
You have presumably heard from the news that the mined parts of the territory of Ukraine are equal to the size of two Austrias. This comparison gives you a rough idea of how big Ukraine is and, as a result, how diverse it is. Chapeye’s book shows that Ukraine is a fantastic country with various landscapes, different regional dialects and cultural peculiarities.
If you are expecting to read about Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians in “The Ukraine”, I will definitely disappoint you — there will be none. That’s because there’s no such a division in reality.
This book is a collection of portraits, confessions and reflections of Ukrainians from various places of the country. There are representatives of different regions, big cities, towns and villages where there are better and worse roads. Some people are poorer, some — richer. There are those who froze in different time periods, and feel nostalgia for them. There are also daytime and nighttime residents (in one of his texts Chapeye describes his experience of patrolling Kyiv at night with police, and that is a brand new strange world). His Ukraine arises not as a two-dimensional country, Russia- or Ukraine-centered. Why are these 50 shades of Ukraine lost and reduced in the news?
Ukrainian filmmaker born in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, Antonio Lukić (known professionally as Antonio Lukich), director of the popular tragicomedian movies “My Thoughts Are Silent” (2019) and “Luxembourg, Luxembourg” (2022), has complained that the characters of his films lose local language flair in translation. Slang and dialects are translated with neutral literary English and words which mean or describe smaller Ukrainian cultural phenomena and reveal the essence of Ukrainian mentality disappear in translation.
In everyday usage, the phrase “the Ukraine” is totally wrong. “The” refers to the colonial view on Ukraine and seeing it as a part of the Russian Empire. In this case the article in the title means something different. “The” is rather about mistakes, paradoxical actions and oddities of Ukrainians. In Chapeye’s collection of stories, all untranslatable cultural phenomena are labeled with the concept of “the Ukraine.” These are the unique traits by which Ukrainians feel who belongs to them and recognize them unmistakably. These traits are not a love to borsch or wearing embroidered shirts, but things that, like the living Ukrainian language, that are mostly lost in translation.
For example, it’s the middle-aged men in peaked caps, with long mustaches and leather jackets over their warm sweaters. It’s the middle-aged women in chunky knit hats. The college girls who, on their way back to the dorm after a weekend at home, step over puddles of oozy mud in their fancy white boots, clutching the handles of checkered plastic tote bags with fingers red from the cold, trying not to chip their long painted nails. It’s the old lady in the ankle-length brown overcoat and cheap white sneakers who’s carting apples on a hand truck. The coiffed, aging blonde behind the wheel in a traffic jam in Donetsk who’s calmly smoking out the car window, watching life pass by.
— Artem Chapeye, The Ukraine
Each of these phenomena requires a considerable amount of notes for international audiences. In fact, Chapeye’s book can be considered to be a collection of notes. But the division into Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians is the result of long-term Russian propaganda. In fact, it is a much bigger tale than the mythical chupacabra.
Welcome to the real Ukraine. And get ready to find out that much of what you knew about it is a myth.
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