In conversation with translators in residence Hanna Leliv, Daisy Rockwell

Written by
Pooja Makhijani, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies
Feb. 7, 2024

Each semester, the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication (PTIC) hosts a visiting translator in residence who shares their real-world experiences of life and work with the program’s students and the broader Princeton University community. This spring, Hanna Leliv and Daisy Rockwell will enrich campus with their knowledge and expertise.

Leliv is a native of Lviv, Ukraine, where she works as a freelance translator. In 2022, Astra House published “Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved of Chornobyl” by Markiyan Kamysh in her translation. Leliv was PTIC’s fall 2023 Translator in Residence; her tenure has been extended through the end of the academic year as part of Princeton’s scholars at risk network.

Rockwell, the spring 2024 Translator in Residence, translates from Hindi and Urdu into English and focuses on women's writing. Her translation of the Hindi novel “Tomb of Sand” by Geetanjali Shree was the winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize and the 2022 Warwick Women's Prize in Translation. She was recently awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, which will support the translation of “The Traveler Wandered from Town to Town,” by Nisar Aziz Butt, into English.

The PTIC program resides within the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), and provides support for translation workshops, guest lectures, study abroad and new courses. The Translator in Residence is co-sponsored by PIIRS, the Humanities Council and the Lewis Center for the Arts.

PTIC spoke to both scholars about their inspirations, their process and the importance of literary translation. These conversations have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Hanna Leliv

Hanna Leliv

On what drew her to translation: I graduated from a master’s program in English language and literature in Lviv. I volunteered with TED Translate for a few years, coordinating the Ukrainian community of translators, and then felt drawn to literary translation and started contacting publishers in Ukraine. My first translation was a nonfiction book for children by Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy Hawking, “George's Secret Key to the Universe.” Six years ago, as a Fulbright fellow in the master of fine arts program in literary translation at the University of Iowa, I tried my hand at translating fiction from Ukrainian into English. We have so much great literature that the world knows very little about. Ever since Russia launched a full-scale invasion against Ukraine, I have been working exclusively into English. It’s crucial right now for the world to hear more Ukrainian voices, and to hear what is happening in Ukraine through human stories and through the voices of people who have witnessed the atrocities firsthand.

On the challenges of literary translation: When it comes to translating from Ukrainian into English or Ukrainian into English, the main challenges concern not translation process per se, but everything that surrounds it. In the U.S., translated literature accounts for 3% of the book market. Translators usually have to double as scouts, agents and promoters. It’s a lot of hard and mostly unpaid work. Western publishers often set unrealistic demands when it comes to lesser-known literatures — demands which Western authors not necessarily face. When I pitch a Ukrainian author, I have to answer a range of questions: How many awards have their received? Have their books been published in other European languages? Do you have funding for this translation? Everyone wants the best of the best — not just a popular author, but a Nobel Prize winner. It takes so much effort to convince [Western publishers] that Ukrainian authors are worth considering, not just because Ukraine is in the news, but because of the quality of their work.

On what motivates her: Oksana Zabuzhko is one of the most well established writers in Ukraine. In a recent interview, she said that when her novel was published in English, a critic said, “This is such a good novel, but I'm so surprised that it came out of nowhere.” I hope that in five or 10 years, people who pick up a Ukrainian book don't say that; they say, "I know many Ukrainian authors. I’ve read a bunch of Ukrainian books and want to read more.” I’m building the awareness and knowledge that we have a rich and vibrant literary tradition.  

On her plans for spring: I’m translating a Ukrainian contemporary play, “My Hell” by Oksana Savchenko. It focuses on the experience of Ukrainian refugees in Germany and deals with the issues of displacement, cultural stereotyping and expectations that people often have for refugees. In May, the theater department will produce a staged reading of my translation, directed by Neil Blackadder, the spring 2022 Translator in Residence. I’m very excited about this collaborative project.

On the importance of translation: In times like these, when we have not just wars going on in the world, but also so much othering and fearmongering, translation is crucial to promote understanding. Through translations, you see human stories. And the moment you see a human in someone, not just a migrant, a refugee, or anyone else with some label, then it becomes much harder to judge this person, to dismiss this person, to be biased against them. Translation builds empathy and understanding of the human condition.

Daisy Rockwell

Daisy Rockwell

Daisy Rockwell

On her journey to translation. My first experience translating was in a translation seminar at the beginning of in graduate school. I worked on Hindi, but my classmates worked in all different languages. It was exciting and fun. I thought this would be my graduate school experience, but my translation professor, A.K. Ramanujan, passed away shortly after that seminar. After that, translation became more difficult. You’re not encouraged to translate in academia. You can’t get tenure and your dissertation can’t be a translation. Things are changing. I kept getting derailed; I had trouble finding publishers. In 2011, a graduate student at NYU who was interested in my work, contacted me. By then, I had left academia and was painting. He was writing his dissertation on topics that were adjacent to what I had written about. He was a translator, and he persuaded me to dust off some of my manuscripts and gave me a contact at Penguin India. She agreed to publish my first short story collection, and that’s when I started to really translate in earnest.

On her process. I like to say that every translation should have at least 10 drafts. It’s a journey from the initial draft to the final published version. A journey can be particularly rugged or long because you have two languages that are linguistically dissimilar. Or it can be a journey over time — like if you're translating something medieval. Every time I start a translation, the first draft is rough and I do it by hand. I have pretty notebooks and nice colored pens. I don’t make a choice between five words; I'll write down all five words. I use many question marks. Then, I type it; that's another draft. Part of going on this journey is getting to know the book, so even if I have questions for the author or for other people with expertise I don’t have, I tend not to ask them for two or three drafts because I'm trying to inhabit the book. After that, I ask for help. It’s a slow process of refinement. Eventually, you say goodbye to the original, because now you’re working on an English text.

On what she’s looking forward to at Princeton. I love teaching and I haven't taught for many years. I have mentees in Hindi translation, but these are mostly remote connections. I'm very excited about being with people. I love libraries. I'm excited to walk into physical libraries.

On perspective and translation. It’s important to focus on the reality of English and the role of English in the world. English is a hegemonic presence. If you’re monolingual and you speak English and you read English, you become very insular. Individuals become insular, and societies become insular. You never feel like you’re wanting for material, and yet there are so many voices that you don't hear. Translation is not written for global audience at all. It’s like eavesdropping. Translation opens our minds and helps us understand the world from different perspective.