His translations span 26 centuries, three continents and almost 30 literatures. The Soviets “awarded” him with 10 years in labor camps and the status of a dissident with no right to travel
The Ukrainian Week continues its series of articles about great figures in Ukrainian history who had to make the choice of their lives when they found themselves under the press of the Communist system. This instalment is about translator Hryhoriy Kochur, a man who could have won the glory of translator’s Mecca for Ukraine.
Kochur was a true intellectual in the European sense. He was sent to Soviet labor camps but turned his experience there into a period of creative activity. His fellow inmates were people from across the USSR, representatives of different cultures and native speakers of different languages. To him, it was an opportunity to absorb new cultures. Contrary to the expectations of his Soviet persecutors, he built a protective barrier and worked for the future. He believed that one day a time of freedom would come and with it new generations that would respect their language and culture.
Kochur’s translations span 26 centuries (from Greek antiquity to the 20th century), three continents (Europe, America and Asia) and almost 30 literatures. Unfortunately, he was able to accept foreign invitations and make presentations at scholarly conferences in the USA, Poland and the Czech Republic only after he turned 82. Under the Soviets, he was a dissident with no right to travel. Meanwhile, many of those who went abroad in those times could speak no foreign language and hid in bathrooms during conference breaks to avoid losing face.
(NEO) CLASSIC EDUCATION
Kochur was born in Feskivka, Chernihiv Region. He was a descendant of a Cossack family: a koch was a Zaporozhian combat boat and a kochur was a sailor. With a tacit reference to his experience of camps Kochur proposed tongue-in-cheek etymologies for his last name tracing it to the Russian okochenet ‘freeze’ and okochuritsya ‘kick the bucket’. He studied at the Kyiv Institute of Popular Education where his teachers were such outstanding scholars including Mykola Zerov, Mykhailo Kalynovych, Oleksandr Biletsky, Borys Yakubsky, Serhiy Maslov and others. The lives of many of them had a tragic end.
University professors gave the young Kochur a start in the translation profession. Among other things, he was involved in producing an anthology of modern French poetry and then a reader in ancient literature. While working on the anthology, he met the Ukrainian neoclassicists Maksym Rylsky, Mykhailo Drai-Khmara, Pavlo Fylypovych and Oswald Burghardt. For a while, he worked as an assistant to Orientalist Ahatanhel Krymsky. Kochur would later write: “The ‘idols and authorities’ I had in my youth are forever with me in my memory. [...] In the institute, I owed the most to Mykola Zerov and Mykhailo Kalynovych, my linguistics teacher. I have always looked up to them. My idols have been my favorite poets – Maksym Rylsky, the early Pavlo Tychyna, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva.” He emphasized the role the neoclassicists played in his professional career: “They helped me become who I am. Their influence is undeniable.”
AN ENEMY OF THE SYSTEM
After graduation, Kochur was forced to move to Balta and Tiraspol to teach. From 1936-41, he chaired the Department of Western Literature and Theory of Literature at Vinnytsia Pedagogical Institute. Unfortunately, he did not have time to defend his thesis on Paul Verlaine as the Second World War broke out. Soon after he was evacuated to Poltava, Vinnytsia was taken by the Germans. In Poltava, he worked in a museum of history which the retreating Nazi troops later burned.
After the Nazi occupation, the Soviet authorities accused Kochur and his wife of “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” and sentenced them to 10 years (1943-53) in the Inta camp with a ban on travel outside the Komi Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Kochur once said: “Some guys came from Lviv and brought me Antonych’s poetry. I did not previously know of this poet. And later I learned that ‘nationalists’ had come to me and that we ‘dreamed of splitting Ukraine away from the great Soviet Union’.” While in the camp, Kochur translated, wrote poems, studied foreign languages, involving his fellow inmates in translation and learning their languages from them. Some gave Kochur books they received from their relatives as gifts. One Moscow native once received a volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. He had expected an interesting novel and was disappointed, so he passed the book on to Kochur. Kochur translated “The Raven” from this collection into Ukrainian. He had a tiny notebook the size of a matchbox which he was able to use in his free time. Following the habit he developed in the camp, he continued to write on his lap rather than at the table even after he returned from internal exile.
KOCHUR THE DISSIDENT
The Kochurs were rehabilitated during the Khrushchev thaw. In 1958, they left Inta and settled in Irpin, Ukraine. Zerov was posthumously rehabilitated the same year. An opportunity presented itself to publish at least some of his works. A one-volume collection came out in 1966, prepared by Kochur and Rylsky. The latter also wrote the preface. Together they formed a powerful translation tandem. Kochur would later write about his friend: “It was fun to work with Maksym Rylsky. He was an incredibly exacting translator and editor and usually dispensed advice to his colleagues with humor. I consider the years I spent in the translation trio with Rylsky and [Mykola] Lukash to be the golden years of my entire life.”
After the first wave of arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals in 1965, Kochur was among the signees of the “protest letter of 139” in defense of their friends. He was expelled from the Writers’ Union during the second wave of repression in 1973. He withstood pressure from the KGB and refused to testify against Yevhen Sverstiuk. Kochur was restored to the Writers’ Union only 15 years later, in 1988. The next year, he published Intynskyi zoshyt (The Inta Diary), a small collection of poems he wrote while in exile. Druhe vidlunnia (The Second Echo), a volume of selected translations, came out in 1991.
“THE UNIVERSITY OF IRPIN”
With time his house became known as “the University of Irpin,” and “students” began to show up almost on a daily basis. Kochur made an interesting note about the younger generation of translators: “I don’t have students in the strict sense of the word. But I love to interact with young people. In general, it is not for me to come onto the rostrum and lecture by uttering general phrases and platitudes. But when young people who do literary criticism and translation turn to me with specific questions, I always help them.”
Kochur was a man of encyclopaedic knowledge and had books in his library that were officially banned in the USSR. The Sixties generation came to him for Kafka and Hesse. People brought him translations of world poetry. Other translators asked him for advice on various works. Poet Vasyl Symonenko wrote in a letter dated June 4, 1963, to Kochur: “I am sincerely grateful to you for [Julian] Tuwim. It was a true joy for me – just like the fact that you remembered me and that this poet began to shine in the Ukrainian sky. I did finish translating Feldek (Slovak writer L’ubomir Feldek. – Ed.), but I am very concerned about these translations. Discounting several light exercises with Blok and several Belorussian poets, you can't say I've even reached the age of conscription in this field. I would be deeply grateful to you if you could write a few words about the quality of my translations.” In his memoirs “Symonenkovi uroky” (Symonenko’s lessons) Mykola Rachuk notes: “Hanna Fedorivna (the poet’s mother) said that as he was losing his memory before he passed away, [Vasyl Symonenko] called for Kochur.”
How many foreign languages did Kochur know? This question always intrigued his friends and even more so the researchers who studied his heritage. According to his son, one day the master of translation became fed up with having to answer what he called a “self-promoting” question. So he sat down to write a list, counted 31 languages and categorically refused to discuss this issue anymore in the future.
Kochur's wife, Iryna Voronovych, died in 1985, while he departed mortal life on December 15, 1994.
Kochur posthumously received the Taras Shevchenko prize for The Second Echo. The monetary prize was used to fix up his house in Irpin which now hosts the Hryhoriy Kochur Museum (www.kochur.do.am) and remains the kind of translators’ Mecca it was in his lifetime. Andriy and Maria Kochur are doing their best to keep it this way.
The Hryhoriy Kochur Award was launched in 2010 to be awarded on the day of his birth, November 17. The first prize (in 2010) went to translator and writer Andriy Sodomora, and the second (in 2011) to Professor Roksolana Zorivchak of Lviv National University.
1908 – born in Feskivka, Chernihiv Region, to a family of peasants
Studied in the Kyiv Institute of Popular Education and later taught in the pedagogical institutes in Tiraspol and Vinnytsia
1943 – sentenced to penal servitude in GULAG mines
1953 – released
1962 – rehabilitation and return to Ukraine
1965 – signs the “protest letter of 139” in defense of persecuted Ukrainian intelligentsia
1973 – expelled from the Writers’ Union of Ukraine and denied publication
1988 – restored to the Writer’s Union
1991-92 – participates in scholarly conferences in the USA, Poland and the Czech Republic