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12 January, 2012

Grand Master of Translation

Raised in a peasant family, Hryhoriy Kochur was exceptionally talented and scaled the mountains of the European spirit

When I was in my second year of studies at Kyiv University, Tetiana Chernyshova, our teacher of Latin and Ancient Greek, suggested that we travel to Irpin to meet Hryhoriy Kochur. The translator settled there after his return from the Komi Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which had so many Ukrainians in its labor camps that it was dubbed the Komi Ukrainian SSR. Kochur’s place in Irpin soon turned into a kind of headquarters of literary and translation work, with the host naturally assuming the position of the informal leader. He was unable to find a job as a teacher, but his house was open to everyone – even school students or university freshmen – and to many it was a true university, greater than any academic institution.

When we entered his small home, I saw a shortish, somewhat stooped elderly man. I was confused by his smile – aloof and at the same time friendly. This was the beginning of our interaction which continued to the last days of his life. On the way to Irpin, our teacher told us Kochur knew Latin better than we knew Ukrainian. As I saw for myself later, the same was true of Ancient Greek and almost all the Romance and Germanic languages. Moreover, he had some knowledge of such exotic tongues as Hungarian, Georgian and Estonian.

Initially, I saw him as an astounding phenomenon of intellectual genius but did not have a clue why he had such a wide range of interests. I presumed it was because of his gift for languages. True, this man who was born to a peasant family and managed to scale the mountains of the European spirit was exceptionally talented, but there was one other component as well. Osip Mandelstam said it well: “Longing for world culture.” Indeed, when a crisis grips a country and isolates it from the rest of the world, its intellectual, and especially aesthetic, elite becomes nostalgic for world culture. Defying the status quo, it wants to open the windows of its national culture to see what is going on around it.

This refers not only to Kochur as one example of a person who knew dozens of languages and read a great part of the world's literature in the original. The entirety of world culture became accessible to Ukrainians through the efforts of translators like him. Despite the crisis into which Ukraine plunged under the Soviets, they were able to express everything accumulated by the rest of the world in national cultural senses. Kochur was a poet, a translator and a great master of reading other cultures. Through his translations he made his contribution to saving our own culture.

He was one of those poets who also had an excellent sense of literary genres. He wrote several volumes of essays, academic articles on the history of literature and countless reviews, both internal and external. In a word, he was both a poet and a literary critic of the highest caliber. At the same time, he excelled as a storyteller and recounted many episodes from the lives of dozens upon dozens of Czech, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian writers. With admirable artistry, he recreated the voices and speech of people who were no longer living but who continued to live in his stories: Mykola Vorony, Halaktion Tabidze, Julia Tuwim, Anna Akhmatova and others. He remembered the entire history of modern Ukrainian literature, from Ivan Kotliaresky to the tragic generation of the 1920s and the 1930s. I could ask him about  Arkadiy Kazka and immediately receive comprehensive information on this little-known but very interesting Ukrainian symbolist.

Ivan Dziuba, Ivan Svitlychny and Yevhen Svertsiuk were Kochur’s closest friends. In 1973, during the second wave of repression against the Ukrainian intelligentsia, he was under extreme pressure from the KGB to testify against Sverstiuk but did not yield.  When I expressed my admiration of an excellent preface (signed “Hryhoriy Kochur”) to a school edition of Goethe’s works, he looked around and said to me quietly: “That’s Yevhen Sverstiuk’s text.” There was an act of self-realization in it for the author, not just an opportunity to earn a little something which he received from his good friend.

In the mid-1960s, Kochur was denied permission to travel to Czechoslovakia where he was to receive a special order for his translations of Czech and Slovak poets. I remember that when one party functionary learned that Kochur had been included in the delegation of Soviet writers bound for Prague, he yelled: “Khrushchev released the devil-knows-who, and you included this one in the delegation!” At one point, a member of the diaspora came to see Kochur. I still do not know for certain whether it was a direct provocation or just a coincidence, but a vicious pamphlet was published after the visit, and Kochur and his closest friend and colleague, Mykola Lukash, were expelled from the Writers’ Union. One person from this union yelled to him: “You have been condemned for high treason.” On hearing this, Kochur rose and said: “I am sorry but not even the military tribunal said anything like this to me.”

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