Melnyk’s Monumental Task

Toronto translator publishes English version of Kotliarevsky’s Aeneid

By Olena Wawryshyn

For many decades, Bohdan Melnyk’s love of Ukrainian literature and his desire to make it more widely known have motivated him to tirelessly translate Ukrainian literary classics.  His latest project is the translation of Ivan Kotliarevsky’s Aeneid, which Melnyk published with his own funds in 2004.

“When I ended up in the West [after the Second World War], I saw that nobody knew anything about our Ukrainian culture, even those people who were educated. They always thought that we were Russian; I decided to do something to spread the idea that we have our own literature,” says Melnyk during an interview at his west-end Toronto home.

It was this sentiment that spurred Melnyk to translate at least 35 Ukrainian works. Since he retired, he has been able to devote more time to his true calling.  But, previously, a large proportion of his work was done after hours in his spare time when he was employed at the Ontario Paper Company in Thorold. He worked there full-time for 25 years, commuting dailfrom St. Catharines, where he lived at the time.

Melnyk was born in Ukraine in Plavncha Velyka in Western Ukraine.  During the Second World War, he ended up in Germany, where he says he learned English at a school for interpreters.  After the war, he spent a few years in England, before immigrating to Canada in 1951.

Now 91, Melnyk looks much younger than his years.  His passion for his life’s work seem to have kept him in good physical shape. The monumental challenge of translating Kotliarevsky’s six-part epic poem has no doubt helped to keep his mind unusually sharp for a man in his ninth decade of life.

Kotliarevsky (1769-1838) is often referred to as the “founder” of modern Ukrainian literature.  His Aeneid, written in the Ukrainian vernacular, satirises the social mores and the political situation of his era.  A humorous parody of Vergil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, is considered to be Kotliarevsky’s greatest work and stands second in importance only to Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar in the Ukrainian literary canon.  Kotliarevsky’s contribution has been mentioned by both Shevchenko and Franko in their own works.

The majority of the work Melnyk has translated over the years is by the 19th-century author, Ivan Franko (who, in addition to writing prose, poetry and plays, also translated literary works into Ukrainian). Melnyk says he has translated at least 12 works by Franko, include Pan’ski zharty, Strashyj sud, Ivan Vyshenks’kyi, and  Moisei.

But it was his translation of Franko’s rhyming poem Lys Mykyta, which finally gained Melnyk some deserved prominence.  It was published in the 1970s by Tundra Books, in Montreal, in an edition that featured illustrations by celebrated Ukrainian-Canadian painter William Kurelek.  The publisher requested that the translation be done in prose form, so Melnyk adapted it to suit their recommendations.  But, Melnyk had also had prepared a rhyming version, which he later published himself in 2000.  That edition featured the works of Ukrainian-American artist Edvard Kozak.

Melnyk's latest translation, the Aeneid, also features the work of a prominent artist, Anatoliy Bazylevych.   He produced the graphics for a Ukrainian edition of Kotliarevsky’s Aeneid, which was published in Kyiv in 1968.  Melnyk contacted Bazylevych, who was very pleased that his work would be reproduced again.  After Bazylevych died in his 80th year this past June, his son in Kyiv sent a letter to Melnyk telling him that his father “very much liked the new edition of Aeneid” and in the last months of his life, kept it close to him.  The graphics for Aeneid, “were the most significant pieces of work of his artistic life,” his son told Melnyk.

Melnyk cherishes this letter; it obviously brings him much gratification that his work is appreciated.  He believes his work is generally received with less enthusiasm in Canada than in Ukraine. “Young people in Canada, even those with a university education generally don’t appreciate what I do,” he says.

He has sent manuscripts of all his published and unpublished translations to the Ivan Franko University in Lviv in hopes that his lifelong work will be preserved and that possibly more of his translations might be published someday.

Nevertheless, despite some disappointments, Melnyk remains committed to his work and speaks of his translation of the Aeneid as a true labour of love. “It took me one year, day and night, to complete it,” he says with pride.

There were a number of stylistic hurdles to surmount in this endeavour. “The text has to be as close to the original as possible, but the rhyming and the metre have to be perfect,” says Melnyk.

The average English-language reader will likely find Melnyk’s self-published translation more than competent.  The language is colourful and the tone of the rhyming translation is in keeping with the spirit of the original. The English version is printed side-by-side, or parallel, with the Ukrainian. A glossary at the end of the book further enhances its value.

The book also contains an introduction by the translator, some brief information about the illustrator and a foreword on Kotliarevsky written by Bohdan Lepky, which appeared in a 1922 edition of the Aeneid published in Berlin.

The translation offers an accessible entry, for those whose Ukrainian is rusty or non-existent, into one of the most seminal works in the history of Ukrainian literature.  Anyone interested in Ukrainian literature will find it worthwhile, enjoyable and interesting to read.

Copies of Bohdan Melnyk’s translation of the Aeneid are available for $30, from The Basilian Press in Toronto: (416) 234-1212, or by calling the translator at (416) 762-7984.