Anne K. Howard

Lost in Translation: The Challenge of Sharing a Ukrainian/Russian Story in English

Adoriana in the bomb shelter (identity blurred)

In the Introduction of Escape from Mariupol: A Survivor’s True Story, I briefly discuss how the book was written. I mention that my Ukrainian co-author, Adoriana Marik, emailed me letters written in Russian (the second language of many Ukrainians) which I translated into English and crafted into a narrative. The totality of those letters, along with the research that I added regarding recent Ukrainian history and Russia’s current war, comprise the body of the book. In theory, it sounds like a straightforward process. But theory is just that- theory. Reality is something altogether different.

The emails that Adoriana initially sent me from a refugee hostel in the Czech Republic last spring resembled a stream-of-consciousness train wreck. Having lived underground for five weeks during nonstop aerial shelling and gun fighting in the streets of Mariupol, Adoriana’s untamed recollection of events reflected the chaos of her traumatized mind: The man dropped dead, the woman was hysterical, the car exploded, fire and snow were everywhere, rotten corpses, land mines, the smell of blood…

The Ukrainian refugee hostel in the Czech Republic

“Whoa! Stop right there, Adoriana,” I would write in response. Then I would dissect her email, bit by bit, and ask follow-up questions for further clarification. Who was the man that dropped dead? When did that happen? Why was the woman hysterical? And so on…
It was in this manner that I began to create a timeline of events as new details emerged. Each fragment that Adoriana had hurriedly referenced in an earlier email became a gritty vignette in a story teeming with other gritty vignettes. When taken as a whole, the book resembles a tapestry of hardship unique to all Ukrainians since February 24, 2022, when Putin’s senseless invasion of Ukraine commenced.

Sometimes Adoriana grew frustrated by all of my questions. “What did the inside of your apartment in Mariupol look like?” I asked. She replied, “Just an ordinary apartment with ordinary furniture. A table, chairs, a bed. Why does it matter what the apartment looked like?” For the person who lived the story in real-time, such trivial details don’t matter. However, for the reader, details help the story come to life.

At one point, I realized that Adoriana’s failure to recollect the landscape of Mariupol in her childhood indicated a reality that I had yet to consider. In the nineties, Mariupol’s brutalist architecture and bland aspect were a throwback to a time of communist rule in Ukraine when nothing was left to the imagination. Art and culture were neglected if not forbidden. Every building had a solely utilitarian purpose. So I dug deeper. “You mean to say that Mariupol was colorless and unattractive until the fruits of democracy emerged?”

“Oh, yes!” she replied. She went on to enthusiastically describe how the port city bloomed in the post-communist era, with new parks and festivals and foreign restaurants painting the landscape in her early adulthood thanks, in part, to President Zelensky’s progressive leadership. Her favorite activity was walking her beloved Siberian husky, Yola, by the seaside.

Yola today.
What I came to learn in writing Escape from Mariupol is the importance of sticking to the facts and only the facts, regardless of whether or not they fit my preconceived notions. Just as any good detective knows that confirmation bias is a death knell to cracking an unsolved case, so every good journalist opens their mind to what their subject is trying to convey without injecting their own cultural bias. I am an American, after all. I have never been to Ukraine. The little that I know about it comes from books, the news, and online searches. In writing Escape, I had to listen closely to what Adoriana was saying, read between the lines, and follow up with endless questions
Above all, I had to capture Adoriana’s true voice and put my voice on the back burner. That said, you will hear my voice echoing in the background as the story unfolds: the references to various American sayings and films and the more academic feel to paragraphs that footnote my research. I searched online for reliable and diverse news sources, careful not to fall into the disinformation trap that seeks to ensnare all of us whenever we research online. What emerges, I hope, is a disturbing yet inspirational account of one woman’s plight in her war-torn country of Ukraine.

Interested in reading Escape? Here’s the Amazon link: