Unnoticed Slovak writer published in Ukraine

Ivan Yatskanyn, a writer of Ukrainian ethnicity, has never had any of his books translated into Slovak.

Ivan Yatskanyn, 71, is a Slovak-Ukrainian author who writes exclusively in the Ukrainian language. (Source: Peter Dlhopolec for The Slovak Spectator)

With 20 books he has written over the years, Ivan Yatskanyn could have spent all his time with grandchildren or fill it with a new hobby, but he says he is nowhere near done yet.

“I don’t know what it means to have a day off. All my free time I devote to writing and literary translation, which I enjoy,” the 71-year-old Slovak author of Ukrainian ethnicity, who writes exclusively in Ukrainian, tells The Slovak Spectator. “In these difficult times, it is even nice refuge.”

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Composed, he sits at his desk in his small Prešov office, dominated by books in Ukrainian lined up on shelves, several old typewriters that seem to be decorations rather than still in use, and two portraits of the great Ukrainian writers Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko above his head. He tries to remember and name all his present-day activities, some of which he took up decades ago.

Since the nineties Yatskanyn has served as the editor-in-chief of the children’s magazine “Veselka” and the literary magazine “Dukľa”, which are published in Ukrainian and financed by a fund scheme under the Culture Ministry.

After three years, the former journalist and lecturer has just translated the late Slovak writer Leopold Lahola’s collection of short stories “Posledná vec” (The Last Thing) into Ukrainian and plans to put it out. “It is an uneasy task to publish a book today. You must seek financial resources,” says the author, who has also completed work on his next children’s book. It will be published by the Timpani publishing house in Uzhhorod, Ukraine.

On top of translating and writing, Yatskanyn chairs the Society of Ukrainian Writers that brings together 23 Slovak authors publishing their works in Ukrainian. “Our age average is high. We lack younger writers,” the chair admits, saying the Society will publish seven books in Ukrainian this year.

“It’s not that bad. This year is fruitful,” he says to his own satisfaction.

Writers unknown to Slovak readers

But even if there were younger authors in the Society, most Slovaks would most likely never hear of them. Rarely have these writers been translated into Slovak, most of them in the bygone days.

Slovak-Ukrainian poet Stepan Hostyňak’s collection of Ukrainian poems was translated into Slovak and published under the name “Inventarizácia” (Inventory) by the Východoslovenské vydavateľstvo publishing house in 1987. However, in more recent years, Slovak-Ukrainian writer Július Paňko have managed to self-publish several of his books in Slovak, including “Levoška” in 2008, with the help of his wife Mária. She translated his books from Ukrainian into Slovak.

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“Slovakia used to have a strategy that supported literary translations,” says Yatskanyn, adding that today’s support is not systematic. He is disappointed that money decides what books get published at present.

Yatskanyn debuted with a collection of short stories called “Trvalé bydlisko” (Home), undiscovered by Slovaks, in 1987. His works and books by other authors who write in Ukrainian are more likely to be found in libraries in eastern Slovakia, which neighbours Ukraine, rather than in other parts of the country. This is where the Ukrainian minority – Yatskanyn’s readership - lives.

“We would send our books to a library in Zvolen [central Slovakia], but who would read them in Ukrainian there?” the writer asks.

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None of Yatskanyn’s books have been translated into Slovak. But the Volvox Globator publisher in the Czech Republic published “Asfaltový hoch” (The Asphalt Boy), a collection of Yatskanyn’s short stories, translated by Rita Lyons Kindlerová, in 2020. A collection in Polish came out four years earlier.

The author recalls what many have told him: “You translated books written by many Slovak authors into Ukrainian, someone should finally translate yours.” For instance, Yatskanyn translated Slovak writer Rudolf Jašík’s novel “Popolavá vrana” (The Ashen Crow) in 2021.

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Not disturbed by the fact that his works do not get translated in Slovakia, Yatskanyn says he would rather translate his books into Slovak himself than use the argument presented to him by his acquaintances.

“The thing is that I don’t like to go back to my texts,” says the author, whose several books have been published in Ukraine. “It’s one of the other ways to reach a Ukrainian-speaking readership, and I harnessed it.”

According to Yatskanyn, Slovaks can also discover works written by Slovak-Ukrainian authors, but they must first learn to pay attention to people who have a background other than Slovak and who live around them, their problems, culture, as well as literature.

“It cannot be just about them,” the writer says.

Love for short stories

The stories written by Slovak-Ukrainian authors often portray people from eastern Slovakia who left their villages and moved to towns. “It is literature without exaggeration, which would also speak to Slovaks,” Yatskanyn claims. It does not fall behind Slovak literature, he notes.

Neither have the late writer Eva Bissová’s works been translated into Slovak. Her stories were shaped by tough life in Subcarpathian Rus, WWII, and communism. She was not allowed to publish her books for several years under communism. “She would deserve to get translated, but literary translations are time-consuming and not well-paid,” says Yatskanyn.

Born in the village of Rešov, near Bardejov, many of Yatskanyn’s stories are set in the countryside. Very few of them are autobiographical, though.

He loves writing short stories, “It’s a form that requires great concentration and being laconic as you want to say a lot within a small space.” Yet, in his opinion, today’s short stories often lack the artistic language and only recount a story.

Yatskanyn wrote his first novel called “Anjel nad mestom” (Angel Above the Town) in 2001, and he is planning on writing another one. “I already know what it will be about,” Yatskanyn says mysteriously.

The times when he used to write stories until the small hours or on the train are over for him. “Today, I need to plan my time,” the busy writer says. There are moments when he is eager to write something, then he needs to switch to translating or reading a book to not fall into a routine.

Translating Švantner

Despite his age, he aims to translate those Slovak folk tales that have not been published in Ukrainian. “If there is time,” he sighs. The Slovak-Ukrainian author translates only books that he likes. For now, Yatskanyn focuses on the translation of short stories written by Slovak author František Švantner.

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“He is very close to my heart,” the writer says. His love for Švantner’s literature goes back to his childhood. A lady once entered their classroom and asked pupils if they would like to become patrons at the local Prešov library. Yatskanyn joined the library. There he discovered Švantner’s debut novel “Malka”. It was published in 1942.

“I read it and I fell in love with the book. It reminded me of Rešov,” he says. Nature plays a vital role in Švantner’s stories.

As he speaks about the writer, his fond memories of scything the grass with his father and ploughing the soil with his mother resurface. “The best agricultural activities. But it was hard work,” he says. He often grazed cows with his brother. “We carried a bag full of books with us. It was a time of reading.”

At this point, nearing the end of the interview, Yatskanyn mentions he has a garden near Prešov. “I sometimes write there, but you can see me digging and planting crops more often. It’s relaxing.”

This article is part of the Our Minorities project, carried out with the financial support of the Fund for the Support of the Culture of National Minorities.

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