Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing & Translation, with Erma Odrach

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On Writing & Translation, with Erma Odrach

Erma Odrach talks to Open Book about translation, her father, Theodore Odrach, and his book, Wave of Terror.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your father, Theodore Odrach.

Erma Odrach:

After the end of WWII, my father found himself roaming around Europe. Marrying and living in Manchester, England for five years, in 1953, together with my mother, he immigrated to Canada. My parents bought a Victorian-semi in Toronto’s west-end (not far from the Ex), and it was there that my father penned several novels and books of short stories, all in the Ukrainian language. As far as I know, there were no Cyrillic presses in the country at that time, so his earlier manuscripts had to be shipped off to Buenos Aires for publication — off they’d go and back they’d come about a year later in book form. Some of his subsequent work, however, was already published in New York, Toronto and Winnipeg.

At the same time, you must understand, for an émigré writer living in Toronto in the 50s and 60s and writing in Ukrainian, things were extremely hopeless. My father’s readership, at best, was limited to a handful of fellow immigrants, and, of course, his books were banned in the Soviet Union. As a result, he didn’t have much of a market anywhere. His books just ended up floating around the streets of Toronto in a sort of underground ethnic subculture, completely invisible to the slowly emerging CanLit scene.

Any hope for translation was out of the question, simply because there were no translators around at that time. Of course, that would all change but not till many, many years later.

OBT:

Tell us about your father's book, Wave of Terror. How autobiographical is it?

EO:

Wave of Terror occurs just after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It is 1939, and as Hitler is invading Poland from the west, Stalin is rapidly moving in from the east. Wave of Terror captures the harsh, everyday realities of people caught in Stalin’s world in ‘39 in and around the town of Pinsk (now in Belarus). Through the eyes of a young school teacher, Ivan Kulik, the reader witnesses the tragedy of Stalinist domination, where people are randomly deported to labour camps, tortured and slain. Ivan’s love for the young, whimsical green-eyed Marusia is a theme throughout the book. But it’s not all doom and gloom, as there is as much comedy (though dark) as there is horror.

And yes, it could be said Wave of Terror is autobiographical. I couldn’t really say exactly how much Kulik, the main protagonist, is my father, but according to what my mother told me, it's quite a lot. Both Kulik and my father were caught up in a world turned upside down and both had to learn the politics of survival. Kulik is the eyes, ears and heart of the novel, and it is through him the reader witnesses the atrocities being committed, of people being sent to the Gulag or murdered. He is the observer, almost like a journalist, and he tells us what’s going on. Also, Kulik, like my father is a schoolteacher. And many of the events in the book are eyewitness accounts, even the people are real, though fictionalized to some extent, but how much, I couldn’t say.

Because my father died barely having completed Wave of Terror, it was published posthumously in 1976 by the Ukrainian community in Toronto, though unfinished and unedited.

OBT:

Your father started writing and publishing when he immigrated with your mother to Toronto. How do you think living in Toronto influenced his writing?

EO:

My father, due to complicated politics in Eastern Europe, had never been a citizen of any country. When he arrived in Canada and got his papers he was thrilled &mdash: he felt it was absolutely the best place in the world. He was able to think, speak, travel, do as he pleased, and all without fear. By day he worked in a printing press and by night came home and typed as long as he could stay awake. With Wave of Terror it was my father’s intention to document the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Stalinist regime in his part of the world. In short, though fiction, he meant it largely as an exposé on Soviet oppression. Canada gave him the freedom to tell his story.

As far as Toronto goes, I have to say, my father took to the city at once. His absolute favourite spot was the Toronto Islands. He was an avid fisherman, and with his rod and tackle-box in hand, he would often take the streetcar to the docks and board a ferry. Normally, once there, he would sit over one of the canals with a view of the skyline. He often spent the night there in the quiet he loved so much, where he was able to let his mind drift, interrupted on occasion by the night watchman. I think he found inspiration on the island, and Wave of Terror in many ways is a result of that.

The Toronto Central Library (now the U of T bookstore) was another favourite haunt of my father’s. On Sunday afternoons he’d take my sister and me to the art gallery; for some reason we spent a lot of time at the AGO. My father also frequented Kensington Market, maybe because the first place he ever lived in Toronto was on Oxford Street, right on the corner.

OBT:

How old were you when you first read your father’s writings and what was your impression?

EO:

I never really read anything by my father until I was well into my 20s. I made several attempts prior to that, but reading in Ukrainian and at a literary level was just too difficult. I could string together the Cyrillic letters easily enough, make out a few words here and there, but the overall vocabulary was completely over my head. My mother kept my father’s books placed neatly on the top shelf of the bookcase in our living room, and I often wondered what was in them. It was very frustrating not to be able to just sit down and read one.

OBT:

When and why did you decide to translate your father’s writings?

EO:

Even before knowing what my father’s books were about, translating was forever on my mind; I can’t really explain it, but the idea was always just there. Then one day I decided to purchase a Ukrainian-English dictionary, and that’s when it all started to happen. The biggest challenge, of course, was vocabulary — I literally had to look up every second word. The process was extremely long and arduous, even torturous. I spent hours upon hours with my head buried in that dictionary, which has since fallen apart. But quite astonishingly, in the end, somehow it all came together and quite naturally; when I actually started translating, the words seemed to fall into place and without much effort. I found my father and I had a preference for the same kind of simple, unadorned prose, so that was half the battle right there.

OBT:

Can you describe the experience of translating your father’s work?

EO:

My father died when I was young, I hardly knew him, so I was pretty much left on my own to tackle his works (though my mother helped me a lot, because my father had read her all his manuscripts). When I started reading Wave of Terror in the original, I really had no idea what it was about, other than that it took place in Eastern Europe at the start of WWII under Stalin. I also had no idea what kind of writer my father was, good or bad. And then slowly but surely the pages started to come to life: there were people living inside them, there were great panoramas, history was in the making. I soon found myself completely absorbed. I liked that my father strove to convey his words in a universal way and to overcome barriers of language. Human suffering, for example, has only one language as does anger, love, hate and so on. Much of my father’s work has a very human edge, and I came to admire his compassion. I felt very grateful to have gotten to know him through his work.

But I had never translated anything before. Would I be able to pull it off? That was the next big question. When Academy Chicago Publishers made me an offer, I was thrilled to be in excellent hands.

OBT:

Your father died when you were quite young. On a research trip to Belarus back in 2006, you found out many things about your father. Can you tell us about your discoveries? Did they influence your translation?

EO:

Traveling to Belarus was quite a surreal experience. It is still communist and a very controlled place. The town of Pinsk was remarkably familiar to me through my father’s writings. I knew, for example, where certain streets were, where the Park of Culture and Rest was, the train station, numerous buildings, churches and so on. But it was also eerie because I knew it only from a 1939 perspective, when Red Army troops were invading and when there were picture-posters of Stalin everywhere. One afternoon I happened across Zovty Prison, which figures prominently in the book and where countless people had been murdered by the secret police. There it was on Sovietskaya Street, that’s how I knew for sure what it was. The prison was just as enormous as my father had described it in his book, and still yellow. But now it was a cancer hospital for victims from the Chernobyl fallout. I heard people talking and laughing through an open window. There was not even a hint anywhere of its violent past.

The little I knew about my father’s life came from my mother. What I was told over and over, was that WWII left no surviving relatives. However, when I visited, that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. During my last day there, in the span of a few hours, about 50 people emerged, claiming to be long-lost relatives. It was quite unreal. And they had specific information no one else could have known — that my father had spent his youth in a correctional facility, that he had graduated from the university in Vilnius, that he had edited banned newspapers, that he had changed his name from Sholomitsky to Odrach, that he had married and divorced early on. The information kept coming at me, and there was even a photo of him when he was only 19. I always believed my father to be Ukrainian, and the real shocker came when the relatives said he, in fact, was Belarusian. When pursued by the Soviets, they maintained, he had been forced to take on a new identity to protect the family he left behind. At first I thought this was a joke of some sort, maybe even a conspiracy. Needless to say, I am still looking for answers.

And about your last question — yes, my research trip helped me considerably with the translation. It allowed me to bring a life into the book I couldn’t otherwise have brought.

OBT:

What’s your next project?

EO:

I’m working on translating a novel that takes place right after the Yalta conference, when Eastern Europe is being handed back over to Stalin. There are feelings of fear, betrayal and abandonment among the characters. Everyone’s in a panic, trying to make a run for the border. I’ll be done in a few months.


For the past number of years Erma Odrach has been translating the works of her late father into English. Prior to publication, excerpts from Wave of Terror have appeared in Flipside (Univ. of California at Pennsylvania) and vMobius: the Journal of Social Change. Short stories were published in such literary journals as The Antigonish Review, The Connecticut Review, The New Quarterly and many more. Also, a story appeared in the Penguin Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. For some of her translations Erma won an honourable mention from the Translation Center at Columbia University, NY. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the GTA.


Theodore Odrach was a Canadian émigré writer of novels and short stories. He was born in 1912 near Pinsk, Belarus (then a part of Czarist Russia), today infamously known as the Chernobyl zone. He studied at the university in Vilnius, and later, with the outbreak of WWII, became a teacher under the new Soviet regime. Like many of his contemporaries at the time, he was deemed “an enemy of the people” by the Soviets and became a man on the run. Changing his name from Sholomitsky to Odrach in the hopes of protecting the family he left behind, eventually Odrach managed to escape into Slovakia by way of the Carpathian Mountains. After the war’s end, in 1953, together with his wife, Klara, he immigrated to Canada. It was in his Toronto home that he produced the majority of his works, written in the Ukrainian language. Wave of Terror, recently published by Academy Chicago Publishers, is his first novel to appear in English. Odrach died in Toronto in 1964.

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