Q&A: Translating Ukrainian Voices

Ruth Madievsky
From the July/August 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Literary translator Zenia Tompkins founded the Tompkins Agency for Ukrainian Literature in Translation (TAULT) in 2019. The mission of the nonprofit literary agency and translator collective—to increase the visibility and availability of contemporary Ukrainian literature in the English-speaking world—feels especially vital in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has imperiled, displaced, or killed millions of Ukrainians as part of a long-standing effort to suppress the Ukrainian people and culture. Since Russia’s invasion, TAULT has urgently escalated its efforts to connect Ukrainian writers with English-language presses, agents, and journals with the goal of foregrounding Ukrainian voices as the war rages on. Currently based in Bristow, Virginia, Tompkins spoke in April, roughly two months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, about the significance of bringing more Ukrainian literature in translation to the West.

Zenia Tompkins (Credit: Valerie Plesch)

How has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year affected TAULT’s mission and work? 
TAULT’s mission hasn’t changed at all in recent months, but how we’re going about pursuing our goal of promoting Ukrainian literature and the extent of the logistical support we’re receiving has changed drastically. The most significant change we’ve experienced is the sudden and very enthusiastic interest of American, British, and European agents in representing Ukrainian authors’ work to presses, which has freed up time I once spent making book submissions on authors’ behalf. Alongside my own book translations, my work has become almost exclusively focused on teaming up interested agents from around the world with Ukrainian authors for representation and ensuring that the agents have all the materials they need to promote these authors. We’ve also been able to streamline the process of Ukrainian authors being published in journals due to journals now seeking us out: One of our associate directors handles all queries for short pieces, finds authors available to write guest essays, and tasks the pieces to translators. Since the invasion we’ve really amped up the speed and frequency of our interactions with journals. Our other translators, meanwhile, have been able to devote themselves fully to translating literature. We’re now also in the process of setting up a collective of agents in Ukraine that will work alongside our translator collective to handle synopses, chapter outlines, and author bios, as well as scout new authors. 

How do you select Ukrainian literature to translate? And how do you pair authors and translators?
Until now I’ve chosen authors to work with in collaboration with individual translators, based on their interests. That said, TAULT rests on the premise that everyone involved in and working with our collective is willing to wait their turn at fame and help one another out, which has necessitated a certain level of “personality vetting” on my part with respect to both authors and translators. Since the invasion, our collective—which had already worked with over one hundred Ukrainian authors in our first three years—has made every effort to work with any Ukrainian author or press that has approached us by the logic that everyone in Ukraine needs financial assistance and moral support right now.

How do you hope to grow TAULT in the future?
My honest goal all along, since coming up with the idea of TAULT in early 2018, has been to run a translator collective and agency for as long as is necessary—until there are enough qualified agents representing Ukrainian authors that TAULT is no longer needed, and I could resume translating full-time. I genuinely look forward to this whole system that we’re trying to set up just operating on its own so that I can spend more time with books and less with my inbox—but as long as there’s a benefit to my standing in the middle and conducting, so to speak, I will likely keep doing so. 


Ruth Madievsky is the author of a forthcoming novel, All-Night Pharmacy (Catapult, 2023), and a poetry collection, Emergency Brake (Tavern Books, 2016). Her work appears in the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere.