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Former LYIT lecturer Graham Harrison turns to Russian sonnets

Graham Harrison.

Graham Harrison.

BY SEÁN P. FEENY
A RETIRED Letterkenny Institute of Technology lecturer’s translation of sonnets by a Ukrainian-born Russian poet have just been published.

Originally from Lichfield in Staffordshire, Graham Harrison is a well-known figure in Donegal having lectured in German and Russian at LYIT for nearly three decades.
He has also been heavily involved in the classical music scene in the county for years and more recently took over the St Eunan’s Cathedral Choir in 2012.

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Since he retired in 2008, Graham has spent a lot of time translating Russian poetry, including the work of early 20th century poet Maximillian Voloshin (born Kiev, 1877; died Koktebel, Crimea 1932).

A former Regional Technical College language assistant, Andrei Cherednichenko, who worked at the college in 1993 and is now an imminent scholar in the Ukraine, first sent Graham Voloshin’s Fifteen Sonnets entitled Corona astralis [The Crowns of Stars] to translate.
Graham said: “I left the poems aside for years and then one day picked them up and thought ‘I can do this, I can translate these poems’.”

He spent six months reading the sonnets ‘many, many times’, thinking about them, as well as increasing his knowledge of the Russian language by delving into areas he had never touched before, ahead of starting to translate them.
“Once I began translating them I did almost one a day, so it didn’t take me long to complete the first draughts, but refining them too some time.”

Graham said Voloshin’s work is ‘highly imaginative’ and in his Corona Australis cycle of sonnets he deals with the poet’s role in this world.
“In Russia a poet is regarded to be more of a prophet. Voloshin is aware of being very different from other people and in these poems the stars seem to be calling to him.”
It took Graham two years to fully complete the translations and once he had them done, he didn’t know what to do with them, he said.

“My wife Sheila (née Gillen) and I were invited by Andrei to a literary conference he was organising in Crimea, Ukraine where both he and I read the Voloshin’s poems in English and Russian. After the conference I was approached by Olena Syrtsova of the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kiev who said she could get these poems published in a Ukrainian historical anthology, and so she did.”

This is the first time Graham’s translations have been published in print and it was a great thrill for him to see the publication when it arrived by post this week.
Graham’s translations feature the Ukrainian almanac, Sub Rosa, alongside work by contemporary Ukrainian poets, articles on national and local history and much more in the anthology, but some of them were in fact first read in public at the monthly event, North West Words in Café Blend. While still keeping busy with his work as director of the cathedral choir, Graham is also working on further translations of Max Voloshin’s work.

Extracts from Corona astralis translated by Graham Harrison

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[the fascination and power of the stars…]

Midnight suns entice and draw us onward;
Man’s gaze, tenacious, plumbs the starry shafts
and universes course the diamond paths.
Constellations, mists and planets all,

from Sirius to Vega and from Beta
of the Bear to flickering Pleiades,
they plough the heavenly void and bring
all plans, all vows to being in darkness.

O dust of worlds! O swarm of consecrated bees!
I’ve studied, measured, weighed, accounted,
allotted names, drawn maps and calculated,
yet none of this could still the Horror of the stars.
All is recalled: our ancient, brooding soul’s
not bathed, alas! in Lethe’s deep oblivion!

[the poet fails all earthly tests…]

Banished exiles, wanderers and poets, —
Some yearned to be, others came to nothing.
The bird commands its nest, the beast its lair;
The staff of poverty’s our sole empire.

Our duties shunned, our vows forsaken,
void the journey. Subject to fate’s wrongs
we dream all paths, doubtful of all roads taken.
Spilled the honey; unsung, alas! the songs.

[earthly existence is not enough…]

For some the earth’s a sacred land of exile;
the fields, the rolling plain bring no delight.
To such a man each step, each moment
summon him to other worlds and other light.

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