Vera Rich: translator, journalist, poet and human rights activist
Vera Rich was an accomplished translator of Ukrainian and Belarussian literature and poetry. Born Faith Elizabeth Joan in 1936 in Canonbury, North London, but widely known as Vera — the direct Ukrainian translation of Faith — she came into contact with Ukrainian refugees who settled in Britain after the Second World War through her mother’s work with the Red Cross.
As a schoolgirl, by now living with her mother and maternal grandparents in their newly built house in Enfield, she saved up pocket money to buy Virgil’s Latin poetry from a secondhand bookshop in Palmers Green. Touring local churches with a Catholic worship group based in Cockfosters, she developed a particular affinity with a Belarussian chapel in Finchley, where Father Ceslaus Sipovich introduced her to the nation’s poetry. A glamorous yet eccentric teenager, she and her quick-witted mother became popular figures in the Ukrainian émigré community in the early 1950s, when the older Ms Rich persuaded nearby factory bosses to accept January 7, the Orthodox Christmas, as an official holiday.
At the age of 20, the younger Rich, who had already started translating French poetry, was encouraged by Wolodymyr Mykula, a Ukrainian friend she met at the University of Oxford, to translate Ukrainian poems into English for a literary magazine. The smitten young translator began to learn Ukrainian, using dictionaries and poetry anthologies as her tools.
She juggled these interests with formal studies at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she studied, from 1955-57, Old English and Old Norse, and Bedford College, London, from 1958-61, where she read mathematics with an optional course in Ukrainian.
Her first published translation in 1957, of the prologue to the poem Moses by Ivan Franko, was considered such an important milestone in Ukrainian culture that 40 years later the Union of Ukrainian Writers in Kiev presented Rich with a special award in memory of Franko. He was the first of 47 Ukrainian poets and authors she tackled, but it was her translations of one of Ukraine’s most famous sons, the folk poet Taras Shevchenko, who founded the fledgeling people’s literary tradition, that confirmed her credentials.
When her seminal volume, Song out of Darkness, the translation of a collection of Shevchenko’s most influential poems, was published in London in 1961, academics noticed how Rich’s dedication to the feel and rhythm of the poetry distinguished her from the competition. A staged version was presented at the Cripplegate Theatre, London, and an extract from her translation of The Caucusus appears on the monument to Shevchenko in Washington, which was unveiled on June 24, 1964.
A collection of her own poetry, Portents and Images, was published by the Mitre Press in London in 1963. It also included translations of the Belarussian poets, Jakub Kolas and Maksim Bahdanovic. Her translation of the latter’s Zimoj was published the following year in the US poetry magazine, The Muse, and reprinted in her anthology of Belarussian poetry, Like Water, Like Fire (1971), although it was banned by Soviet censors after initial publication under the auspices of Unesco.
Rich was no stranger to brushes with heavy-handed authorities behind the Iron Curtain, experienced during her journalistic activities, and she began to distance herself from her wider family, whom she felt might be under threat. In 1969 working as a freelance translator of Russian and Ukrainian physics texts, she met John Maddox, editor of the scientific weekly magazine Nature (obituary April 14, 2009). After a “friendly conversation and a few glasses of sherry”, he appointed her Soviet and East European correspondent, paid per line, plus a £5 weekly retainer. The appointment, which was meant to be for six months, lasted 20 years.
She recalled being “roughed up” by security police in Poland, where her articles supported Lech Walesa’s Gdansk-based Solidarity, the trade union movement suppressed in 1981 by the imposition of martial law. Under pseudonyms, she contributed to dissident journals in Poland and Hungary and supported youth groups planning to overthrow communism in both countries. Rich’s appetite for clandestine escapades led her to slip across the Polish-Soviet border, disguised as a headscarf-wearing Belarussian peasant, to meet fellow activists.
For Nature, she wrote about the abuse of psychiatry in “treating” political prisoners in the Soviet Union such as Leonid Plyushch, a Ukrainian mathematician declared insane and imprisoned together with psychotic patients in Dnipropetrovsk in 1972. After it gained independence from Moscow in 1991, she began to visit Ukraine and her contribution to the country’s culture led to her award, by presidential decree, of the Order of Princess Olha in 2007. She regarded this as the “peak moment” of her life. Friends say she was disappointed not to have been officially recognised by the Belarussian Government, which continued to see her as a thorn in its side.
Despite a meticulous approach to her work, Rich led a chaotic personal life, never marrying despite several romances. She frequently called publishers with extended rambling excuses for unfiled copy, often related to computer “emergencies”. Her indexed 40-year archive, together with 60 years of files from her late mother, was trashed by burglars in 1993 and she carried on with a “huge mass of papers, stuffed into boxes all higgledy-piggledy.” Yet she remained a prolific contributor to publications including New Scientist, the Times Higher Education Supplement, Physics World, The Tablet and Index on Censorship.
When travelling to cover stories, Rich would sleep in deserted railway stations and bus depots, constrained by both a lack of funds and a disregard for luxuries and material trappings. Her stamina for twice-weekly official functions came from years on the road with the East European press corps, where late-night vodka-fuelled card games, interspersed with anecdote-swapping and singing of traditional folk songs, were very much the norm.
From 2006 until her death she contributed a weekly column to Ukrainska Dumka (The Ukrainian Thought), a newspaper for the UK-based Ukrainian diaspora. In 1998 she resurrected her poetry magazine, Manifold, which she had previously edited from 1962 to 1969, combining commissioning duties with free drop-in advice clinics for young, aspiring poets.
Through her illness and treatment, she continued to attend weekly conversation classes at the Ukrainian Institute in Holland Park, West London, where she also performed her translations of Ukrainian poetry in her multi-media event, inspired by the Orange Revolution, From Mazepa to the Maidan. Her lectures on Slavonic literature at the Universities of Birmingham, London and Edinburgh were always well attended.
Rich’s later years were characterised by a passion for analysis of the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. Through her role in Nature magazine, she had identified contaminated areas. Co-operating with a nuclear physicist, Dr Alan Flowers of Kingston University, she was the driving force behind the eventual establishment and British-led funding of the International Environmental University, bearing the name of the Soviet dissident and Nobel prizewinner Andrei Sakharov, in the Belarussian capital of Minsk. She described the nuclear reactor’s explosion in 1986, and the subsequent pollution and social consequences, as a “tragic sore”, yet to be healed, running through recent Ukrainian and Belarussian history.
At the time of her death, Rich was working to complete the translation of Shevchenko’s Kobzar collection of poetry in time for the 150th anniversary of the poet’s passing in 2011. Led by Shevchenko’s most famous poem, Testament, she wrote:
“Then in that great family,
A family new and free,
Do not forget, with good intent
Speak quietly of me.”
Vera Rich, translator, journalist, poet and human rights activist, was born on April 24, 1936. She died of cancer on December 20, 2009, aged 73.
Vera Rich. Famous British translator of Taras Shevchenko's works