Interview with Lorene Shyba and Magda Stroinska on The Little Book

photo of Lorene Shyba
Lorene Shyba

Lorene Shyba is Director and Publisher at Durvile & UpRoute Books and author of the Introduction of The Little Book. Lorene has worked professionally in book and magazine publishing for over three decades with expertise in writing and editing, print and web design, and audiobook production. Her doctoral degree from the University of Calgary is in interactive media and she has been on faculty in departments of creative arts, communications, and computer science at the University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge, Montana Tech, and McMaster University. 

photo of Magda Stroinska
Magda Stroinska

Magda Stroinska (MA Warsaw, PhD Edinburgh) is Professor of German and Linguistics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Her major areas of research include sociolinguistics and cross-cultural pragmatics, in particular cultural stereotyping, language and politics, propaganda and language manipulation, the issues of identity in exile, aging and bilingualism, as well as language and psychological trauma. She is also interested in theory of translation and computational linguistics.

The Little Book was originally printed in 1932 — the version they worked from was called  “The Corrected Edition” and is dated 1940, printed in Winnipeg, Manitoba by A. Homik. This little reader, translated literally as “The First Little Book” made a vital contribution to the curriculum for Canadian-Ukrainian children in prairie schools. Besides containing alphabet letters and delightful illustrations, the book features charming parables and poems by legendary Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko and others. New to the Special Humanitarian 2022 Edition is an English translation of the lovely Ukrainian lessons and literature.  Proceeds are going to the Canada Ukraine Foundation.

Shauna Kosoris: What was the inspiration behind translating and rereleasing The Little Book

Magda Stroinska: The inspiration came from Lorene. I know Lorene from the time she worked at McMaster University in Communication Studies. We kept in very casual touch via Facebook. She had an original copy of the 2nd edition of The Little Book, one handed down by her grandmother. When the war broke out, she posted a few excerpts on her Facebook page and I reacted with surprise: “I can read it and I understand it!” 

Lorene Shyba: The inspiration behind releasing The Little Book happened the day that the Russians invaded Ukraine, February 24, 2022. As a member of the Ukrainian Canadian diaspora, I was horrified and driven to do something to help. 

MS: I also always felt a lot of affinity to Ukraine even though my family is Polish. My father’s side of the family comes from what is now Ukraine. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when my father was born in 1900 (in Czortków in Polish or Чортків in Ukrainian) and Poland in the early 1930s when he moved to Warsaw. It is Western Ukraine now.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine had a huge emotional impact on me; it revived memories of stories of my father’s family’s suffering, deportation, etc. during WWII. History was repeating itself… Poles and Ukrainians have a lot of shared history, not always a happy one. I was enthusiastic about Ukrainian independence after the breakdown of the Soviet Union and its progress toward democracy and closer ties with Europe. To see these dreams crushed in such a brutal way was devastating.

LS: As a publisher, I have been publishing language books for Indigenous communities (Blackfoot, Dene, Metis, Stoney Nakoda) so I followed that prototype. I looked in old storage trunks and located an old copy of a Ukrainian reader that had been used in Canadian prairie schools. My grandmother and mother used to read to me from that book. I scanned the beautiful illustrations and Magda Stroinska translated the little stories and we put a book together in record time, with publisher proceeds going to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation. Some bookstores, wholesalers, and sales agents also donated proceeds and we have donated more than $20,000.

MS: I did not expect that Lorene would suggest that I translate the book. When she did, I thought she meant a few pages, along with other people… But I have been on administrative leave from my university this year and had relatively more free time than normal. 

Even though my father died when I was only 13, I was familiar with many Ukrainian words through my two half-brothers and my father’s siblings. Ukrainian spoken in Western Ukraine (where The Little Book was first published) had a lot of similarities to Polish. I had to take Russian in school for 8 years and can read the Cyrillic alphabet. I was also aided by my background in linguistics and extensive experience in translation. With all those aids and with occasional help from online dictionaries and a colleague who speaks Ukrainian, I felt confident that I could do it.

I ended up translating almost the whole book and I was able to do it relatively quickly – I virtually abandoned everything else for that stretch of time. It gave me a huge satisfaction knowing that the proceeds will help Ukraine.

Did you both have a history with the book prior to working on this Humanitarian edition?

MS: No, I did not see this book before reading some excerpts on Lorene’s Facebook.

LS: My mother taught from this book in a one-room schoolhouse near Vegreville, Alberta and she tried teaching me Ukrainian from the book when I was a child.

What was the hardest part of translating and rereleasing The Little Book?

LS: I will leave this answer mostly to Magda. I will just say that her work on the project was impeccable and I could not have asked for a better collaborator. Her interest and abilities were a perfect match.

MS: First of all, even though I can claim I understand a lot of Ukrainian, I never ever thought I would do a translation from that language. I am actually really proud that I did. As for translation problems, the difficult part was that the language in the book was somewhat different from modern standard Ukrainian and so Google translate wasn’t very helpful. On the other hand, it was also closer to Polish and so I understood many words because they were very much like Polish words even when Google gave different translations. For example, in The Little Book, the author uses the expression “діти бавляться” for “the children are playing/having fun” while Google suggests діти граються. But бавляться is just like the Polish bawić się and so easy to comprehend. 

There were a couple of words that I could not find, neither through Google Translate, nor on the internet. In such situations, I asked my departmental colleague Nik Penner. He was born in Ukraine and Ukrainian is his mother tongue, along with German. If he wasn’t sure, he had two Ukrainian mothers (his own and his mother-in-law) who were always able to help. 

Another issue was the alphabet. I can read Cyrillic writing and so I was able to read the Ukrainian texts well. However, my exposure to reading in the Cyrillic alphabet was limited and I was reading the texts from scans that Lorene emailed to me. I blame one error I made on the imperfect quality of the text… I read a word as школа but it really was шкода. The difference in print is just the little horizontal bar at bottom of the penultimate letter. But the meaning is quite different. The first means “school”, the second means “pity”. The sentence on page 57 which I translated as “And here is the school” should really read “That’s a pity”. I felt really awful when I first perused through the published copy and found my mistake.

I did not feel that I could properly translate the poetry by Taras Shevchenko. I would have wanted to translate poetry into poetry … One of my half-brothers was a translator of literary texts, including poetry and so I knew that I did not have enough talent to do it as I imagined it should be done. I was happy that Lorene’s cousin, Volodymyr, agreed to do it. Shevchenko’s poetry is very important in Ukrainian culture and I am glad it was done by a native Ukrainian.

How did you choose what would remain in the book, and what was left out (for example, the Ukrainian verses that are available by scanning the QR codes in the book’s margins?)

MS: These difficult decisions were taken by Lorene. She knew how much could go into the republished book. I translated as much as she asked me to and was happy for her to make the decisions. 

LS: I decided to leave out the cursive writing because we needed to make space for the English translation. But, as you noted, these pages were added to the website as a bonus feature.

It is important to note that the book is also an audiobook, with music and verbalized Ukrainian, spoken by my cousin in Chernahiv, Ukraine. The audiobook is available from audiobook venders such as Audible and Kobo.

MS: I think the additional resources are excellent. The recordings of the stories and their translations, the poems recited by Volodymyr, and their translations read by Lorene. This multimedia approach brings The Little Book to life!

What is your favourite part of The Little Book?

MS: I am sure that different people will find that different aspects of the book resonated with them. For me, the most appealing aspects were the different ways children played and stayed active and the generally positive tone of the book. I too grew up before computers, video games and smartphones. As children, growing up in post-war Poland, we too had to play many make-believe games, pretending that cardboard boxes were railway cars or that one could make cakes out of mud and bake them in the sun. I am not sure how children today will relate to these stories but for me they stressed the importance of imagination and creativity. I am missing this today. 

The positivity becomes striking when one thinks about what was happening in Ukraine when The Little Book was being written. The 1930s in the Soviet part of Ukraine was the time of the Holodomor, the starvation of millions of people due to government policies of extermination through starvation that today are considered genocide. The situation in Polish dominated Western Ukraine was not as bad but there were also ethnic conflicts. Yet The Little Book retains its beautiful innocence and universality by staying away from those unfortunate events.  

LS: My favourite part of the book is my memory of my grandmother and mother reading the book to me and showing me the pictures. I also love the way the audiobook incorporates traditional music and poetry. It is beautifully read.

If you could change one thing about The Little Book, what would it be?

LS: Nope, can’t think of a thing. We have 4 printings in Canada and 1 printing in the USA and there were a few small typos corrected along the way but it’s great just the way it is.

MS: I would re-read my translations even more carefully and make sure there were no mistakes… I am a bit of a perfectionist and try to proofread everything…. I am really unhappy when I make mistakes.

Will you be working on translating other Ukrainian books in the future?

MS: I would love to. If there is an opportunity, I shall be happy to help.

LS: Durvile & UpRoute Books have a second book now, Olya & Olena Escape the Invaders, which was also published as a response to the Russian invasion. 

We have been approached by other Ukrainian writers in Canada and in Ukraine and we are currently reviewing manuscripts for possible publications.

That’s exciting. I look forward to reading these new Durvile stories.  Why did you choose to donate the proceeds to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, rather than other possible charities?

MS: I was entirely happy to do the translation without any payment. The choice of charity is a question to Lorene. I fully trusted her judgment. 

LS: They were first off the mark with their campaign and I investigated and quickly realized their intentions were honorable. Proceeds for our second book, Olya & Olena Escape the Invaders, are also going to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, Help for Newcomers fund.

Finally, what do you hope Canadians will get out of The Little Book?

MS: I see a number of potential outcomes. With the influx of Ukrainian refugees and immigrants, there will be Ukrainian children coming to Canadian schools. The Little Book can help teachers integrate these children into Canadian classrooms telling them about Ukrainian children who came here almost 100 years ago. For Ukrainian children, it may be a way of cherishing their language, culture and traditions far away from home. I can also see this book as a conversation starter between generations: if grandparents read it to their grandchildren, they can talk about the ways children used to play and spend time in the past. I would like people to read the stories in The Little Book and get immersed in the happy childhood memories.

I gave a copy to my friend whose parents were Ukrainian, forced into a labour camp in Germany during WWII. They met, fell in love and married and he was born in Germany before they immigrated to Canada. Now in his 70s, he read The Little Book to remind himself of the alphabet and enjoyed the stories. 

The Little Book is also a beautiful fundraiser, innocent of politics but supporting the Ukrainian fight for survival. I was very happy to be part of that project.

LS: With both books, we hope that Canadians, and Americans, feel that their investment in the book is going to a good cause.

cover of The Little Book

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