Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Voices of Ukraine Speak Out in Many Languages

English-language editor of Voices of Ukraine explains how this volunteer-run translation project is proving a vital resource.
By Isis Wisdom

The genesis of Voices of Ukraine  is as a diaspora project, although one of the founders is from Kiev and we’ve made sure there are always experts on the ground in Ukraine whom we can call on as needed.

It started in early December 2013 as a social network project when Euromaidan SOS put out a call to translate a text for the OSCE, and the Euro-Maidan As It Is  Facebook page was created by one founder to post such texts. Very soon after, a MaidanNeedsTranslators  Facebook page was started by the other founder in Ukraine as a companion, so translators could take on articles posted there.

At the beginning, there were two or three people working on the project. Now there is a core group of 15 coordinators and editors, with between eight and 11 doing most of the daily work. Beyond this core are many translators who are not coordinators but who put in a lot of time translating on a regular basis.

It’s formed from people who gravitated to the Facebook page because of the vision expressed in it. Some people come and go, others stay, still others come back again and again. We welcome everyone whose heart is in it and are deeply grateful to all the amazing translators and the dedicated readers who comment and the many interesting relationships from all around this globe that have developed.

The person who started that first page has stepped away temporarily while completing grad studies for the year. I have been the English editor from very early on, and built the English section and team up to what it is currently.

The languages are mainly English and German, but also Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French, Lithuanian and others, with translators in countries including Germany, Ukraine, Italy, the United States, Canada, the UK, Japan, France, Poland, Romania and others. We also have Russians helping us.

English is the most important language because that is our biggest readership. German has its own particular challenges.

It’s not easy for our German team because the climate they translate and publish in is harsher. Polls say more than half of Germans think Russia is quite right to invade Ukraine to protect a Russian-speaking population – and we have translated and posted many articles documenting Russian language natives (from eastern Ukraine and Crimea) who have never needed or desired Russian “protection” and say so themselves.

Some Western outlets want to do balanced reporting, but there are pro-Russian trolls everywhere, and the comments are atrocious. There are also anti-Western trolls who try to radicalise the discussion and other trolls who push their own agenda, be it political or not. We try to ensure that our resource provides an insight into what it is like to be a Ukrainian, and to familiarise the rest of the world with the generosity of the Ukrainian spirit.

There have been waves of generalised blanket statements that are repeated over and over in Western mediam and one of the things still missing is some better-quality, deeper analysis. There are many Ukrainian analysts both in Ukraine and the diaspora, but they are only being picked up sporadically.

Our mission statement on the website explains that basically, we were formed like so many other groups because there is a need for accurate information about events in Ukraine to go global in different languages. You need to get the truth about Ukraine out to the West and the wider world. And everyone who comes to us to read or work either cares deeply about what is happening in Ukraine or needs to hear more than what they’re hearing.

Beyond our mission statement, the feedback we get is that we are the most open, credible and truthful source of information people have come across– and that’s why people keep coming back to us. This is what they write in to let us know.

If you want to uphold democracy, then it is something you have to insist upon and fight for. For example, Western oil companies (from the US, Norway, France, etc) have redoubled their support for Russia and they are still drilling, including in Crimea, where deals are now going to Russia. It’s still business as usual until their governments make it legally more difficult for them to continue doing so. So there are sanctions but they are still not strong enough. What these companies are doing amounts to undermining their own governments’ efforts in uniting against Russian aggression.

Although we have an incredible number of interesting and key people, including journalists and politicians, who follow and retweet us regularly, we are not trying to influence politics or opinions, but rather to inform and transform. Our target is to reach anyone who cares about Ukraine or is interested in knowing more, person by person, heart by heart.

We have even had people from New Jersey responding directly to people in Kharkiv and able to ask them questions directly, as a result of translating a status update from eastern Ukraine. Facilitating such connections is important because people know it’s real, that it’s an authentic exchange.

Before we print anything we double-check it and ask key people if the information is true. We also network with the Euro-Asian Jewish Council, a member of whom is in our coordinating group, we coordinate with EuromaidanPR and cooperate by re-blogging each others’ information. We are in constant daily contact with the director of the Centre for Military and Political Research and the Information Resistance group leader, who is in our coordinating group; we have a coordinator in Feodosiya, and we work with other political and cultural groups in an ongoing way.

Voices of Ukraine is not just political information; it is about the cultural space of Ukraine as well. And we create a platform for partner projects as well.

We are conscious this will be an archival project used by researchers in the future, and indeed, it has already begun to be used this way now for books and articles on this time period.

In less than five months we have had well over 2,400 posts, over 4,000 tweets and a following on social media of well over 7,000 signed-in, dedicated readers. Daily, we receive a minimum of 3,000 blog views (really the average is over 8,000, but we had an inordinately high number in March during the fighting, which skews it upward). Our highest number of views per single article has been 348,012 – that article trended to the top of Reddit’s World News and Front Page, beating all the commercial global news services for a day, as well as all the kitty-cat videos for some hours.

The total number of views is 966,000 so far and there are only seven places in the world from which we haven’t been accessed – five African countries, Turkmenistan and some islands in the Arctic.

We fund the website ourselves; the costs are not that high. We don’t want funding. People have offered, but we don’t want anything to do with money because it has a tendency to corrupt the work we do, and that work is not for commercial purposes or for the purposes of individual fame or career-building.

We all have our individual careers. We did not originally know each other, we are simply united by the vision for our project and its service in the world. We have grown closer to the people in our initiative and most of us hope that one day, we will be able to get together in a free and democratic Ukraine.

On average, I work on the project about four hours a day, often far more, sometimes from 5pm until 3am. When fighting breaks out, it’s round the clock – as much time as can be devoted to it. I seem to be editing and coordinating more than translating now.

I am a university professor and an events manager, amongst other things. I am Ukrainian, and although I was not born there, Ukrainian is my first language. My parents were Displaced Persons (in DP camps in Germany) and after World War 2 they emigrated to North America via Ellis Island.

I grew up in Canada with the KGB literally following me around as a child because of the diaspora projects my mother worked on. I never set out to be a big activist within the Ukrainian community, although I’ve done some projects in the past. This is more like a calling when the need arose.

When most people in the diaspora saw what was happening on Maidan [Kiev central square] they thought – they knew – this is the Ukraine we have been waiting for. And all diaspora efforts are grassroots efforts to help out in every way possible to make that free and independent Ukraine with a strong, functioning civil society a reality.

Yes, we pray to God that Russia has a Maidan too, for the sake of the Russian people. And Putin knows that, too, and will prevent such a revolution against corruption taking place in Moscow at all costs. His henchmen have been mimicking Maidan in the most cynical way in all the “separatist insurgencies”, precisely to attempt to completely discredit the good that came of that awakening. Putin is so afraid of it spreading.

We had thought it was going to happen in 2004 after the Orange Revolution, but that involved the wrong people and it was still too corrupt and without critical mass. Now younger people have grown up who are better equipped, who have had a freer and more accurate historical education, who live on social networks, and who are without memories of the Soviet era.

So for Ukraine, Maidan is now or never.

Isis Wisdom is the pseudonym of a Ukrainian activist in Canada.

Voices of Ukraine aims to make accurate information about the current crisis available around the world in a variety of languages. It has nearly one million views and more than 7,000 signed-in followers on social media.

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