PART OF THEIR SOUL…
In different languages.
Annually, on November 11th, the Commonwealth proudly celebrate Remembrance Day. Across all of Canada, people pay tribute to soldiers and officers, thousands of men and women who served and continue to serve the country in wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.
Traditionally on this day, readings of the poem “In Flanders Fields” take place, written by Canadian military doctor Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, inspired by the death of his friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died on May 2nd 1915 in the Second Battle of Ypres. This poem became a hymn to the selfless heroism of people whose souls seemed to have been reincarnated as red poppies covering the field in bloody battle…
But this time, for the first time in world history, the poem “In Flanders Fields” resonated in 16 languages of communities residing in Canada. The person behind this unique initiative is Vita Shtivelman, founder and president of the arts and science Club EtCetera.
“Like most immigrants, I did not know where the Canadian tradition to wear poppies on Remembrance Day originated from,” Vita tells us. “Two years ago November 11th fell on a weekend, and my children took me with them to the ceremony at Fort York. What I’ve seen had left a strong impression: the ceremony attendees, despite the cold and drizzling rain, thoughtfully listened to the poem which was being read there. And I asked my daughter what the poem was about. ‘Mom, how can you not know – this is In Flanders Fields…’”
Upon returning home, Vita carefully re-read the poem, and found in it a moving reminder of something she had read back in her youth.
“I suddenly remembered, how in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, one soldier, a friend of the main protagonist, goes insane while looking at a field of poppies - it appears to him as a lake of blood… And shortly after, I translated the poem In Flanders Fields into Russian. Then, the idea to integrate it into the Canadian Cultural Mosaic project, came in February of this year…”
A tremendous amount of work had begun, which many people joined in for: Vita’s colleagues at her workplace Rogers (where she previously introduced and brought to life her project Canadian Cultural Mosaic), members of the club EtCetera, local community organizations, and other people. On the club’s website and Facebook page, Vita Shtivelman called for all those who were interested to participate in the project. Some people took it upon themselves to translate the poem, others have found previously published translations, or in some instances reached out to professional translators. The number of languages was growing incredibly fast…
“When I reached out to Fort York with the proposal to host the event there specifically, I got an answer back literally within a few hours,” recalls Vita. “The museum staff were extraordinarily enthusiastic about the idea and provided all possible services to make it happen – the space, the necessary equipment, information posted online about significant events happening in the city of Toronto. In early October, I was invited to present the project to the board of directors of CEMA (the Canadian Ethnic Media Association). Based on the feedback posted on the organization’s site, the idea made a great impression. Additionally, we received a Macedonian translation of the poem. Informational support was also provided by Historica Canada.”
On Saturday night just before Remembrance Day, people of various nationalities and ages, some born in Canada and others who have moved here at different ages, all gathered in the Fort York hall. They were united by an incredible sense of involvement to the country’s history and respect for its past, without which there would be no peaceful present. Perhaps I would even call it true patriotism, without the waving of flags and hostility to anyone who is “not you”.
And if we talk about the socio-political significance of the project, it was clearly evident in the presence of honoured guests – Russian Consul General Kirill Mikhaylov and Israeli Consul General Galit Baram. In addition to attending and presenting a welcoming speech, Galit also had sought out and provided a Hebrew translation of the poem, and herself read it out loud at the event.
“The most important thing is that Israelis feel empathy for these verses, they know and understand what they’re about”, Galit says in an exclusive interview for Russian Express. “Virtually every Israeli family is somehow connected to the army, and we know what self-sacrifice is. And when we, here in Canada, see how the country honours its veterans and soldiers, we understand that we must support and stand alongside Canadians on this day. In the same way we must remember the Soviet soldiers who gave their lives in the Second World War…”
In the first part of the program, the real cultural mosaic portion took place. Sofia Leslie, a wonderful young singer, performed songs in English and in French. Belarusian folk and choir group Javarovy Ludzi, as it were, preceded the readings of the poem with a song of the fallen soldier, leaving all in attendance deeply moved. Miranda Basha performed an Albanian folk dance, Alfiya Dulatova and Roza Tabinska performed songs in Tatar and Bashkir languages, and Professor Judith Cohen sang in Yiddish.
Following a short break for coffee and snacks (brought to the event by the guests and performers), the poem readings commenced. Canadian poet and translator Pat Connors presented before the audience the original text, written 104 years ago. Representatives of Kurultay Canada - Farida Samerkhanova, Alfia Dulatova and Ildar Samerkhanov – read translations in Bashir and Tatar languages. Judith Cohen was reading translations in French, Catalan, and Ladino – language of Jewish exiles from Spain. Other translations included Simone Nieuwolt reading in German, Mikhail Kenka in Belarusian, Anna Yin in Chinese, Simon Safro in Georgian, Dragi Stojkovski in Macedonian, and Vita Shtivelman in Russian.
“I’m very moved by how Canadians honour the memory of their fallen soldiers, especially on Remembrance Day,” said the Russian Consul General. “And this resonates in my heart, especially taking account the enormous sacrifices that our peoples made in the name of peace. In the First and Second World Wars, Russia and Canada were allies, and we greatly value this history. We must seek opportunities to be together and to be more successful in working together to bring peace for current and future generations. I would like to express my gratitude to those who inspired and organized this event, which united communities and people. I hope that this wonderful initiative will continue and grow, for all of us…
“We all live here together in harmony,” says Farida Samerkhanova, “and what appealed to me in this project was that it reflects this friendship and connection, reinforcing the idea of the Canadian multicultural society. We are extremely honoured to be invited here, and for the fact that translations to Bashkir and Tatar were heard alongside Russian, Albanian, Hebrew and many other languages…”
Mikhael Kenka, when reading his translation of the poem to Belarusian, included a personal note:
“My entire family had fought and survived the occupation,” he says. “And I felt a great responsibility, working on this poem, its contents and form, not only as a translator, but also as a scientist who studied the theory of translating, with an understanding that this project will be cemented in history.”
“I previously had the opportunity to translate several poems from English to Chinese, including the poem In Flanders Fields, for academic purposes,” tells poet and translator Anna Yin, winner of several awards in the literary field. “But this work is special, permeated with feeling, containing its own music. My task was to try and convey this…”
“I am still completely overwhelmed with emotions,” tells Vita Shtivelman, “this was probably the most interesting undertaking of the past few years, but also incredibly difficult. Here everyone finds a part of their soul, and the different languages, which would ordinarily seem to divide people, in this case united everybody. And I especially want to thank the volunteers from the Rogers Give Together program, and everyone else who helped make this happen…
Concerning plans for the future, Vita says: “There is a plan and there is a dream. We will continue to seek and find new translations. And to someday host the event at the very scene of the battle – in Belgium, where John McCrae was inspired to write his immortal verses:
Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Written by Alexander Gershtein
Translated by Serge Taliansky
Photography by Dee Gulati