Translating Smells in Andrii Sodomora's Stories

by Sabrina Jaszi

This past fall was spent translating the short stories of Ukrainian author Andrii Sodomora, a project that I’ve undertaken with my friend Roman Ivashkiv. These stories are set in the western city of Lviv and in Sodomora’s rural birthplace of Vyriv. The descriptions of these close yet opposed loci are sensual above all else. Night, in Sodomora’s telling, becomes a great maestro, conducting an ornate symphony of brilliant illumination in Lviv’s mansard windows. A memory of wild strawberries tasted in childhood conjures “dizzying antiquity, when there was no man to inhale [the strawberries], when the ferns were colossal, when dinosaurs trampled the grasses …” Smells–whether a musty attic stacked with Hapsburg curios or Bera pears “yellowing, softening, and filling up with malt” in the little “orchard-paradise” of Sodomora’s Vyriv childhood–transport him far beyond the finite geography of the setting, at the border of the Slavic and European worlds.

And smells were a preoccupation of mine at the time–not just because of Sodomora. Early in pregnancy, my sense of smell intensified. I began to experience the world more as Sodomora does, with scents so powerful that they demand strong words and poetry. Sulfurous broccoli sent me running to the street, where sickly, camphorous eucalyptus made me stagger and gasp. Most of all, my world reeked of coffee. Not my own–I was trying to cut back–but my boyfriend’s, brewed in our doorless kitchen, or the cafes where I went to escape my apartment with all of its sickening old-new aromas. Coffee also wafted from Sodomora’s pages. I remembered the coffee-steeped atmosphere of Lviv, a city that, at least since the early 19th century when its first coffee shop opened, was advertised as a coffee capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire where western and eastern traditions combined. Even in Soviet times Lviv remained a center of coffee production–the Lviv Coffee Factory continued to operate as a state-owned enterprise. Today, the city boasts a statue of Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, a son of Lviv oblast, who, legend has it, brought coffee drinking to Vienna and to the capital of his home province. Lviv tourists go on coffee tastings and learn about coffee lore.

Statue of Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki in Lviv

Coffee appears in Sodomora’s Lviv stories, but is central to one of his rural Vyriv-set vignettes. In “Mamyna usmishka” (“My Mother’s Smile”), the morning routine of coffee-making calls up spectral memories of his mother. I got visual inspiration for our translation from a hand-

crank grinder that I’d found on the street near my home in Oakland–improbably, it seemed to match Sodomora’s description perfectly: “I see it now, that wooden coffee grinder standing on the table. Golden-hued, with a shiny nickel top where beans were poured in, it truly warmed our home. In my mind, I give its handle a crank—the shiny little beans crunch as they fall beneath the blade. Fragrant brown powder rains down into the little drawer.”

Found in Oakland

But Sodomora’s take on the smell of coffee, an aroma both subtle (“tonkii”) and penetrating, was irreconcilable with my own. Given my strong distaste for coffee, I could not think of translating Sodomora’s “tonkii” as “subtle” or, even worse, “delicate.” This could not be right, I told Ena and Mirgul, as I tried to come up with clever workarounds: The literal meaning of “tonkii” is “thin, narrow,” so perhaps he intends something like “sharp,” I suggested, trying to square Sodomora’s impressions with my own. Why was Sodomora, who seemed so attuned to his senses, suddenly so inexact? I finally settled on the following, a solution that still felt unsatisfactory: “As soon as it is pushed out of the grinder, the fine aroma of ground coffee permeates the entire house.” In this wording, “fine” could mean "thin, delicate" or, alternately, “exquisite, first-class.”

In the story, the narrator struggles to recall his mother’s smile. At one point, I asked my translation partner Roman why it’s so hard for him to remember: Because she didn’t smile often? Or because she died when he was young and he saw it just a few times? The answer isn’t in the story, but it’s the kind of thing a translator wonders. The smile is the story’s namesake and subject matter–and yet whenever the narrator tries to imagine it, his mother turns away. And this duality–Sodomora’s obsession with the memory and its evanescence–may help to explain his contradictory take on coffee. Thinned by time like the fleeting smile, the coffee aroma of the story is as remote and inaccessible in his thoughts as it is omnipresent.

Further reading:

Rutynskyi, Mykhailo & Kushniruk, Halyna. (2020). Coffee Tourism in Lviv in the Сontext of World Сoffee Tourism. Annales - Universitatis Mariae Curie-Sklodowska, Sectio B. 75. 87-113. 10.17951/b.2020.75.87-113.