The Estonian Literature Centre has a magnificent tradition of inviting translators of Estonian literature who hail from all around the world to converge on the northern village of Käsmu, wedged between a primeval forest and the sea. The latest grand translators’ seminar, which was held in June 2016, was made special by the fact that the Centre is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Altogether 45 translators from 19 different countries – not to mention a large number of prominent Estonian authors – gathered in the village. Literature was introduced, authors discussed their works, and the densely-packed days transitioned smoothly into evenings of music and dance. ELM took the opportunity to ask a few members of the Estonian literary translation family what fascinated them most about their field, and which Estonian authors or literary works they would recommend reading.
translates into German
When asked what the most fascinating thing about Estonian literature is for me, my first spontaneous reaction is: its mere existence and diversity. For, one thing is sure, it is not self-evident at all that such a thing as “Estonian literature” should even exist. This is also an honest answer, because to me all other possible arguments in favor of the exceptional quality or particularity or enormous quantity of Estonian literature seem unacceptable. I have dealt intensively with Estonian literature for over thirty years, and know it better than probably any other literature in the world. Therefore, I can’t really compare, and I wouldn’t dare to say that Estonian literature is more fascinating than any other world literature. What does fascinate me is the language I once began to study for some reason (or languages, rather, as both Finnish and Estonian were my specializations within Finno-Ugric studies), the history and culture connected with it, and it being “different” and, above all, “smaller” than the one I come from. As I love literature as well, it is logical that I’ve developed a special relationship with Estonian literature. As a result, one finds texts that really seem to be something very unique in the sense that they widen your horizons. Although, I repeat, this does not mean that such texts do not exist in other literatures: I simply have never read Andrus Kivirähk-like texts in any other literature. If you dive into the world of The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Kaka ja kevad (Poop and Spring), or Oskar ja asjad (Oskar and the Things), your world will be changed when you come back to the surface.
translates into Italian
I cannot say I’m an assiduous reader of Estonian literature, and my knowledge of it is therefore far from systematic. Leaving the classics aside and concentrating on recent works and contemporary authors, I find three kinds of approaches in different literary genres particularly interesting. First, in prose, those attempts to make sense of Estonian history and identity which unite a personal style with an internationally appealing, understandable, and universalizable narrative. Novels of this kind range from the grotesque, tragicomic hyperboles of Andrus Kivirähk on the mythical Estonian past (The Old Barny and The Man Who Spoke Snakish) to Rein Raud’s The Death of the Perfect Sentence, where the dissolution of the Soviet Union is an occasion for a story about human relations and difficult choices. Andrei Ivanov’s short stories (e.g. Ash and My Danish Uncle) and novels (e.g. A Handful of Dust) provide unprecedentedly painful images of post-Soviet Estonia from the point of view of the Russian-speaking community. Though they may be difficult to translate, I think that Ene Mihkelson’s novels on Soviet repression (The Dream of Ahasuerus and Plague Grave) are an important addition to international trauma literature.
Secondly, the young generation of poets –
Maarja Kangro, Jürgen Rooste, Sveta Grigorjeva, Eda Ahi, Kalju Kruusa and Kristjan Haljak, to mention only a few – strikes me with its writers’ acute social critique, on the one hand, and the formal mastery and linguistic playfulness of their poems, on the other.
Finally, with such authors as Piret Raud, contemporary Estonian children’s literature offers thrilling narratives that deal with fundamental human values in a peculiarly humorous tone.
My reading suggestions bring us back to the classics. Namely, I have always loved Aino Pervik’s Arabella, The Pirate’s Daughter, which was one of the first books I read in Estonian. It is not only an unconventional pirate story, but also a refined reflection on the intricacy of evil, friendship and paternal and filial love: a book for readers of all ages.
translates into Hungarian
For me, Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) in Budapest will always be a sort of “Estonian greeting” [“Tere” in Estonian means “hello” – Trans.].
When I started learning Estonian at university more than 20 years ago, I had no idea that I would ever translate literature from the language. The first time I visited Estonia was in 1995 and, as a fan of Fennoscandia, I couldn’t help falling in love both with the country and its people. I kept on studying and visiting Eesti (as we Hungarian Estophiles call it), and a bunch of years later ended up translating literary works from Estonian, among other languages.
At this year’s seminar in Käsmu (the first such experience for me), it became very apparent that translating from Estonian entails becoming a part of a rather select family: an extraordinary atmosphere that no “big” languages can create.
Estonia with its literature holds a special place in my soul: like an exclusive piece of cake that tastes modern but is still based on an ancient recipe, not really typical of Fennoscandian or Eastern European cuisine, prepared with spices of the Baltic and the Finno-Ugric world by cooks who have professional experience somewhat similar to mine.
One of my recent favorites is Piret Raud’s latest book Lugu Sandrist, Murist, tillukesest emmest ja nähtamatust Akslist (The Story of Sander, Muri, the Tiny Mommy, and the Invisible Aksel), which is funny and serious at the same time. Along with the illustrations, I also admire her multiple-viewpoint technique, which is not common in “children’s” books. It is an enjoyable read for both kids and adults.
translates into Norwegian
I am a Norwegian who also lives in the Estonian language, like a rowan sprig grafted onto an apple tree. The tree, which was once separate, is now also in my juice made from miniature apples. The story, which was once distant and merely shimmered on the horizon across a sea and behind barbed wire, is now my own as well. Estonia is, naturally, dirt, water and a collective swine farm. Estonia is also fear, forest and lilacs. Even more importantly, Estonia is the voices of those who make the land either coherent or enrichingly incoherent.
Therefore, the translation and conveyance of Estonian literature is a paradoxically necessary activity for me. When Estonian literature helps me to understand the land and the people that are also a part of me, it feels very personal. When I better understand through its literature my own two cultures – one in which I was born and another which has been grafted onto me –
then it is a unique process of healing a cleaved soul: in other words, integration. If this process also serves as a bridge for someone else, then the phenomenon is all the more welcome.
I don’t see what might be regarded as “typical” Estonian literature as holding any significance here. I appreciate that which touches, which moves. I also appreciate that which may help someone to live with a painful and complex history, all the while without becoming a one-topic literature, just as Estonia is not a one-topic country.
My personal reading recommendation would be Mari Saat’s Lasnamäe lunastaja (The Redeemer of Lasnamäe). It is a short novel that is simple in narrative. With its perspective that is uncommon but – in a certain sense – eternal, the work addresses Estonian society and recent history, as well as general issues of humanity.
translates into Spanish
… and to the Käsmu Peninsula they drove us, oh yeah! A bus full of more or less eccentric translators from around the globe. Needless to say, spirits were high, the expectations were huge, and the organization impeccable. And now you ask me to write a report on what I found particularly enticing? Hardly an easy task. But for the beneﬁt of your distinguished readers, and for whatever these extremely personal and biased opinions may be worth, I’ll say that, yes, I had to get my hands on a copy of Sillamäe passion (The Passion of Sillamäe) before I flew back to my country, so impressive was the delivery of the extracts Andrei Hvostov read aloud, and so engrossing was the narrative of what it was like to grow up Russian and Estonian in a rough barrio of the East in the eighties. I hasten to add that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the eternally ironic, nonchalant, self-effacing Andrus Kivirähk speak about his works. Although… wait a minute… Did he really talk about them, or did he just manage to avoid answering the interviewer’s questions and at the same time give us a pretty good idea of his vision of literature, of what his Weltanschauung is like? Also tremendously enjoyable was listening to and posing for a picture with the always adorable (and always full of “jumping beans” and good stories) Leelo Tungal, whose perfect counterpart is indeed the wickedly clever Maarja Kangro: aren’t those short stories of hers perversely funny and deserving of a few smirks? Before I forget, I should not leave out Ilmar Taska, who did an awesome job of presenting his latest novel: half Bildungsroman, half cosmopolitan romance in times of war. The same goes for the amazingly savvy Rein Raud and Kai Aareleid, whose Linnade põletamine (We All Fall Down) delves into darkish memories and family secrets, which are, incidentally, very fashionable topics in Spanish fiction and non-ﬁction these days. Last, but not least, I have been meaning to read Mihkel Mutt’s musings for the longest time: a desire that this seminar has only managed to increase. What the heck – one has to give credit to a man who shows up in a light-colored T-shirt, matching denim pants, and a white cowboy hat. His attire was wonderfully attuned to the setting, and it really rocked, just as I am sure his memoirs must get one rocking (and rolling), too.
translates into Hungarian
I must admit that, although I would gladly work on poetry and plays more frequently as a translator, I mainly translate Estonian prose.
Original Estonian-language prose especially draws me in when the author doesn’t simply allow the story to dominate, but rather works with various prose-poetry solutions, when he or she boldly experiments with the text’s literary opportunities. This may mean, for instance, playing with the narrator’s voice and position, fictionality and possibilities of time and space, using finer humor and irony, or turning the reader’s comfortable world upside-down to shake him or her out of the safety zone. In short, when the author gives the reader intellectual work, and with it also the responsibility of being a co-author, to an extent.
Secondly, though, I like when there is idiosyncrasy in an author’s sentences and when they have their own rhythm that can be recognized like a fingerprint. If the author finds something in language that is unique to him or her alone and is capable of packing it into sentences, then that is my author.
These kinds of texts are especially tough nuts to crack for translators, of course. But gnawing such nuts open is what makes a translator’s work exciting.
Naturally, my favorite texts – and coincidentally my reading recommendations – are the ones that I myself have translated, because I have delved into them the very most: Tiit Aleksejev’s novels Palveränd (Pilgrimage) and Kindel linn (Stronghold), and Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Mandala. At the moment, I’m working on Paavo Matsin’s Gogoli disko (Gogol’s Disco). And there are also texts that I would like to translate in the future: works by Nikolai Baturin, Ülo Mattheus, Bernard Kangro, Karl Ristikivi, Eeva Park, Mihkel Mutt, Jaan Kross, Jaan Undusk and others.