Birgita Bonde Hansen has translated eight books from Estonian and over forty from Finnish into her native Danish. Her dedicated work has not gone unnoticed: Hansen has been nominated three times for the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s Award for Translated Literature and has received prestigious awards in both Finland and Denmark. Just this year, she was named laureate of the distinguished Letterstedt Prize for Translation. In an interview with ELM, Hansen discussed translating, Estonia, the Nordic countries, and how greatness can lie in the little things.

How did you become a translator?

It was actually by chance. I’d always had an interest in languages, but wanted to learn one that was less-spoken, more exotic – not English, French, or German like everyone else does. When my mother started teaching 25 students from the Baltic states in January 1991, I was spellbound. So, at the age of 13, I began learning Lithuanian from a textbook at home. When my mother and I traveled to the Baltic states for the first time in the summer of 1991 for her work, I started to cry as I got off the plane in Riga – finally, I was home. Where that feeling came from, I can’t say.

            I traveled to Estonia as an exchange student in 1993 and lived with an Estonian host family in Tallinn for a year. After that, I didn’t want to go back home. Maybe the most significant reason for my fascination was that I found so much warmth in people in Estonia, even though the times were outwardly very tough. In Denmark, it felt like the biggest problem you might face was whether to buy a blue sweater or a green one, and people still complained. The world seemed so narrow and I was looking for something broader in Estonia. Although the country is certainly tiny, I still found something greater here…

Where did you study Estonian and Finnish?

There weren’t any opportunities to study Estonian at the University of Copenhagen, but I still wanted to attend university in Denmark to get a degree in my native language. So, I started taking classes in Russian and Eastern European studies, but I realized it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like the Russian style of education and couldn’t imagine fitting into the Russian cultural space for a longer period of time, even though the culture itself is fascinating. I started visiting the Finnish language department and immediately felt I could see myself living in that language and culture.

            I didn’t do anything with Estonian for a few years because Estonian and Finnish are so similar that everything got mixed up in my head. It was incredibly painful to live for a time without Estonian language or culture – I felt like a traitor. Still, I worked hard and kept studying as if my destination would appear ahead without even noticing it.

            So, to answer your question, I studied Estonian colloquially and just for fun as a teenager in the 90s. I took a few courses at the University of Oulu in 2003–2004 and worked as for five months an intern at the Danish Cultural Institute in Tallinn in 2012, where I made several contacts and also started translating Estonian literature in addition to Finnish. In 2018, I attended an Estonian summer language course in Tartu. But I still haven’t had any proper Estonian-language studies and my greatest wish to this day is to be able to complete a thorough masters-level study of Estonian. It’s just not possible to do at the moment, though, because I have a six-year-old child in northern Finland. I just have to be satisfied with traveling to Estonia and Denmark as often as possible; with reading, watching films, and speaking to people in Estonian, and translating Estonian books. I have to trust that in that way, my Estonian language skills and understanding of Estonian culture will steadily continue to grow.

Do you still plan to study Estonian at university someday?

I planned to do something through distance learning a couple of years ago, but it seems like things are only possible in Estonia when you’re physically present in the country. It’s hard to get answers to questions when you’re not here, so I understand that I’ll have to figure out some other way.

            I found a summer class for Finns at the University of Tartu and took it, which was wonderful and inspiring. I started to realize that I actually unconsciously know quite a lot of Estonian and am able to learn quickly and with ease. Estonian is easy to learn if you have a strong Finnish-language base.

            Now, I’ve made myself a little Estonian library at home. The plan is that since I have a small child and can’t move to Estonia at the moment, I’ll just start training myself. I’ll pick up the books that interest me (my collection includes both literature and textbooks) and simply start to read. I’d love to come to Estonia to study, but it’s not possible right now. Maybe in ten or fifteen years!

Is that typical of Estonia? Is it harder to do things if you’re not physically present?

I don’t know, I haven’t encountered it elsewhere. Perhaps it has something to do with history and the Soviet influence – that you don’t really need to plan things far in advance because you’ve got the five-year plans, anyway. As soon as I’m in Estonia, everything is suddenly possible and everyone is very friendly, but it’s hard to plan far ahead. I think that if it were actually tied to Estonians’ nature, then it wouldn’t be possible to get things done on the ground, either. That’s why I think it’s tied to something else.

Why did you start translating literature in particular?

Like I said, it happened by chance. I was studying Finnish at university because I’m interested in language and culture – I studied linguistics, not literature. In 2005, though, I translated a Finnish play into Danish and Helena Idström, Denmark’s leading translator of Finnish literature at that time, heard my translation and told me I had talent. I kept studying, however, imagining that I’d either find work in a private-sector company and travel around the world or become a university researcher.

            I did work as a “business developer” at Danske Bank in Denmark for three years after graduating, developing a new IT platform in cooperation with Finns and translating documents about IT systems. Yet, when Idström retired, she recommended me to all of Denmark’s publishers, so I quit my job at the bank and started translating. It was a great decision and I’ve never regretted it!

            Seven years ago, I visited the Estonian Literature Center to ask whether I could translate anything from Estonian. Back then, my Estonian language skills were still poor, and I thought they’d just laugh in my face. But right away, they said – please do! We haven’t had a Danish translator in a long time.

            My first translations from Finnish were works by Kari Hotakainen and Sofi Oksanen, and my first from Estonian were Jaan Kross’s Treading Air and Andrus Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish. As you can tell, I didn’t start with simple works at all – it was Jaan Kross right off the bat. It helped that I chose a work that had already been translated into several other languages: Finnish, English, and Swedish. I kept them all stacked next to me because I thought I wouldn’t manage on my own. In truth, the most interesting part of the process was that I didn’t really use them. Whenever I came across a section I didn’t fully understand, I checked to see what the other translators had done. I saw it was one way in the Estonian, but another in the Finnish and even a third in the Swedish. I myself had a fourth variation, and that’s what went into print. I’d already translated hefty works from Finnish by that point and had a clear grasp on my role as a translator. I can get by translating Estonian, even though I can’t always manage the language and culture. Who can I ask in those cases? It feels like I have the right people nowadays, but I didn’t dare to ask anyone in my first years.

What fascinates you about Estonia and Finland?

I have no idea! I suppose there’s something familiar and home-like in both countries, though it’s different and exotic all the same. Like an alternative version of my world. In Finland, I enjoy the nature, winter darkness, and summer light – the extremes. Estonia, I simply love – absolutely.

            Ever since I was a kid, I traveled a lot in all the Scandinavian countries with my family – that’s why Finland has never been as distant and strange for me as it has for some Danes. My father was a history buff (my name isn’t ordinary at all in Denmark, for instance, but was taken from Saint Bridget of Sweden) and was especially interested in the histories of the Nordic and Baltic Sea countries (he himself was from Bornholm). He would definitely have wanted to visit Estonia. Alas, he passed away on a fateful day – August 23, 1989. So nowadays, I visit Estonia for him, too.

You’re an extremely productive translator. Where do you find the time?

I don’t know myself! In reality, I don’t find the time. I accepted too much translation work in my first years, because there was suddenly a ton of it to do. Once you have a contract, you can’t slow things down anymore, either. I believed it was crucial to accept all kinds of jobs because there weren’t many other translators and I didn’t want Danish publishers to stop putting out Finnish literature in translation. Even so, you can’t work all the time. I’ve become wiser and have scaled back a little in the last few years. Job offers have also been fewer lately because of the situation in Danish publishing, so I’m incredibly grateful for both the Finnish and Estonian governments’ translation support grants – I couldn’t get by without them. Nor could I make it without the Danish Arts Foundation, which has granted me creative support three consecutive times.

            I suppose I used to manage to do so much because I was so keen on doing the work I was doing. I translated works by several very popular Finnish authors – my job was just so fascinating! After I’d been doing literary translations for a couple of years, the thought crossed my mind that maybe I might also be able to translate from Estonian. I was so happy when I realized I could, and that I do it well! I’m still on cloud nine to this day – happy and grateful for having the opportunity to do this for a living. Estonia has given me so much and for me, it’s a great honor to be able to give a little bit back to the country as a translator.

What is your usual workday like?

Since I have a small child, my workday is organized around him. Otherwise, I could be the type of translator who does project-based work: I’d hole up somewhere for a while to translate passionately, in a total frenzy, and would rest in the intervening periods. I also enjoy working at night.

            Because of my current situation, my usual workday goes like this: my son is at daycare from nine till four, during which I translate. I also travel to Denmark and Estonia somewhat frequently to attend book fairs and other events.

            Sometimes I sit all by myself and translate, and other times I’m surrounded by hordes of people and a flurry of events. It’s certainly never boring!

You received two important awards in 2018: the Finnish State Award for Foreign Translators and the Translators’ Blixen Prize. What do awards mean to you? Why do you think you’ve been given this recognition?

It’s a very great honor to be awarded, of course. When you get more than one in a single year, it feels like you must be doing something right. They help to boost your trust in yourself, no doubt.

            In the speech that was given when I received the Danish award, the speaker said they saw thoroughness and linguistic creativity in my translations, as well as a desire to express cultural and historical circumstances. I also facilitate cultural exchange by familiarizing Danes with Estonia and Estonian literature, which have been little-known there before.

            The Finnish State Award is highly prestigious – I’m amazed to have received it so early in my translating career, though my first Finnish authors were rather big names, of course: Sofi Oksanen, Kari Hotakainen, and later Rosa Liksom, Katja Kettu, and Tommi Kinnunen. In nine years, I’ve translated over 40 Finnish books altogether, 16 Finnish plays, and eight Estonian novels.

            I believe the word ‘conviction’ was used in the speech describing the nominees for the 2019 Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s Award for Translation: that I translate with conviction. I do, indeed!

            I love my work and I suppose it shows in my translations, too.

Have you, for the most part, personally chosen the books you’ve translated or has it been the publishers?

To date, almost all were picked by the publishers. Finland has very strong literary agencies that have sold books to Danish publishers at book fairs. As for Estonian literature, there’s one publisher (Jensen & Dalgaard) that has found works on its own, but since I’d like other Danish publishers to show an interest in Estonian literature, I reckon I’ll have to handle it rather actively myself in the future. There’s a lot of reading ahead! The good news is that the Norsk Pengepung (Norwegian Wallet) program was established within the Cultural Endowment of Estonia a couple years ago, thanks to a private donor. The fund supports the translation of Estonian literature into Nordic languages and its publishing in Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden.

Which translated (Estonian) books would you say are your favorites?

I don’t know if I have any favorites as a translator. As a reader, I enjoy Andrus Kivirähk’s style and grotesque humor. I like all kinds of jobs as a translator – all that matters is that the book is well-written, because a good translation then comes out more smoothly. It’s great to translate a book that poses challenges. In that sense, the greatest challenge is translating something poorly written. So far, I’ve enjoyed translating all my Estonian-language books.

Have you also come across anything that is badly-written?

I’ve translated over forty Finnish books. A couple times when I was extremely busy, I’ve turned down books by saying they’re just not for me. If I have a choice, then it’s better to choose a book that I personally enjoy. For instance, I once turned down a crime novel because I knew there was another translator available who could take on the project.

            For me, it’s also important for Danish publishers not to become disinclined to publish Finnish or Estonian literature in translation because there is no available translator. I always say I’ll accept projects if no one else will.

            When I started translating Estonian literature, I actually had zero time for it. Still, I knew there weren’t any other literary translators from Estonian into Danish. There were four or five Finnish-Danish translators at the time, so that wasn’t much of a problem – others were able to take over. Of course, the downside is that I’m translating fewer Finnish authors, but getting Estonia into the spotlight was so important to me then that I had to give up other things.

What has been difficult to translate?

Some people have marveled at how hard it might be to translate Kivirähk’s unique world of mythology and folklore. I likewise felt anxious about whether it’d be possible to translate Paavo Matsin’s Gogol’s Disco at all. But in reality, the feeling was the same as with translating Finland’s Katja Kettu: the use of language is so masterful and the story so spellbinding that it feels like the book almost translates itself – coming up with the most suitable words and phrases to correspond to the original is a great challenge that takes time, but you don’t feel beleaguered; more like inspired.

            I have to admit: the fact that my Estonian isn’t good enough to be a fluent reader and understand everything immediately remains a problem. Sometimes, it seems like I only truly understand what a book is trying to say once I’ve finished translating it! That’s why I’d like to get more training. Everyone tells me my Estonian is so lovely, but that’s not enough when I need to read a book and draw up some kind of a proposal for Danish publishers.

            Writing that is complex in essence doesn’t necessarily mean it will be difficult to translate. I enjoy having problems to be solved. What’s hard is that a translator’s reading skills should be higher – otherwise, the process goes slowly. Since I never knew I’d someday become a literary translator, I somewhat lack a literary-theory background. When I’m asked to compare one book to another or if there’s a similar author in Denmark – I just don’t know.

            By now, I’ve come to understand that my strengths lie elsewhere: in rhythm, linguistic style, and an intuitive approach.

Have you encountered any difficulties in a cultural context – anything that is commonplace and self-evident to Estonians but needs to be explained to a Dane?

As a translator, it’s crucial that you’re able to spot and select places that need some kind of an explanation. Sometimes, something has to be added: for example, “Toompea” isn’t just “Toompea”, but “central Tallinn” or something similar. Or Tammsaare, the writer. Occasionally, I also work on books that contain a great deal of history. With Jaan Kross’s Treading Air, for instance, I explained in an afterword who the real-life characters were, and which events truly took place. By doing so, you give the foreign reader an opportunity to better understand the work.

            I also believe that it’s crucial not to attempt to convey everything as the translator. That’s impossible. You must simply focus on what you’re able to convey; on what aspects of the book are enchanting. And then leave the rest be.

Almost all of the Estonian books you’ve translated have been released by one small Danish publisher: Jensen & Dalgaard. Why are they interested in Estonian literature? How did you find them or vice versa?

Jensen & Dalgaard is a small publishing house with a focus on fine literature that is a little unusual. They also publish Finnish literature. Speaking about both, they’ve said that good cooperation is a deciding factor – when you know in advance that everything will run smoothly between the author, the publisher, and the translator, then it’s easier to buy literature from that language.

            They’ve managed to find young, strong female Finnish authors. As for Estonian literature, I suppose they prefer grotesque humor and slightly bizarre peculiarity.

            Jensen & Dalgaard found me a long time ago when they were looking for a Finnish-language translator – it was only later that we started collaborating on Estonian projects. Fortunately, they intend to continue publishing Estonian literature in translation.

Birgita Bonde Hansen. Photo by Studio Lumikuva.

How have your translations been received? Do you believe Danish readers have understood the books?

Right now, it’s very difficult to get reviews in the Danish newspapers and Jensen & Dalgaard is a small publisher. That being said, we have managed to get a few published, and online literary blogs are also an important source of feedback. The reception has been very positive, though it’s come more from persons involved in literature themselves. Estonian books in translation haven’t been mainstream bestsellers. Readers who are looking for something light and familiar, something easy to understand, don’t have a great appreciation for Estonian (or Finnish) literature. However, the reception from those who are looking for something special has been extremely positive. Not everyone liked the modern-day colloquial language I used with Kivirähk because, in their opinion, it didn’t fit with an “historical” novel(!). Doubtless the humor was a little over the top for some people, too, though I know there are others in Denmark who found Kivirähk’s humor and literary world to be perfect.

            My translation of Matsin’s Gogol’s Disco came out in May 2019 and was very warmly received, getting three reviews. One of them called the work a true pearl!

            Ilmar Taska has also been very popular – both his Pobeda 1946 and a collection of short stories have been published in Danish translation. He attended the Copenhagen Book Fair in 2018 and seven reviews have been published.

            I suppose that for Danish readers, Estonian literature is intriguing for its uniqueness, humor, and the country’s history.

You also translate Finnish books. How would you compare translating Finnish to translating Estonian? And how would you compare the two countries in terms of their respective literature?

By the time I began translating Estonian literature, I’d already been translating Finnish books for a couple of years. Given that I’m more proficient in Finnish, it’s naturally much faster and easier for me to translate from that language. Yet, when translating Estonian, I immediately noticed that the Danish and Estonian languages are much closer, presumably because of their history and Low German influences. It feels like their mental worlds are also closer to each other. Whenever I translate Estonian literature, I feel like I’m returning to Europe again from somewhere in the north. For instance, Estonian literature makes more references to broader European literature, authors, and events. In Finland, authors talk more about the symbolism of nature or nation-uniting athletic events.

How interesting! I’ve never noticed that before.

I remarked once that it’s great I’m still a translator of Finnish. Since I don’t have a very strong theoretical background and haven’t read the classics or much about literary history, I’d be in real trouble with intertextual references – I simply wouldn’t pick up on them. You see them all the time in Estonian literature, but they’re used very infrequently in Finnish. Whenever I’m translating Estonian works, I have to go to the library to look up a wide range of sources and research the Greek tragedies, European philosophers, and other such topics.

What are you working on right now?

Currently, I’m translating Juha Seppälä’s Mr. Smith. In the autumn, I hope to get started on translating Mehis Heinsaar’s short stories, as well as to read more Estonian literature and start making recommendations to Danish publishers – both in adult and children’s literature.

What are your future plans? What would you like to translate?

I actually don’t know what to say because I still haven’t even read Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice yet, though I’ve bought it and it’s high on my reading list. I hope that once I have, I’ll very much wish to translate it, too. Then, I’ll just have to cross my fingers that I’ll find a Danish publisher.

            More generally, I want to introduce Danes to Estonian literature as broadly as possible – right now, I see that as my future and my life’s work.

            Reading other cultures’ literature is educational. By doing so, you come to better understand yourself and your own culture – it has a mirror-like effect. If I’m able to make my own contribution to that educational endeavor and cause people to feel and to think, then I’ll be satisfied.

You have seen the new Truth and Justice film, though. How did you like it?

Watching it, I certainly felt like I was discovering something new about Estonia and Estonians, and about myself, too. I highly enjoyed it. It was a very personal experience seeing the way the main character Andres does everything so justly; how everything is so right and proper; how he strains beyond his means and ultimately neglects love. By that, I don’t mean the love between two people, but a love for everyone and the world itself. Once you lose that focus, you lose everything. I immensely enjoyed the way they took a classic piece of Estonian literature and made the viewer consider it from a different angle. I liked everything about the film: the actors, the set design, the story – every part of it was perfect. I also liked how it spoke to me personally; that I also learned something new. That’s exactly why we have art. That’s why we read and watch films.

How much reading are you able to do outside of translating, and what?

None at all! Especially not over the last few years. I do plan to read more now that I’m less burdened with work. But generally, it is tied to my job – I haven’t read very much Estonian literature, so I’m going to start from the beginning: Tammsaare, Vilde, Kaplinski, Valton, and others.

            Since I don’t live in Denmark, I have to read as much in the Danish language as I can, and of course I need to keep track of developments in Finnish literature.

            Because I have so little time, I like to read poems and short stories – that way, I’m able to finish something in a single go.

What do you do when you’re not reading or translating?

I sing in a choir. It’s actually a very good choir with an Estonian conductor, so we were able to participate in the Estonian Song Festival in Tallinn in July 2019. That was hands-down one of the greatest moments of my life.

            I like nature and winter and darkness and the cold, so now that I live in Northern Finland, I go skiing in winter and we collect berries in summer to last us all winter long.

            It’s also important to visit with friends in Denmark, Estonia, and elsewhere.

Has translating changed your perception of Estonia in any way?

I wouldn’t say that translating itself has changed it; however, my Estonia is actually the Estonia of 1993. I’ve had a very long but very sparse relationship with Estonia. All those years, I wasn’t even able to read a newspaper and find out what was going on in the country – I simply didn’t understand. My comprehension returned rapidly when I began translating. I gain something constantly by involving myself so much with Estonia: with its culture, society, and history. I can’t wait for more to come, though I realize it’s a gradual process.

            Just this year, I got the sense that my Estonia is here and now and also in the future. Spending one incredible week visiting, I went to see an exhibition by Konrad Mägi (who has been a great source of personal inspiration for me as an artist), attended a screening of the film Truth and Justice, and went to the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s annual awards ceremony. After all that, I no longer felt ashamed – I’ve currently translated eight works of Estonian literature, and that’s just the beginning. I felt like my relationship with Estonia is here, now, and right before me – in the future, not in the Estonia of the 90s anymore; not merely in my memories.

            I’ve been following Estonia’s development for 27 years. At first, everything was changing at such an incredible pace that I almost felt afraid, and although I was overjoyed by Estonia’s freedom, I was also worried about what would happen to “my” Estonia if everything changed too quickly. Every time I come to Estonia now, I’m so ecstatic that it brings me to the verge of tears and makes me want to write a hymn to the country on Facebook because I’m so glad to see how far it’s come.

            Estonians have become very nice and open. The public transport is effective, logical, and well-organized (maybe not in rural areas, but certainly in the city). Cars stop and wait for pedestrians to cross the street.

            Estonians’ eye for design is incredible – I don’t know why Estonian doesn’t have a word for the Danish hygge, because I believe you could make one. I’d propose hügelik. You go to the café at the Estonian National Museum and there’s an Estonian symbol on the cake, the cup, the plate, the spoon, the sugar, and your water glass – it all goes together so nicely.

            You arrive at Tallinn Airport and there’s not only a single place where all the buses and trams depart from, but even an interactive screen that shows exactly when the next bus is coming and where it’s headed. I want to have a similarly functional system in Denmark, too. I also want to have the gorgeous design and warm patriotic pride for my people.

            I know there are also a lot of problems in Estonia, too, but it seems like the things that are resolved are resolved well. Even though planning can sometimes be difficult on an individual level, the larger developments in Estonia are executed logically and with the utmost skill.

            Back in the nineties, I’d say that Estonia sure does have a lot to learn from us, but we in Denmark have a lot to learn from Estonia just the same!

In some ways, you’re a nexus between three cultures: Denmark, Finland, and Estonia. How does it seem to you, is it all a single world somehow? We here in Estonia certainly want to be part of the Nordic countries.

I’ve always seen myself as Nordic. Not even just Nordic, but Baltic. That is my strongest source of identity. I think of it like common rings: there are bigger and smaller rings that partly overlap at some points. Culturally and socially, Denmark and Estonia are connected in certain ways that Finland isn’t. Sometimes, Finland, Estonia, and Sweden are interconnected. Other times, it’s Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Of course, you can see things in common between the Baltic states because of the fifty years of Soviet occupation with Russia, and why not?– There are different levels to culture.

            I am, of course, a Dane through and through – it’s an incredibly important identity to me now that I live in Finland. I miss Denmark and I understand that I have very strong Danish values. For instance, the differences in gender equality – sometimes, it feels like certain things in Estonia are very old-fashioned. But at other times, it’s the opposite in terms of other things. It’s actually the same in Finland: sometimes if feels like they are fifty years ahead of us in Denmark, and at other times, it feels like they’re fifty years behind us. Things are somewhat similar in Estonia, but the layers here are different because Estonia has been subjected to such different regimes and cultures.

            Still, I have to say that yes – I see much more in common than I do in differences.

Eva Velsker is a translator and a linguist. She teaches and researches the Estonian language at the University of Tartu. Velsker also translates Danish, English, and Finnish literature into Estonian.