Guntars Godiņš, your name has been mentioned quite often recently in connection with the Via Estica literary award. You translated poems by five  Estonians into Latvian. How did it all start?

It all happened by chance really. I don’t know why I was attracted to the Estonian language. I just thought it was very musical. I started with a book of poetry and an Estonian Russian dictionary. The first Estonian poet I translated was Jaan Kaplinski. Later, I studied Finnish and translated mostly from that language. Perhaps it was destiny that brought me to Estonia, and I began studying the language again. Who knows why. At one time, I was fascinated with Indonesian language, but nothing came out of that.

It is only natural that speakers of larger languages never wonder why someone has decided to learn their language. Reasons for learning interest  only small nations. As far as I know, you have translated something by almost every Estonian author. What conclusions have you drawn about Estonian literature, Estonian poetry, from folk songs to the youngest authors?

In my opinion, translating is understanding. I’d start with folk songs. They have fascinated me not only as poetry, but also as mythology and what is similar between Fenno Ugrian and Latvian folk songs. Much is in fact similar. Translating folk songs is almost impossible, but worth the effort anyway.

Do you think that what is important in translating folk songs is also important when translating other material? Or do different criteria exist?

First of all, folk songs have a very robust structure. Therefore I respect all their elements, not just the words. Melody, for instance, is the first framework – words come second. Both the Kalevala and the Kalevipoeg have been translated into Latvian, but the result is rather boring. Latvian folk songs are different, they are shorter and more disciplined. A Latvian can describe an important event in 4 lines, Estonians and Finns need more space.

Why are Estonian and Latvian folk songs so different? Why can a Latvian folk song express itself in such a concise form, unfamiliar in Estonian or Finnish folk songs? Why are erotic folk songs, common in Latvia, missing in many languages?

It’s very difficult to say. The whole of folklore is so much guesswork. The reasons for so many differences may lie in the mentality, the language, in history. Sometimes due to quite different factors. When I studied Indonesian and Malaysian folk songs, for example, their form turned out to be quite similar to Latvian songs. But imagine the distance between Latvia and Indonesia! Chance plays its role too. At the same time, there are numerous common features in Finno Ugric and Latvian mythologies. In Finland, for instance, the pike is a mythical creature   it created the world. The same role in Latvia belongs to the snake who grinds flour on a millstone in the middle of the sea. The millstone is a sacred stone in Latvian mythology.
As for erotic folk songs, I remember an incident from years ago when I worked for Soviet Latvian radio. I compiled a programme consisting of such songs. The announcer said: Guntars Godiņš presents his favourite folk songs. An avalanche of indignant letters followed, especially from teachers: you may talk like that, but Latvians never utter such words. Our folk songs do in fact call a spade a spade, there are no euphemisms. But we do have humour, irony and philosophy.

The Kaplinski book is ready, waiting to be published. Would you comment on your recent work?

I have translated a lot, but the chances of publishing poetry in Latvia are slim. The Kaplinski book is a selection, and was actually ready 8 years ago. My latest translations from Estonian were these five books   like quintuplets. I once translated an anthology of Finnish poetry, but I was not keen on making another one. Hence the five books, each with an introduction by an Estonian critic or poet. First comes Alliksaar, one of my old favourites. His poetry is extremely difficult to translate, therefore I don’t really know whether I have translated or interpreted Alliksaar. But I wanted Latvians to have an inkling about his poems, their style,  structure, abundant alliterations and assonances, rather scarce in Latvian poetry.
The second author is Hando Runnel, also very difficult to translate. The language of his poetry is not the ordinary language of literature, it is more like spoken language. At the same time, his poetry has complicated structure, because it has rhymes. Rhyme is not unknown in Latvian poetry, like it is in Finnish or Swedish poetry. Everybody is writing free verse nowadays. I think the tradition of rhymed poetry was not at all bad.

It shows the quality of translation if the reader recognises a poem even in a foreign language. With every author and text, a translator has to distinguish the essential, the original, the inevitable from the occasional, random. In that sense, translating resembles the rebuilding of a house   you can remove a wall or a word, but cannot touch another, otherwise everything will collapse.

I think everything is important   form, intonation, rhyme . And the translator has just one choice   if the poem is untranslatable, he will not translate it. I remember some translation seminars in Latvia where conveying the content of a poem was regarded the primary task.

Content, yes – but what is content?

Indeed. That’s a good question. For me, it’s a complicated problem, but also a fascinating one   will I manage or not? There’s one significant thing, though, and that’s the destiny of a language. Sometimes a few things in two languages coincide, when it’s a question of syllables or sound, form or rhyme, and   translation is possible. But the same poem cannot be translated into some other language. Runnel in Finnish, for example   everything’s there, except the sound. In my opinion poetry fascinates first of all with its sound. If that is missing, everything is missing. The third book includes Tõnu Õnnepalu’s poems.
Some time ago, I translated his “Border State” into Latvian. There, too, the book attracted keen attention, numerous reviews were written about it. Later I took interest also in his poetry.
The fourth is Paul Eerik Rummo. His first poetry book already appeared in Latvia  20 years ago. This is now Rummo’s second book in Latvian, which includes both his earlier and new poems.
The last book contains Doris Kareva’s poems. Several of her poems, by the way, have not yet appeared in Estonian, but only exist in Latvian. Translating Doris’s poetry was just as difficult as Alliksaar’s    hers, too, is a poetry of sound and music. But of a different kind.

There doesn’t seem to be a text in another language that you couldn’t imitate or translate. Partly because you are both a musician and a poet, a linguist and a philosopher in a word, a professional who has mastered different forms, as is indeed reflected in your own poetry. Let the poet speak too.

© ELM no 9, autumn 1999