Six of Jaan Kross’s novels have been translated into Dutch. The first to be published were The Tsar’s Madman (translated by Roland Jonkers as De gek van de Tsaar, 1992) and Professor Martens’s Departure (translated by Cornelius Hasselblatt and Marianne Vogel as Het vertrek van professor Martens, 1993). However, all of Kross’s 21st-century Dutch translations have been translated by two men: Frans van Nes and Jesse Niemeijer. The latter did Treading Air (Luchtfietsen, 2008); the former, Mesmer’s Circle (De kring van Mesmer, 2000) and A Novel of Rakvere (Strijd om de stad, 2019). Perhaps the most outstanding, however, is their jointly translated Between Three Plagues (Tussen drie plagen, 2018). Van Nes has also translated Meelis Friedenthal’s The Bees (De bijen, 2015) and Niemeijer translated Andrus Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish (Die man die de taal van de slangen sprak, 2015).

First of all, a couple of words about yourselves: is “translator” a central part of your identities? What other activities matter to you?

Frans van Nes: I work primarily as a translator, but I don’t only translate literature and I don’t only work from Estonian: I’ve studied Finno-Ugric languages and cultures, and also translate from Hungarian. I’ve also recently become a tour leader, but translating will remain my main job.

Jesse Niemeijer: Unlike Frans, I’m not translating full-time. It’s not my profession, but something I enjoy doing every once in a while alongside my “regular” job.

What is the position of translator generally like in Dutch culture?

FvN: I’m not sure it differs much from other countries. Translators are relatively invisible. You do strive to be invisible as you translate, but that noble principle results in the undervaluing and also underpaying of translators. Luckily, we have the Letterenfonds (the Dutch Foundation for Literature), which provides support for literary translators.

What language is most translated into Dutch, presently? I’d assume English, but what else?

JN: The exact figures are hard to determine, but the vast majority is from English, of course. French is still probably in a distant second place. Scandinavian thrillers and crime novels are also relatively popular.

How did you first come across Jaan Kross, and how did you end up repeatedly translating his works?

FvN: Two of his novels had already been translated into Dutch by the time the Prometheus publishing house asked me to translate Mesmer’s Circle in the late 90s. I’d already translated a few books from Hungarian. Cornelius Hasselblatt and Marianne Vogel, who had translated Professor Martens’s Departure into Dutch, helped me a great deal with my first Kross translation, which was also my first translation from Estonian overall. Since then, my opportunities to translate more Kross come mainly from the fact that Prometheus has remained loyal to him. What publishers dare to release determines the fate of authors and translators.

JN: I became a translator purely by chance, and Kross’s novel Treading Air was my very first literary translation. At the time, I was studying Russian and international relations at the University of Groningen and because I had worked as a volunteer in Estonia and was interested in the country and the language, I took a minor course in Estonian language and history that was taught by professor Cornelius Hasselblatt. Around 2006, he asked me if I would be interested in translating Treading Air if he helped me out a bit, so I tried a few chapters and decided to give it a go.

Estonia is a small country and its literature isn’t well known to Dutch publishers. Job Lisman at Prometheus is almost the only Dutch publisher who has a real interest in Estonian literature and is also open to suggestions. As Frans said – whatever the publisher wants is what goes, though you can always try to get one of them enthusiastic about a particular book. It certainly helps when the work is already available in another language and the publisher can read it. That’s how Lisman gained an interest in Between Three Plagues, but also in The Man Who Spoke Snakish, which I translated into Dutch a few years ago.

How has the Dutch audience received Kross’s works? The translations find themselves in an entirely new context, for the most part. Kross is important to Estonians as an historical interpreter and his books are seen as bolstering our sense of national identity. What does a Dutch reader find in them?

FvN: Kross has been very well received, meaning those who know about him give positive feedback. However, he’s not widely known. Dutch readers see his books as a window to an unknown world.

JN: Six of Kross’s novels have Dutch translations. Between Three Plagues was the most successful of them, both commercially and in terms of its reception by literary critics. The reviews in all major newspapers were ecstatic and the translation of A Novel of Rakvere was a direct outcome of its success.

Kross would have turned 100 this year – he’s mostly a man of the last century. What do his works have to offer to people of the 21st century?

FvN: Much, I suppose. With his historical novels, Kross wanted to make a statement about Estonia in his own era – not just in the era he depicts, though their reach is even greater. Staying true to principles or not, speaking one’s opinion or holding it back, man’s relationship with power, the lasting effect of one’s beginnings – the topics Kross addresses are topical everywhere and always, even today.

JN: Well, of course he is a writer from the last century, but the important themes in his novels are quite timeless. Frans named a few, but I’d like to add others and issues like: the nature of loyalty, to whom one is loyal, truth, treason, etc.

Do the works by Kross that you’ve translated seem similar to or unique from one another, be it in terms of style or how he approaches topics?

FvN: I believe they’re more similar, both stylistically and in terms of content. The protagonists are also alike. On the other hand, the context and perspective are different every time.

JN: To be honest, I find it hard to compare the two novels I’ve translated because Treading Air was my very first translation and was done almost 15 years ago. Still, I’d say his style of writing in both novels is typical Kross with very precisely formulated, long and winding sentences. The protagonists are both talented Estonian men who live in a time of foreign occupation and, in that sense, are comparable. However, they make different choices. Whereas Russow collaborates to a certain extent, Paerand does not.

Is there any Dutch author to whom you’d compare Kross? Or an author from any other cultural and linguistic space? 

FvN: It’s hard to find a Dutch comparison for Kross. During his time, there was the ‘Three Giants’ (Willem Frederik Hermans, Gerard Reve, and Harry Mulisch) but none of them are very comparable with Estonia’s One Giant. From outside of the Netherlands, I’d propose the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. He’s also an author who speaks a great deal about his own time through historical novels, and whose characters likewise navigate between power and principles.

JN: I don’t think we really have a comparable author in the Netherlands. My impression is that the historical novel genre is not so popular here. When I started translating Treading Air, Marianne Vogel and Cornelius Hasselblatt advised me to read some books by Nelleke Noordervliet because her themes and styles are a bit comparable to Kross. She is a relatively well-known Dutch author of historical novels, but in no way is as popular or important as Kross is in Estonia.

Between Three Plagues is such a long novel that translating it must have been a real undertaking! How long did it take you?

FvN: Two years in total, though with some breaks. We began translating it in early 2016 and sent our final corrections to the publisher in early 2018.

It’s not only about volume, of course. The novel also uses very complex language that is partially due to a technique unique to Kross and partially due to a stylized language that mimics its era (the 16th century). How did you approach translating the archaic language? Does any corresponding layer exist in Dutch?

FvN: Sixteenth-century Dutch is actually a foreign language to modern-day readers. In some places, we used archaisms to create a 16th-century atmosphere. You can’t go any further than that, though painting such an atmosphere might in fact be at the core of it. Translation is almost akin to faking. The characters aren’t actually speaking Dutch and aren’t thinking in Dutch. I might add that I translated passages from the chronicles directly from Low German and, although it’s similar to Dutch, I changed only very little. I did the same when I was translating A Novel of Rakvere and the result is certainly close to the language spoken at that time. 

Kross often uses uncommon words or even comes up with his own that can’t be found in any dictionary. How did you resolve those types of situations?

JN: In my notes, I can see I marked down the Estonian words noormehehakatus ehk poisivooster. In short, that probably means it was a problem. In the Estonian dictionary, the first definition of vooster is ‘looder, logask’, i.e. someone who is idle or a loafer. Thus, as I understand it, there is something of a judgement in the word poisivooster. I translated it as kwajongen, which also has the meaning of ‘a young man’, but one who is a bit naughty or something of a rascal. Looking back, I assume I believed the words that describe a person who is idle or a loafer are too strong in Dutch, and we also don’t have one word that implies the person is young…

FvN: I translated tulekurja lõhast into one word: vuurduivel, or ‘fire devil’. The word doesn’t exist in the Dutch dictionary, but it contains both ‘fire’ and the nature of it. I don’t remember why I chose that specifically, but I created quite many compound words – ones more bizarre than vuurduivel

For a translator of Kross, it’s a privilege that many of his words – even the most unique ones – can be found in the Estonian dictionary. Often, though, the description goes no farther than a reference to Kross (which means it probably hasn’t been used anywhere other than in that particular spot in the work you’re translating!), so the benefit is relative in that sense. Still, knowing that any given word is unique to the author alone is also important. I kept his German translations close the whole time I was translating the last two novels.

Can you remember any other expression or passage that was a really tough nut to crack? Did you ultimately find a good solution or did you just have to settle for obscurely “translating between the lines”?

FvN: It wasn’t always possible to use an archaism, neologism, or vernacular in the “right” place, meaning in the same place as in the original. In that case, I needed to find something new elsewhere – in a place where the language was actually transparent to an Estonian reader. Adramaa (a feudal unit of land measure) and roigasaed (a roundpole fence) are actually common words and not unique to Kross, but with these it was our turn to come up with something new: ploegakker is a neologism and staakheining is a rare word that was given a new, specific meaning. The hardest sections to translate were the ones that spoke about language itself. In one place, I had to find an equivalent for a vernacular word for shed without having the Dutch reader think of a specific region in Belgium or the Netherlands instead of the one in Estonia. I settled upon a common word but gave it a new and incidental meaning.

JN: I just remembered that in Vol. 1 Chapter 3, they play a game in school called putterloggi mäng, or in German butterloch spiel – a medieval ball game. As far as I could discover, it isn’t a game we’re familiar with in the Netherlands or that was played here at that time. So, I had to search for a more or less comparable old game that was played in the 16th-century Netherlands. Having to suddenly delve deep into a subject you know nothing about is a charming, appealing side of translating literature. I came across an old Dutch ball game called Kolf and in my Dutch translation of Between Three Plagues, Balthasar plays that game.

Did you argue over anything while translating? How can a pair of people translate a book with such a difficult style in the first place? I suppose you can’t simply divide it in half, can you?

FvN: There was a lot to coordinate, of course, and we also commented on each other’s translations. There was hardly any real dispute. When you translate something as a pair, you have to always be ready to abandon your principles. As a general rule, if the other translator suggests an alternative, then it’s recommended to pick that. That way, the translations mesh. 

There are many theories of translation, but from what I’ve heard, translators mostly shrug them off in practice and just keep going as they were. Is there any theory of translation or simply a translator’s creed that you hold dear? Did translating Kross put it to the test in any way?

FvN: I’m no theoretician, but I believe the practical summary of translating is an eternal question phrased by the poet and translator Martinus Nijhoff, whom the Netherlands’ most prestigious translation award is named after: “In what kind of Dutch would a foreigner have written their book if they were Dutch and have relied upon in terms of their conceptual form?” One must always keep that question in mind.

JN: Just like Frans, I’m no theoretician. Apart from a few courses on translating Russian literature, I also do not have much formal education in literary translation. I think I learned most while translating The Man Who Spoke Snakish in 2014, for which I received funding and practical help (a mentorship) from the Dutch Foundation for Literature. Since Frans was the only active translator from Estonian at that time, and was more experienced, he served as my mentor. He taught me many things, but most of all, I learned to be more precise. I remember him saying, “What is lost in your first version (or first ‘working’ translation) is most likely lost forever.” I always have that sentence in the back of my mind when I’m translating. And, needless to say, it’s a very important lesson when you’re translating the work and the style of a writer like Jaan Kross.

What have you enjoyed most about reading and translating Kross? Has anything made you angry?

FvN: I enjoy the immense scope of his books. It’s highly satisfying to delve into the incredible variety of things in his writing. Kross gives his reader the gift of an immense knowledge about the (cultural) history of Estonia and Europe, and his translator gets even more because they must “know the seam of the stocking”, as we say in the Netherlands. It’s very enriching, but the translator also has to give up sometimes. As soon as you’ve finally found one equivalent for a difficult word, Kross serves us up a synonym for the same word.  And, to be honest, he’s downright unbearable at times – such as when he smugly displays himself through his own work. I especially remember that from my first Kross translation. The protagonist of Mesmer’s Circle loves to write poetry. Poetry is very difficult to translate in and of itself, but when the author goes on to add that the poem turned out very well, he almost infuriates me. By translating that, I’m complimenting my own translation, and I don’t like that! Let others do the praising.

JN: I enjoy the rich language Kross uses in his novels. And the way he’s able to set the stage or paint the picture with it. Especially in Between Three Plagues, you can almost feel, smell, and touch medieval Tallinn when you read or translate the book. The downside is that his language is – because of that quality – sometimes very, very challenging.

Johanna Ross (1985) is an editor of the Estonian philology journal Keel ja Kirjandus (Language and Literature). As a scholar, her main fields of interest include female and Soviet literature.