Katja Novak (Kateryna Botnar) has lived in Estonia for several years. She is completing a master’s degree in cultural organization at the University of Tartu, directs educational programs at the Estonian National Library, and assists with literary projects at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Tallinn. Katja is a poet, translator, and member of the Estonian Writers’ Union.

Over the last five years, she has translated classic Estonian children’s poetry, as well as poems by Doris Kareva, and Piret Raud’s Natuke napakad lood (Slightly Silly Stories). Her other works include the first-ever Ukrainian-language issue of the children’s magazine Täheke. Her own original poetry has been translated into Estonian and Icelandic.

I sometimes wonder what it feels like to be a Ukrainian living in Estonia right now. How often have you encountered stereotypes and preconceptions?

Most Estonians think no one would ever want to learn their language because it’s so difficult. The constant incredulity has gotten a little annoying because I’ve come to understand that Estonian isn’t just the language of Estonians – it’s mine now, too. Of course, I’m grateful for receiving such a warm welcome. As for the war, people generally believe that if you’re Ukrainian, then you’re adept at anything and know how to answer every question. That you’re speedy and exact and talented, and know how to write, edit, and publish; that you’ve got a whole network of publishers at your disposal and the ability to distribute an entire print run in Ukraine. It’s a common expectation, being a jack of all trades who can do anything and have it finished straightaway. Especially when you work in a cultural center. It’s weird to use the word “work” because I practically live there. It’s not a job that goes from nine till five.

How do you like to classify yourself, and to yourself most of all? You’re a cultural ambassador, poet, translator, editor, student, and certainly much more simultaneously.

I’d start with the simplest way I introduce myself to others. It depends on whom I’m speaking to. You don’t go telling everybody that you write poetry and translate and what all else. For the most part, I tell people I work at the Estonian National Library. It sounds respectable and doesn’t raise any additional questions.

I tell closer acquaintances about the cultural center, the projects we’ve done, and what I’m working on currently. I talk about my translations with anyone who shows an interest. And only a small circle of friends knows that I write poetry. It can be off-putting; I’ve seen it. If Anatoly[1] introduces me as Katja Novak, a poet from Ukraine, people recoil at seeing a poet washing dishes in the kitchen. Why not, though?

To myself, I’m first and foremost a translator. Not even a cultural mediator, because I can’t mediate all areas of culture and maybe one person shouldn’t. As a translator, I’m able to recommend literature that could be translated and, as an editor, I can help to review the writing. That might be my comfort zone: not doing anything I don’t know how to do, because I have an extremely strong sense of responsibility. Just yesterday, I joked to a coworker that it’s good we’re not doctors. If I recommend a book to someone and they don’t like it, then so what – they’ll come back the next day and borrow another.

I’m not even entirely competent to talk about Ukrainian culture, because it’s such a broad field. When a greater interest in Ukrainian literature sparked just recently, I was asked to give a presentation. I discovered that I do know this and that, but everything that’s caught my fancy comes from random places and doesn’t form a system. I suppose I’m not great at speaking fluidly like an expert.

I found your overview of Ukrainian literature very refreshing and interesting, and it inspired me to learn more. Perhaps the fragmented method and fascinating examples that you chose was the best possible introduction to Ukrainian literature. But what are your roles at the Ukrainian Cultural Center and the National Library of Estonia? And where do you study?

Everyone at the center shares responsibility for the institution as a whole, and each takes care of their designated area or floor. I’ve been entrusted with the books and handle the literary processes that go on there. At the National Library, I’m officially a specialist in media competency. However, my focus is on designing programs for primary-school students and youth with the library’s Education Center. My master’s program in cultural organization is at the University of Tartu. I’m delighted that other students in my course are no longer amazed that I speak Estonian! When the war broke out in Ukraine, they acted in a very natural and compassionate way, and we barely spoke about it. There are people from very diverse backgrounds in the program, of course.

When and how did you find poetry? What did reading and writing poetry mean to you? Was it a journey to a place for which you yearned, or did literature lead you along paths you could never have expected?

I think it all began when I was four years old and rewrote in my childish scribbling the story about the runaway pancake[2] because the original felt dreadfully long. I liked to make my own magazines with crossword puzzles and current events. Those early literary attempts are still stored at my childhood home. I wrote my first poems when I was eight or nine, but the first that I’d be comfortable reading today was when I was 11. My literature teacher at the time accused me of plagiarism. It showed me their true colors.

I’ve noticed that, to people who don’t know me, I generally come off as a romantic young woman with her head in the clouds. One time, Anatoly and I were talking about what kind of a dog would suit me (I unfortunately can’t have a pet right now, as I travel so much between Tallinn and Tartu). The others in the room suggested a Labrador or a corgi, but he said no: you, Katja, are an Irish wolfhound. You possess an immense well of ancient might.

How did you discover translating?

I began translating when I was in high school. I went to an English-intensive gymnasium where we had 10 to 11 hours of language lessons per week and read everything we could get our hands on. The teachers were wonderful, too. That’s when I tried my hand at it. At university, I had a friend, an artist, who was a big fan of Van Gogh. He lent me the first volume of Vincent’s correspondence with his brother Theo, and I fell in love. Unfortunately, my friend moved to Paris and couldn’t lend me the second volume, so I read it online. I then got the crazy idea to translate Van Gogh’s letters into Ukrainian. Out of the 800 or 900 in the collection, I made a selection of about 200. The texts are so delicate, so sensitive! Van Gogh wasn’t insane or an eccentric – the things he thought about were very deep.

Because I studied philosophy for my bachelor’s degree, I didn’t come into much contact with translation theories or techniques. I figured it out by trial and error instead. My German fell out of use, but I tried to keep up translating to and from English. I then ended up taking an Estonian language course, which was the starting point for my history with the country. It’s interesting to translate from a small language that maybe only a handful of people in my native country speak.

What, for you, is the correlation between poetry and translation? Do you perceive poetry as an interpretation of truth, or does translating mean writing poetry anew?

It’s a timeless question: do you save form or meaning? I’ve always strived to preserve meaning and if there’s any way to keep the other to some degree as well, then all the better. Form is a game, but meaning is the reason the poem was written.

Translating my own poetry into Estonian was a new experience. I made a draft, one person read it and made corrections, and then another person came and said: no, we’re doing this all over. It took a fair amount of effort before the poems were published in Looming. Still, whoever has lived in the language longer can immediately tell what is more natural. And when I review the corrections, I can generally tell what I could’ve done better.

No one will read translated poetry if it doesn’t sound as fluid as the original. Let’s agree, then, that it’s writing anew.

I get the impression that synesthesia comes naturally to you. The simultaneity of smells, colors, and sounds is like a soft, omnipresent shimmer in your poetry. You don’t perform many intentional linguistic acrobatics, but your language itself can be surprising and manifest unexpected possibilities that haven’t crossed anyone else’s mind yet. Would I be mistaken to deduce that as soon as you notice yourself using a common construction, then you cast it aside as cliché and pick another subtle, perhaps even humorous, nuance instead?

I really enjoyed a two-volume thesaurus I once found in a library in Ukraine. I copied down so much from it. I felt that if I were to ever use a word that exists but has been forgotten or fallen out of use, then I’d be saving it. It always pains me to think of lesser-spoken languages – what’s happened to Belarusian is a tragedy. I recently ordered a heap of Belarusian-language books, which I can understand in print.

I’ve always preferred the Estonian words armas töökaaslane over hea kolleeg and tuum or iva over point.[3]

The Ukrainian word ladnyy has the same stem as the Estonian ladusalt. Where did the words come from and why? According to the Estonian Etymological Dictionary, the Estonian word comes from Low German. Ordinary words.

I will say it’s very funny to accidentally use Estonian words with Ukrainian suffixes when I’m talking to friends.

People also do that in Estonian and almost obliviously – tšätitakse and hängitakse[4]. As a translator, what does it feel like to move from one text to another?

I feel physical regret whenever saying farewell to a book. For instance, I borrowed a book of Piret Raud’s from a library because the bookstores were sold out, started translating, and then took it with me to Hiiumaa. I translate in bed and the book I’m working on is obviously under the covers with me. I caress it, flip through the pages, study every illustration closely for a long time… It’s a very personal, very intimate connection.

How is your first Estonian-language poetry collection coming? What have your experiences with translators been like?

The first big step has been taken – three of my poems were published in Looming. There’s a story with that. When you and I gave the presentation on Ukrainian literature at a concert in early March, you asked if the poem of mine that was read in Estonian was different than the one in the magazine. The performers told me they preferred the earlier version, and how could I say no to that? I suppose they found a greater affinity. The edited version was published, and the reception has been great.

Poetry does have a somewhat different effect on paper and read aloud, so it’s good that the selection went that way. How often do you have to explain something when being translated, and what part of your poetry is most difficult for Estonians to understand?

There’s generally no geographical dimension in my poetry: the situations could take place anywhere and I suppose there’s not much of a temporal dimension, either. There’s probably almost nothing that can’t be universally understood. I was taught that it’s poor form to use real names in poetry. I still tend to believe that’s the case. I’ve gone through a stylistic shift, though – my poems have become sadder. They’ve taken a significant turn towards current affairs, too; I suppose they’re closer to observations without imagery. I feel like there’s no point in writing about how special a particular morning is to you, because that morning is meaningful to you alone. Not everyone or anyone can understand. I’m trying to be more and more concise, too. I wrote a poem titled “A Person Stands. A Person Isn’t.” three years ago when a friend I spoke to one morning died the very same day. Now, it can be applied to the situation in Ukraine. I can’t say my most recent poems are straightforward, but they should be easy enough to translate. And they should be translated by someone who knows me a little. That being said, I have no strong conviction that my collection has to be published in Estonian right now. I don’t want attention in this role. Not that I won’t be pleased it happens, but I don’t feel it’d be appropriate at this moment.

I’m even unnerved by the photo that was taken of me for ELM. I feel like one shouldn’t be beautiful in wartime. Let me give you an example.

I recently wrote about the events in Mariupol and posted it on Facebook. I have 500 or so friends, but only a few people reacted. Then, I reposted it with a picture: there was an immediate response and a flurry of likes. Do I really have to use my face to direct attention to what matters? I also removed my birthday from my Facebook profile. I don’t want semi-acquaintances lavishing congratulations on me. How can you congratulate anyone right now?

Maybe it’ll all change tomorrow or the day after. Only after we win. Then, I’ll gather up all the good things that happened in the meantime and start feeling joyful.

You’ve often been asked to translate and interpret from various languages. In addition to your native Ukrainian and recently learned Estonian, I imagine you can speak other languages like Russian and English fluently. Do you know any others?

I can passively understand Belarusian and Polish. I prefer to listen to Olga Tokarsczuk’s interviews without a translation. But I’m stumped by Võro and Seto. Lately, I’ve had a lot of trouble translating Kauksi Ülle and Raimond Kolk, as well as Artur Adson. There are no online dictionaries for those languages, either.

My mother and I lived in the Czech Republic for a while. I went to school there and quickly learned the language, but I haven’t had any practice since then and can’t remember much. My German likewise faded as soon as I went to university. It never really took root, though.

In what ways are Estonian and Ukrainian most dissimilar? What colors, sounds, or intricate emotions are the hardest to convey in translation?

Estonian has the word kõndija, which means “walker”. Ukrainian doesn’t. We say, “one who walks”. It’s tricky to make a noun out of a verb. In Estonian, you can combine different words this way and that. When I’m writing Eesti Lastekirjanduse Keskus, for example – the Estonian Children’s Literature Center – then I always have to stop and think about which words are conjoined and which aren’t. Esikkogu for example, which means “debut collection”, is two words in Ukrainian, too. Constantly creating new words is natural to Estonian but rare in Ukrainian. Making “debut collection” a single word would come off as a pointless neologism. Then, there’s accentuation: where does it fall? In Estonian it’s almost always on the first syllable. In Ukrainian, the second or the third. It took incredible effort for me to translate 22 children’s poems. Rhythmically, so much is hard to convey.

Then, you have the question of capitalization. Every word of “Happy New Year” is capitalized in Ukrainian and English, but not in Estonian. Why not? Estonian also has many common words that would sound a little old-fashioned in Ukrainian.

I’ve heard that Estonians living abroad miss our bogs, forests, and black bread the most. Is there any part of Ukrainian culture that is especially dear to you and which you long for while here?

It’s usually hard to find good, quality fruits and vegetablesin Estonia, and the farmers’ markets are relatively dull. In Ukraine, they swell bigger every year. The official market will be fenced in, but sellers will also be offering cheaper prices out front. And the flavors… The tomatoes are so juicy, so exceptional. I discovered in July that the apples in Estonia’s markets have no scent. You can only get real apples from friends’ gardens. In Lviv, you can buy a bottle of wine and go outside (if there’s no space in the cafés), sit on the sidewalk, and listen to the buskers. There are so many easygoing, bohemian places and people there.

You’ve been assisting with the numerous undertakings at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Tallinn. From an Estonian perspective, your community appears to operate harmoniously and with an unbelievably powerful spirit. How did you end up meeting Anatoli Lyutyuk, Father Anatoli?

Anatoli isn’t ordained: he’s a lay monk, an oblate of the Order of Saint Benedict. As he always says: I’m Anatoli and I’m a father, but not Father Anatoli. He brings goodness into the world through his projects and deeds.

I wrote to him before I moved to Estonia, asking where I could study the language. We met when he was in Ukraine and quickly became friends. He and I had known each other for three years before he told me he founded the first Estonian language course in Lviv a decade earlier. I’d been going to classes in the main building of the university and his lessons were just next door, but I had no idea. That story is very special to me.

Sometimes, everything just happens around one person. There are so many different people in Anatoli’s life. You can walk with him to the train station and see just how extensive his circle of acquaintances is, from homeless people to men in suits and ties.

I’m a more organized person than he is and need more clarity, for the most part. Our cultural center is governed by beautiful chaos. We all think differently and are walking different paths, but ultimately arrive at the same place.

How have the events in Ukraine affected your poetry? Does a smoldering inner disquiet compel you to seek help from words, to feverishly pursue a magic formula to change the world, or on the contrary – does it have a negative effect?

Some people in Ukraine right now also say that literature cannot help and vow never to write again. It seems a little naïve: never say never.

I attended two literature schools with older, experienced teachers. I was 11 or 12 years old, and the rest of the students were adults or in college. One very strict, mirthless literary critic told us not to write if we could help it, but if we had to, then we’d never overcome the need. The torment of writing isn’t so bad for me, though. It’s no big deal if I don’t write for a while. Sometimes there are more important things in life.

Do you agree with Adorno, who claimed that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric?

I used to think I would die if war ever broke out, but it’s strange how you actually process it: once you emerge from the daze, you’re still capable of doing everything you need to. Anticipating the war was even more terrifying than the beginning of the war itself. Can you experience anything worse in life? Perhaps only the death of a loved one comes close. People keep insisting that we’re unable to express it, to describe it… What I wonder is: should we? Maybe it’s a job for historians – recording everything that happened and when it happened in detail. But others don’t have to discuss it.

I intended to ask how you find balance and support in harrowing times, but I realized you already answered that earlier. You have a wonderful and supportive family, and your circle of friends is wide and trustworthy. You seem unafraid and steadfast in your activities, focusing on what matters.

There’s no need to find adjectives for war. War is a concept that transcends. Like death. War needs no epithets.

Doris Kareva (1958) is a poet, translator, and editor.

[1] Anatoly Lyutyuk, director of the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Tallinn. – Editor

[2] The fairytale, which is common in different variations throughout Eastern Europe, is similar to The Gingerbread Man. – AC

[3] “Dear coworker” vs. “good colleague” and “crux” or “essence” vs. “point”. – AC

[4] “They chat” and “they hang out”. – AC