Anna Michalczuk-Podlecki is a devoted translator of Estonian literature into her native Polish. Among other authors, she has translated works by Andrus Kivirähk, Piret Raud, Anti Saar, and Reeli Reinaus. And even during the course of this interview, her translating work continues. Anna holds a vast wealth of warm words for the Estonian language, people, and landscapes.

Being a language with so few speakers, I have to ask: how did you come across Estonian? Did your interest grow out of chance encounters, or did you know that this was what you wanted to do from early on? 

I came across Estonian… through song, a bike, and a train! I attended the University of Wrocław and ended up joining a choir, which was very unique and collaborated with a theater from Węgajty. The theater had invited some Estonians to sing as well. The very first I met were members of the Linnamuusikud ensemble. It was also the first time I ever heard the Estonian language. We performed in Poland, Corsica, and Sardinia.  

The first time I came to Estonia was on a long-distance bike trip with friends. I can still remember my excitement: that’s the place where the people speak Estonian! I just fell in love with the language. It seemed so beautiful; it was mysterious and contained a kind of peace. There’s a kind of peace in Estonia in general – in its landscapes, its language, its people. Something that I lacked, and which I discovered there. I’ve visited many different countries, but it’s only in Estonia where I’ve sensed that gentle, invisible peace.

            The third connection I mentioned was a train: the train I took with my choir to southeast Poland. Also on board was a group of Estonian geography students on their way to Ukraine, and we got to know one another during the ride. I felt like Estonia was ubiquitous in my life – I simply accepted it, like jumping into a lake.

How difficult or easy was it to learn Estonian? What encouragement and what warnings would you give to those who would like to get to know the language better?

I had an insatiable appetite for languages at university. It’s given me some basis for comparison: Estonian is much harder than English, but much easier than Lithuanian (i.e. the conjugation and all the phonetic changes that happen all at once) and even German, which is much more rigid. Estonian feels enchanting to me, but also clear and logical. Of course it does pose its own challenges, like its consonant gradation and whether to use the genitive or the partitive case.

            I’d encourage others by saying that the deeper you go into Estonian, the more fascinating it becomes, and often, a single word can contain an entire story, poem, or bit of wisdom. Take for instance the word juurdlema (investigate), which already contains the answer to how to solve a problem (juur – root); a whole school of psychology. Or incredibly beautiful and descriptive words like mesipuu (beehive, lit. ‘honey tree’), kaelkirjak (giraffe, lit. ‘neck + spotted cow’), õeraas (lit. ‘speck of sister’), kangekaelne (stubborn, lit. ‘stiff-necked’), surmkindel (lit. ‘dead certain’), naeruväärne (laughable, lit. ‘worthy of laughter’), vastutulelik (accommodating, lit. ‘inclined to approach’), eksitee (deviation, lit. ‘path that leads you astray’), mahajäetu (abandoned, lit. ‘left behind’), lootusrikas (hopeful, lit. ‘rich in hope’), lollpea (idiot, lit. ‘stupid-head’), etc. Sometimes it feels like the whole language is like that. Like the language itself is a story.

            The warning I’d give is to say: keep your mind wide open when you learn. It’s a different system, a different way of thinking, and it took me a long time to understand how to talk about the future or the duration of an activity in Estonian.[1]

Describe your first independent translation, if you would. What was most difficult at first?

My first attempts were published in Wrocław magazines – stories by Mehis Heinsaar and Kristiina Ehin. The first longer work I translated was a giant leap into the unknown: Jaan Kaplinski’s collection of essays titled Isale (To My Father). It was highly moving, even for Polish readers. That one took a long time as I was simultaneously working full-time at a big Wrocław concert hall. Things later got better because, thanks to my husband and my young son, I had a chance to work from home. And that’s when the tree began to blossom: I began working on children’s books by Piret Raud, Anti Saar, Andrus Kivirähk, Hilli Rand, Helena Läks, and Reeli Reinaus. Right now, I’m translating Kivirähk’s novel The Man Who Spoke Snakish, after which will come Anti Saar’s Pärt series, and then Kivirähk again – Tilda ja tolmuingel (Tilda and the Dust Angel) and Rehepapp ehk November (November). I’m also planning to translate Priit Põhjala’s Onu Mati, loomaarst (Uncle Mati, Veterinarian) and Reeli Reinaus’s Maarius, maagia ja libahunt (Maarius, Magic, and the Werewolf). And I hope many, many more titles to come!

            It’s hard to keep track of Estonia’s literary scene and its book market from a distance, though this is where the Käsmu translators’ seminar is an incredible aid – it’s an opportunity to breathe in the air of Estonian literature once again. The Estonian Children’s Literature Center and Traducta translation grant program have also been amazing support for me personally.

What is the hardest part about translating Estonian into Polish? Syntax? Idioms? Broader cultural disparities? Or is it something else?

The hardest parts, in my opinion, are the very dissimilar systems of verbs and grammatical tenses. In Polish, as in Slavic languages in general, the grammatical aspect is very important and can be used not only in the past, but also in the future. I’m reminded of an interview with a German who learned Polish and was absolutely blown away by how Polish speakers know confidently that something will be accomplished in the future. It’s difficult for me to write that sentence in Estonian already, because the language is so different.

            We also have the concept of repetition – perfective and imperfective. For example, if I’m simply present someplace (at the cinema, for example), then I’ll use the verb być (jestem w kinie). But if I’m at the cinema repeatedly (or rarely, or often), then it’s the verb bywać (bywam w kinie). Interesting, right? This turned out to be a huge challenge in Hilli Rand’s short and otherwise crystal-clear children’s book Lumivalge ja süsimust (Snow White and Coal Black). The characters are cats observing a street where something is always going on. As I translated it into Polish, I had to be on my toes to interpret and decide whether the given event repeated every day or had only happened in that moment. I remember it was like juggling Polish verbs; it was hilarious.

            Another challenge is gender, which is very visible in Polish (male, female, and neutral), and not only in nouns, but in verbs and pronouns as well. I always have to decide whether the universal gender-neutral Estonian tema is that or he or she. In Kivirähk’s novel The Man Who Spoke Snakish, the protagonist Leemet has a snake-friend named Ints. At first, Leemet believes that Ints is male, though it turns out to be the opposite… And I, translating it into a Slavic language, had to come up with a clever solution. Another character is a huge fish named Ahteneumion. So, I had to write to Andrus and ask: hey – would you rather Ahteneumion be a male or a female fish in Polish?The name itself almost sounds male, but the Polish word for fish is feminine (ryba). That gave us a lot of laughs… Then, there are the lexical challenges: how do you translate hiis (a sacred grove or stone) or rehepapp (an historical figure who heated the barn kiln and oversaw threshing at a manor; as well as a self-serving and dishonest person or thing acting as a go-between)? One way to do it is to see how such words have been translated into third languages. Still, problems like these are right in my wheelhouse – they hold the sorcery of Estonian.

How much Estonian literature has been translated into Polish so far? Do you talk to your colleagues or are you a lone wolf?

I’m sorry to admit that far too little has been translated! The first translations to be published were little snippets of Estonian classics in a lexicon of world literature in the 1930s. The translator, an ethnographer named Kazimiera Zawistowicz-Adamska, also published an article about Estonian folk beliefs and Kalevipoeg. Later, he translated Jüri Parijõgi’s Teraspoiss (Boy of Steel).

            After the Second World War and until the 1980s, Estonian literature was translated into Polish from a bridge language like Russian or German: for example, works by Eduard Vilde, Paul Kuusberg, Friedebert Tuglas, A. H. Tammsaare, Oskar Luts, Enn Vetemaa, Mats Traat, Mati Unt, Vladimir Beekman, Aadu Hint, Teet Kallas, and Jaan Kross.

            In the 1980s, an Estonian named Aarne Puu, who was also an author and had come to Poland to start a family, took the stage. Thanks to his work, Polish readers can now enjoy Tuglas’s novella “Maailma lõpus” (At the End of the World), Arvo Valton’s short stories, Mati Unt’s Sügisball (The Autumn Ball), Vaino Vahing’s Sina (You), poetry by Paul-Eerik Rummo, and, together with Jerzy Litwiniuk, a collection of poems by Betti Alver, Artur Alliksaar, Hando Runnel, and Jaan Kaplinski. Puu also published a selection of Estonian short stories in Polish translation (including writing by Valton, Kallas, Kruusvall, Rein Saluri, Jüri Tuulik, and Vahing), and Litwiniuk translated Tammsaare’s The New Devil of Hellsbottom.

            August Gailit’s Toomas Nipernaadi was published in Poland in the 1980s, which is an interesting story: the translator, Alicja Maciejewska, actually finished it in the late 1930s (edited by the renowned Polish author Zofia Nałkowska), but then… then, the war came and the manuscript was burned. Luckily, the novel had also appeared serially in a magazine, so it was recovered in full.

            More recently published were Dorota Górska’s translation of an essay by Peeter Sauter (featured in the collection Nostalgia, 2002) and a collection of Kaplinski poems translated by Puu (2014).

            As for children’s literature, we have some classics including Eno Raud’s Naksitrallid (Three Jolly Fellows) and Ellen Niit’s Pille-Riini lood (Pille-Riin’s Stories), both translated directly from Estonian in the 1980s.

            So, there have only been two “wolves” as of late: Aarne Puu and, since 2015, I. The two of us met at the translators’ seminar in Käsmu, where he also gave me my first children’s-literature translation assignment: Piret Raud’s books. I’m also a member of the Polish Literary Translators’ Union – we have a private Facebook group where we talk and work issues out together if anyone needs advice.

Could you describe your work routine in a few words? How much, how long, and how intensively do you translate? How clean is the first translation, and how many times do you go over it again?

If I’ve got the whole day to myself, then I try to start early in the morning when my eyes and mind are still fresh.

Once my initial draft is complete, I read through it and mark down questions, parts I’m unsure of, etc. Whenever possible, I talk to the writer themselves. Estonian authors have always been very accommodating, in my experience.

            After I’ve worked out the kinks, I print the manuscript and read it on paper. I try to imagine it’s a Polish book, a Polish manuscript, to make sure the style is fluid and the story comes across clearly. Of course, I do always want Estonia and the spirit of the Estonian language to be preserved (i.e. keeping the character and place names as original as possible), but the book still has to be harmonious in its new language.

            Only once that stage is complete do I send it to the publisher. Then comes the edit and the copyedit, the book finds its way back to me, and we work on it until both the publisher and I are satisfied. In that sense, every book I translate is like a rather long-term companion.

Anti Saar (b. 1980) is an author and translator. He primarily translates philosophy and primarily writes for children. Michalczuk has so far translated two of Saar’s books: The Way Things Are with Us (Ja, Jonasz i cała reszta, Widnokrąg, 2018) and Pärt Gets In a Jam (Widnokrąg, forthcoming).

[1] Estonian has no future tense. – Translator