Estonian Voices in the Swedish Language

by Birgitta Göranson, Ivo Illiste


Only a few months ago, the prestigious National Geographical Society in Washington, D. C. published a coffee table book: "Peoples of the World".
This is, to our knowledge, the latest of the popular global photographic and textual introductions to what the title of the book indicates. The map of Europe (p. 161) also includes Estonia, but in the index there is no reference to Estonians as a people; however, there are two references to the Estonian language.
This in its turn reminds us of two bitter texts: a song by Wolf Biermann after Prague 1968: "Das Land, es steht", and the lines by Paul Eerik Rummo in his poem "Why I Don’t Escape Abroad" (which essentially contributed to the Soviet literary censors denying his volume "The Sender s Address" permission be published in the `70 s):

 only the language
 still bleeding, only the language still
 more or less whole and old
 only the language still on its feet...

According to the estimates of social anthropologists, no less than 2,000 languages in round figures have disappeared since global colonialism started, and pushed on at an ever-increasing speed from the turn of the 14th 15th centuries. Of many of these annihilated cultures we have no more than loose fragments of museum knowledge. Of the languages extant today there is only one realistic prediction: not all of them by far will survive. Come again in on to two generations, and let us then do a new count. Only a few of them (e. g. the Sįmi in the north of Scandinavia, but not the Finno Ugric tribes or nations of Siberia, other parts of the Arctic, and the Volga) are employing the radical counter-measures necessary to avoid their disappearance.

On the other hand, no language has ever been able to exist by itself and on its own only. We do not have to dig out our comparative dictionaries to discover the number of words the present major European languages which have   e.g. in social sciences and also technology, when European / North American / Japanese technology did not rule the world as exclusively as today   borrowed from "primitive" languages, or the need even today to go back and look for suitable concepts or at least word roots of Greek and Latin origin.

Literature, belles lettres, has never existed in a social or political vacuum even though there have been writers who have denied it, who in their own writings have demonstrated a keen desire to break their bonds. Belles lettres have always oscillated on a scale between, on the one hand, the wish to discover more of mankind, use the language in a more keen and subtle way, compose literary works in different ways; describe, analyse, and criticise their own societies, and, on the other, being explicitly written or abused by non literary forces for mean and dirty, greed oriented political and economic purposes. There is also a keen awareness of this. And whether we like it or not, or even abstain from categorical statements, and from an exploitation of literary works for non literary ends. It is by far not only the U.S.I.O.s, the British Council, the Alliance Française, the Goethe Institut, etc., which are active in this field.

Narrowing down this introduction to the field in which the ELM is engaged, and specifically the field of the translations of Estonian literature into Swedish, and even more particularly, to our own role within that latter field, we have to start with repeating one of the more general observations: translations of literary works do not exist in a social or political vacuum either.
Up to and including the period between the two World Wars practically nothing was translated from Estonian into Swedish. The couple of titles that did appear do not reflect any conscious criteria for the selection or quality of the literature. This is partly due to the provincial, peripheral, status of Swedish literature itself at that time. August Strindberg and Selma Lagerlöf had certainly been translated, but not very much more. So Sweden itself was represented by a couple of individual writers on the global map of literature. There was a predictable and practically unavoidable arrogance towards even smaller literatures.
This is due, in part, to the fact that there were no qualified translators of Estonian poetry which, in turn, was more comparable to the outburst of  "Modernism" in the Finland-Swedish poetry (and for which there was no particularly keen interest up to the end of the 1930s in Sweden either) than the prevalent poetry in Sweden proper. The attempts that were made regarding the then magnum opus of Estonian prose - the five volume epic of rural life and urbanization by A. H. Tammsaare - failed. The translation into French was completed, with a foreword by no less than Jean Giono, but the event was totally overshadowed by the outbreak of World War II. And this inevitably interrupted the translation into German, which was being worked on then and has not been completed to this day.

The same situation also held sway during the period between 1940 and 1980. A couple of titles were translated, but it is impossible to see any recognizable or acceptable criteria being used.
The only Estonian writer of whom indeed several novels were published was Valev Uibopuu   who was translated via the Finnish translations, published in Finland. The efforts of exile Estonians resulted in a total of three titles. The first of these was one volume of poetry by Marie Under. The translation is unacceptable today, because of the poor quality of the translation. This harsh judgement has also been underwritten by the main translator. Then there is one novel by Arved Viirlaid, and one by Ilmar Talve. The reception of these literary works also reflects quite well the attitude of the Swedish literary community at that time: to our knowledge there was a total of two short reviews, one of which was only published in MANA, an Estonian exile literary magazine, both of them being the result of the reviewers having been forced to write something, than of their being convinced of the literary value (or non-literary value) of the books concerned.
In general, Estonian writers exiled in Sweden tended to quite simply adapt themselves to the unfavourable conditions, to take them for granted, or even to isolate themselves. Estonian emigrés established a successful publishing house of their own, but this does not imply that there would have been a single writer able to exist only on the strength of his or her literary production. There was only one person able to cross this border of reception and that was Ilmar Laaban, who retained the Estonian language as a base for his own poetry, but the bulk of whose poetry translations and essays about literature, arts and music were written in Swedish.
A radical but by no means satisfactory change in the attitude of the Swedish literary community is in the process of being established only today, after the arrival of yet more exile writers with primarily Latin American, Middle East and Balkan background. In particular, the younger ones among them have taken to writing in Swedish: two of the outstanding examples would be Theodor Kallifatides  whose Greek origin has always been tangible, and Mare Kandre whose Estonian origin is of a more academic nature.
One should not fail to mention the few titles published by the "Foreign Languages Publishing House" in Moscow, and its Soviet Estonian equivalent Perioodika. The books published in Moscow were translated from the Russian (compounding the errors already contained in these translations) and ended up in a stilted, grammatically correct academic Swedish. These books can be noted in the curiosa cabinet of the Cold War, but are not representative as natural samples of Estonian literature, or examples of good Swedish translations. However, an anthology of short stories, and one children book by Eno Raud, were published by Perioodika in Tallinn and were translated directly from Estonian into Swedish.
Most certainly none of these books received any attention in Sweden with the exception of one short review of the anthology of short- stories, half of which was occupied by derogatory remarks on the poor quality of the paper used.

This situation, consisted mostly of a deafening silence (the 1970s being the absolute nadir), interrupted only occasionally by haphazard and erratic exceptions. On the other hand, the period of roughly 15 years from the beginning of the 1980s to the late 1990s can be characterized as almost a breakthrough. This can be seen as more the result of the untiring efforts of one tireless publisher than a reflection of the changes in general Swedish attitudes, even though the latter should not be underrated. For more than one only in the company of Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain, Sweden recognized de jure the enforced annexation and occupation of the Baltic Republics in 1940. Then, in 1946, came the handing over of a group of mostly Latvian soldiers - the notorious Baltutlämningen - to the Soviet authorities. Not until some 50 years later, were there again positive effects caused by the renewed relations between Sweden and all of the Baltic republics, when these establishing their formal independence again in 1991. But a number of clear and positive endeavours to influence public opinion in Sweden must be mentioned: the journalistic books of primarily Andres Küng, later on also Ülo Ignats.
From 1977-1992, publisher and writer Lennart Frick ran the “Fripress” publishing house, which published 150 books translated from 31 languages, out of which around 15% were translations from the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian.
From the Estonian there was a total of ten books: three selections of the poetry by Jaan Kaplinski, four novels by Jaan Kross, one novel by Viivi Luik, one book of "comics" by Priit Pärn, one novel by Mati Unt. During the 1980s and 1990s, two more supportive and positive efforts in the literary field must also be mentioned. The first of these was thanks to Maarja Talgre’s who highlighted Baltic literature in her literary programmes on Swedish Radio. She is also the author of a book about her father, who participated in the resistance movement, Leo. An Estonian Fate. She was later joined by radio programmes and articles by Udo Parikas. The television series: "Our Neighbour   Estonia" sometimes also contained exclusively literary sections.
During one of the seminars some years ago at the Gothenburg Book Fair, primarily focussing on Estonian literature, the Finns brandished the slogan: "Through the Finnish Language to World Literature". There is definitely a "special relationship" between Finland and Estonia, Finland publishing an incomparably large number of translations from Estonian, but this particular slogan does, we fear, reflect mostly exaggerated hopes. The translations published by Fripress, however, as we both think and know, had some influence on smoothing the way for translations into other European languages.

From among those names of translated writers mentioned above, there have later been two more essayistic texts by Jaan Kaplinski, two more novels and one collection of short stories by Jaan Kross, one more novel, plus a selection of the poetry of Viivi Luik. Other authors have been added are Maimu Berg and Emil Tode (one and two novels, respectively).
With regard to editions and print-runs, the former ambassador of Estonia to Sweden, Margus Laidre, has probably published the most successful book of all, about the victory of Charles XII at Narva in 1700: Narva. The Victorious Beginning of the End.
Two more translators can be mentioned as participating in the overall effort: Peeter Puide, who tackled the novels by Viivi Luik and Mati Unt, published by Fripress, plus both novels by Emil Tode; and Enel Melberg who has translated the latest two texts by Jaan Kaplinski, also a book by Maimu Berg and one by Margus Laidre.

Reception of the translations, in particular the Fripress publications, and later also, works by Jaan Kross and Viivi Luik, has on the whole been excellent. Whereas the first novel by Jaan Kross in Swedish translation Keisri hull (1983) still could awake somewhat alienated astonishment, there is little to grumble about concerning both the interest and the respect paid to the later books. In particular, with regard to Jaan Kross who received well over 20 reviews per book.
However, since the late 1990s the "honeymoon" is over. The single most important reason for this is the fact that none of the translations have turned out to be "best-sellers", nor can they be said to belong to the "mainstream" of present world literature which in Sweden is massively dominated by American literature. Clearly, the major publishing houses in Sweden, mostly housed in large office blocks in Stockholm, have large and ever-increasing overheads to worry about: rents, the costs of overall communication, modern technology and it constant updating, salaries, fees, storage, etc., etc. And last but not least, the translation fee for any given translation, which constitutes about 20 % of the total costs. On the other hand, the turnover of the big publishing houses can be calculated in the hundreds of millions of Swedish kronor, so one considerable part of the complaints are caused simply by greed. Books, like crude oil or underwear or medicines, have to yield (increasing) profits. And this, again, reflects the internal policies of Sweden, the movement in the direction of a market economy which has been, to put it mildly, chaotic. This contributes, in particular, to environmental problems (Sweden also being one of the countries around the Baltic littoral), and profits for Swedish enterprises, companies which move to the Baltic area since all salaries are essentially lower there than in Sweden. Literature does not exist in a vacuum, nor does it serve only exclusively literary purposes.

There are still two gratifying signs as of late: the recently founded Estonian Cultural Endowment does support translations from Estonian into other languages (as there is, for instance, an equivalent institution in Holland which pays handsomely for translations from Dutch into other languages). This has clearly helped to give birth to the two latest publications: one special issue of the magazine Ariel (no 4/5 2001: a collection of 11 Estonian essays) and a selection of the poetry of Doris Kareva Nådatid (Time of Grace; 2001). Secondly, Nordbok (based in Copenhagen which up to now has supported translations from the Nordic languages into Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian only) is, at least for a period of time, going to also support translations out of those languages into the Nordic ones.
In 2000, the translation by Alex Milits of the complete Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg into Swedish was published: this was the tenth volume in a series of translations into foreign languages. Earlier there had been only a fairly short Swedish summary of this work in prose. Such a translation is something of a feat in itself, the scope of the present article does not allow to enter any discussion of the successes and problems; Ivo Iliste will write a separate review, to be published by the magazine "Keel ja Kirjandus" (Language and Literature) in Tallinn.


Of our translations, including the two novels by Arved Viirlaid and Ilmar Talve, published 1959 and 1964, and translated by Ivo Iliste alone, are 21 titles in number dating from 1978 through 2001 cover the works of nine authors: Vladimir Beekman, Jaan Kaplinski (3 titles), Doris Kareva, Jaan Kross (7 titles), Viivi Luik (2 titles), Eno Raud, Paul Eerik Rummo, as well as one anthology of short stories and the anthology of essays mentioned above. Three of the plays we have translated, and which were performed at the Book Fair in Gothenburg, or by the Swedish Radio, have not yet been printed (Merle Karusoo, Juhan Smuul and Jüri Tuulik).
In addition, individual poems or short stories by a further 20 authors, ranging alphabetically from Andres Ehin to Enn Vetemaa, have been published mainly in anthologies and magazine issues. A few of these have only been read at poetry readings and literary events in Lund, Malmö, Nässjö, Stockholm and Visby.  More titles and selections are planned for 2002 and 2003, but it is definitely too early to start naming names.

Are there any common nominators?

Yes, at least three:

1) We are very careful about poetry, some of the in particular older poets we have "ruled out" as far as our intentions are concerned. It is possible to escape the straightjacket of rendering a perfect sonnet in Estonian into a likewise perfect sonnet in Swedish (observing the number of syllables, the same rhythm, the correct end rhymes   e. g. the weaknesses of the existing translations of Marie Under into Swedish) but to "translate" the associations and connotations between the lines and in the margins of a poem, the total cultural and historical context which is immediately grasped by an Estonian reader is impossible! Thus, some of the best or most important Estonian poetry in societal terms are unfortunately quite simply untranslatable. In the other direction, Swedish poets such as Gustaf Fröding and Nils Ferlin would be good and comparable examples. Ivo has tried to demonstrate this at the end of his foreword to an anthology of Estonian poetry into Norwegian (the poet Odd Abrahamsen being responsible for the Norwegian versions) by quoting eight lines by Hando Runnel, giving the original, and a literal translation. This poem is about the attempted escape of a small Votian boy across the River Narva river. The original demonstrates the seemingly simple but very intricate and subtle use of alliterations, internal rhyme and end-rhyme, adding up to an overwhelmingly tragic image and experience, closely reminiscent of both of a lullaby and a dirge. These eight lines could constitute the basis for a fully fledged literary seminar   and they cannot be "translated". Our apologies...

2) Our method of work has from the beginning been the same: first of all we try to "get a grasp" on the historical period of the book, the realia involved, the language style of the book. Then Ivo contributes the first raw translation version from Estonian with lots of question marks, synonyms, comments, etc., in the margin, not caring about if he gets the grammar, the sequence of the words etc. correct from the beginning. Then Birgitta puts the manuscript into the Macintosh, and renders it into a revised Swedish version. Finally both of us cover it sentence by sentence, also comparing every sentence with the original.

3) Up to now, we have in most cases had the great privilege of being able to consult the author in order to clarify uncertainties, factual and background matters, ambiguous words. In the ideal case this has actually meant consultation with the author on two occasions: once before or during the first raw translation version, and a second time just before the manuscript was sent to the publisher. Often one confuses the question of understanding and grasping a text while reading it, with the genuine problems to be encountered once one starts to render it into another language. This has been possible on several occasions regarding the novels of Jaan Kross, but also in some other cases. Secondly, concerning all kinds of technical terms, in particular ones at present obsolete, administration, boat motors, astrology, military terms, quotations in Russian for a correct Swedish transcription etc.   we have consulted expertise   as also stated in the translations. Some of the language problems have necessitated notes: e. g. the authentic endings of telephone calls by one particular non Jewish person during the Nazi occupation of Estonia: "ai itle" which can be understood as the obligatory ending  (but in this case "routinely" blurred) of all conversations: "Heil Hitler!"   but which also in the typical pronunciation of a Jew who didn’t master the Estonian language means: "I won’t say it!"

The tools necessary are all the available Estonian encyclopaedias (a total of three now), and all the available Estonian dictionaries, including Andrus Saareste’s thesaurus, but even this is sometimes not enough. There is most certainly no good Estonian Swedish dictionary, and we are rather afraid that there never will be one to satisfy all the needs of any translator, and even the fairly large and comprehensive Estonian-English, and Estonian-German ones do not solve all the problems.

We have undertaken, and are undertaking, other work too: to date, two translations of novels from English into Swedish, and quite a number of articles, reports, chapters for anthologies about India in general, and her environmental problems in particular, having worked and stayed in India for more than four years. Birgitta has earlier, and on her own, been involved in translating and editing some books about Latin America after also having worked and stayed there herself.

Ivo Iliste & Birgitta Göranson