Old Barny - or, is humour translatable?

by Eric Dickens

Old Barny - or, is humour translatable?

Humour doesn’t always travel well. So, let me be frank, I am not on the same wavelength as Rehepapp (title translated variously as Old Barny or The Barn-Keeper) by Andrus Kivirähk. In ELM (Spring 2001) the review of the book states: “Kivirähk has often used folklore and mythology in his work, deforming them into the absurd and grotesque.” Later in the article, the classics of Romantic Realism are mentioned (Bornhöhe, Vilde), and there are also, of course, allusions toTammsaare.

Unfortunately, neither Estonian folklore, nor the authors mentioned above are known in the English-speaking world. Britain has a long tradition of humour, but this is always set against a background which readers (or audiences in the case of TV) recognise. For a Briton, Monty Python is funny not so much because of the slapstick and farcical aspects, but because of the puns and allusions to the public school system, to banking, to bureaucracy, to middle-class pretensions, to commuting, to suburban living. Historical aspects of Estonia, including the Baltic barons and their ethnically Estonian underlings, Russian domination lasting centuries, eesti kadedus, eesti ahnus and so on are hardly known, understood or empathised with in the English-speaking world. (Tastes in humour even differ between Britain and North America!) Nor are all the various goblin-like creatures, demons, devils and the like familiar to the British reader. The puking, shitting and farting dimension is maybe also a trifle burlesque for British tastes.

Personally, I find Mihkel Mutt’s Progressiivsed hiired far more comprehensible and funny - even though this is a roman ą clef and I hardly know any of the people satirised. This is simply because Mutt deals with pretentiousness in the art world and the phoneyness of arts journalism in a way which is exportable - such phenomena exist also in the West. Kivirähk’s Ivan Orav could, in my opinion, be more accessible for a foreign audience. But even there, the foreign reader would need to know the straight history of Estonia, before being able to fully understand the zany version.

To sum up, I fear that since the English-speaking world, especially Britain, knows so lamentably little about Estonian history and culture, people would only be able to laugh at the slapstick and miss all the cultural digs, parallels and references.

Eric Dickens