A lizard's track over a stone. Translations and translators of Estonian literature into French

by Antoine Chalvin

A lizard’s track over a stone

Translations and translators of Estonian literature into French


Antoine Chalvin

    France and Estonia historically belong to two, different realms of European culture.  Given this historical separation, which has long hindered an awareness of Estonia in France, it is rather encouraging to note the current place of Estonian literature in the Francophonic cultural space.  The range of authors and works is admittedly narrower than in Finland or in Germany, but is decidedly broader than that available in most other countries.  Furthermore, of the three Baltic states, Estonia is by far the best-represented in French language bookshops, with more than fifteen works (not counting old and out of print publications), amongst which may be found, side by side with the work of established authors, a few ‘rarities’ that have seldom or never been translated into other languages.  Available to French readers are four novels and a collection of short stories by Jaan Kross, two novels by Viivi Luik, a novel by Emil Tode, a collection of short stories and a collection of aphorisms by Arvo Valton, a collection of poems by Jaan Kaplinski, a collection of poems by Karl Ristikivi, a novel by Heino Kiik, a collection of short stories by Ilmar Jaks, a play by Eva Koff, and an extensive anthology of contemporary short stories.  To these may be added many texts published in literary reviews, thereby bringing to about fifty the number of Estonian authors whose work has been published and printed in French since the end of the 1980s.


    One of the explanations for this relative profusion of translations is, of course, the number of translators.  In 1959, the teaching of Estonian at university level was re-established at the Institut des langues orientales under the chair of Finno-Ugric languages.  So, even when Estonia was slowly disappearing from the geographical awareness of most Europeans, a few French people embarked enthusiastically on the study of Estonian, which they usually discovered having already learnt Finnish or Hungarian.  A few, isolated translations, (of Marie Under and Friedebert Tuglas), even appeared during the 1970s.  When the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as the West suddenly became aware again of the Baltic states’ existence, several people – teachers at, or former students of the Institut des langues orientales – were in a position to satisfy editorial curiosity about Estonian literature, which was not the case for Latvian and Lithuanian literature.


    With the restoration of Estonian independence, the Institut des langues orientales’  Estonian courses have enabled new translators to be trained, notably by means of a course focusing specifically on literary translation and given, since 1994, by the author of this note.  The total number of people who have published, in printed form, at least one translation from Estonian, since 1988, now reaches seventeen!  At least six translators are currently in a position to work, on their own, at a professional quality-level  which, for the case of France, is rather a large number for a ‘small’ language such as Estonian.  Most of them have, on their desks or in their drawers, translations seeking a publisher.  Thus, Jean-Pierre Minaudier has compiled a collection of short stories by Friedebert Tuglas.  Eva Vingiano de Pina Martins, (Eva Toulouze), has translated two novels by Arvo Valton, (Liisa ja Roobert, O-geni Kannatused), a work by Jaan Tätte, (Ristumine peateega), and a story, (Tühirand), and a play, (Graal), by Mati Unt.  Jean Pascal Ollivry has generated an impressive collection of manuscripts, consisting of plays, (Sild by Jaan Tätte, Küüni täitmine by Madis Kõiv), novels, (Põlev lipp by Karl Ristikivi, Liblikas by Andrus Kivirähk), and short stories, (by Juhan Jaik, Peet Vallak, Mati Unt, etc).


    As for me, I have three manuscripts in search of a publisher.  The first two bring together texts translated by a number of different people: a selection of short stories by Mati Unt, translated under my supervision within the framework of the Estonian translation course conducted by the Institut des langues orientales, and an anthology of Estonian poetry through the ages, including contemporary work.  The third manuscript is not a translation, but is instead a comprehensive bibliography of Estonian literary work published and printed in French, (including work which has appeared in periodicals), and contains about 240 references.


    Under the heading ‘work in progress’, I am endeavouring to benefit from this beautiful, Estonian summer in order to complete a translation, in poetic metre, of the entire Kalevipoeg, which I embarked upon more than ten years ago, amidst the recklessness of youth.   In due course, and when the accompanying introduction and explanatory notes are ready, it will be published by éditions Gallimard as part of the renowned series ‘L’Aube des peuples’, which gathers together the founding, epic works of world literature.  Once relieved of this Sisyphean task, I will proceed to tackle Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk.


   Finally, I have devoted a lot of time, over the last few years, to the development of a French language internet site on Estonian literature, (http://www.litterature-estonienne.com).  That which began in April 2000, simply as a means of improving accessibility to my unpublished translations and as a teaching aid for my course on the history of Estonian literature, has progressively grown by the inclusion of other translators’ work, (in particular, of texts translated collectively during the conduct of the Estonian courses), and of translations which were published long ago and which are no longer in print.  The literary texts are complemented by author biographies, photographs, published articles and a bibliography.  Currently on the site may be found texts by 65 authors, as well as a selection of popular poems,  this anthology alone consisting of about 2 million characters or the equivalent of more than a thousand pages of print.  As far as I can establish, it is the largest collection of Estonian literary texts available on-line, in any language.  Even in Estonian, there is no equivalent site which is, moreover, a matter of regret.  It serves to show that whilst Estonia eagerly professes to be at the forefront of the internet revolution – and which is undoubtedly true in many areas – it is falling behind significantly in the digitisation of its literary heritage.  Though recent literature is reasonably available on-line, this is not the case for classical literary works.  I am not aware of any plans to create a large, virtual library of Estonian literature, similar to those of Anglo-Saxon, Francophone, Hispanic and even Hungarian literature, which have been in existence for some time.  It is my view that this represents a serious shortcoming which should be remedied as a matter of priority.

    Looking beyond such bibliographical and quantitative facts, however, the self-evident question which must be posed is how Estonian literary works have been received in the French-speaking, cultural environment?  What does the French reader know about Estonian literature?


    It has to be admitted that, with the exception of Jaan Kross, none of the Estonian authors published in French has established a reputation of any significance. In fact, they are all virtually unknown. Print runs are very short, sales are insignificant and critical reviews almost non-existent.  These books are probably read, above all, by people who already have an interest in Estonia and who wish to deepen their knowledge of Estonian culture.  Nevertheless, they can find a few readers outside this Estophilic circle if their appearance coincides with a literary festival or a series of literary events devoted to Estonia.  This was the case in 1992 when the French Ministry of Culture organised a ‘Saison balte’, (‘Baltic season’), and in 2002 when the ‘Les Boreales’, (‘Boreal’ or Northern’) festival, which took place at Caen, in Normandy, benefited from nationwide  media coverage.

    One might therefore ask what purpose is served by translating books from Estonian if they go unnoticed and are rapidly lost within the prolific and ceaseless flood of publications;  (it is sobering to reflect on the fact that the French words meaning ‘published’, (publié), and ‘forgotten’, (oublié), differ by only one letter!)  In one of his poems, Karl Ristikivi writes: ‘A lizard’s track over a stone also leaves a trace, even if we do not see it’, (Ka sisaliku tee kivil jätab jälje/ kuigi me seda ei näe).  I sometimes feel that we, translators of Estonian literature into French, resemble Ristikivi’s lizard: each published translation, even if forgotten, is one piece of the mosaic which forms the image of Estonia in the French-speaking world, a trace which endures even if we do not see it, and which may be discovered, or rediscovered one day by another of those adventurers who walk, as do we, in Europe’s literary margins, in search of hidden treasures.

                                                                                        Mõisamäe, August 2003