A very long time ago, so long now that it came as a great surprise even to myself, Piret Viires and I were the original editors of Estonian Literary Magazine. The first issue was published by the Estonian Institute in autumn 1995 and arose out of a crucial need – to introduce Estonian literature to the world.

Even then, Estonian writing wasn’t entirely unknown outside of the country, which was evident from the list of titles translated into foreign languages that we printed at the end of the issue. Most were released in the 1980s and 1990s, and their publishing relied on chance, the enthusiasm of the translators, or the Estonian authors’ own initiatives. It was primarily the works of Jaan Kross and Jaan Kaplinski that had been published in English translation, the former likely being the most widely translated Estonian author at the time. Then, new Estonian publishing houses formed in the 1990s. The publishers started attending international book fairs, where they were frequently questioned about literature from the country. Foreign publishers sensed new opportunities – yet-undiscovered masterpieces could be hiding somewhere in the Baltic states, or authors there might presently be writing books that struck to the heart of that turbulent zeitgeist!

Simultaneously, Estonia’s ties to Scandinavian countries and their respective literary organizations were strengthening; countries that had already developed a flawless mechanism for disseminating Nordic literature abroad. Christopher MacLehose, who had dedicated himself to the quite thankless task of publishing translated literature in English, also turned his attention to Estonia, releasing translations of Kross’s works and wondering whether he might also discover other gems in the country.

Estonians, in turn, were thrilled to discern this heightened interest, as we felt we had so much to share with the world – our whole range of literary classics; fantastic new works; and poetry, in which our nation takes such pride. The gates to the world had swung open and we endeavored to import, convey, and translate as much as we possibly could. At the same time, there was the aspiration to exhibit our own cherished cultural traits. How could all this be accomplished? We needed English-language copy, literary overviews, author biographies, and translated excerpts. We needed high-quality translators who spoke English as a native language, but could also grasp the intricacies of Estonian. Such a magazine had to be published in English if we wished to make ourselves accessible to as many readers as possible.

At first, we had only Eric Dickens, a few members of the Estonian diaspora, and some Estonians who had lived in English-speaking areas for long periods of time. The Estonian Literature Center didn’t exist yet, being founded only in 2001. Foreign inquiries were made either to the Estonian Writers’ Union or the Estonian Institute, as the promotion of Estonian culture abroad had come to be one of the latter’s central tasks. Thus, Estonian Literary Magazine came into being in collaboration between the Estonian Writers’ Union and the Estonian Institute. The workload was enormous, as we had to start from scratch. In any case, this beginning was marked by Eric Dickens’s translations of Kristjan-Jaak Peterson’s poems ‘The Moon’ and ‘The Bard’. Mati Sirkel, who was then chairman of the Estonian Writers’ Union, wrote an overview of the history of Estonian literature and its status in the 1990s, which is still relevant today. It should be supplemented with the developments that have taken place over the last 25 years, of course, but the piece remains a fine introduction to the field of Estonian literature.

In his brief foreword to the new publication, Sirkel wrote that literature is one way to be in connection with eternity, adding that unlike visual art and music, the field requires mediators – translators – to add its colors to world literature. I wrote a piece about translated literature as a part of Estonian literature as a whole, and can now say that the trends I noticed at the time – the proliferation of literature translated into Estonian and declining print runs of high-quality literature – have not gone away, but rather have compounded. The opportunities and support for the translation of quality literature are issues that have not diminished in importance today.

Naturally, one crucial task was to find people who could translate Estonian literature into other languages. Eric Dickens was our primary translator for the first issue, though Jonathan Roper translated Kauksi Ülle’s ethno-futurist poetry and I did many of the translations myself. This shows how difficult it was for us to find qualified individuals – I certainly would no longer dare to take on such a role, and nor should I. The situation began to improve over time, but in the early days it helped to have a local editor read through the translations – even a fluent translator could get stuck grasping some of the finer details of Estonian life and the result was not always what was originally intended. This concerned the English translations of Estonian literature, of course – translations into other languages accumulated over time as enthusiasts of Estonian language and literature soon found opportunities to visit the country and familiarize with its books and authors.

Krista Kaer in 1999. Photo by Peeter Langovits / Postimees

Whereas the first issue of Estonian Literary Magazine aimed to define the overall nature of the genre, the following issues narrowed in focus, providing an overview of books published in the 1990s as well as reviews of individual titles. Nevertheless, the list of Estonian works published in translation that we included at the end of each issue remained largely static for a long time. The cause was elementary: the pool of translators was gradually increasing, Estonia and the Estonian language are unusual enough to arouse broader interest, and Estonia in the 1990s enchanted foreigners with its exoticism. It was much harder, however, to find foreign publishers willing to put out Estonian literature in translation. Pure enthusiasm was no longer enough when financial interests came into play. Rumor had it that some foreign publishing houses abandoned Estonian literature after running into severe losses with the release of just a couple of titles. Estonian Literary Magazine was flourishing, but it was also clear that more was needed to introduce the world to Estonian literature. We needed to go further.

This step forward meant establishing the Estonian Literature Center in 2001 and beginning to systematically export Estonian literature. I was witness to it from the very start and know how much time and effort this truly took. The world is full of books, more and more are published every day, and it’s extremely difficult for a small nation’s literature to become globally visible and read. Occasionally, one translated title will stand out and a few other authors from the country will ride its wave of popularity. Such was the case with Peter Hoeg and Scandinavian crime novels, but these lone works have remained just that, for the most part. For example, predictions have long been made of the rise of Central European literature, but to date, it has failed to happen. Being the country of focus during large book fairs always delivers some degree of interest in translating your country’s literature, but the excitement tends to quickly fade. Until recently, the English-language world regarded translated literature with a degree of skepticism overall. The situation has begun to shift, but a publisher must still go to great lengths for the translated work of an Estonian author to gain real attention. Additionally, the Estonian Literature Center must first convince such publishers that it’s all worth their trouble.

Here, Estonian Literary Magazine – which is now published with the support of the Estonian Institute, the Estonian Writers’ Union, and the Estonian Literature Center – is an incredible asset. This is the magazine’s 50th issue and the difference is striking when you compare the latest to the very first. The Estonian Literary Magazine has grown and is now truly worthy of its title. The translations are professional, and the literary excerpts and reviewed titles are selected by its editorial board. It has been years since every Estonian work that has been translated into a foreign language could fit on the last pages of the issue, and even only a selection of those that have been published in the last year are printed today. I wish Estonian Literary Magazine many more years to come with the firm belief that its editors will not encounter a lack of content, but rather of space, because never before has Estonian literature been translated to the extent that it is today.

Plain differences between the first and latest issues of the magazine do stand out, but aside of a sincere desire to promote Estonian literature abroad, they have something else in common. Specifically, the first issue included a review of and translated excerpt from Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Border State, while the 49th issue features the author as well with a translated excerpt from his novel Acre, reviews of Acre and Paris, and a conversation between Õnnepalu and Viivi Luik. It seems that times may certainly change, but not all is evanescent.

Krista Kaer is a translator and publisher. She also belongs to the team of the Tallinn HeadRead Literary Festival. At the time when Estonian Literary Magazine was founded she worked in the Estonian Institute as a consultant on Great Britain and Ireland.