Katja Novak’s overview of the 2022 Translators’ Seminar organized by the Estonian Literature Center in Käsmu, Estonia from June 10th to 15th.

Translators of Estonian literature are like swallows who return to their metaphoric literary homeland to gain new experiences, be inspired by new ideas and, naturally, take back a suitcase stuffed with the latest books.

Although there are fewer than one million Estonians in Estonia, the number of speakers around the world is much higher than one would expect and the language’s reach thus broader than many would believe. The quadrennial Translators’ Seminar is a perfect example of this, as I imagine it is the only place where one can hear so many different accents in Estonian.

Even the boulders of Käsmu start to write when the translators arrive in the seaside village. On the very first night, kodustatud (I’ll explain momentarily) Norwegian translator Øyvind Rangøy warned fellow participants that Käsmu is dangerously conducive to writing: the last time he attended the seminar and jotted down his notes, he himself ended up becoming an Estonian writer. This year, the notebook that organizers gave attending translators was much larger than the previous one.

Kodustatud translators are those who, for some reason or another, found their way to Estonia years ago and ultimately decided to stay. Take me, for example – a translator into Estonian; or Kriszta Tóth, who translates into Hungarian; or Adam Cullen who translates into English by day but has likewise become an Estonian writer. The word kodustatud, which means to have settled, to feel comfortable and at home (kodu), imparts a warm and cozy sensation with multiple layers of meaning. It applies to those who, at some point, realized that Estonia is part of their lives for good.

Anyone who has organized a large event knows the sense of relief and dissipating stress once it’s over. Yet, much work still lies ahead for the Estonian Literature Center – Ilvi Liive-Roosipuu, Kerti Tergem, and Elle-Mari Talivee – as I very much hope that all the over 40 translators who attended will soon reach out to bother them about certain books or authors. How much of a bother can it be, though? I imagine it’s nothing but pleasure on both sides. I’d especially like to applaud the Estonian Literature Center’s foresight to invite translators who are just beginning their career.

One of these novices, Tony Allen (US English), said he most enjoyed hearing the guest authors’ thoughts and how their books came to be. Paris Pin-Yu Chen (Taiwanese Mandarin) believes the authors’ stories and background information will be a great advantage in understanding and translating their works in the future, and said to have learned a great deal from the experienced translators about how they work with authors.

Another great benefit and a blessing was that after their 40-minute slot, many guest authors remained in Käsmu until later that evening or the following day, giving us an opportunity to get to know one another better in a casual environment. Heidi Iivari, a kodustatud Finnish translator living in Tartu, said the seminar program was very rich and comprehensive but also included ample time to unwind. Although she interacts with Estonian writers on a daily basis and is probably better aware of their activities than translators who live abroad, the seminar still provided her with a wealth of new information.

The last day included an open forum where participants could exchange ideas and practical knowledge about pitching translations to publishers – invaluable for beginners and seasoned translators alike.

For me, the most touching remark was made by Turid Farbregd (Norwegian): “I’ve taken part in many translators’ seminars over the years but, every time, it feels like the latest was the very best. It inspires me to keep reading and promoting Estonian literature.”

Numerically, the Käsmu seminar was as follows: four full days, five nights, 40+ translators (over fifteen of which were first-timers), a few publishers, 25 Estonian writers, one dog, lots of laughs and hugs, an endless sea, and something else that cannot be put into words.

Each guest author was interviewed by someone who has translated their works, creating a very intimate and friendly environment. “New Estonian classics” such as Rein Raud and Andrus Kivirähk were among the established writers, though there were fresh literary faces as well. One morning was spent at the Estonian Children’s Literature Center in Tallinn, where recent works and their more-recent translations were reviewed.

Translators of Estonian literature are ordinary people. We can be loud and soft-spoken, smiling and laughing, coffee-bingers and cold-water swimmers. We might flit away to translate between lively conversations, leave our laptops behind, write in neat rows, type a few lines into mobile notepads, be camera-shy, and give evening TV interviews. Translators and interpreters. Everyone fit into the group picture and other images were recorded in our memories. Until we meet again. And we will.

What is Estonian literature to you?

Guillaume Gibert (French)

To me, fine Estonian literature is like a field covered in flowers – an Estonian field, sweeping and diverse. The language is very colorful and musical.

Recent translations: I don’t have much experience yet, but I’m currently working on short stories by Lilli Luuk.

Anniina Ljokkoi (Finnish)

Valdur Mikita wrote that an Estonian is the kind of person who holds a mushroom knife in one hand and a smart phone in the other. And I thought: that’s what Estonian literature is like, too. All the authors who spoke in Käsmu this year mentioned nature. It’s a very Estonian thing to do. At the same time, they’re all very technologically savvy. A presence in dual worlds shines through their writing. If I were to pick a specific metaphor, some kind of animal, then it’d be a cross between a dog and a fox. A domesticated pet on the one hand and a wild animal on the other.

Recent translations: The newest issue of the Finnish-language Estonian poetry anthology Nipernaadi was published this spring; I’m the editor-in-chief. Currently, I’m translating poems by Maarja Pärtna. Another project is a geographical map of Estonian poems with their Finnish translations. I’ve been working on it for three years and there’s constantly something new being added: vironrunokartta.fi.

Anna Michalczuk-Podlecki (Polish)

To me, Estonian literature resembles the giant fish Ahteneumion from Andrus Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish. He had long whiskers and fur and when he lay on the bottom of the sea, he was invisible. About every other eon, he’d surface. The character Hiie happened to spot the fish and chat with him. We translators are rather similar: occasionally, we travel to Estonia, breathe Estonian air, and acquire and read Estonian books. It’s how we get a little closer to that fish. I feel like Kivirähk’s creature and Estonian literature, which grew out of the language, are both ancient. The fish symbolizes Estonian literature first, then oral literature, folklore, etc. It all leads to what can be read in books. If literature had physical form, I’m sure it’d be a fish. Ahteneumion’s surfacing in Kivirähk’s novel was his very last before returning to the seabed. I hope Estonian literature’s fate will be different because we translators are here and won’t allow it to sink.

Recent translations: In 2021, Andrus Kivirähk’s November and Tilda and the Dust Angel. In 2020, Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish. My translation of Paavo Matsin’s Gogol’s Disco will be published this summer and currently, I’m working on Vahur Afanasjev’s Serafima and Bogdan.

Daila Ozola (Latvian)

Estonian literature is like a mythical Poku, which looks like a tussock but is actually a living being. It’s curious; it wants to see new places and try new things. Though it learns a great deal from others, it never loses its distinct character. It’s a little shy and freezes up if it receives too much attention. It’s much older than it seems and much quicker than it looks. It has many friends.

Estonian literature possesses an ancient quality and strong ties to nature. Whereas Pokus enjoy keeping their feet stuck in damp ground, Estonian literature sometimes likes it when readers’ eyes are damp. It is fond of humor and blossoms anew after every winter.

Recent translations: In 2021, Ilmar Tomusk’s Digi-Crazy School and Wolf’s Friends, Kadri Hinrikus’s Dachshund and Dane, and a selection of Kristiina Ehin’s poetry (co-translated with Guntars Godiņš). Earlier this year, my translations of Sirje Noorsalu’s Dotty, the Lucky Parakeet and Mika Keränen’s The Finnish Pizza were published.

Tony Allen (English)

If Estonian literature had a physical form, I’d say it’d be a lilac bush. It doesn’t grow in any specific direction, but at just the right moment it’ll produce the most vivid colors and shades –pink, white, or violet – and an intoxicating scent that stays with you for a very long time.

Recent translations: I’m just a beginner. I started last year when I received third place in a translating competition. The Estonian Literature Center was a main supporter of the event, which is why they invited me to join the seminar. Just for practice and out of personal interest, I started translating Albert Kivikas’s Names in Marble. However, the seminar has inspired me to translate Estonian children’s literature.

Maximilian Murmann (German)

If Estonian literature were a particular figure, I’d say it would be a Näkk. Similar to the Nixies in Germanic mythology, Näkks are water spirits from Estonian folklore that lure people into the water with their beauty and singing. Näkks can change their appearance and also their gender, depending on whom they want to lure. But Estonian literature is certainly not as dangerous as a Näkk.

Recent translations: I translated Jaan Kross’ classic novel Vastutuulelaev with Cornelius Hasselblatt. My second translation was the children’s book Lydia by Kätlin Kaldmaa and illustrated by Jaan Rõõmus. The book tells the story of Lydia Koidula (1843-1886), who lived at a time when there was no independent Estonia and fervently pursued her calling, against all odds.

Katja Novak is a translator, poet, and member of the Estonian Writers’ Union.