Monday, 30 March 2009

What Estonians translate - poetry & history

To dispel any illusions that the Estonians are still living in the era of wooden spoons, post-Soviet rural ruin, and the Kalevipoeg epic poem, a brief examination of their Ninniku online website, where contemporary and modern poetry is translated. The current issue contains poetry by Rumi, Plath, Creeley, Dove, Loy, Stein, H.D., Neruda, Hölderlin, Rilke, Hesse, Grass, Augustin, plus several Japanese poets.

Several leading Estonian poets double up as translators, something that more British poets could learn from. So, in older issues, the poet and novelist Tõnu Õnnepalu has translated Pessoa; poet Hasso Krull has translated Mohammad Dib and Tahar ben Jelloun from the French, and also Finnish poetry by Jouni Tossavainen; Maarja Kangro has translated Zanzotti from the Italian; Lauri Kitsnik has translated Fujii Sadakazu from the Japanese. The former head of the Estonian Writers' Union and translator of novels by Kafka, Döblin, etc., Mati Sirkel, has translated poetry by Claes Andersson. The editor of the literary magazine Vikerkaar (Rainbow) Mart Väljataga has taken on Brecht.

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And: historically:

Although Estonia was busy publishing its own younger poets, this tradition of looking West for poetry was already there during the early years of Estonian independence back in the 1920s. If you leaf through a copy of the literary magazine Looming (Creative Endeavour) from the year 1924, you will find Estonian translations of a part of Childe Harold and contemporary Italian poetry. In 1928, you had the Czech Symbolist Vrchlický. In 1934, you had more Byron, some Alexander Pope, plus poetry by Aleksis Kivi. In 1936 there was Kipling. In 1937, you had Swinburne and Pushkin. In 1939, there were Fröding and Dante.

In early 1940, there was no translated poetry, but an article about translating poetry. Plus plenty of articles covering literature from abroad, like one by Jerzy Kaplinski, the father of the poet Jaan Kaplinski, discussing the Pole Tetmajer; and one about Wells; about new English poetry (mostly Eliot and Auden); about the English novel; a story by E.M. Forster; about Paris theatre life; about the Goncourt brothers; etc. No big panic about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, then in force.

Then: wham!

Two issues did not appear. And when Looming returned in August 1940, others were looming at the helm. Suddenly, there were things about Gorki and Mayakovski, and no poetry at all from further west. The September issue started with "A Selection of Poetry From the Peoples of the Soviet Union". There were five poems: Russian, Checheno-Ingushetian (2), Mordvinian, and Georgian, translated, presumably from the Russian, by leading poet Marie Under, who later fled to Sweden. There was Pushkin and an article about the Russian historical novel. And October, ah, October. This issue starts with two full-page photos of Lenin and Stalin. There is a poem with the predictable title: October. And there is an article explaining what Socialist Realism is all about. From then onwards, half of each issue was filled with Russian material... The Western poets were gone.

5 comments:

  1. Wham indeed, Eric. Just reading about these things gives me a cold shiver down my spine.

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  2. Yes, you have to remember that it is a minor miracle that I possess copies of quite random years of "Looming" from the 1920s and 1930s and, as it happens, the whole crucial year of 1940. Just leafing through what ended up as ten issues for that year, instead of the usual annual twelve, tells the whole story of cultural murder rather graphically.

    It is a minor miracle that I have these issues because when the Russians took over, in 1940 and again in 1944, they weeded a total of around a million items out of public and university libraries, and these were for the chop - literally. In one of Jaan Kross' short-stories, he describes the absurd spectacle in foyer of the Estonian National Library with some official with an axe in one hand, a book in the other, cleaving in twain endless books. Presumably book-burning was too Nazi for them.

    A few books escaped this fate and ended up locked away in closed collections. Anyway, that's what'll happen to all "bourgeois" poetry magazines, when the revolution comes to Britain. But because of online blogs, British set-ups resembling Ninniku and Electric Verses could continue to exist for quite some while, despite Chinese-style jamming of the net.

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  3. It's great that you have those copies of Looming. Could you photograph the covers of some of them and post them here, maybe?

    Re British online literary magazines like Electric Verses - I wonder if there are any?

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  4. I have a random selection of Loomings, part bound, part loose copies. And I have no mobile-phone camera. But I will set up a new blog entry here, with some description of the covers and, equally important, a few more glimpses at the contents beyond poetry.

    My avowed intention is to demonstrate, as clearly as I can, that despite the authoritarian régime of President Konstantin Päts, intellectual life thrived, and Estonia in the 1930s was not the totalitarian vassal state it became immediately after the 1940 coup.

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  5. I looked online for some 1934 covers, but of the 1930s issues could only find covers for 1937. In your new post I've included a photo of bound sets of Looming for the 1930s - if you don't like it, I'll take it down.

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