Friday, 12 June 2009

Latvia via Swedish

Latvia is not part of this blog, but via the Swedish language you can get more than a sampler of a literature that always tends to fall between two stools: the Estonians go with the Finns, the Lithuanians with the Poles. Latvia remains piggy in the middle.

The Swedish translator Juris Kronbergs has been translating Latvian poetry into Swedish for decades. So anyone wanting to gain insights into what Latvian authors publish could do no worse than look at Kronbergs' translations of poets Vizma Belševica, Imants Ziedonis and Knuts Skujenieks, to name three leading names.

The first of these was the grand old lady of Latvian poetry; two of her sons became poets too. The second wrote a series of prose-poems, his Epiphanies. The third wrote poetry describing his years in the GULag as a result of being sent to Siberia for possessing a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica (!).


Лев Грицюк | Lev Hrytsyuk said...

It was through Swedish that I (being Ukrainian) discovered contemporary Latvian (as well as Estonian and Lithuanian) poetry. So that is one of advantages of knowing Swedish as well. :-)

David McDuff said...

There's a good Latvian blog here, though it hasn't been updated for some time.

I'm always a bit doubtful about the category of "the Baltic States" - I can see that Latvia and Lithuania may fit it quite well, but Estonia surely has much more in common with Finland, and thus with the rest of Scandinavia, which is also why I decided to include coverage of Estonian literature in Nordic Voices.

Eric Dickens said...

Unlike many Balts, I believe in the Baltic states as an entity, although they should now be called "countries" as they have a majority ethno-language population with a literary and other culture, and are not entirely dreamed up by border-makers.

Estonia has more in common with Latvia than appears at first glance. When Livonia existed (in the colonial sense of the term) this took up Estonia and part of Latvia. It is said that Latvian intonation is the influence of the Estonian and Livonian (now in the linguistic sense) languages. And they shared the German barons. Some 19th century Latvian writers studied at Tartu University (presumably in German).

Estonia and Latvia have a love-hate relationship, and one of mutual indifference, but have suffered a lot of the same history (read: occupations by Sweden and Russia). In religious terms, the top half of Latvia is Lutheran. But in language terms, Latvia is, of course, nearer to Lithuania. In some of the Jaan Kross stories I translated, there is more of a Lithuanian than Latvian presence. This is because Kross used to travel to Juodkrante on the Curonian Spit during childhood.

There is a certain amount of literary translation, both from Latvian into Estonian and vice-versa. Novelist Mats Traat has translated some Latvian poetry into Estonian, and the late Ita Saks (who came from Valga / Valka, a small town split down the middle by the Estonian-Latvian border) translated Regina Ezera (who was half-Polish), Imants Ziedonis, and others into Estonian. In the other direction, poet Guntars Godinš has translated poetry by Doris Kareva, Jaan Kaplinski, Paul-Eerik Rummo, plus Finnish poets, into Latvian. I've also seen exhibitions of Latvian (and Lithuanian) paintings in Tallinn.

So at a cultural level, there are frequent contacts, but at an everyday level, Estonians and Latvians appear to politely ignore one another.

The Latvian blog is run by an exile Latvian, much in the same position as Toomas Hendrik Ilves in Estonia, i.e. a native-speaker of English. Quite a bit of Latvian literature has been translated into German by Matthias Knoll and others (e.g. Zalite, Ikstena, Einfelds, etc.).

As I have already said, it is a shame that so few contemporary Latvian authors have made it into English. From what I can judge by reading translations, Latvian literature has interesting authors, but you have to access them via Swedish, German, Estonian, etc.