Saturday, 27 June 2009

Uku Masing - 100th anniversary

Uku Masing (1909-1985) spent his childhood in the Russian Empire, and after the age of thirty was again confined to the prison-house of the Soviet Union. His 100th anniversary is in August of this year, so he deserves a mention.

I was reminded of his existence when reading today's Eesti Päevaleht (one of the two leading Estonian dailies), when the paper's cultural correspondent Andres Laasik wrote an article about him and a new DVD documentary called Uku Masingu maastikud (Uku Masing's Landscapes; 2009; director Enn Säde). Three films have been made about him previously.

The article accentuates the fact that Masing lived in internal exile for years. He was a theologist, polyglot and poet, and his poetry was metaphysical, so the Soviet authorities frowned on it. During Estonian independence in the late 1930s he had become part of the poetry movement Arbujad (Soothsayers), who were brought together by Anglophile poet and translator Ants Oras, who was greatly influenced by T.S. Eliot. Other poets of this group included some that would become major Estonian poets such as Betti Alver, Bernard Kangro and Kerti Merilaas. During the 1930s, Masing studied Arabic and Ethiopian, as well as theology, at Tartu University and wrote an Estonian grammar of Hebrew during that decade.

During WWII, Masing and his wife helped a Jew avoid capture and supplied him with necessities, thus earning them the Vad Yashem title of Righteous Among Nations. Later on, he helped investigate war crimes committed at the Klooga Nazi concentration camp.

After WWII, and after contracting tuberculosis, Masing worked quietly to avoid drawing the attention of the Soviet authorities to himself. He nevertheless managed to translate the New Testament and other parts of the Bible into Estonian between 1974 and 1983 and wrote several theological books, one of which on Buddhism.

Swedish exile Estonian author and translator Peeter Puide, mentioned earlier on this blog, wrote a novel about Masing called Till Bajkal, inte längre (To Baikal, No Further - a quote from one of his poems; 1983).

I shall be translating some of Uku Masing's poems in due course. Many were first published in Estonian in exile publications in Canada and elsewhere, although Masing never went into exile himself.

There are English articles about Uku Masing in the context of Bible translation, plus Lauri Sommer's translations of two of his poems in the Spring 2009 issue of the Estonian Literary Magazine, but this is not yet available online. However, there are translations of two of Masing's other poems by Ivar Ivask and Küllike Saks here. And there is an article entitled Religious vision in modern poetry: Uku Masing by Vincent B. Leich here.

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