Summer thoughts of a translator

by Danute Sirijos-Giraite

Danute Sirijos Giraite

In the early hot summer days when I had just escaped Vilnius to my Estonian haven, a little house in Rannametsa by the Gulf of Riga – home to me and my son for 16 years – I suddenly received a letter from the editor of ELM appealing to me to write something about myself, showing what a good and diligent translator of Estonian literature I was. I agreed, because I have been asking myself rhetorical questions that I’d like to share with my colleagues. Namely why, during the second decade of renewed Baltic independence, the Lithuanian-Estonian literary ties, having started off in the 1930s with tremendous enthusiasm, are now so weak; why the almost explosive interest in Estonian literature in Lithuania in the 1970s and 1980s is now hardly smouldering under the ashes of oblivion. Maybe Estonian literature, among all the other literatures of the Soviet Union, had the most similar cultural background to other Baltic peoples. Then why now, living as we do in more or less the same cultural circumstances that have been greatly enriched by the ethnic, historical and sociological peculiarities of both nations, have we become so indifferent to each other? Admittedly, the phenomenon of Jaan Kross did attract the attention of numerous Lithuanian readers and literary critics in the early 1980s. This even caused a long-lasting discussion in our literary circles as to why the Lithuanians, a nation of such grand history, have not managed to produce a master like Kross who can generate his people’s feeling of pride? Although there was a real boom of historical prose in Lithuania in the 1980s, no single author quite achieved the standard of Kross. At the jubilee celebrations of the grand old man of Estonian letters I called him the early singer of the singing revolution, which earned me a typically Krossian mischievous grin: ‘There’s no need to exaggerate, is there?’ To us (Soviet) Lithuanian readers, however, his name was a genuine symbol of national pride that directed attention to Estonian life and literature in its entirety. Are our present literary associations really so dependent on the book market, flooded with American-style light entertainment? And do I deserve to be called a translator, let alone a conscientious one, when I fail to get a publisher’s contract even for the laureates of the Baltic Assembly? My Estonian colleagues claim that the fate of Lithuanian literature in Estonia is pretty similar. A Lithuanian publisher remembers the prejudice of the last decade – Estonians do not sell. Although precisely during that time, a rather impressive collection of Estonian short prose for the young, Lilacs of the Home Garden, came out; Oskar Luts’s Spring was for the first time translated from the original; Emil Tode’s Border State, Jaan Kaplinski’s selected poems, collection of essays This and That, Eno Raud’s The Three Jolly Fellows, Heino Väli’s The One-Eyed Silver, were also published. Have all these books really been financial disasters? And are the publishing criteria in both our countries nothing but the publishers’ commercial interests? As a translator, all I can say is – I know that I do not know. It would be appropriate here to recall a division of mankind as seen by an Oriental sage. It also applies to translators of fiction who can thus be one of those who:
1.    know that they know
2.    know that they do not know
3.    do not know that they know  
4.    do not know that they do not know

The first group may be immediately excluded as there are certainly no translators who have an ideal knowledge of their own language as well as the language from which they translate, and who would claim to know absolutely everything. The most dangerous are those who do not know that they do not know. The translators who do not know that they know are mostly, unbeknown to themselves, people with great talent who simply vanish, without exercising their talent. The largest group is presumably made up of people who know that they do not know. Some take translating very lightly and churn out book after book. Others, however, twist and turn the words around mercilessly. I belong among the latter category. I know that I do not know, but I translate nevertheless, like my colleagues, forever burrowing into dictionaries, reference books and other types of helpful publications in order to unearth a hardly perceivable nuance. The older and more experienced I become, the more I check the same word in a dictionary that I moreover use myself every day. And I still have doubts about the quality of my work.

Then there are the books about translation theory. The more I have been exploring them during my 25 years as a translator, the more convinced I became that I knew nothing. In our current day and situation, a translator working like this has to be either a millionaire or a missionary. The former can pick and choose at leisure, the latter must be hard at it, day in day out, tormenting words, and if one is such a translator one torments oneself or one’s nearest and dearest . S. Nadson’s remark that there can hardly be any “more dreadful torture in the world than the torture of words”, certainly rings true. For a book to see the light of day, the translator has to make do with a modest fee, determined by the publisher who thinks he is doing a tremendous favour by issuing the literature of a small nation. Great help here to a translator of Estonian literature, is the Traducta grant. I was among the first enthusiasts to apply. I had in mind Jaan Kross’s Between the Three Plagues, I-II, since I consider the work the true swan song of a translator. Once it is translated and published, the translator need not torment himself any longer, but can even take an extended translation break. (Hopefully, the fact of my regarding his works as the ultimate achievement of a translator will not annoy the author, for whom I have the deepest admiration.)

Alas, six months after signing the contract, the publishing house decided it could not afford to issue such a large book after all, and I have not been able to find another publisher. A translator’s tasks nowadays include not only finding a publisher, but also drawing up the budget for the proposed book, looking for sponsors and dealing with other economic matters. I am not particularly efficient in this area. Another sad example is the fate of three short novels by Arvo Valton, Mats Traat and Mati Unt. They were lovingly translated about ten years ago, only to be subsequently abandoned (before publication) by the Vaga publishing house as being unprofitable. I have not been able to find a sponsor or a publisher to this day.
A few more relevant observations. I have had to ask myself very often – can a good translator translate any author? Translation theory claims that a translator has to know and like the author, perceive his or her ways and manner of writing – all this would certainly be advisable and normal. In the present circumstances, however, and this goes at least for any translator of Estonian literature in Lithuania, the translator must accept any book on offer. After all, what else can a person like me do who has devoted her life to translating fiction? It would of course be wonderful to be able to choose the works of literature, and not exchange one’s creative enthusiasm for professional duties. But I tend to think that the duty of a conscientious translator is to translate also books that are not close to one’s heart, and do it well. Better, in any case, than some colleagues for whom quantity always reigns over quality. On such occasions I have been supported by another remarkable faculty of a translator, equal to an actor’s skills of impersonating other people. I simply try to get into the spirit of one or other character, into their lives, ignoring the question as to whether this role suits me or not. Like an actor who does not reject a role simply because it is not his cup of tea. Natural intuition and the corresponding ability to live someone else’s life are thus a translator’s useful gift by the grace of God. It is, however, unwise to exaggerate, to confuse it with one’s own actual life. I was not able to avoid such a thing myself.

As already mentioned above, I had decided back in 1986 to find a place for myself in Estonia in order to be able to live in the country of my characters, in the midst of ethnic Estonian culture and everyday life. Being a hopeless idealist, I sprang into action and sought out V. Udam, communist party secretary in the Pärnu district, asking for permission to buy a summer cottage in the Pärnu area. I had met Udam in 1985 in the Writers’ Union house in Tallinn at the Juhan Smuul award ceremony. I received an award for the translation of Jaan Kross’s The Czar’s Madman, Udam for writing a play about rural people’s lives. Then, reacting to an advertisement, I purchased a nice little cottage by the sea. Alas, the house turned out to be rotten through and through, cleverly hidden under some restoration work. The radical changes in the Baltic states and the accompanying inflation have forever crashed my hopes of properly restoring the house and making it habitable. My chances as a non-Estonian citizen, i.e. a ‘foreign investor’, to buy the small plot of land that goes with the house are equally absurd because of the ludicrously high price. It seems that I am going to lose my treasured Rannametsa home, and for me that means losing Estonia.

However, I am at present still here. The setting sun casts a reddish glow on the lush coastal meadows; I am sitting at the broken window, trying to imagine myself as Ullo Paerand, trying not to think about the fate of this little house, one hundred years old, soon to be left at the mercy of the impending autumn storms, or whether my efforts as an Estophile in this country have actually been worth anything to anyone… It appears as if both of us – myself and the protagonist of the book I’m translating – were losing winners, or those who do not know that they know. In my thoughts, I travel back a few decades to Vilnius where my father, with a mysterious expression on his face, asked whether I had washed my hands properly, and then placed a magical book in front of me, in a strange language. It was Marie Under’s collection of poetry with a dedication to my father, then a young Lithuanian poet, given to him at an Estonian-Lithuanian joint literary event. In the very same Tallinn where the promising young Estonian diplomat called Ullo Paerand lived. I cannot remember where this book is now, since my father distributed all his literary memorabilia between two Lithuanian literary museums and various archives. Nor do I remember whether I saw Ants Laikmaa’s portrait of the poetess in that same collection or in an album of Estonian art at my childhood home, but my early memory of Estonia is a sunny vision of Marie Under, just like the summers in my old age in Rannametsa.