Jüri Talvet's interview with Vello Salo

by Vello Salo, Jüri Talvet

31 years since the first anthology of Estonian poetry in a Mediterranean language

Jüri Talvet’s interview with Vello Salo

J. T.  Father Vello Salo, now of the Pirita monastery, you have lived a long and adventurous life. You were born in Viljandi County in 1925, then studied at Põltsamaa Gymnasium, from where you travelled to Finland to fight as a volunteer in the Estonian regiment for the freedom of Finland and Estonia. You were then taken prisoner by the Germans and continued fighting in the Estonian division on the German side. After the war, while in exile, you studied mathematics and physics at Swiss and Dutch universities (1946-1948). How did the soldier and student of hard sciences become a Catholic priest, and how did you come to literature?

V. S. I was a soldier – meaning a fighter against others – only temporarily and not exactly voluntarily. As for being a fighter for ideals, this I have always been without fail. What led me to the Catholic Church was the simple fact that the first people who helped me after the war were Catholics. I heard the call to become a priest in 1948.
    Literature has always fascinated me, although I must add here that in the course of my entire life I have never encountered anything uninteresting. That is why I have been interested in practically everything.

J. T. You have lived in quite a few countries, Germany, Jordan, Iraq, Sweden, and in Toronto, Canada, acting as a clergyman and teaching theology, for a long time (1976-1993). Could you tell me what period or country is most closely connected with your literary activities?

V. S. I have indeed written a lot, but I would hardly call it ’literary activity’: I have rather been a mediator, something like a ”self-made cultural attache”. This job naturally also required translating – I have been translating the Bible for decades now. I started publishing in 1962, and am still involved. Between 1962 and 1976 I lived in Italy, where my first works were published.

J. T. One of the most significant and worthy things for Estonian literature and culture was probably the anthology of Estonian poetry, Poeti estoni, compiled by you and the Italian poet Margherita Guidacci (1921-1992) and published in Rome in 1973. The book enjoyed some success, and was re-issued in 1975. Together with Margherita Guidacci, you presented the anthology to large audiences in several places in Italy. What gave the book an extra gravitas for Italian readers was no doubt the fact that the translations were done, in cooperation with you, by one of the most prominent poets in Italy at the time. How and where did you meet Margherita Guidacci and how did the idea to compile such an anthology arise?

V. S. I had this idea as early as 1945, when someone gave me, as a present, an Italian-language anthology of Swedish poetry. The real impetus, however, came in the early 1970s in connection with the so-called Bologna miracle, when several hundred Italians passed the exam of Estonian language and literature at the University of Bologna. I wrote about this at length in the magazine Tulimuld.
    It is always a long way from an idea to a book, and it was no different this time. I sought help in various places and from various people who agreed to cooperate. This was most amazing, a labour of love, because I had no salary to offer. My idea, to introduce little known literatures to Italians, seemed good and necessary to Guidacci too. Before that I had published extremely cheap paperbacks and paid for them out of my scholarship; this time there was no hope at all that I could even cover the printing expenses. After a long search I managed to find a publisher who even launched a brand new series, La Rondine (Swallow), designed to bring poetry from faraway lands to Italian readers. And it did just that.

J. T.  Tell me about the practical side of this undertaking? How did the final version of a translation come about? Were there any changes in the second edition of the anthology?

V. S. I conducted a survey of our poets, and on that basis I drew up a list of poems, and did the rough translations. Overall, I translated about one third more than I had planned to include in the book so that we could have a choice. The final choice was made by Margherita Guidacci, because she could best decide what would be most interesting for readers in her country. Then we started to polish the poems together. The second edition was somewhat bulkier as we added new authors.

J. T.  Besides Poeti estoni, what do you value most in your literary achievements, i.e. what has given you the most satisfaction and joy?

V. S. Certainly the Etymological Handbook of the Estonian Language (Eesti keele etümoloogiline teatmik), compiled on my initiative by Professor Alo Raun. Since I have been teaching the Estonian language for twenty-five years, I needed this book urgently, both in order to further my own knowledge and for my students. This work is forever fresh in my memory, partly because all the letters õ had to be typed on a typewriter, cut out with scissors and glued on manually! In 1982 I did not have a computer yet. As this publication has remained the only one in its field, I re-issued it in 2000. 

J. T. Since returning to your homeland in 1993, you have been anything but idle, and have not had time to enjoy a peaceful retirement either. What shortcomings in the newly independent Estonia have most spurred you to action? What are your current plans?

V. S. One thing that in my opinion has not been properly tackled, and this is quite worrying, is researching the fate of people killed in the course of occupations, and of those who suffered because of them.  A lot of my energy has been devoted to that task. Translating the Bible has been a constant job as well, because I think our nation needs the Word of God in a respectable form. Publishing the Bible in our “language of the country people” is no easy task; first of all I wish to complete the Book of Psalms, the daily bread of our church, as it were. I am also busy with compiling an anthology of Estonian religious poetry. The title is A Source of Song (Lauluallikas); I have been greatly assisted in this by Indrek Hirv and Vallo Kepp. I hope this book offers inspiration and good ideas to many people.

J. T. I am most grateful to you, Father Vello Salo, and I hope that your alert intellect and spirit will serve you for a long time to come.