Westi Among Da Esti

by Robert Alan Jameson

Shetlandic poet Robert Alan Jamieson reports from the Literature Across Frontiers Käsmu translation workshop held in Estonia, May 8th- 15th 2004.

The situation is familiar – roughly 60° north, on the very fringe of Europe, long dark winters and bright summer nights; a minority language which has resisted successive invasions over centuries, assimilated influences from aa ærts yet retained its unique identity; a culture which, though it shares something of its history with two southern neighbours, is ancient and distinct from them, as different from the other Baltic states as Shetland is from Orkney and the Western Isles; a background of Hanseatic trade symbolised by the old town of Tallinn (literally ‘Danetown’) - and a tradition of international sea-faring that has left a significant mark on the country’s psyche.

So the paradoxical feelings of strangeness and recognition I felt when the clouds parted and I saw Estonia for the first time; when I walked the oldest streets of Tallinn where the crooked lanes reminded me of old Lerwick; when I wandered the shore among the great ‘erratic’ boulders my first morning in the fishing village of Käsmu and thought it not so different from many a wick (or ‘uig’) around the North Atlantic fringe – those feelings are to be expected.

I was to take part in a translation workshop, at the invitation of Alexandra Büchler, a much-travelled Czech linguist who directs the Aberystwyth-based organisation ‘Literature Across Frontiers’ . LAF supports a programme of literary exchange and aims to promote literatures written in the less widely-used, minority and regional languages of Europe, as well as web-publishing an excellent magazine .

My eminent colleagues were fellow poets and translators: visiting, like me, were Sigurdur Pálsson (Iceland), Jan Erik Vold (Norway, resident in Stockholm), Benno Barnard (Belgium, writing in Dutch), Cathal Ó Searcaigh (Eire), Mererid Pugh Davies (Wales), Kirmen Uribe (Basque). Five eminent Estonian poets and translators  received us: Doris Kareva, Hasso Krull, Kallju Krüüsa, Mati Sirkel, chairman of the Estonian Writers’ Union and Ilvi Liive, director of the Estonian Literature Information Centre  and our ‘leader’ for the week – while circling us with her camera was the well-known Estonian book illustrator and artist in bronze, Reti Saks.

Lastly, there was one whose presence wasn’t physical but nonetheless very much with us - Juhan Viiding, perhaps the greatest Estonian poet of recent times, whose death in 1995 had clearly left a huge void in the hearts and minds of the others. Certainly on the evidence of a bundle of translations by Ivar Ivask, he was a true poet – or rather two, for he used the pseudonym Jüri Üdi in his early work. His writing, to quote Hasso:

…became a universal point of reference for the majority of young poets in the 1970s and 1980s …  … one might say that Jüri Üdi was the principal mould for poetic language for a whole generation.

The aim of the Käsmu workshop was that each participant should translate at least one poem by each colleague. Although the event lasted a week, when time was taken off for readings, trips and treats Ilvi and her team had lined up for us, the work required to be done in three days - so it was intensive. Yet to be able to approach the author concerned with queries immediately they occurred speeded the work - and the sense of being surrounded by others who understood the subtle qualities of syllable and line was special.

And what a situation to work in! Käsmu lies 78 km east of Tallinn in the midst of Lahemaa National Park, on a large inlet off the Gulf of Finland. Historically it was a shipbuilding centre and the location of a nautical school which produced so many master mariners the tag of ‘Captains Village’ appears on the signpost today. During the Soviet era, it became the exclusive province of Komsomol officials and a large holiday camp remains, though it is now in the public domain. Our accommodation was with an Estonian ‘granny’, who fed us and tended to us as if we were family. Our place of work also had Soviet links – the ‘Writers and Translators House’, like the block of apartments in Tallinn which once housed the Estonian SSR’s writers, remained in the control of the Writer’s Union following the fall of the Soviet regime in 1991. Freshly renovated in 1997, ‘the captain’s house’ can accommodate four writers comfortably, with dining room, library and sauna in a place that, as the publicity says, combines nature’s beauty with quietness for literary work. . We moved between this house and the local ‘Muuseum’, housing one remarkable man’s enthusiasm for gathering all kinds of maritime memorabilia – even a postcard of Lerwick c.1910!

The forested shore of the laht is isle-scattered and the land beyond is flat. Along the shoreline lie great glacial boulders, as if thrown up by some gigantic storm. While we were there all was peaceful - but gentle though that water may have seemed, it has known great disaster, with the disastrous foundering of the Estonia in 1994.
For many, the German-built ship - acquired in early 1993 - was a fitting symbol of the country's new self-confidence. It was this ferry that carried many Estonians on their first trip outside the bounds of the former Soviet empire. There was an anecdote during Communist rule about how a white ship would one day come and deliver the nation from tyranny, and many said-only half in jest-that this was the white ship they'd been waiting for … so when news broke in the early morning of September 28, it seemed like a cruel joke. 
852 lives were lost. The monument at the edge of the old town of Tallinn, looking towards the ferry terminal, is a most poignant yet simple structure: the incomplete arc of the journey, like two great arms reaching out in futility. Though a decade has passed and the reconstruction of the democratic republic goes ahead rapidly, you sense tragedy in many Estonian eyes. A sadness seems to linger – rather in the way that eyes register the loss of the naïve dream of freedom when talk is of former Komsomol party officials exploiting the political schism in property deals, and capitalised on the coming of Capitalism.

But back to poetry - all participating provided English versions of the poems they had submitted.  Strange, maybe, that an organisation devoted to the promotion of minority languages should require to work through a ‘world language’ in this way - yet it might also be considered payback for linguistic colonisation, that English should be placed in the role of servant to tongues that it (and others like it) have oppressed in the past. Whatever, for good or ill, English is the equivalent of Latin a millennium ago – the lingua franca, understood to some extent by (almost) all. In this case, I was glad of it when working with Estonian, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, and Basque originals.

Norwegian I knew well enough to be able to work on Jan Erik’s poem without need of  English intermediate. Icelandic too was not unfamiliar once Sigurdur had answered a couple of queries. To my surprise, I found Benno’s Dutch was very close to Shetlandic. I was able to render my version of his ‘Fischer 50 B.C.’ in hours with no need of English, following the syllabic pattern in a natural if slightly archaic Shetlandic. As the week went on, the more we compared notes, the more cognate words we discovered.  Considering the history of the Dutch presence around Shetland in the prosecution of what they called ‘The Great Fishery’ over hundreds of years, it is not so surprising. 

Not all the languages were sæ hæmaboot. Where they puzzled me, I found familiar stories in English versions, so that the subject would be common  – in Cathal’s ‘Lament’, translated by Seamus Heaney, was the death of a pet yow, and the analogy of that with his middir tung, the Donegal Gaelic; in Kirmen’s ‘Gold Ring’ I found the story of his Basque fisherman father’s weddien baand, swallowed by a hake, then magically found by his aunt while gutting; in Mererid’s ‘And Isn’t Every Man An Island?’, a gentle love lyric expressed in nautical terms that might have been written by a Shetlander. So I don’t want to stress strangeness. Even languages far apart share sound and rhythm, and appearance can be off-putting. Text gives the impression of difference, yet when we hear words spoken we find echoes. For instance, Estonian is supposedly very difficult to learn, with a complex grammar, and as strange as Finnish to my western eye. Yet the word ‘pood’ appeared on so many signs, it didn’t take long to realise it meant ‘shop’. I asked Kallju to confirm this. He said ‘Yes, pöd, it means shop.’ Not far from there to Da Böd o Gremista, or the ‘luckenbooths’ of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh - the Hanseatic sailors had clearly left some imprint, if only on the language of business. The closer I looked the more I noted: this may not be the Norse Atlantic, rather the Gulf of Finland – yet both are of ‘the North’.

As if we needed confirmation that Estonia is a beautiful and fascinating country, we toured Lahemaa park on our last day. Naturalist Fred Jüssi took us on a walk through a peatbog Eesti-style, full of dwarf trees; we visited the 18th century German manor house at Palmse - originally St. Michael’s Nunnery, the one-time vodka-producing estate is now open to tourists and houses a remarkable collection of vehicles, including the personal car of Kruschev. Later, as our charabanc rattled the gravel roads, wild boar, storks and a large hawk all made brief appearances. And when we came to a stop by the shore beside a group of dull industrial buildings, looking out on a perfect horizon-hugging island – so dreamlike it might have been a mirage – I turned to Kirmen, the Basque fisherman’s boy, and said ‘Looks like a fish-factory to me.’ He smiled: ‘I was just thinking the same.’ Inside was an art gallery in the making. Paintings in many styles, a huge private collection of Estonian art belonging to the one-time manager of Abba, an Estonian called Jaan Manitski. But our salt-water intuition proved true – ‘the building in which the Viinistu collection is housed,’ said our guide later, ‘is a former fish factory from Soviet times.’

After a couple of nights in Tallinn, more readings, recordings, dinners and receptions, the week was over. Whether the group had succeeded in producing the 100 versions we set out to or not, substantial work had been done, and friendships forged. The ‘new Europe’ had come into focus a pierie skaar, and the idea of Shetlandic not as dialect of Scots or English, conforming to their spelling system or alphabet, rather a small but unique part of the family of Northern languages seen in a European context - my sense of this was strengthened in Käsmu. In fact, it seems to me that without Shetlandic on the linguistic map, as the link between the ‘Doric’ Scots of the North East of Scotland, and Faeroese or Vestnorsk, the chain isn’t whole – it simply doesn’t cohere.
I’m left with the feeling that the ‘Eesti’ (so named historically by the Swedes, ‘the people of the east’), are our counterparts in European terms. They are like us, and yet not us - in the warmth of welcome, the liking for a dram or a dance, in such little things as the fine fish and boiled tatties, their currency of ‘kroons’, in such extensive ones as the country’s peatbogs and sea tradition, perhaps even a shared history of oppression, yes. But in their Finno-Ugric language, their detailed experience of German and Russian rule, in the flat vastness of the country’s birch and pine forests, the comparatively tideless shoreline, not so. Yet the parallels are as numerous and as informative as the divergences. We are the ‘Westi’ to their ‘Eesti’ - latitudinal ‘Others’.