An Anthology of Contemporary Estonian Poetry, On the Way Home

by Harvey Hix, Kätlin Kaldmaa

The book was published in the series of anthologies of different countries by Sarup&Sons (India, New Delhi).
One of the translators, Harvey Hix, is interviewed by Kätlin Kaldmaa.

 Which and when was your first encounter with Estonia? With Estonian poetry?
In the summer of 1994, I received a Fulbright-Hays group travel grant for six weeks of research and travel with a group of teachers from Kansas City, in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, plus St. Petersburg and Moscow. That was my first trip to Estonia, and the provocation for my lasting interest in Estonia.

Where does Estonian poetry stands amidst the world poetry?
If the standard is audience size, Estonian poetry is obscure and minor. There simply are very few people who read the Estonian language, which is a problem in itself and creates others: e.g. the fewer native speakers, the fewer people who are able to translate into more widely-spoken languages; and the fewer native speakers, the smaller the perceived audience for a literature in translation, so the more difficult it is to find a publisher. (In seeking a publisher for this anthology, I was often told that the work was excellent, but that no one would buy it.)
However, if the standard is quality – How good is the poetry? – then Estonian poetry is easily the equal of poetry in other languages. The Estonian folk song tradition provides a rich spring on which Estonian poetry can draw.

How is it compared to American poetry? Are there any thematic singularities that are inherent only to Estonian poetry?
The two nations have very different histories, a fact that I’m sure has influenced the poetry being written, but I suspect that the themes of literature are universal (love, death, god, suffering, etc.), so I think there are more commonalities than differences.

Anthology has a very specific structure. What is this supposed to tell the reader?
In a way, the anthology is structured to suggest just those commonalities: the poems are gathered into groups by thematic concern, rather than by chronology or authorship, in order to suggest to non-Estonian audiences that Estonian poetry, though it comes from a very specific place and a particular people, also attends to questions and experiences that all humans share.

Is Estonian poetry difficult to translate?
Yes.  All translation is difficult (and frustrating!), but translating from, say, Spanish into English is easier than translating from Estonian, because Spanish grammar and English grammar are more similar, and because Spanish and English share many more cognates.  I simply would not be able to translate Estonian poetry by myself; in my partnership with Jüri Talvet, he carries the heavy load, and I have the easy job!

Who is your favourite poet in Estonia? In the anthology?
Of course Jüri Talvet is my favorite Estonian poet.  His is the work I know best, and I am a great admirer especially of his Eesti Eleegia.  But working on this anthology allowed me to develop other favorites also.  I love Jaan Kaplinski’s I SAW YUNICHIRO TO TALLINN…” and Triin Soomets’ I would give you my heart… and Paul-Eerik Rummo’s THROUGH MY DWARF BIRCHES, among many others.

Are there any other Estonian poets whose work you would like to translate?
I hope that Prof. Talvet and I will continue to work together, so that I can become acquainted with more and more Estonian poetry.

Did you get any financial help from Estonia?
Yes, in the years that Prof. Talvet and I have been working together, we have had the good fortune to receive support from a private foundation in the U.S. (the ArtsLink program of CEC International Partners) and from Eesti Kultuurkapital.  We do much of our work by correspondence, but those grants have given us time periods when we could work in the same room.

I understand that Prof. Jüri Talvet provided you with rough translations. Do you speak Estonian?
I have tried to learn Estonian, but with no success.  I have not to this point had access to formal study here (very few American universities teach the Estonian language), nor have I had any single stay in Estonia long enough to learn from immersion.  I find the grammar of Estonian very complex and difficult, and it is difficult for me even to distinguish between the lengths of vowels when I am listening to Estonian.  So the short answer is, no, I do not speak Estonian – yet!
Our working process is straightforward: Prof. Talvet makes a basic translation that is as literal as possible.  Then I look up the words in my Estonian dictionary so that I have as good a sense as possible of the individual words, and I revise the literal translation into a ‘poetic’ one.  Our roles are not symmetrical: Prof. Talvet could translate Estonian into English without me, but I could not do so without him.

Do you have any further plans on introducing Estonian poetry in the world?
A translation of Prof. Talvet’s Eesti Eleegia ja teisi luuletusi will be published this year by Guernica Editions, a publisher in Toronto, Canada.  We have been working on a translation of a selection of Juhan Liiv’s poetry.  As long as Prof. Talvet is willing to work with me, I hope to continue to help bring Estonian poetry to a wider audience!