Searching for translators

by Ulrike Plath

Searching for translators
Zum ersten Seminar für
Übersetzer estnischer Literatur ins Deutsche
Visby, 25.-29. Mai 2009

Ulrike Plath

The first seminar for translators of Estonian literature into German, held at Visby from May 25-29, 2009

After a wave of translations of Estonian literature into German in the early 1990s, the number of such books dropped before the decade was out and has stagnated further since then. Whilst Estonian drama is increasingly better known, the opposite is the case for books at the Frankfurt and Leipzig Book Fairs. How can we explain this setback for Estonian literature in Germany?

The decline in this field is certainly a reflection of falling interest at German universities in Estonian language and literature, a trend that was accelerated by the reform programme in German higher education. An important difference should be pointed out here between the Estophile generations. First there were those connected with the Baltic region through some family ties, and whose interst in estonian culture and literature became established during the perestroika period and especially after Estonia became independent. On the other hand, of the large number of Germans arriving here since the early 1990s for personal or work reasons, none has taken up literary translation.   

For decades, literary translations from Estonian has been undertaken by a handful of people, such as Irja Grönholm, Cornelius Hasselblatt, Gisbert Jänicke, Bernhard Thomas.                                                                                         There is a limit to what they can undertake, as their preferences are clear. The larger the circle of translators, and the broader their age structure, the wider will be the spectrum of  Estonian literature available in Germany. It will become more exciting and more varied. Young authors require young translators. Authors and translators must find each other.

As the whole process seemed to lie dormant, ELIC, the Estonian Literature Centre, decided to spring into action. To stimulate interest in translating Estonian literature, and to provide the necessary tools as well as a relevant marketing strategy, the Centre organised a training seminar from May 25 to May 29, 2009 at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Visby. Eight applicants with German as their mother tongue were chosen on the basis of test translations which they had submitted.
The group consisted mainly of women around 20 years old, so newcomers to this work who had only just finished their education. Most had spent an exchange year in an Estonian school so had picked up considerable language skills whilst staying with a local family. When  they returned to Germany, the question inevitably arose as to how they could link their interest in Estonia with their future careers.

The seminar was largely run by Irja Grönholm and Cornelius Hasselblatt. It brought together different generations of Estophiles who had previously been largely unaware of each other. Both generations are equally fascinated with Estonia, but see the country which has gone through such radical changes, differently. However, more important than their differences was a common interest in its language and literature.

During three days of intensive work, Jaan Kaplinski’s  The Same River, Andrus Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish, and poems by Marie Under, Viivi Luik and Jürgen Rooste were discussed in detail and an extract from Marin Algus’ play Thirst was translated. In the practical sessions, the possible freedoms and dangers in literary translation were discussed, and Irja Grönholm showed the young translators what the daily life of a translator could be. The tough labour of self-expression proceeded nicely in a pleasant atmosphere.   

As part of the practical sessions, Cornelius Hasselblatt gave a lecture on the development of Estonian prose and poetry and Irja Grönholm gave one on Estonian drama. Katrin Kern discussed the different online dictionaries now available for Estonian, and also various aspects of colloquial Estonian. The final lecture was by Oliver Ihle, publisher of Eeva Park’s novel A Trap in Infinity, which has recently been translated by Irja Grönholm. He gave an overview of the initial steps that need to be taken by a translator to generate interest at a German publishers.

This would turn out to be the toughest issue discussed at the seminar. To succeed in the German publishing world as a translator of work from a small language such as Estonian requires a great deal of initiative, persistence and enthusiasm together with a practical knowledge of marketing. A flair for the language is of course essential too, but it must be combined with knowledge of the book trade in general and of the market for Estonian books in particular. These must be combined with the ability to approach potential publishers and to self-market. The seminar ended with advice on running a successful book launch and a discussion of the future.

The time spent at Visby showed how addictive literature can be. The contours of the personality needed in a new translator can now be clearly designated. This result stems of course from the inspiring environment that the Writers’ and Translators’ House provided, and from the discussions and networking opportunities that arose during our stay as we talked to the local staff, to translators and to writers. Visby will continue in our lives with a monthly newsletter in which participants will exchange ideas on translation, promotion, new publications and on progess in their personal careers. Visby has however left an even stronger mark on all of us. In due course we will see how strong our passion for literature is, how strong or weak our talents are and how addictive the translation virus turns out to be. I am very grateful for this experience. Everything else will take time.