Interview with Guntars Godinš

by Livia Viitol

Interview with Guntars Godiņš

If you try to think back about 25 years, when you began learning Estonian, what is your impression today: did you choose the Estonian language or did the language choose you?

I have always told people that I like musical languages. Earlier I was fascinated with the Indonesian and Malaysian languages, but I had no chance to speak them with anyone. Then I turned my attention to Estonian. The first contact occurred in secondary school, in my last year. I suddenly felt that I wanted to learn Estonian. I didn’t have a single vocabulary or grammar book. My mother finally got a collection of poetry by Debora Vaarandi, and an Estonian-Russian dictionary. So I started putting together the Estonian language. One possibility of learning Estonian quickly was to translate – for my own use. My first author was Jaan Kaplinski. When I worked at the Latvian Writers’ Union, we organised poetry days every year. Once we invited Jaan Kaplinski too. My language studies continued and I continued to translate Kaplinski. I finally had a whole manuscript of his translations. However, it could not be published because the unwritten rule in the Soviet Union decreed that everything had to be translated into Russian first. The collection was thus shelved. When Jaan Kaplinski turned fifty, a conference was organised to mark the occasion, and I gave him the collection of his poetry in Latvian. When the political situation changed, there was no money to publish it. The collection finally appeared in 2000.
In the meantime, I took up Finnish, and graduated from courses in Finnish language and literature. I kept travelling to Finland through Estonia, but the latter somehow got neglected. I translated Pentti Saarikoski, Eeva-Liisa Manner and folk poetry. And then one day Ita Saks said ‘Guntars has abandoned us’ – and then I came back. So I think the Estonian language chose me. It was almost destiny.

You came back and put together a collection of the work of five Estonian poets in Latvian. It was published in 1998, and included Alliksaar, Runnel, Õnnepalu, Paul-Eerik Rummo and Doris Kareva. Who was the most difficult to translate?

Certainly Alliksaar and Runnel. With Alliksaar, I seriously considered whether he could be translated at all. I did not translate; I improvised. It was the only way to express his poems in the Latvian language. I actually ‘made’ another language: there is not as much alliteration and assonance in Latvian as there is in Estonian. Alliksaar, with his modernism, seems to emerge from folk poetry. However, if we look closer, Estonian folk songs are in fact rather modernist.
Runnel was also complicated – all the sounds and the precise form! When a translator translates this kind of poetry, he or she must stay inside it – sit calmly and translate. The Purple of Red Evenings has only eight lines, but it took me two years to translate. It is very time-consuming to capture the sound. But I think I managed in the end: Runnel’s poems became very popular in Latvia.
Paul-Eerik Rummo was translated by Laimonis Kamara. A book was published of his translations. For Latvians, Paul-Eerik is an interesting poet. I produced another kind of book: I undertook the entire The Sender’s Address. Strangely enough, I translated these poems into Latvian before they appeared in the magazine Looming, because Paul-Eerik gave me his manuscript!
Translating Doris Kareva was also rather complicated. I tried my hand

at Concerto Grosso and experimented with language games. In Doris’s poetry, playing around with language is never an aim in itself, but is connected with her impressions and thoughts. Her poems are born from her own use of language.
I had translated Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Border State, and then I wanted to do his poems as well.

In 1999 and 2000 you taught Latvian in Tallinn to our archaeologists at the Institute of History. I was the only philologist in the group. We were reading archaeological literature in Latvian, and you also talked about folklore and the history of the Latvian language. I was surprised to discover how pictorial Latvian was, and how many old elements there were. What has surprised you about Estonian?

First of all, its musicality. It is fascinating that you can say something in Estonian, using only vowels. I remember I once organised an Andres Ehin poetry evening in Latvia, and he read out the following sentence: aoäiaõeuueoaõieõueauaööau. Secondly, in Latvia, nouns are divided into male and feminine nouns, but there is no gender in Estonian. Also, there are no grammatical forms of future. If an Estonian says: ‘Ta tuleb’ (He/she comes), I have no idea whether it is a man or a woman, which may cause intrigues and surprises, and there is no knowing when that person actually comes! 

In 2003 you translated and published in Latvia a collection of Ilmar Laaban’s collection of surrealist poetry, Putnu mistiskais mugurkauls (The Mystical Backbone of Birds) and in 2005, Mats Traat’s Haralas dzīvesstasti (Histories from Harala). Both attracted quite a lot of attention. In 2009, there was a collection of poems by five Estonian poets, including Contra, Kivisildnik, fs, Jaak Jõerüüt and Viivi Luik. The end of the 2000s was extraordinarily prolific for you. How is Estonian literature received in Latvia?

People who are close to literature certainly know a great deal about Estonian poetry and prose. Due to the efforts of no less than three active translators – Maima Grīnberga, Rūta Karma and myself – we have been able to create a landscape of Estonian literature, because it is really important to publish one’s neighbours. In addition, many reviews and articles about Estonian literature are published here as well. Plus children’s books. We know what is going on in Estonian literature. We had some special issues of Karogs containing Estonian poetry, prose, overviews and articles. When I published fs’s poems, it was interesting to see the reaction of younger readers – the poems were very well received. Ilmar Laaban’s poetry was a shock to many: we do not have surrealist literature here. My task is to find authors who do not exist in Latvia. I am bringing Estonian literature to Latvian readers. After all, literature is human psychology too. Everything that happens to man exists in literature.

What does translating give you as a poet?

It gives and takes. I am a poet who does not write very much. I wouldn’t say that a particular Estonian poet has had an impact on me, but I do read a lot of your poetry. If it is interesting, it has an impact. Maybe my own poetry contains something of Estonian poetry – I have no idea. It’s the psychology that comes from another nation. One of my most exciting undertakings was translating Jaan Kaplinski’s collection of poetry into Swedish, together with Juris Kronbergs. Jaan Kaplinski commented that it was interesting seeing two Latvians translating one Estonian!

If the economic situation stabilised and culture was properly supported, what would you then do?
I am still thinking of founding an Estonian-Latvian cultural centre, either in Tallinn or in Riga. The Estonian Institute has branches in Budapest, Helsinki and Stockholm, and it is strange that there is nothing in Latvia. If there were, I would certainly help and try to do something. I would bring Estonian culture to Latvia and vice versa. I worked in Estonia for 13 years and I have experience. Literature is one thing, but art and music should be promoted and introduced as well. Thanks to exhibitions organised in Estonia by the Latvian embassy in the 1990s and later, such artists as Fridrihsons, Padegs, Liberts, Strunke and Blumbergs are hopefully no longer unknown. However, I’m not sure whether Latvians know anything about, say, Viiralt. Or how much they know about modern Estonian art and music. The knowledge is not that extensive, I’m afraid. Cultural exchanges should take place simultaneously between several fields of art. I was aspiring to do that when I worked at the embassy. In addition to Latvian language courses at Estonian universities, there should be courses of Latvian culture as well.

One of your greatest achievements was to launch Estonian-Latvian-Finnish Luulesõit every summer, and it has become a tradition. Did this idea come from your activities as a translator?

The idea came when Jana Vasama, head of the Finnish Institute (2004-2009), came to me at the embassy and suggested we start organising joint poetry events. I thought we could do something truly fantastic – a mobile festival, i.e. travelling through three countries, with different poets and towns every year. We have already had four festivals, and the fifth will be this summer. At first our destinations were Pärnu, Riga and Helsinki, but now we have added Kuressaare, Ventspils, Turku, Tartu, Tampere and Kajaani. Something new each year. Of course this involves a lot of work, doing the translations and so on, but travelling to different places enables us to introduce the poets better and bring the countries closer. I certainly want to continue translating Finnish poetry. I have managed to publish an anthology of Finnish poetry, presenting Paavo Haavikko, V. Kirstinen, Arto Meller, Eeva-Liisa Manner and other poets. The next thing on the agenda is a comprehensive collection of Pentti Saarikoski’s poetry. Trying my hand at Heli Laaksonen’s poems written in dialect was quite a challenge. The only pure dialect in Latvia is Latgalian, but I cannot read it. In translating I used the dialect of Ainaži and Salacgrīva, which do not have endings – it’s like a very short version of Estonian and Finnish, and similar to the language used by Heli Laaksonen.

Let us now return to Estonian literature. Have you translated the classics?

I have indeed: for example Juhan Liiv, Marie Under, Betti Alver and Heiti Talvik. My translations have appeared in the press. One day, I would actually like to gather together everything I have translated – like a sort of summary. It would be quite difficult and time-consuming. I would also like to publish something about the writers – how I see Estonian poetry, to offer a comparison with Latvian poetry. There have been, and still are, many similarities. I keep my eye on Estonian literature.
In February you finished translating Jaan Kaplinski’s novel An Eye. What are your feelings at the moment?

Finishing any translation is a happy occasion. I like how Jaan discusses the oppositions between Christianity and Buddhism; he is really able to tackle complicated issues precisely and clearly. I hope that An Eye will go down well with Latvian readers and will make them think.
One poem in your collection The Night Sun, published in Estonia in 2000, begins with the words: “Cannot remember in what language I talk...” Is this still so? With whom do you speak Estonian in Riga?

In the introduction to The Night Sun, I wrote that my interest in Estonian language and literature emerged in the small Latvian town called Viesītes, where I grew up and went to school. Today I can say, with all honesty, that I am a creature of two cultures. Knowing another language and living in that language and culture is a huge opportunity to change yourself. I have even written poems in Estonian (an excellent linguistic find by Guntars! – L. V.). I regard this as my second poetry, the second me. When I lived and worked in Tallinn, I even dreamed in Estonian. Now, in Riga, I speak Estonian with Jaak Jõerüüt. I naturally maintain my connection with Estonia, as I have many friends there.

Interview conducted by Livia Viitol