What names come to your mind when you hear the words âLatvian literatureâ? Rainis? Aspazija? Äaks? If none of them, donât worry. As Latvia takes the presidency of the Council of the European Union from Italy this month there will be plenty of time to find out more about Latvian literature and culture in our rich Latvian Collections, starting with the first anthology of Latvian poetry in English translations compiled by W.K. Matthews.
The first name which comes to my mind is Imants Ziedonis. When I first read him, he sounded so original, so fresh, and so different! He had nothing in common with the dreadful socialist realism of the time. He even looked as a real poet should look! âWhen Imants Ziedonis appeared as a poet, it was a shock, an explosion, not only in Latvia but throughout the Soviet Unionâ, Andrei Voznesensky wrote.
Imants Ziedonis (photo from The Drunken boat)
It so happened that my own literary debut in 1983 is linked to his work. As aspiring young translator from Latvian into Ukrainian I translated five of his childrenâs tales from KrÄsainÄs pasakas (âColoured talesâ; the British Library holds the first edition with the beautiful illustrations by Aija ZÄ«le; Riga, 1973; X.990/4018) and sent them to the publishing house Molodâ (Youth) where they appeared in the debutant almanac Vitryla (âSailsâ; some issues are held in our collections under the shelfmark ZF.9.a.10156) Some of his âColoured talesâ are translated into English. Here is the Yellow tale and the Green Fairytale.
A special project about the tales in Soundclouds was made by Lesley Moore in The Netherlands: https://soundcloud.com/colourtales.
Imants Ziedonis, born in 1933 to a family of fishermen in independent Latvia, established himself as a major poetic voice in the Soviet Latvia of the 1960s. The British Library holds first editions of some of his poetry books: Sirds dinamiÌts (âHeartâs Dynamiteâ; RiÌgaÌ, 1963; 0111302.i.1); Es ieeju seviÌ (âI Enter Myselfâ; Riga, 1968; X.907/9436); KÄ svece deg: Dzeja, 1967-1970 (Riga, 1971; X.989/12886); PoeÌma par pienu (Poem about milk; Riga,1977; YA.1991.a.24311) and others. Only some of his poems have been translated into English: Selected Poems and Prose (Riga, 1980; 81/20853); Flowers of ice, translated by Barry Callaghan (Toronto, 1987; YA.1989.a.18149).
The most frequently-translated of his prose poems are EpifÄnijas (âEpiphaniesâ; published in three books in 1971-1994). The British Library holds the first Latvian editions, as well as translations into Swedish, Russian and Ukrainian (picture below). More translations are needed, and hopefully the Latvian Presidency will lead to better promotion of great Latvian poetry worldwide.
Ziedonis is also well known as a prose writer. His best-known prose works are Dzejnieka dienasgrÄmata (âA Poetâs Diaryâ, 1965; X.907/3490; it was translated into Russian in 1968 as Dnevnik poeta; Riga, 1968; X.907/10997), Pa putu ceÄŒu (âAlong the Foamy Pathâ) and the collection of essays Garainis, kas veicina vÄrÄ«ĆĄanos (âSteam That Promotes Boilingâ; Riga, 1976; YA.1991.a.24346).
In the 1970s Ziedonis started to collect rich Latvian folklore, especially folk songs and tales, and created other tales himself. Besides the already mentioned âColoured Talesâ he published: LÄÄu pasaka (âTales of Bearsâ, 1976); BlÄĆas un pasakas (âTwaddle and Talesâ, 1980) and others. It is to be hoped that one day we will fill the gaps in our collections, which lack a lot of books for children from Central and Eastern Europe.
During perestroika Ziedonis joined the struggle for the renewal of Latvian independence. He was an active member of the Atmoda movement and was elected to the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia in 1990. His funeral in 2013 was organised by a special state committee.
As snow falls in many parts of the world, here is the beginning of âThe White Fairy Taleâ in Barry Callaghanâs translation:
Virgin snow fell last night. Now the world is white. So white itâs a whiteout. The white hen laid a white egg, losing it in the snow. The white roosterâs white song flew under the eaves and froze, a hanging icicle. The white squirrel had white little squirrels who leapt onto white branches, and the squirrel couldnât find them any more. A blizzard of trees â a white tree lost in a white day in the woods.
A twirl of white chimney smoke, and even ink in the bottle is white â I donât know whether youâll be able to read what Iâve writtenâŠ.
Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies
Imants Ziedonis : bibliograÌfija, bibliograÌfiju veidoja MaÌra Izvestnija un Agra Turlaja. RiÌga, 2013; ZF.9.a.10156
All birds know this: selected contemporary Latvian poetry, compiled by Kristine Sadovska ; edited by AstrÄ«de Ivaska, MÄra RĆ«mniece. RÄ«ga, 2001; YD.2006.a.1884
Contemporary Latvian poetry, edited by Inara Cedrins. Iowa City, c1984. YA.1988.a.11733
A century of Latvian poetry: an anthology, compiled and translated by W. K. Matthews. London, . 11589.b.23
W. K.Matthews, The Tricolour Sun: Latvian lyrics in English versions, an essay on Latvian poetry and critical commentaries. Cambridge, 1936. W29/3717.