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2 posts categorized "Latvia"

03 April 2018

Literature of the Baltic countries in English translation

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In this centenary year of the independence of each of the Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, great efforts are being made to promote the three very distinct literatures of those countries in translation. Until now, when lists of works appearing in translation were produced by the literature-promoting agencies of each country, English translations made up the shortest list among the European languages.

Since English is more widely spoken in Europe than the other languages into which translations are made, it is a matter of urgency to rectify this, and now, in this centenary year, being marked by ‘market focus’ status at the London Book Fair in 2018, there is a chance to showcase the rich diversity of Baltic literature – in translation.

The reverse side of the coin is the huge competition for the attention of English-speaking readers in the marketplace. Only a small proportion of each country’s literature is seen as worth translating into English, given the relative unpopularity of translated literature among Anglophones.

Part of the problem in the Baltic case is that there are practically no opportunities to study these literatures, either in the original or in translation, at British universities. At the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (part of University College London), from 2018 it will be possible to study an undergraduate course introducing the literatures of these three countries in English translation. The range of available texts is now at last expanding rapidly.

Each of the Baltic republics’ governments operates a state-subsidised translation programme; these have existed almost since the countries regained their independence in 1991. With the centenary celebrations and the market focus at the London Book Fair, English is being emphasised as a target language this year. Both modern works and the classical canon are being represented, and the introductory course will try to give at least a taste of as many genres and generations of writing from each Baltic country as possible.

BalticKalevipoegCoverCover (above) and titler-page (below) of Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, Kalevipoeg (Tartu, 1935). Ac.9076/19. 

The languages are ancient, but the literary traditions are relatively young. To present the ‘folk’ literature of each nation is to be thrust into the 19th-century National Awakening which followed in the wake of Enlightenment scholars such as Herder and their influence filtered through the Baltic German nobility (at least in Livonia, the northern half of the region). In Estonia the national epic Kalevipoeg (The Son of Kalev) was largely the work of 19th-century authors Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald and Friedrich Robert Faehlmann, inspired by the more genuinely ancient folk poetry of the Kalevala in Finland.

In Latvia, too, the work of epic ancient heroism Lāčplēsis (The Bear Slayer) was the work of one 19th-century author, Andrejs Pumpurs. The germ of this creation, however, lay in much older oral verse, as gathered by Krišjānis Barons in his vast collection of dainas – short rhymed verses reflecting folk wisdom on various aspects of life, love and the annual cycle of the seasons.

BalticBlogLatviansongsTitle page of Latwju dainas (Jelgawa, 1894). X.900/4488

The situation in Lithuania was slightly different, the result of different historical processes and the long political association with Poland. The first notable Lithuanian work available in any kind of English translation is Kristijonas Donelaitis’ 18th-century poetical cycle Metai (The Seasons) – there were earlier poets and writers, but their work is still virtually inaccessible to the English speaker.

From the 19th century onward certain trends are detectable that reflect European literary movements of the time, but the works are also specific to each country’s situation. 19th-century literature is inextricably linked to the struggle for recognition and development of the languages as literary vehicles in their own right.

Early examples of the novel genre, such as the Latvian Kaudzīte brothers’ Mērnieku laiki (The Time of the Surveyors), are not readily available in English. In fact, any literature written before the first independence period (1918-1940) is hard to come by in English translation. Breaking away from foreign cultural models was linked to the prevalence of Russian and German in education in the Baltic countries. The full flowering of the novel came with independence, with authors such as A.H.Tammsaare and Friedebert Tuglas in Estonia and Andrejs Upītis in Latvia. Among the most prolifically translated Baltic authors is Jaan Kross of Estonia.


Title-page and frontispiece of  Friedebert Tuglas, Riders in the sky (Tallinn, 1986). YA.1992.b.648

Poetry in translation is mostly confined to anthologised work, but it spans both of the independence periods. Some poets have achieved international distinction, such as Tomas Venclova from Lithuania and Jaan Kaplinski from Estonia. What is more difficult to obtain in English is drama – very few plays from the Baltic republics have appeared in English, not even the works of the Latvian Rūdolfs Blaumanis, and thus the survey of literature in translation is a little lopsided as to genres.

Kaplinski Through the Forest YK.1997.a.3737Cover of Jaan Kaplinski, Through the Forest, translated by Hildi Hawkins (London, 1996). YK.1997.a.3737

Contemporary literature is much more widely available in translation. Writers who lived into the second independence period, or are writing now, are making their literatures known more than ever before. In Lithuania, Ričardas Gavelis and Jurgis Kunčinas; in Latvia, Pauls Bankovskis and Zigmunds Skujiņš; in Estonia, Andrus Kivirähk and Indrek Hargla have recently become available in English, to name but a few.

Baltic literature in English translation is still patchy in its coverage. Certain writers who are central to the canon in their own countries – Oskar Luts in Estonia, Jānis Rainis in Latvia and Vincas Krėvė in Lithuania, are still sorely under-represented. But this is an exciting time to become acquainted with this previously little-known corner of Europe and the literary treasures it holds.

Baltic montage

Christopher Moseley, Teaching Fellow in Estonian, SSEES, UCL

On 9 April the British Library will be hosting ‘Being Baltic’, a discussion with three leading Baltic writers – Mihkel Mutt (Estonia), Nora Ikstena (Latvia) and Kristina Sabaliauskaitė (Lithuania) chaired by Rosie Goldsmith. You can find more details and book online here.


07 January 2015

Epiphanies from Imants Ziedonis

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What names come to your mind when you hear the words “Latvian literature”? Rainis? Aspazija? Čaks? If none of them, don’t 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! “When Imants Ziedonis appeared as a poet, it was a shock, an explosion, not only in Latvia but throughout the Soviet Union”, Andrei Voznesensky wrote.

Imants Ziedonis 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 children’s tales from Krāsainās pasakas (‘Coloured  tales’; the British Library holds the first edition with the beautiful illustrations by Aija Zīle; Riga, 1973; X.990/4018) and sent them to the publishing house Molod’ (Youth) where they appeared in the debutant almanac Vitryla (‘Sails’; some issues are held in our collections under the shelfmark ZF.9.a.10156)  Some of his ‘Coloured tales’ 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:

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 dinamīts (‘Heart’s Dynamite’; Rīgā, 1963; 0111302.i.1); Es ieeju sevī (‘I Enter Myself’;  Riga, 1968; X.907/9436); Kā svece deg: Dzeja, 1967-1970 (Riga, 1971; X.989/12886); Poēma 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 Epifānijas (‘Epiphanies’; 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 dienasgrāmata (‘A Poet’s Diary’, 1965; X.907/3490; it was translated into Russian in 1968 as Dnevnik poeta; Riga, 1968; X.907/10997), Pa putu ceļu (‘Along the Foamy Path’) and the collection of essays Garainis, kas veicina vārīšanos (‘Steam That Promotes Boiling’; 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 ‘Coloured Tales’ he published:  Lāču pasaka (‘Tales of Bears’, 1976); Blēņas un pasakas (‘Twaddle and Tales’, 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.

The poet lives on in his poetry. The charitable foundation Viegli which bears his name released two albums of songs with words by Ziedonis. You can hear some of them here.

As snow falls in many parts of the world, here is the beginning of “The White Fairy Tale” in   Barry Callaghan’s translation:

Virgin snow fell last night. Now the world is white. So white it’s a whiteout. The white hen laid a white egg, losing it in the snow. The white rooster’s 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 couldn’t find them any more. A blizzard of trees – 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 – I don’t know whether you’ll be able to read what I’ve written….

ZIEDONISBALTAPASAKA                                              Illustration for the White Fairy tale by Aija Zīle.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies


Imants Ziedonis : bibliogrāfija, bibliogrāfiju veidoja Māra Izvestnija un Agra Turlaja. Rīga, 2013;   ZF.9.a.10156

All birds know this: selected contemporary Latvian poetry, compiled by Kristine Sadovska ; edited by Astrīde Ivaska, Māra Rūmniece. Rīga, 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, [1958]. 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.