by Ilmar Lehtpere
The landscape of a poet’s soul is a private, secret place made perceptible to the senses through the power of the word. It is what Andres Ehin, the eminent Estonian poet and translator, sought to convey in his translations. One can’t hope to travel in those lands merely as a tourist with a phrasebook or to understand them from afar as an academic. As a translator of poetry, one has to live in them and travel them together with the author, understand that the power of words lies in the cultural associations they evoke in native speakers and hence in the author. It is a translator’s responsibility to convey an entire culture as the author perceives it along with the author’s inner landscape, and not just the bare meanings of words. A good translator of poetry is a poet whether he or she has ever published a line of original poetry or not; a good translation is an expression of spiritual kinship between author and translator. It is a declaration of love for the original work. To my mind the only voice one should hear in a translation is the author’s.
The word translation is widely used to describe three different phenomena. First of all there is the one I have set out above – the effort to recreate a literary work in another language, preserving the author’s voice along with the cultural and personal nuances of the original. Then there are versions, often, but not exclusively, made from literal translations of the original work. These are generally interpretations in which the author’s voice and culture are seldom very evident, either because the “translator”, with little or no understanding of the original work’s language and the culture it grew from, is unable to hear the author’s voice, or simply believes it is his or her right to tamper with the author’s work. And finally there are adaptations – original works of literature based on poetry or prose written in another language. To my mind it is important to keep these three branches of literary endeavour separate. Versions and adaptations may be very fine works of literature in their own right, but calling them translations does the author of the original work an injustice, implying as it does that they truly are somehow the author’s work.
It is often argued that particularly in the case of smaller languages, there would be few translations into other languages if translators did not simply resort to the use of literal translations as a basis. But as a translator from Estonian I have seen some truly calamitous English versions of Estonian poetry and prose. And there is after all another option, namely translating from existing good translations. Entire books of my translations of Kristiina Ehin’s work have been translated into Irish, Macedonian, Welsh and Scottish-Gaelic. Selections in Romanian and Korean have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies. The Irish poet Aogán Ó Muircheartaigh has been working with me for years translating the work of Kristiina, Andres, Ly and Eliisa Ehin into Irish. He is most meticulous, insightful and sensitive in his questions as he translates my translations via the bridge language that we share, namely English. He is very clear in his desire to convey Estonian culture to Irish readers. To date we have published two trilingual Estonian-English-Irish books (Tandem Neljale – Tandem for Four – Teaindim Ceathrair by Kristiina, Andres, Ly and Eliisa Ehin, and Sisemine hobune – Inner Horse – An Capall Istigh by Andres Ehin, both published by Coscéim). He is currently working on a book of Kristiina’s poetry and prose and has published translations of the Ehins’ work in literary magazines and included some in a volume of his own poetry.
I have been travelling for ten years in Kristiina Ehin’s landscapes, which are very close to my heart, and in that time she and I have published eleven books of her work, poetry and prose, in my English translation, including a Poetry Society Popescu Prize winner, a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation and a Popescu Prize nominee. The journey is ongoing, with the twelfth book awaiting publication and work on the thirteenth soon to get under way. I began to translate Estonian poetry both for the personal, spiritual rewards of the work itself and to make our literature accessible to the rest of the world. There are only one million Estonian speakers on the planet and I thought our poetry deserved a much larger audience. When I began there was precious little Estonian poetry available in English. I am delighted that my efforts have borne such fruit. Indeed, today there aren’t enough translators of Estonian poetry to fill the demand.
But I also have other reasons for translating. Estonian language and culture have been under constant threat from all sides for many centuries. The threat from the east continues unabated, but from the west comes the new global Anglo-American cultural onslaught. This latest development, coupled with the inexplicable and unfounded cultural inferiority complex of many, mainly young, well-educated Estonians, is truly worrying and I wonder if the resilience that our language and culture have shown throughout the centuries will be enough this time.
And so I want to show Estonians that our literature, and hence our culture, are held in very high regard throughout the English-speaking world and beyond, as long as it is made accessible. And if the worst should happen and Estonian is one day reduced in its homeland to the status of Irish in Ireland – a language spoken as a first language, if at all, by a minority of the population, mainly in isolated rural communities – then I want my translations to reveal to the English-speaking majority what a rich, distinctive culture their foremothers and forefathers once had and perhaps persuade some to learn the language of their ancestors in order to enjoy the works in the original Estonian. And thereby rediscover and explore the strange, wild, fertile landscape of their own soul.
Ilmar Lehtpere had a bilingual upbringing in Estonian and English and is Kristiina Ehin's English language translator. The Drums of Silence (Oleander Press, 2007), a volume of her selected poems in his translation, was awarded the Poetry Society Corneliu M. Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation, and her The Scent of Your Shadow (Arc, 2010) was named Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation. His latest book Shortening the Candle's Wick is a collection of translations from the Estonian poetry of Ly Seppel and Andres Ehin (Little Island Press, 2017).
Shortening the Candle's Wick (trans. Ilmar Lehtpere, March 2017) is part of the TRANSITS series published by Little Island Press.