Life flakes (3)
Archived Articles 04 Aug 2006 K. Linda KiviEWR
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by Betti Alver (translation by KLK)

How I searched for life’s arithmetic
how I divided the indivisible
until I began to realize
that fate’s arithmetic is only distinguishable
when you multiply lighting bolts
by life’s tens of embraces
by wild hundreds of beautiful moments
and mute thousands of painful pulses.

I translated this poem of Betti Alver from “Tähetund” (The Starry Hour) before I discovered Taimi Ene Moks’s very different version in a small booklet by The Estonian Centre of International P.E.N. in Toronto in 1989. The thin booklet put out by Tönu Parming, later editor of one of Toronto’s Estonian newspapers, "Meie Elu", was a window into a world of literature I was interested in becoming acquainted with, but was having trouble penetrating the grace and complexity of poetic Estonian. When I looked around for something more of Alver’s, in English or Estonian, I came up empty handed.

North Americans read very few books in translation. Very few authors, other than some of the biggies, like the German, French, Spanish and Italian classical writers and a few modern Danes, Japanese or Chinese make any mark on this continent. I have heard it said that North Americans read a lot but not as widely as other peoples. Certainly, I can count on one hand the Estonian authors who have had whole works of theirs translated into English: Jaan Kross, Jaan Kaplinski, Emil Tode. On the other hand, a bibliography of Estonian authors published in Finnish, Swedish, German and French, takes up many pages.

I discovered my other favourite Estonian poet, Jaan Kaplinski, in English translation as well. Soon after, I met Kaplinski in person when he was invited to read at the Vancouver International Writer’s Festival in 1996. Four books of his poetry have been published in English but these are probably now all out of print. Reading Kaplinski, I wondered that if had I not known he was Estonian, would I have been so profoundly moved by his poetry. (Maybe yes, after all, a piece of music on the radio arrested me so profoundly one day that I glued my ear to the set and could not pull myself away. It turned out to be a piece by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt: where I live, we say there are no coincidences.)

The language, the ideas, the way Kaplinski puts one word next to another is strangely familiar and yet perfectly new. Poetry is a strange thing to read in translation. One wonders if something essential is not lost. Ten years after discovering Kaplinski, I finally read these same poems in the original. I found two tiny, Soviet era volumes on my parents coffee table when I went to visit last year. How did they get there? My mother couldn’t remember. She had hunted down a collection of Kaplinski’s prose for me at one point but had said nothing of these simple 20 and 50 kopek books.

I sat down there and then and began to read. It wasn’t long before I started recognizing poems, like old friends with radical new haircuts or sharp sets of unlikely clothes. But no, these were not new, they were the old, the original, their familiar messages tucked in between poems overlooked by translators. And the poems that had been translated had undergone changes. They had taken meaning with them into English but so much of their stark, sweet beauty had been left behind. Estonian is the most beautiful language I know. It is laden, like a apple tree gone wild, full of glowing, red globes. Its wide open “o”s and “u”s and “a”s are sounds that evoke trees and sky and wind and songs. Its rolling “r”s reverberate in my body, not unlike a long train going by. Its quick, sharp “k”s are so truthful – they couldn’t lie if they wanted to.

People tell me that I change depending on what language I’m speaking. In French, I am apparently animated, passionate, in English intellectual, cool, in Spanish, humourous, flirtatious. But what am I in my mother tongue? What is lost in translation? What would I write in English if it were my mother tongue? What would I write in Estonian, if I wrote in Estonian? But perhaps I do write, and think, in Estonian, only the translation happens before the words reach the air, reach the page, in a constant, perpetual act that is no longer conscious.

My partner Martin’s mother tongue is English. It’s not just his mother tongue in the sense that it was the first language that he learned – many of my friends are in the same boat - but Martin is actually English. He was born in England and his ancestors have grown up in the cradle of this language for many, many centuries. I see how differently he relates to his language than those of us whose cultural acquaintance with English is much more recent. The words belong to him and he belongs to the words. The rest of us just seem to use them. I belong to Estonian, but Estonian does not quite belong to me. And what of the others who belong to languages they no longer speak at all? What becomes of them? How do they encounter themselves in word? Are they able to recognize their linguistic home when it arrives in front of them even if it does so only in translation?

I have since acquired a full collection of Betti Alver’s work – poems, essays, novels and stories - in Estonian. She is a hard poet for me to read. Unlike Kaplinski, the master of the simple and profound, Alver seeks out the forgotten corners of the language in here poetry and asks her readers to stretch. I require a dictionary. To fully grasp an Alver poem, I often translate it, like I have learned to translate myself, for better or worse, into English. However, the differences between my translation and that of Taimi Ene Moks are startling, reminding me of how we each translate ourselves differently into a new culture, a new language.

Kerge on raske olla
raske on kergeks saada
hõlpus on olla
kes me ei ole
vaev õppida olema
kes me
päriselt oleme


(It’s easy to be heavy, hard to become light, it’s easy to be, who we are not, a struggle to learn to be, who we, truly are. The word in Estonian for “easy” is the same as “light” and the word for “heavy” and “hard” are also the same, making this poem more or less untranslatable.)
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