Promotion or degradation: Of Estonian classics, champions, and translation (4)
Kultuur 23 Jan 2014  EWR
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Alja Pirosok

Recent solicitations for money purportedly to bring Tammsaare “to the world stage” (Eesti Elu (EE) Nr. 2 2014, rpt. from Estonian World Dec 2013; EE Nov 14 2013; Estonian World Review Sep 11 & Jul 05 2013) are cause for concern, and bear examining. They also recall earlier publications in which the quality of the translation seems to have been overlooked as a priority. The current proposal is to “harness …cultural nationalism” for a “mission” to publish in English at least the first volume of Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice.

Envisioned is a two-tiered publication of "limited exclusive edition" hard copies, plus the distribution on some mass scale of free e-books, possibly paperbacks, which the purchase of these hard copies by institutional and individual donors ("Book Angels") is supposed to finance. The author of the most recent EE article (infomercial?) states that "Many Estonians think this [Tõde ja Õigus] is a book about Estonia and is of no interest to the rest of the world", whereas the CEO of “Haute Culture” "disagrees". But the sample of the translation the latter claims to want to publish, as the first of many national treasures translated from minority languages into world English, makes little attempt at literary translation: line by line comparison with the original Estonian shows whatever cannot be reduced to a simple subject-verb-object sentence structure is simply omitted. The reader is decidedly not invited to pay attention to the author’s choices of language and content. The very literary quality that promises universal appeal has been ignored. The translators, one of whom is deceased, have experience mainly with commercial translation. The sub-par quality of the available sample, its flat quality and such odd phrasings as "they topped the rise" at the outset, seems to have escaped careful public scrutiny. Only a brief sample of the translation has been offered online, and there is repeated pressure to “join” the donor “event” before the window closes, an image with tragic overtones for those who have lived behind or narrowly escaped the shadow of the Iron Curtain, however strong their cultural enthusiasm and cause for optimism.

There are similarities with the publication in 2009 of another English translation of a novel by Tammsaare, which was published as "a thoroughly revised and corrected version of an English translation produced in Moscow in 1978 to mark the centenary of the author's birth". There is not a single revision or correction in the title, in the first and last chapters, nor anywhere else that I could find. Imagine "The Misadventures of the New Satan" as a translation for "Põrgupõhja Uus Vanapagan", and the publisher’s blurbs that follow this on the cover. Even the "literal translation" offered on the inside cover is missing something: "The New Devil of Hellsbottom". Where is the "old" and the tension of "new" and "old" in these defacings of the literary work? I contacted the publisher, in the Department of Scandinavian Studies of University College London, and the owner of the "revisions" copyright wrote back to downplay his role. I also produced for the Editors a literary translation of Tammsaare (“A”) for comparison with the opening passage from the published English translation (“B”). As a Canadian (not Estonian) literary aficionado commented, “A” is “poetic, concise, and challenging”, while “B” is “flat, listy, and patronizing….and I wouldn’t want to read on.” Not much in “B” to recommend “the fully revised translation of the classic Estonian novel . . . by Estonia’s greatest twentieth-century writer”, or the writer Estonians have likened to Socrates. The book seems to have been withdrawn from circulation.

It is important to note that no other novel by Tammsaare has been published in English, though in many other languages. Already by 1978 Tammsaare’s Tõde ja Õigus (Truth and Justice) had appeared in Russian, German, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Hungarian (Siimisker & Palm, A. H. Tammsaare Eesti Raamat, 1978). Põrgupõhja Uus Vanapagan was translated into English in 1978 by Olga Shartz. The claim in the reissue in 2009 that it was "Translated from the original Estonian" could not be substantiated. On the basis of what knowledge and experience in the area of language and culture the owner of the “revisions” copyright was deemed qualified to evaluate and “revise” this translation into English (and from what language?) is not clear, but perhaps telling is that the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral appeared on the cover of the 2007 edition of his "Colloquial Estonian". The Press "gratefully acknowledges the invaluable contributions by Eesti Kultuurkapital (the Estonian Cultural Endowment Fund), the Estonian Literature Information Centre … and the Anton Hansen Tammsaare Museum”. The Misadventures of the New Satan was launched in good company at the Estonian Embassy in London, and perhaps for that very reason overlooked. Three of celebrated poet Kristiina Ehin’s books were published in several languages that year, others having recently garnered awards for translation.

In the recent EE article/infomercial, the Tammsaare Museum, Estonian Ministry of Culture, National Library of Estonia, Tartu University Library, and Stanford University Library are said to have thrown their support behind the ‘Haute Culture’ project. With regard to overlooking the quality of translation as a priority in the 2013 proposal, we might consider several factors: the pitch, a widespread haste to publish reported by Estonian liberal arts academics who have lectured recently in Toronto, a susceptibility to manipulation when dealing with a new system of marketing, "speedy capitalism" that is neither painstaking nor patient, and a cultural psyche that writers like Kaplinski have addressed, especially in regards to the desire to put one of ours onto an imagined world stage, and which indeed Tammsaare with his writer’s art has explored. The question now is what have we learned?

Interestingly, in the same article, Madli Puhvel's poetic English translation of an internationally well-received book by Tõnu Õnnepalu, Border State (Piiri Riik), reputedly the most translated Estonian book of the 1990's, is not included in a list of "good news" to suggest that the situation of Estonian's "almost unheard of" literature, contrasted with its musical heritage, is "about to change". Nor is Puhvel’s Symbol of Dawn, with its disciplined perspective on the life and times of Lydia Koidula, the first noteworthy poet to write in Estonian. These are painful omissions. Doubtless Puhvel made use of the valuable language resources made possible by recent advances in computer and information technology, and in the study of language in use. It is unfortunate but not uninstructive that resources were allocated to the 2009 reissue of a 1978 publication of questionable merit. Clearly and observably the latter was undertaken without the benefit of such developments, not least the publication of Paul Saagpakk’s truly monumental Eesti-Inglise Sõnaraamat (Estonian-English Dictionary) in the Yale University Linguistics Series, of which the compiler writes in his Preface: “Some masterpieces of Estonian literature, which flourished particularly during the period of Estonian independence (1918-1940), will be opened to those who decide to master this language.”

The revolution in electronic communication over the past two decades or so has transformed the nature and quality of experience, and arguably revitalized immigrant/ethnic communities. With regard to support for new initiatives, more discussion and debate and some explication of standards are needed.
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