Exporting Estonian Literature: an Interview With Ilvi Liive

Ilvi Liive (Photo: Jüri Dubov)
3/25/2014 11:25 AM
Category: Culture

While Estonian music and fashion are making waves abroad, spreading the written word is a more arduous task. Yet it seems that the tide is turning - a recent example is the news that Jean-Pierre Minaudier received the French translation prize "Les mots d’Or de la francophonie“ for his translation of Andrus Kivirähk’s novel “Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu” (The Man Who Spoke Snakish). Kaisa Kaer of ERR News spoke to Ilvi Liive, director of the Estonian Literature Center, which has promoted Estonian prose and poetry abroad for 13 years.

Perhaps it's not so well known even for Estonians what you actually do, so tell us about how the center was founded and how it works?

The Estonian Literature Center has been exporting Estonian literature for nearly 13 years now, since it was founded in 2001 by the Estonian Writers’ Union and the Estonian Publishers’ Association.

In the 1990s, Estonian publishers began attending international book fairs in Frankfurt and London for the first time, to look for books to translate and publish in Estonian. Finns and Scandinavians were represented well there, introducing their native literatures and helping foreign publishers to choose suitable books. The Estonian Writers‘ Union brought together Estonian translators and tried to organize the field of translation, but it soon became obvious that a separate institution and continuous action is needed and so the non-profit organization Estonian Literature Center (ELIC) was founded, funded by the Ministry of Culture.

The initial task was to make connections with foreign publishers and translators. An English website was soon set up and now it has become a database on Estonian literature with an abundance of translated excerpts from various authors.

ELIC is a center that acts as a mediator between the foreign publishing world and Estonian literature. In addition to attending international book fairs, ELIC also invites publishers to Estonia, so that they have a personal connection to the country and writers here. We work with international organizations specializing in literary translations and their promotion. International appearances by Estonian authors are also part of ELIC’s activities.

The export is greatly helped by the Traducta translation scholarship of the Cultural Endowment - founded 14 years ago to support the translation of Estonian literature into foreign languages, it has become a significant aid to foreign publishers and translators.

What are the main problems in exporting Estonian literature?

The export of literature in general is complicated by the need to translate it. Whereas music and figurative art are understandable to listeners and viewers as it is, the export of literature requires the inclusion of another creator - the translator. Literature written in larger languages has it easier, many people speak the language, but no foreign publisher understands Estonian, so it is necessary to translate long excerpts, write summaries and reading reports to give them an idea of the book. It is understandable that they want to know what they’re getting. The main problem is the lack of translators. Estonian is a very small and exotic language and it is only taught in a handful of universities across the world. The majority of our translators have started off studying our kindred language Finnish and found their way to Estonian from there. The existence of dedicated and active translators is essential to translating literature - if there are no translators, there is no way of exporting literature.

How do you find translators?

We find them among students who have studied the Estonian language and literature at European universities; for example, good translators come from the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris and also the University of Budapest in Hungary. International student exchange is also a good breeding ground for translators - among the hundreds of students that come to Estonia every year, there are always a few who are interested in literature and translating and who would like to learn it. We must find these young people and train these translators. Sometimes translators come to us themselves, saying they have translated fiction from other languages and want to move on to Estonian because they love the country, the language and the literature.

What are you greatest success stories so far?

The publication of the Estonian classic, all five volumes of Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s “Tõde ja õigus” (Truth and Justice) in French (Vérité et Justice) is certainly a success, also the translation of the Estonian epic “Kalevipoeg” into Hindi. Success is usally unexpected, when something we couldn’t even dream of comes true. For example, Tammsaare’s dream of “Tõde ja õigus” being translated into English coming true - in April this year, the English translation of the first volume will be published. We’re also glad that the legendary British publisher Christopher MacLehose [who discovered Stieg Larsson for the English-speaking world - Ed.] decided to publish the 1,000-plus page novel “Kolme katku vahel” (Between Three Plagues) by Jaan Kross. The American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press publishes Estonian authors every year: they have published several books by Mati Unt and Toomas Vint, short stories by Estonian authors; they recently published “Raadio” (Radio) by Tõnu Õnnepalu and plan on publishing the sizeable novel "Kooparahvas läheb ajalukku“ (The Cavemen Go Down in History) by Mihkel Mutt. About 40-50 titles of Estonian literature are published every year. The great success is that Estonian literature is continuously translated and into many languages and it has become self-evident.

Which authors have been translated the most?

Throughout the years, Anton Hansen Tammsaare has been translated the most, into 30 languages, followed by Jaan Kross with 25 languages.

What about so-called commercial authors like Kerttu Rakke and Indrek Hargla (who have, granted, have become members of the Estonian Writers’ Union)?

Although ELIC specializes in promoting literary fiction and poetry, commercial literature sometimes plays an important role in how publishers discover a country. However, it must be said that in most cases, the publisher’s country has its own commercial literature scene and they rarely buy foreign authors. A notable exception is crime, which is always in demand: it has often turned out to be the key for understanding another culture and a doorway to more demanding texts. For example, the great success of Nordic crime novels has significantly contributed to sparking an international interest in other kinds of Nordic literature. If a publisher is interested in something more lightweight, we will help them find it by offering as wide a selection as possible, so they can decide what they like and what would fit into their culture.

What is the appeal of Estonian literature?

I think this is a question for non-Estonians, and you need to ask each and every one. Every country sees Estonian literature a little differently and even the expectations of every publishing house are different. Estonia is a slightly exotic country on the edge of Europe with a complicated history. That is probably why there has always been interest in historical prose, indicated by the number of translations of Jaan Kross’s novels. In the early 1990s, the foreign countries were fascinated by Estonia’s recent past, the Soviet period; “Ajaloo ilu” (The Beauty of History) by Viivi Luik and “Piiririik” (Border State) by Tõnu Õnnepalu were published in a couple dozen languages. Even now, they look for literature that tries to make sense of our history, the period after we regained our independence, also works that would provide an insight into life in Estonia now. The foreigners also think that the connection Estonians have with nature and mythology, manifested mostly in poetry but also in the prose of Andrus Kivirähk, is mysterious and exciting. I suppose the appeal of Estonian literature is everything that is unique and even strange about the thinking and fate of this little nation.

Describe a typical publisher interested in Estonian literature. Is there such a thing?

There are no typical publishers, the list of those who publish Estonian literature covers a wide scale. However, it is usual throughout the world that medium-sized and smaller publishing houses are daring enough to publish new and unknown authors, not big groups that can sometimes buy up the authors that turn out to be successful. Smaller publishers are certainly more open, flexible, and ready to work for making the author known in their country, while the larger publishers want authors who have already become famous and sell well. Estonian literature is published by great, medium and small-sized publishers, mostly by the latter.

When the center celebrated its 10th birthday, you told ETV that publishers find Kivirähk’s peculiar literary world-buildling too risky, Kross and Kaplinski seem safer. Now Kivirähk has become a hit in France. What changed and does it have wider implications?

Kross and Kaplinski are still safer, classic authors. However, success can often come unexpectedly and for unforeseen reasons, like with Kivirähk in France. It suddenly turned out that we and the French have a similar sense of humor. When Kivirähk’s “Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu” (The Man Who Spoke Snakish) first appeared in Estonia in 2007 and we promoted it at book fairs, foreign publishers thought it was too crazy. A few years later, Jean-Pierre Minaudier translated the book into French, just for himself because he liked it so much. He had no guarantee it would be published. He had offered it to 15 small publishers until he found Frederic Martin, who became enraptured by the book and took a risk. It paid off - the story about bear-friendly forest people, seasoned with some grotesque humor, was welcomed by readers with open arms, and soon enough, a reprint, and a second reprint was made. When it was translated into French, it could be more widely read and when it started selling well, several publishers across the world became interested in it, including big publishing groups. It speaks volumes that once the book made it in France, its rights for the Netherlands and the US were bought by big publishing houses. The wider implications will become clear once we see how it will do in the English-speaking world - if it is a hit, then it could open doors for Estonian literature elsewhere. It will also interesting to see how Kivirähk’s novel “Rehepapp," soon to be published, will do in France.

Has the triumph of Nordic literature helped to put Estonia on the map? We like to think of ourselves as a Nordic country, after all.

Of course, the Nordic countries don’t consider us a Nordic country, so we have to make it on our own and make our own way. The triumph of Nordic literature, however, is largely based on the strong cultural policy of these countries, they contribute greatly to spreading their literature abroad. For example, a few years ago, the main guest of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest in the world, was tiny Iceland, this year the focus will be on Finland. These great and very expensive appearances are the key to spreading a nation’s literature. Translating the literature of a small country into large languages opens the doors of all the publishing houses of the world. Estonia also has big plans, namely to be the main guest with other Baltic states at the London Book Fair; preparations are already underway.

The state's support is essential: for example, in Norway, the state buys 1,000 copies of every print run, it helps to bring down the publishing risks. In Estonia, the print runs of fiction have dropped to around 500 now.

When it comes to supporting the promotion of Estonian literature, the Traducta scholarship has not been enough recently. It demonstrates that there has been a sharp increase in interest from abroad but also that all this work to raise interest is meaningless if the support should stop.

What's the most recent news?

Indrek Hargla will be published in Germany, which is great news - it's been a while since something has been translated into German. As already mentioned above, Tammsaare's first volume will appear in English in April and the French translation of Kivirähk's "Rehepapp" will appear in October. In March, the children's book by Aino Pervik, "Rändav kassiemme" was published in Italian with original illustrations by Catherine Zarip - also a rare feat. 

Also, 10 Estonian poets will be added to the international poetry portal lyrikline.

Some titles soon to be translated into English, or should be. 

Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s “Tõde ja õigus” (Truth and Justice, written in 1926-1933) is considered a foundational work of Estonian literature, chronicling Estonia's journey from a province of the Russian empire to an independent state. The five volumes follow the protagonist Indrek Paas in an epic panorama of the transformations of both the urban and rural areas in the period spanning 1870-1930.

Andrus Kivirähk’s “Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu” (The Man Who Spoke Snakish, 2007) is an allegory about the fading of the ages and the vanishing of worlds, laced with a good dose of black humor. The story is about a forest people, living on the fringes of medieval Christian Europe, having survived so far thanks to their knowledge of the language of snakes. The adders are their brothers, as are the bears – although they are dim-witted and too lustful. This forest people is gradually losing its identity; they are moving to villages and declaring allegiance to their overlords, the crusading knights. Leemet, the main protagonist, whose life we follow from birth to death, is ultimately the last one who knows the snake-words, the last one who knows the dwelling-place of the mythical giant Frog of the North, who was sent to defend the land, but who has fallen into an eternal sleep. A different kind of history about a different kind of Europe. 


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