US translator on studying Estonian: I tried to switch off my mother tongue

Adam Cullen.
Adam Cullen. Source: ERR

Estonian Language Day falls on Sunday (March 14) and ERR's culture portal caught up with Haapsalu-based translator Adam Cullen, to gauge his experiences in grappling with the language.

Cullen, originally from the State of Minnesota, first came to Estonia while he was an exchange student in St. Petersburg, Russia. "Once I stumbled upon Tallinn and started to see more and more outside of the capital as well, I became increasingly fascinated with it," Cullen said.

Speaking about his place of residence, the west coast town of Haapsalu, Cullen said: "It brings with it the feeling of being surrounded on all sides by the sea. No matter where you go, there's a gulf or a beach or something. Everything is very calm, but at the same time, since it's a summer city, there is also this energy of times past; it can be sensed that people have had fun and are happy here."

As for the Estonian language, Cullen says it struck him as interesting, which in turn provided motivation to study it. "In my case, it didn't start with just the one word, though I know that for one of my friends this was the case - with the word "sisikond" ("guts"), leading to their debut poetry book initiated by that very term. For me, however, it was the surroundings, the sound of the language, that enticed me in."

Cullen says he came up with a trick for learning the language too. "I tried to switch off English from my head altogether, and to start from ground zero - which is actually impossible - but it has always been interesting to me that children can learn many languages at once. Where you come from and what your mother tongue is needs to be forgotten somehow, and you need to dive straight in where you are, not hesitating, but going with the flow."

Cullen has translated several noteworthy Estonian titles into English, from authors including Indrek Hargla, Doris Kareva, Mihkel Mutt, Jan Kaus, Juhan Viiding and Maarja Kangro. "Luckily, the Estonian literature landscape is so rich that there's a different tone for every day and season," he says.

ERR radio channel Vikerraadio will mark Estonian Language Day with an online dictation exercise on Monday (March 15). More information about Monday's e-dictation test (with a tablet computer and other prizes for the taking) is here.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino, Andrew Whyte, Helen Wright

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