Best Estonian books in translation in 2022

Books. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

This year's round-up of new Estonian literature in translation includes a beautifully crafted collection of poetry in three languages, the first English translation of Jüri Arrak's classic artist's book, a contemporary surrealist travelogue, a "book of falsehoods" as penned by a legendary Livonian chronicler and depicted in an eponymous novel by Jaan Kross, a translation of ERR's award-winning radio drama and more. See the complete list below!

"Oskar and the Things"
Childern's book by Andrus Kivirähk (Emma press, 2022)
Translated by Adam Cullen

Andrus Kivirähk, Estonia's leading children's writer, wrote "Oskar and the Things," a charming book about imagination and friendship that is now available in Adam Cullen's lively translation and with original illustrations by Anne Pikkov. The story tells about young Oskar, who is spending the summer with his grandmother when he realizes he has left his phone at home. Oskar, who is lonely and bored, makes a phone out of wood he finds in the shed and pretends to phone with things around him. He talks to a tough-talking iron, a poetizing bin, a bloodthirsty wardrobe and a slew of other characters, which ultimately helps him connect to his grandmother.

"Tiibade hääl/The Sound of Wings"
Poetry collection by Emily Brontë, Cesare Pavese and Doris Kareva (Verb, 2022)
Translated by Doris Kareva and Miriam McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov

This three-part English, Italian, and Estonian poetry collection is inspired by the vision of composer Tõnu Kõrvits, who adapted it for his musical trilogy. Doris Kareva, an Estonian poet, compiled and arranged poems by Emely Brontë and Cesare Paves for the first two parts, and composed poetry for the third and final section, titled "Tiibade hääl/The Sound of Wings." For the multilingual publication Kareva translated English and Italian verses into Estonian and Miriam McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov translated Kareva's own poetry into English. The last part is on the life and work of legendary American aviator Amelia Earhart (1908-1950). The poem "One Love," inspired by the last signal Earhart sent, which was never received, is the highest point of the trilogy, Kareva says. "Emily Brontë is a little wild and mystical, Pavese is sensitively vibrant and a little brittle and volatile, also a darker poet; Amelia is perhaps the most complete and luminous character among them." The last musical composition, Kõrvits says, is "about flying, dreams, courage and unconditional love."

"Panga-Rehe Stories"
Artist's book by Jüri Arrak (50 Watts Books, 2022)
Translated by Adam Cullen

The first English edition of a surreal 1975 book by the Estonian artist Jüri Arrak. "Panga-Rehe Stories" is an illustrated collection of dream-like stories inspired by the author's summer vacation with his family at a farmstead. "The days passed as wonderful summer days always do: we sunbathed, swam in the sea, hiked in the forest, and all helped to cook in the big kitchen. But every night, I had strange dreams. I believe you probably haven't had some of them yet, and that's why I wrote this book," Arrak writes in the introduction. The stories and artwork are consistent with Arrak's distinctive style, perhaps best known in the U.S. for his work on the legendary animation "Suur Tõll." Jüri Arrak passed away in 2022; he was a beloved Estonian painter and graphic artist. His works are displayed in the Estonian Museum of Art, the New York Museum of Modern Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Ludwig Art Museum in Cologne, Germany.

"Sinine missa/The Blue Mass"
Travelogue by Kärt Hellerma (EKSA, 2022)
Translated by Adam Cullen

Kärt Hellerma has published novels, poems and short stories in many genres since the release of her debut novel, "Alchemy," in 1997. Her recent book "The Blue Mass" includes both an English translation by Adam Cullen and a reprint of Hellerma's novella of the same name, which first appeared in 2008. Eret Talviste writes in an article for the Estonian Literary Magazine that Hellerma's style is "almost surreal, like the azure waters and blue skies." The narrator muses on the "nature of love and what it means to be a woman in a particular place and time. Her setting is a small Swedish island and her time is our contemporary reality, where she ponders a friendship with a Catholic priest." Hellerma's works have been translated into Swedish, Finnish, Czech and Russian.

"A Book of Falsehoods. Between Three Plagues. Volume III"
Historical novel by Jaan Kross (MacLehose Press, 2022)
Translated and introduced by Merike Lepasaar Beecher

The final part of the trilogy "Between Three Plagues" is about a man and a book he wrote, "a book of falsehoods." The first part introduced Balthasar Russow, one of the most famous Livonian and Estonian chroniclers of the 16th century, and the second detailed the emergence of his "Chronicle of Livonia." The story of the third book begins in 1578, when the first printed copy arrives in Tallinn on a ship from Rostock. Although it is an instant hit in Tallinn, Rostock and Bremen, not everyone is pleased with it. On Toompea, a group of local aristocracy sends furious letters to Tallinn City Council calling the book "a collection of the most heinous falsehoods" and urging Balthasar to resign as pastor of the Holy Spirit Church in Reval (Tallinn). One of these letters gave the title to this volume. Jaan Kross' trilogy portrays Livonia at the time it is ravaged by violent storms, famine and conflicts, as well as meticulously detailing and mapping the city of Tallinn.

"The Lion"
Radio drama by Martin Algus (ERR Estonian Public Broadcasting, 2022)
Adapted by Andres Noormets and translated to English by Adam Cullen

In his debut collection of short stories, "Tagamaa" (Hinterland), screenwriter and playwright Martin Algus places his characters in difficult situations that they must resolve against the backdrop of momentous historical events. These stories are also "really private and intimate," Algus told "AK." ERR Estonian Public Broadcasting turned one of the stories, "Gandhi," into a radio drama "The Lion," which won the BBC Audio Drama Award for best European drama in 2022. The events of the play unfold in a small Estonian town during the early 1990s, at the beginning of the newly independent Republic of Estonia. A lion from a traveling circus has escaped from its cage. The police officer declares a state of emergency and warns locals of the predator. Naturally, panic breaks out, but there is a nice dose of absurdity in the situation. The transitional inertia of the time is wittily reflected in the characters' vocabulary and behavior. It is "a compelling and thought-provoking story about a community's response to the unknown. With wonderful music and sound design, this drama made us laugh, made us think, and made us want to keep listening," said the radio drama award jury.

"Indrek: Volume II of the 'Truth and Justice' pentalogy"
Classical novel by Anton Hansen Tammsaare (Vagabond Voices, 2022)
Translated by Christopher Moseley and Matthew Hyde 

A. H. Tammsaare's pentalogy "Truth and Justice" (Tõde ja õigus), written between 1926 and 1933, is regarded as his greatest literary achievement and a cornerstone of Estonian literature. Tammsaare's social epic depicts Estonia's transformation from a province of the Russian Empire to an independent nation. In the second volume the protagonist, Indrek, moves to the city to further his education. "This new environment is a vortex of prejudices and national rivalries nevertheless held together by a strange and very human tolerance. Russians, Germans, Poles, Latvians and Caucasians mix with the Estonian majority, and somehow compromises are nearly always arrived at," the translator says. "Tammsaare's work shows influence from the Russian writers of the 19th century as well as Oscar Wilde, Knut Hamsun and André Gide." The first book in the "Truth and Justice" was adapted for film, which was shortlisted for an Oscar in the Best International Feature Film category in 2020. The publisher is planning to translate the full pentalogy over the coming years.

Children's book by Kätlin Kaldmaa (Baobab, 2022)
Translated into German by Maximilian Murmann with original illustrations by Jaan Rõõmus

Kaldmaa's "Lydia," first published in Estonian in 2021, is the story of a little girl who grows up to become an esteemed poet. The author undertook the daring task of writing a childlike and educational book about the most revered female historical figure in Estonia: Lydia Koidula, born Lydia Emilie Florentine Jannsen (1843–1886), who is a symbol of the Estonian national awakening. Literally every child in Estonia knows Lydia: the poems of the author Lydia Koidula are part of the school curriculum in the country, but the life story of the writer, who was born in 1843, is so extraordinary that it absolutely has to be told as well. "Kaldmaa has composed a fantastic introduction to one piece of Estonian culture," Loone Ots writes in a review published in the Estonian Literary Magazine.

"Tarp dviejų garsų"
Graphic novel by Joonas Sildre (Aukso žuvys, 2022)
Translated into Lithuanian by Viltare Mickevičiene (Urbaite)

Joonas Sildre's graphic novel "Kahe heli vahel" (Between Two Sounds), first published in Estonian in 2018, tells the story of Arvo Pärt's musical explorations from his childhood until 1980, when the composer's family was forced to leave Estonia. Tintinnabuli, a new composing technique, is also born during this time period. Joonas Sildre's comic book is the result of years of work: the author studied archive sources, delved into the composer's life and work, and received advice and assistance from Arvo and Nora Pärt. "As I gathered information for this story, listening to and reading the memories of those involved, and piecing the information together piece by piece, I realized that history is always subjective. So is my perspective on Arvo Pärt's music and life," he says.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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