Which books translators of Latvian literature love the most?

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2020, December 11

Which books translators of Latvian literature love the most?

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This week, the fourth seminar for Literary translators (this time – online) was held by the "Latvian Literature" platform. It gave the opportunity for translators of Latvian literature to meet each other and learn about the latest developments in Latvian literature. Translators not only create miracles when bringing texts from one language into another but also act as ambassadors of our culture and experience abroad. Moreover, they are often willing to stay out of the spotlight, allowing the author of the work to take center stage. Therefore, we wanted to draw attention to at least some of them. We asked them how they ended up translating Latvian literature, and what is their "special book".

Kaija Straumanis, English Translator

I found my way to literary translation through realizing I could combine two of my greatest loves: writing and reading. I've been playing with language and translations since high school, but it wasn’t until my final year in college that I started to believe it was something I could cultivate. And as a second-generation Latvian-American, the draw toward Latvian literature was just as much nature as it was nurture.

This will seem biased, but the one book that will forever hold a special place in my heart is "High Tide" ("Paisums") by Inga Ābele. Ābele’s prose is so aching, so visceral and nostalgic, her characters so familiar in their unattainability... It’s one of the most resonant and beautiful works of fiction I’ve read from any country, but I’m glad Latvia gets to claim her as one of its own."

Berthold Forssman, German Translator

Of course, it is always difficult to say whether there was a single decisive moment but I remember very well how I went with a Latvian friend to a book shop in Riga (it must have been one of my first times in Latvia, around 1993), and she showed me "Homo Novus" by Anšlavs Eglītis. She recommended the book warmly and told me that even Latvians often did not know about him and that he was a kind of "forgotten classic". I bought the book and liked it from the first moment.

Later I visited a friend of mine who taught Scandinavian Studies at Vilnius University (we knew each other from the University of Iceland) and she had started translating from Icelandic to Lithuanian. She asked me: "How about a project for you?" It sounded so easy and clear, so I took my "Homo Novus" from the bookshelf again and started translating. Sometimes I would invite friends over and read for them. Teachers found the character of Juris Upenājs and his first lessons at school especially funny – what a timeless and classical description from the life of a young teacher! 

I was also sending the translated chapters to my mother who always called me up and asked for more: "Oh please, can’t you translate quicker or at least tell me who marries whom at the end?" I really love this book, and I am happy that it has been translated into German!

Laura Laurušaite, Lithuanian Translator

I sometimes say that "ink runs in my blood" because I am a philologist in the third generation and always saw words as a profession. Translation brings you even closer to language than writing since it involves working with two languages and helps you understand not only the essence of language but also another country’s national character, which is, in my opinion, encoded in its language.

The first novel that comes to mind is Andra Manfelde’s "Dzimtenīte" ("Sweet Homeland") which was a great resource in my research on emigration. This book is unique because Manfelde (having never been an emigree herself!) tells the emigration story more deeply and in more precise detail than other authors who have lived or still live abroad. I consider "Dzimtenīte" to be the "encyclopedia of emigration".

Nicolas Auzanneau, French Translator

I was led to translating Latvian literature by a certain sense of duty. There are a lot of books of Latvian literature to translate and not enough translators from Latvian into French. The book I would emphasize is Klāvs Elsberg’s "Poetry".

Mirja Hovila, Finnish Translator

I have "always" been translating, I don’t know how to do anything else! I guess I had some experience even before I learned Latvian, and adding another language just seemed natural to me. I first visited Latvia in 1990 and met a guide there who spoke Finnish. My second visit was in 1993. The Song Festival was a pivotal moment because it made me want to know what all those beautiful songs were about.

I started by taking a course at the Rozentals Society (an organization strengthening Finnish-Latvian relations), then continued at the University of Helsinki. At first, I did not think I will get far enough to be able to professionally translate and interpret both literature and documents, all sorts of birth, marriage, divorce, and death certificates… But so it happened, and I even founded my own little publishing house for publishing Latvian literature in Finnish. I have been in Latvia more than a hundred times and hope to return again and again once the Coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

My favourite book of Latvian literature is Vizma Belševica’s "Bille", the first book in the trilogy. I read it as part of my course at the Baltic Philology Department of the University of Helsinki sometime in the 1990s. I thought to myself back then that I would like to see it in Finnish, and in 2019 it finally happened. The book was translated by me and published by my company. I must note, that Latvian poetry is also dear and important to me, and my favourite poet is Aleksandrs Čaks. If I had to pick one of his collections, it would be his debut book "Es un šis laiks" ("Me and This Time"). I am proud to say that, thanks to Andra Konste, I have had the honor to meet the love of Čaks’ life, translator Milda Grīnfelde, more than once.

Ayumi Kurosawa, Japanese Translator 

Man kopš bērnības ļoti patika lasīt tulkotu daiļliteratūru. Ja darbs ļoti iepatikās, tad bieži aizdomājos, kā tās skan oriģinālā valodā. Dabiski pieauga interese mācīties svešvalodas. Kad latviešu valodu pietiekami labi sāku saprast, tad gribēju to pārtulkot savā dzimtajā valodā. Ja tas vēl arī interesē japāņu lasītājiem, man ir tikai prieks to darīt! No latviešu literatūras man ļoti patīk Imanta Ziedoņa "Epifānijas" un Kārļa Skalbes "Pasakas".

Uldis Balodis, English Translator

My start in translating all came through the help of friends and some lucky twists of fate. I’d been translating and editing scientific articles for a couple of years and my friend Hannes Korjus, who is also a translator (Estonian-Latvian), but who I got to know, because he also studies the Lutsis (Ludza Estonians), helped me make my first connections at Latvian Literature and just a little while later I was translating my first sample texts into English.

It’s incredibly hard, of course, to pick a favorite Latvian work. But I think maybe I’ll answer this question a little differently. Since I started translating literature, I’ve learned a lot about how to do this work from my fellow translators. And so I think I’ll tell you what my favorite translation into Latvian is instead! It's “Kad gos smei” (When a cow laughs), a poetry collection originally written by Heli Laaksonen in the dialect of Finnish spoken in southwestern Finland and translated into Latvian by Guntars Godiņš. As a translator I love how I can navigate the deep wells of expression and meaning on both sides of the translation divide — for me Latvian and English. It’s a challenge — something that can sometimes feel a bit like magic — to figure out how to express the abstract nuances of meaning of the source language in the words of the target language. I loved how Guntars took the original poems written in a Finnish coastal dialect and translated them not into standard Latvian, but into our own coastal dialect — the Livonian-influenced (lībiskais) dialect of Latvian. For Latvians this is such an expressive form of our language and reading Laaksonen’s poems in this way in Latvian gave them so much depth to me. It also really taught me to expand my thinking even further about what possibilities exist for translating a text.