Artistic Translation—the Key Feature of Estonian Translation in the 20th century


Elin Sütiste, Associate Professor of the Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics, and Maria-Kristiina Lotman, Associate Professor of the College of Foreign Languages and Cultures, both from the University of Tartu, analysed Estonian verse and prose translation in the 20th century through translation reviews and critique.[1]

“Estonian culture is translation culture and without knowing translation poetics we cannot really know our culture either,” explained Sütiste. “Knowing the main principles of Estonian translation poetics is important both to translators and critics. It helps translators to form their own style and gives critics something to draw on.”

One Principle, Different Practices

Sütiste said it was surprising that the single principle of artistic translation could involve such different practices. Differences can be seen both in terms of periods and authors. Lotman explained that the majority of influential translation reviews indeed focused on issues of language both in poetry and prose at the beginning of the century, the time of language renewal.

Estonian critic Urve Lehtsalu named these sentences from the translation of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" as a good example of successful rendition.
Estonian critic Urve Lehtsalu named these sentences from the translation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” as a good example of successful rendition.

According to Lotman, standardisation of language and setting of norms could be observed during the Soviet period. Sütiste underlined movement towards naturalness and fluency of expression, which became increasingly valued over punctual accuracy and fidelity to the original. For example, Henno Rajandi used to leave something out or add something compared with the original text. The often pronounced aim of prose translation was to create the illusion that the original author had written in Estonian.

Estonian translator Henno Rajandi translated Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" into Estonian in 1985. Here is an example of his creative-artistic approach to translation.
Estonian translator Henno Rajandi translated Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” into Estonian in 1985. Here is an example of his creative-artistic approach to translation.

After Estonia regained independence translators started breaking rules, even fighting against them according to Lotman. Sütiste added that standards started to become ambiguous because of two reasons: people with no earlier experience started to translate and the times facilitated conscious experimentation.

In addition, Lotman found it surprising that the ideas about how a translation should be like did not differ much between the translators and critics, although the critique was often rather sharp and offensive.

Although the analysis of 21st-century translation is yet to be completed, Lotman said that one characteristic of translation in the early 21st century was breaking standards and finding new ways. “Unfortunately, we see that critics are often focused on the original and do not pay attention to innovation,” Lotman explained.

Need for Bibliographies

Sütiste, Lotman and their colleagues have formed a non-formal group of translation researchers. Their group is collecting material for an anthology of translation critique. “As criticism is always subjective, we also want to analyse translations to do more objective research and get corresponding results. But at the moment there is no complete and comprehensive database of Estonian translations,” said Lotman.

Sütiste added that it is very interesting to analyse the creative principles and translations of different translators and to relate this with more general tendencies in culture. But for this, databases and bibliographies are needed because translation researchers currently analyse only one author or some aspects of an author’s works and there is no comprehensive overview.


[1] Article “The Translator Must…”: On the Estonian Translation Poetics of the 20th Century appeared in Interlitteraria

This article was supported by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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