MAARJA KANGRO: ON THE MARIE UNDER TRANSLATION WORKSHOP

In this article, Maarja Kangro responds to our online translation workshop, focussing on the poem 'Orb' by Estonian poet Marie Under. The workshop is now closed, but you can access the workshop materials online, and read versions of the poem on the workshop page. Maarja selected one workshop entry to feature in our digital pamphlet on Estonian poetry: 'Da Orphan', by Christine De Luca. Read her thoughts on this version, and other workshop entries, beneath.

I was impressed by the active response and, of course, delighted to see that among participants there were award-winning translators (such as Timothy Adés whose version I liked very much) and established poets (Martyn Crucefix, Sudeep Sen). 

In different translations, a poem would spread out like a fan, as Hasso Krull, a friend of mine and an excellent poet, once said. This is what makes these workshops interesting: to see how the emphases, styles and nuances vary. In some versions, the orphan was referred to as a child (motherless, or with 'no parents calling hello'), in others not necessarily (and would seem a young lady). The house – or shack, shanty, croft, shelter – was sometimes crouching, sometimes praying, kneeling, kissing the water, stooping to taste the seawater; in one case it had been transformed into a body with an arm askew. 

I guess the situation depicted in the poem, that is, a young, poor, orphaned girl being bullied and feeling hopeless in a village – located, for the beauty of the scenery, on the coast – is something that is recognizable pretty much everywhere, there's nothing anthropologically exceptional. It's a romantic poem, about a sensitive, brave (keeping silent!), suffering individual perishing in the cruel world, and some social criticism could be read into it – in fact, it's not clear even to an Estonian reader whether the lamb could be interpreted as a child of her own, in which case the sneering remarks of the boys would acquire a specific tinge. 

What makes its translation challenging, is the brevity of its verses and the dactylic, songlike flow. Translations always tend to be longer, even translations from Estonian into English, although on average, words in Estonian are longer than in English. But then we don't use articles, and instead of prepositions, we apply case endings.

How to define a good translation is an eternal question. There's the question of adequacy (but how do we measure adequacy?), and we can ask whether a good translator should try to become invisible or, on the contrary, be markedly present as a co-author. 

Now for a little detour: for a long time, Hasso Krull, whom I mentioned before, was editing a web magazine of translated poetry (www.eki.ee/ninniku), each issue of which opened with multiple translations of the same poem – often a classic (a poem by Rumi, Apollinaire, Ungaretti, etc.), sometimes a work by a contemporary poet (such as Franzobel, Gulzar). Poets and translators were invited to contribute, and everyone could submit as many translations as they wished. Beside the serious versions, there were always some experimental, or even comic or absurd, approaches. I didn't expect any humorous approaches from the present workshop (and there weren't any: after all, it's about a suicidal girl, and by a classic poet from a fairly unknown literary tradition, so it would have been like mocking, right!), but there were cases in which participants decided to transform the translated poem into one of their own, so the translation became a variation on a theme, or it only functioned as inspirational material. Which can also be a delightful form of afterlife for a 'translated' writer, but this time these versions didn't make it to the shortlist.

And then, there were translators aiming at reproducing the effects, the images and the form of the original in the target language. That was for example the approach of Mr Adés who had also kept the interlocking rhymes. I especially appreciated the translations that had preserved the slimness of the original poem.

Finally, Ed (Digital Content Editor, MPT) did some sifting and made a shortlist of six translations (by Hilary Bird, Leonardo Boix, Ginny Saunders, Ewan Smith, Galyna Usova, and Christine De Luca), and I picked my favourite: it's Christine De Luca, with her Shetlandic 'Da Orphan'. Her translation is powerful, crisp and essential, sticking to the original imagery and reproducing convincingly the original's dactylic, songlike rhythm. And, of course, giving the poem an enchanting Shetlandic flow. While some translators succumbed to the temptation of rendering the language even more figurative, De Luca's version wonderfully avoids embellishments. She has succeeded to make her intermittent rhymes appear to occur naturally. And then, of course, come the more subjective and imaginative reasons: the enthralling, charmingly rough, almost Nordic sound of Shetlandic that easily evokes images of a nearly abandoned coastal landscape. My favorite line was 'waa aa but faa’n', where the repetitive 'aa' sounds foamy like a rolling sea, and which could also serves as a correlate of the alliterations in the original ('laeni täis lainete kaja').

I must admit I was glad that the Shetlandic version was so good, as I certainly feel some cultural solidarity with a poet writing in a minority language. Who knows whom Marie Under herself would have picked, but I'm sure she would have been delighted to have a poem translated into Shetlandic.