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Adam Cullen (1986) is a poet and translator of Estonian prose, poetry, drama, and children's literature into English. His latest translations include Andrus Kivirähk's Oskar and the Things (The Emma Press 2022), Martin Algus's The Lion (Best European Drama, BBC Audio Drama Awards 2022), Jüri Arrak's Panga-Rehe Stories (50 Watts Books 2022), Kertu Sillaste's I Am an Artist (Graffeg 2021, longlisted for the 2023 UKLA Book Awards), and Tõnu Õnnepalu's Exercises (Dalkey Archive Press 2020, nominated for the Cultural Endowment of Estonia's Award for Literature). A member of the Estonian Writers' Union, Cullen has resided in Estonia since 2007.

Jayde Will is a literary translator, writer, and voice actor. Recent translations include Latvian poet Arvis Viguls’s poetry collection They (Valley Press, 2020) Latvian writer Alberts Bels’s novel Insomnia (Parthian 2020), and The Last Model, an anthology of Latgalian poetry (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2020). His writing has been featured in Other Words, Words Without Borders, and Panel Magazine. He lives in Riga.

Rimas Uzgiris is a poet, translator, editor and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, AGNI, Iowa Review, Hudson Review, The Poetry Review (UK) and other journals. His first collection of poems, North of Paradise, was published by Kelsay Books (2019). A collection of his poetry was also published in Lithuanian translation by Kauko laiptai (2019). He is translator of Caravan Lullabies by Ilzė Butkutė (A Midsummer Night's Press), Then What by Gintaras Grajauskas (Bloodaxe), Now I Understand by Marius Burokas (Parthian), The Moon is a Pill by Aušra Kaziliūnaitė (Parthian), and Vagabond Sun by Judita Vaičiūnaitė (Shearsman). Uzgiris has contributed significantly as editor and translator to two anthologies: How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets (Lithuanian Culture Institute), and New Baltic Poets (Parthian). He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, and the Poetry Spring 2016 Award for translations of Lithuanian poetry into other languages, he teaches translation at Vilnius University.

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Interview by Ugnė Žemaitytė

 

 

To see the literary field from the perspective of those who constantly mediate between two linguistic worlds is to see it differently. We met up with translators Adam Cullen, Jayde Will, and Rimas Uzgiris at The Vilnius House of Literature for a talk about their way into translating modern and contemporary literature of the Baltic region, their working process and even their own literary works, and of course, the current challenges of reaching the target audience – the English-speaking reader who lives outside the origin place of translated texts.

I invited them all for a conversation as the so-called “Three Musketeers of Baltic Literature” — each of them primary translaters from Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian, each of them originally from the United States but now living in their respective Baltic countries. Right before pressing the record button, one of us accidentally broke a ceramic cup. It certainly brought us luck, at least for the wonderful discussion we had.

 

How did you find your way into literature and how did that path lead you into translation?

Adam: I grew up in the middle of corn fields and forests, I was an only child and there's no neighbors or friends really to speak of. So, books were my route into the world. But it was after I had come to Estonia, where I wanted to see if it was possible to learn the language through immersion.

I was working at a café, and had been translating news articles for a different organization just to practice my language and expand it. Then I randomly met the women who run the Estonian Literature Center, they asked did I read; did I like literature? Was I interested in maybe translating it? And I said yes to all those questions. I really dove back in afterward and it's been fulfilling.

Rimas: I got into translation when I got seriously into poetry. I always sort of wanted to be a writer, but I thought I should do something more serious, went studying all these different academic fields. Finally, I realized I really do just want to write poems, and I went back to school to get an MFA degree. I was feeling lonely in New York in the sense that I didn't know any writers and didn't know how to get into the literary scene, and how to meet people, have readings.

During my MFA studies, I briefly met Robert Haas at a book festival. I told him I really like his translations of Miłosz, and he said, you should translate, you're Lithuanian. Then I had the opportunity to take a graduate seminar in translation at Rutgers. And I chose a young author, Paulius Norvila, and a famous older one, Tomas Venclova – I chose him because I had read some translations of his work and didn't like them. I thought, maybe I can do better – at least I want to try to do something better. One thing led to another, and, suddenly I was here with the Fulbright and an NEA translation grant and I was translating. That became my most useful attribute – that I could translate literature into English here.

Jayde: I got hooked on literature as a kid already. We had to read 15 minutes a day in like 2nd grade, and I hated it, but my mom pressed me to do it, and then I just fell in love with reading. When I was a foreign student in Tartu in the 1990s, a friend handed me a copy of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I fell in love with literature from Central Europe, so it got me interested in what else Central and Southern Europe and the former Soviet bloc had to offer. I read what I could get my hands on back at that time, but I realized a lot was just not translated.

For me it was pretty logical that if you learned a language, you will end up translating at some point. So once I had learned enough Estonian to really feel comfortable, I got an offer to translate some Mats Traat poems, which ended up being my first published translations. I really enjoyed doing Traat, and it led me to thinking about doing more translation, which I slowly started to do. Then I picked up Lithuanian, and later Latvian, all the time thinking about what I could do in the field of translation.

 Three Musketeers of Baltic Literature Adam CullenAdam Cullen
Photo by Dmitri Kotjuh

 

You’ve been doing this for quite a long time. Can you share what stands out for you personally? Maybe there were some wins, or challenges, or losses during the process?

Rimas: Well, any book that was published abroad is a win because it means the work is reaching at least some people in the target culture. I published one book in America, four in Britain, I've published some books here – and that's nice too, of course. But you always wonder how many people are going to see it, right? So, the books that are published in the countries where English is the native language – that feels like you've really accomplished what you've set out to do.

Adam: I remember the first time I saw my translations in Tallin’s airport, there's a bookstore. And that was a feeling of pride for sure. Because that's what it is – it's aimed at people who, for most of them it's their first contact with a smaller culture and language. And it really needs to leave an impression that lasts with them. They'll go on and mention to people, I've read a book by an Estonian author, and it was a different perspective or a universal perspective, interesting, how it connects. And I really agree that it mostly matters when your translations go to the audiences that can connect with it the most. And that's not here.

Jayde: Of course, you want to be published in the country where the language is spoken. I think Ieva Toleikytė’s short story I did for one of the Best European Fiction anthologies was a changing point for me, because I was the one who selected it and offered it, and it got accepted. I felt I could offer something to publishers, but the challenge was to be able to talk with them. That came later.

Rimas: Losses are when you read your old, published translations and you say, darn it, I should have done that differently.

 

Can you give us an example of what pops out in your mind right now?

Rimas: They’re both books published here. One was for MO Museum, they had an exhibit where they did a catalog with poetry in Lithuanian and English, and one was from the Jerusalem of the North where we did English, Lithuanian and Hebrew. In one poem, I misread vasara and vasaris – the words for “summer” and “February” are very similar, and I got confused, picked the wrong one. The problem is that in the poem there's snow so even though it can be cold here in summer, not usually that cold. Somehow, the editor didn't catch it either. In the other case, I was sent a different version of a poem than the one they published. So it looks like: what has this guy translated? And it’s not like I can explain what happened. It's too late.

Jayde: Yes, that happens. Mistakes happen. And large projects, especially anthologies, can be a quite complex, and that makes the coordination of them difficult. It’s essential for the translator and others in the project to be on the same page. I have to say, it has largely worked, but yes, it is organizational work that you also need to include with the already tough job of translating.

Adam: Well, they're unavoidable and there are a lot of things, not just translating incorrectly or making mistakes, which everyone does. So many Estonian books that I read in Estonian with grammatical mistakes. Go as a translator, you are the finest sieve that the text goes through. You catch so much that the authors and their editors don't catch before it goes into print.

But I like to go back to what is almost a mantra of my mentor as a translator, Miriam McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov. She translates from Estonian into English and primarily the poet Doris Kareva. Her advice on translating poetry has been: Just always treat it as the latest draft. Translate a poem, put it aside, come back to it a week, a month, a year later. But as a person, you change, you grow, you develop, and your view of the world changes. And so your interpretation of the poem and how you would best express it is fluid, it fluctuates.

 

Yeah, and reading as a reader also changes…

Rimas: I can quote some famous people to confirm what your mentor was saying. Paul Valéry wrote, “A poem is never finished, merely abandoned.” And Borges has argued that the concept of the original is fallacious, there's only different versions of texts. Both authors and translators have different versions, and he says the concept of the pure original belongs to religion or exhaustion. It's either a belief in some holy original, or you're tired and you say, this is it. I agree completely that we just keep doing versions.

Adam: At some point you just have to send it off. On the bus right here I was “raking leaves and twigs” together of all these original poems or bits of poems that I had on my laptop and notebooks, raked them all together and threw it all into a single file. So, I have my next poetry collection now, and the title is Driftwood. Because these things are just kind of washed ashore and it's from a span of maybe five years or so. In Estonian, it's Uitpuu. A literal translation of “uit” is to wander, to drift around; and “puu” is wood.

 

Since you've mentioned your own poetry. How do you think it’s linked with you translating other authors? Which helps whom and which helps the most?

Rimas: I think being a poet does help translating poetry. I wouldn't go so far as to say you have to be a poet to translate poetry, but you certainly would have to have a strong poetic sensibility, read a lot of poetry, be familiar with both languages and their poetic landscapes. So, it certainly helps you get the feel for how you should translate a poem and how it works. And then translation’s influence, which is hard sometimes to figure, but one thing is when you translate a lot of different authors… In the West people can pick and choose who they translate much more. But in small countries we're so needed that we do everything. And that, in a sense, can help your poetry. You get all these different voices and practice different styles, so it increases your arsenal of what you can do if you want to.

Jayde: I think writing and publishing your own writing, whatever genre you’re working in, can help you understand other writers. If you the translator, who is also a writer, is being translated into another language, you might get asked questions that make you wonder for a second what it is exactly that you wrote. I’ve had that happen.

Adam: Yeah. I feel another way to look at translation – it's acting, you are an actor. You are embodying the character: first of all, of the author’s, whatever voice that they're using in their work; but you're embodying their voice as well. And you have this chorus, almost that you must get into harmony there while having your own voice as a translator, intrinsically as well. Translating a lot of different kinds of authors, of different genres, of different approaches to literature echoes differently throughout my poetry personally as well. There's an author Kristjan Haljak, he has this kind of a waterfall of different words and things coming at you – suddenly it wraps up and ends. And I feel like after translating him, some of my own poems also went in that route. It's interesting how we're molded by that in a way. But I feel like all authors are original authors. They’re also influenced by whomever they're reading.

 Three Musketeers of Baltic Literature Adam CullenJayde Will
Photo by Inga Pizane

 

But if you had the chance to pick one author that you'd stick to and be able to translate… Who's the closest to your own style or point of view. Which one would you pick?

Rimas: I kind of like doing different authors. I used to think Venclova was that way, but I realize that I'm a lot less classical and formal than he is. I like some of Kęstutis Navakas’s late work, which is kind of crazy, like Haljak’s. I can't really write like him, but I really like that feeling and the influence on me. So, I'm not sure I would want to stick with one person. There might be authors I'd be happy not to translate, maybe I don't need all of them the same way.

Jayde: I think you need variety to stay sharp and be constantly learning, but authors like Arvis Viguls and Ligija Purinaša come to mind. It’s the aesthetic and mindset. As far as certain books I have translated, I feel I was locked in on that one book, but it also doesn’t mean you want to do everything that that particular writer ever did. Writers change as well. It’s rare that an author’s entire aesthetic as a whole fits your worldview. It happens, but it is not common.

Adam: I agree, and I would say one of my favorite authors to translate from Estonian is Tõnu Õnnepalu, I have translated two books by him that have been published. There's another one or two that I would enjoy translating. He writes mostly prose, there's this peace and calm with slight melancholy to it all, the way he observes cities, and nature. He's lived in Paris, and he's lived on this tiny island off the coast of a bigger island in Estonia. Those observations I feel like kind of ring true, I enjoy amplifying those myself. But also, Kivirähk, his book that's already been translated into English as “The Man Who Spoke Snakeish”. I have my own ideas about the title, which would be that it would be the “Man Who Spoke Snake”. But that's a book that I would like to someday translate myself, just to have.

 

Translation is usually seen as a solitary act – only the translator and the text. Would you agree with this statement? And why?

Rimas: If the author is alive, then they're going to have some comments usually. When I translate Marius Burokas, we always look at it together, we talk about it. So, it's definitely not solitary then. He knows English well enough so he can offer suggestions, and I can take some of them cause they're good. With a dead author it is more solitary. You might have an editor, right? Or when I did the opera Sun and Sea, I had to work with the librettist and the composer. That was fun because it really broke that whole idea of the lonely writer-translator. Suddenly you're working with a group of people trying to figure things out. Sometimes I wish it was lonely. Sometimes the authors can be annoying. They start rewriting your text, and you wish they would let you be a little bit, but it’s their text too, a child with two parents.

Jayde: I guess the first draft can be a solitary act, as you are anyway making a majority of the decisions. But I also try to include the authors, and I always ask questions, even if I am pretty sure I know how to translate something. Especially with poetry, as in today’s work, younger authors know English well enough to at least help in avoiding major mistakes. Or they can even modify something if they feel it necessary. I can see where Rimas is coming from though, as there have been some cases where the author or publisher was making a weak argument for something, but it doesn’t happen often.

Adam: This is a trigger for me. I just had an experience that was severely unpleasant. 90% of my experiences have been wonderful, and the author says, you know what? It's yours now, I trust you. And that's wonderful, but there's some not welcomed. In a sense, if you treat the text itself as a companion, it's not so lonely. Either it's because you're spending time with the characters, or the character and the voices. You're entering a different world and being this observer to so many things, which perhaps is a slight introvert too. You feel at home in that kind of a world, I don't feel lonely in translating.

Rimas: It's a good point. Like when you're writing your own work, you’re alone – just what's in your head. But here we're trying to get inside someone else's head, figure out how it should sound in our language. There is someone else there in a way.

 

You mentioned that when you're working with someone, you must often adapt, trying to interpret as well. How loyal are you to the text? Or do you tend to find freedom in interpretation?

Rimas: It’s hard to measure. I try to be loyal to what the poem is doing and saying. But I’m also trying to make it work as a poem in English. Sometimes I'll see a way to change something that makes it spark. I just did Dovilė Bagdonaitė for the Vilnius Review. One poem ends with her riding a bicycle. And somehow when I translated it more literally, the ending felt flat – I felt it needs something. And I added “look at me ride” because it's a poem about her gay identity and she's sort of asserting this joy.

I thought she's probably going to say I rewrote that too much. It turns out she agreed it fit nicely, and so that was a case where I did something a little different because it didn't deserve to be flat there. It deserved a little something, and the language required that I do it a little differently. It's nice when authors give you the freedom to find that moment. But it's in the service of the poem. It's not because I want to do something for me – I want to make the poem work in English.

Adam: Absolutely agree, and I think it really depends on the author, the specific – poem, novel, or a play that you’re working on. How loyal you remain to it, and how much you adapt it so that it shines in English, just as it does in – Estonian for me – the original language.

Rimas: I mean, we work in languages that almost no one else reads. It can be a little different if you're doing French or Spanish, where a lot of people can read the original. But for us, if it doesn't work in translation, that's it – nobody's interested. The authors often aren’t known. So, you can't go by reputation, and they can’t read the original, see how good it is. All they have is your translation. So it has to work on its own.

Adam: Well, and if it's a shitty text and you translate it to be shitty, they're going to think it's a bad translation. It’s difficult to work with this kind of paradox that you need to make it better in translation for the most part.

Rimas: The translator takes the blame. Always.

Jayde: I was deeply affected by Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, where he talks about how Kafka was translated, and how he himself was translated. What I learned from him is you really need to dig down sometimes as a translator, because you might think somehow that something is not quite working, but you set it aside, ask some questions, and then you do end up with what the text is saying. If you really want to translate it, it means it affected you, and the style has something to do with it, not just the message. So stylistically it’s important you get that style across. Even if it might depart from what standard English or whatever language it is you are translating into. At the same time, things can be modified, and it happens, but with the exclusive permission of the author, if they are alive.

 

You also mentioned being published in English speaking countries. Here’s a provocation for you – is it harder to translate or to be published?

Adam: Published, hundred percent. Speaking just personally, I lack the context. Especially living in the countries of which we translate, you're not there all the time. You're not rubbing elbows with the publishers and the people in the industry there, who would have or show an interest that you can kind of get their ear on things. I don't have the money to travel to book fairs and I really rely upon Estonian Literature Center, relationships and their know-how, to try to sell to specific publishers. I just hope that something comes through often enough that I always have something underway.

Rimas: I agree. One thing, for instance, Lithuanians don't realize is it's much harder to get published in a decent journal in America or Britain than it is here. The journals here come out pretty often, there’s not a lot of submissions – so they're not that choosy. But if you want to get into at least a decent journal in America or Britain, the competition is fierce. They accept 3-5% of all submissions. And then the translation and poetry are a tiny, tiny fraction, and you're competing against a lot of people.

Also, we're writing from some country no one knows, one that is not especially trendy now. And they don't see it as post-colonial, don't have any guilt about it. I mean, it's not like Navajo or something, where people say, “Oh, we really have to publish these.” Instead, they're like, “Oh, some European we don’t know – whatever.” They can ignore it very easily. Even our famous names aren't that famous over there.

Adam: And the only way to kind of breakthrough is to focus on the occupation narrative, but then that gets old. Cause all they want to hear about is Soviet experience and transition experience. And that's not the only thing that people here think about. So yeah, “Catch 22”.

Jayde: It depends on what your priorities are, but you need the infrastructure – you need a funding mechanism for translations and publishers, and it helps to have institutions that promote a country’s literature. There are a lot of other factors, but those are two of them. I know that some countries have it quite tough, as little money is allocated to it. Small countries need help, but frankly a large portion of countries in Europe, including the German-speaking countries, need to support translation on some level, otherwise things would be less likely to get published.

 Three Musketeers of Baltic Literature Adam CullenRimas Uzgiris
Photo by Saulius Vasiliauskas

 

Let’s talk about you as the Three Musketeers of Baltic translation, since you are also working with No More Amber. You already mentioned that outside the Baltics, its literature has to stand out by the post-Soviet narrative. But let's move this aside and maybe consider, what are the inner similarities and differences? And how you think it should stand out eventually?

Rimas: It's very hard. It's why we had trouble figuring out a name for the journal. I wouldn't really try to find some essential character. Our histories, languages, cultures and religions can be quite divergent. Who knows, maybe there is some essence, but to me it feels like three little guys in the corner here decided to get together and be stronger together. So there is some connection, but as far as literature goes, it's too hard for me to say. The post-Soviet experience is there, and you can feel it. But we are all moving beyond it. One thing our journal can help articulate is where and how we're moving.

Jayde: It’s something I have been trying to figure out ever since I came to the Baltic. One analogy that I thought of recently was that the Baltic countries are like three siblings – they are all connected somehow, and they all share characteristics (let’s say the geography has made them stay in one neighborhood their whole lives) but they are also their own person/country. They don’t all get along sometimes, and then sometimes they are all on the same page because of shared experiences.

Adam: I can't say this for a fact, but there hasn't been so much connection in terms of exchange and communication between all three before the Soviet period, but I don't know about during the period of independence, what went on in terms of that. Each has probably been pretty insular, just focused on preserving your own language and your own culture. Not mixing at all.

 

Finally, maybe you could share a piece or just a name of your translation which you admire the most?

Adam: I think for me, one that I'm perhaps the most content, because I really like the original, too, would be by the author Tõnu Õnnepalu: Exercises. The character is the narrator, who’s finishing up working – kind of all semi-autobiographical. But when Tõnu was working at the Estonia Institute in Paris, and he'd been living in Paris for years and years and contemplating going back to Estonia and what life would be like there. And he's a homosexual man, too. And kind of the differences in cultures, and anxiety and anticipation, but also excitement and again, the melancholy and taking in the final days of Paris. I really enjoyed that.

Rimas: Well, I just did a literary tour of Vilnius for my Erasmus students, so I was reading translations of poems based on places we stopped at. I've been reworking a lot of Venclova’s translations because we're close to getting a publisher in Britain. So we've been revising them a lot, and I'm happy with how it's going. I'll just read the end of a Venclova poem I was just working on, set around St. Anne's Church and the Bernardinai Church:

In the market’s dense disorder,
you drink a draught of wine –
and thanks to it, the endless whine
of your unfamiliar neighbor
becomes a speech more dear.

The linden leaf is fated to fall,
the grass to grow, the jay to fly,
death to wander down the street,
and you to recall the stanza’s why,
relishing the richness of vowels in speech.

Twilight falls – a kind of innocence,
wearing the mask of loneliness.

So yeah, I've been trying to rhyme his poems like he does or close to how he does it. After a lot of revisions, it seems to be working better. He is tough. Sometimes people rhyme and you can sort of tell they're picking words to fill the rhyme. And you can fudge things too, change it around a little. But he's got a pretty strict formal structure where all the images and thoughts seem to lead one to the other, and changing anything causes everything to fall apart.

Jayde: It’s a tough question. Maybe admire is not the word, but perhaps where I felt there was something bigger in those books than just literature. Books like Ričardas Gavelis’s Memoirs of a Life Cut Short or Alberts Bels’s Insomnia. They reflect a period of life, the Soviet era, which frankly people don’t know much about. A difficult period. People were greatly affected by those times, and they still are. And it’s important to know. If anyone wants to understand what happened in this part of the world, it’s essential to understand that period. That’s why I translate. To get those stories out there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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