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Shetlandic poet Robert Alan Jamieson reports from the Literature Across Frontiers Käsmu translation workshop held in Estonia, May 8th- 15th 2004:


The situation is familiar – roughly 60° north, on the very fringe of Europe, long dark winters and bright summer nights; a minority language which has resisted successive invasions over centuries, assimilated influences from aa ærts yet retained its unique identity; a culture which, though it shares something of its history with two southern neighbours, is ancient and distinct from them, as different from the other Baltic states as Shetland is from Orkney and the Western Isles; a background of Hanseatic trade symbolised by the old town of Tallinn (literally 'Danetown') - and a tradition of international sea-faring that has left a significant mark on the country's psyche.

So the paradoxical feelings of strangeness and recognition I felt when the clouds parted below the flight from Frankfurt and I saw Estonia for the first time; when I walked the narrow streets of the oldest part of the Tallinn where the dimensions of the buildings and the crooked lanes reminded me of old Lerwick; when I wandered along the shore among the great 'erratic' boulders my first morning in the fishing village of Käsmu and felt it to be not so different from many a wick (or 'uig') around the North Atlantic fringe – those feelings are to be expected.

I was there to take part in a translation workshop, at the invitation of Alexandra Büchler, a much-travelled Czech linguist who directs the Aberystwyth-based organisation 'Literature Across Frontiers' . LAF supports a programme of literary exchange and policy debate and aims to promote literatures written in the less widely-used, minority and regional languages of Europe, as well as web-publishing an excellent magazine .

My eminent colleagues were fellow poets and translators: visiting, like me, were Sigurdur Pálsson (Iceland), Jan Erik Vold (Norway, but resident in Stockholm), Benno Barnard (Belgium, writing in Dutch), Cathal Ó Searcaigh (Eire), Mererid Pugh Davies (Wales), Kirmen Uribe (Basque). Five eminent Estonian poets and translators, received us: Doris Kareva, Hasso Krull, Kallju Krüüsa, Mati Sirkel, chairman of the Estonian Writers' Union and Ilvi Liive, director of the Estonian Literature Information Centre and our 'leader' for the week. And circling us with her camera, was the well-known Estonian book illustrator and artist in bronze, Reti Saks.

Lastly, there was one whose presence wasn't physical but nonetheless very much with us - Juhan Viiding, perhaps the greatest Estonian poet of recent times, whose death in 1995 had clearly left a huge void in the hearts and minds of the others. Certainly on the evidence of a bundle of translations by Ivar Ivask, he was a true poet – or rather two, for he used the pseudonym Jüri Üdi in his early work. His writing, to quote Hasso:

...became a universal point of reference for the majority of young poets in the 1970s and 1980s. No other Estonian poet has generated such a flow of imitations, emulations, allusions and remodellings: one might say that Jüri Üdi was the principal mould for poetic language for a whole generation.

The aim of the Käsmu workshop was that each participant should translate at least one poem by each colleague. Although the event lasted a week, when time was taken off for readings, the trips and treats that Ilvi and her team had lined up for us, the work required to be done in three days - so it was intensive. Yet to be able to approach the author concerned with queries immediately they occurred speeded the work - and the sense of being surrounded by others who understood the subtle sonic qualities of syllables and lines was special.

And what a situation to work in! Käsmu lies 78 km east of Tallinn in the midst of Lahemaa National Park, on a large inlet ('laht') off the Gulf of Finland. Historically it was a shipbuilding centre and the location of a nautical school which produced so many master mariners that the tag of 'Captains Village' appears on the signpost today. During the Soviet era, it became the exclusive province of Komsomol party officials and a large holiday camp from that era remains, though it is now in the public domain. Our accommodation was with a real Estonian 'granny', who fed us and tended to us as if we were family. Our place of work also had Soviet links – the 'Writers and Translators House', like the block of apartments in the old town of Tallinn which had once housed the Estonian SSR's writers, remained in the control of the Writer's Union following the fall of the Soviet regime in 1991. Freshly renovated in 1997, 'the captain's house' can accommodate four writers comfortably, with dining room, library and sauna, in a place that, as the publicity says, combines nature's beauty with quietness for literary work. .

The shore of the laht is a gentle slope and the land beyond is flat. Along the shoreline lie great glacial boulders, as if thrown up by some gigantic storm. While we were there all was peaceful, but gentle though that coast may have seemed, it has seen great disaster:
Whenever they saw it sailing off the coast, many Estonians remember being overcome by a feeling of pride. The huge, white ferry with its name ESTONIA emblazoned on the side, was the newest and largest ship in the nation's fleet. For many, the German-built ship-acquired in early 1993-was a fitting symbol of the country's new self-confidence. It was this ferry that carried many Estonians on their first trip outside the bounds of the former Soviet empire. There was an anecdote during Communist rule about how a white ship would one day come and deliver the nation from tyranny, and many said-only half in jest-that this was the white ship they'd been waiting for ... so when news broke in the early morning of September 28, 1994 that the giant, 15,000-ton Estonia had sunk to the bottom of the Baltic Sea with hundreds of people trapped inside, it seemed like a cruel joke. It just couldn't be true.

852 lives were lost on that endless crossing. The monument at the edge of the old town of Tallinn, looking towards the ferry terminal, is a most poignant yet simple structure, the incomplete arc of the journey, like two great arms reaching out in futility. And though a decade has passed almost, and the reconstruction of the democratic republic goes rapidly, there is a lingering sense of tragedy, of loss in many Estonian eyes. Rather in the way that the eyes register the loss of the dream, when the talk is of the way in which the Komsomol party officials exploited the political schism in shady property deals.
But back to poetry - all participating poets provided English versions of the poems they had submitted. Strange, maybe, that an organisation devoted to the promotion of minority languages should require to work through a great 'world language' in this way - yet it might also be considered as payback for linguistic colonisation, that English should be placed in the role of servant to tongues that it (and others like it) have oppressed in the past. Whatever, for good or ill, English is the contemporary equivalent of Latin a millennium ago – the lingua franca, understood to some extent by (almost) all. In this case, I was very glad of it when working with Irish Gaelic, Welsh, and Basque originals. Norwegian I knew well enough to be able to work on Jan Erik's poem without need of any English intermediate. Icelandic too was not unfamiliar once Sigurdur had answered a couple of queries. To my surprise, I found that Benno's Dutch was very close to Shetlandic and I was able to render my version of his poem 'Fischer 50 B.C.' in a matter of a couple of hours with no need of English, more or less following the original syllabic pattern, in a very natural if slightly archaic Shetlandic. As the week went on, the more we compared notes, the more cognate words we discovered. Of course, considering the history of the Dutch presence in and around Shetland in the prosecution of what they called 'The Great Fishery' over hundreds of years, it is not so surprising. In an interesting account of the Dutch in Shetland, Charles Rampini quotes John Smith, sent to report to the English Royal Fishery Corporation on Dutch activity in Shetland records: 'a fleet of 1500 sails of eighty tons burden, and the Dogger boats employed by them in the white fishing were about 400 sail of sixty tons each' – Buss Haven, they called Bressay Sound. It seems that a substantial part of what makes Shetlandic distinct from other Scots or Scandinavian tongues may owe a deal to the 'Dutchies'.

Not all the languages were so hæmaboot. Where they puzzled me, I found familiar stories in English versions, so that at least the subject would be common – in Cathal's 'Lament', translated by Seamus Heaney, was the story of the death of a pet yow, and the analogy of that with the death of his middir tung, the Donegal Gaelic; in Kirmen's 'Gold Ring' I found the story of his Basque fisherman father and how his weddien baand had been swallowed by a hake, then magically found by his aunt while gutting;
in Mererid's 'And Isn't Everyman An Island?' a gentle love lyric expressed in nautical terms that might have been written by a Shetlander. But it is important to remember the importance of sound and text-shape in a poem, not to focus simply on its meaning. So equally, in the work of those poets whose middir tung was almost entirely opaque, there is a musicality and an appearance which the translator can, if they choose, to attempt to imitate or parallel, just as with those more cognate tongues. The further apart languages are in the great family tree, the more difficult this can appear. But often the look of text on the page gives the impression that two are more different than they are, and when we hear words spoken, we hear echoes. Estonian is supposedly very difficult to learn, with a complex grammar, and it looks as strange as Finnish to my western eye. But there are connections - the word 'pood', for instance, appeared on a number of signs and it didn't take long to realise it meant
'shop'. I asked Kallju to confirm this, and he said 'Yes, pöd, it means shop.' Not far from there to Da Böd o Gremista or indeed the 'booths' of the Mile in Edinburgh, I thought- the Hanseatic sailors had clearly left some imprint, if only on the language of business. So I bought a dictionary the evening we read our work in Tallinn, and the closer I looked the more of these echoes I noted - familiar, yet strange.

I'm left with the feeling that the Estonians, who refer to themselves as the 'Eesti' (so named historically by the Swedes), are the Shetlanders' latitudinal counterparts in European terms - we are the 'Westi' to their 'Eesti'. They are like us, and yet not us - in the warmth of welcome, the liking for a dram or a dance, the liking for fish and boiled tatties, their peatbogs, yes. But in their Finno-Ugaric language, their history, their endless birch and pine forests, the comparatively tideless shoreline, not so. The parallels are as numerous and as informative as the divergencies.

This is not the Norse North Atlantic but the shores of the Gulf of Finland - a beautiful and fascinating country as we saw on our final day in Käsmu, when naturalist and writer/photographer Fred Jüssi took us on a long walk through a peatbog, Eesti-style; on our visit to the 18th century German manor house and estate of Palmse - originally St. Michael's Nunnery - now open to tourists.

Later, as the bus rattled along through the gravel roads, wild boar, storks and large hawks of some type all made brief appearances. And when we came to a stop down by the shore, beside a group of dull industrial buildings looking out on a perfect horizon-hugging island – so dreamlike it might have been a mirage – I looked at Kirmen, the Basque fisherman's boy, and said 'Looks like a fish-factory to me.' He smiled and answered, 'I was just thinking the same.' Inside was an art gallery in the making. Paintings in many styles, a private collection of Estonian art belong to the one-time manager of Abba, an Estonian called Stig Andersson. But our salt-water intuition proved true – 'the building,' said our guide later, 'is a former fish factory from Soviet times.'

After a couple of nights in Tallinn, more readings, recordings, dinners and receptions, the week was already over. Whether the group had succeeded in producing the 100 versions we set out to or not, substantial work had been done, and friendships forged. The 'new Europe' had come into focus a pierie skaar. For me, the experience validated both the decision to overcome the cringe factor to do with knaapin and attempt to reach relative fluency in the 'world language', and also the corollary of that: the exploration of Shetlandic not as dialect of English, conforming to its spelling system or alphabet, but as a unique part of the family of North/Baltic Sea languages. My sense of this was strengthened many times over in Käsmu. In fact, it seemed to me that without Shetlandic on the linguistic map as the link between the 'Doric' Scots of the Buchan fokk, Faeroese and Vestnorsk, the chain isn't whole.

Kirmen Uribe (Basque Country), Benno Barnard (Flanders), Sigurdur Pálsson (Iceland), Cathal Ó Searcaigh (Ireland), Jan Erik Vold (Norway), Robert Alan Jamieson (Scotland / Shetland Islands), Mererid Puw Davies (Wales), Doris Kareva, Kalju Kruusa and Hasso Krull (Estonia)



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