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ELIC held a seminar for translators of historical novels in Käsmu from June 9 to 12, 2013. Translators working on the historical novels of Tiit Aleksejev and Indrek Hargla were invited. The working days included lectures on history and literature and discussions of the particular novels with their authors. Tiit Aleksejev’s novels take the reader to the First Crusade, Indrek Hargla’s Apothecary Melchior solves the dark murders in mediaeval Tallinn. Translators into Czech, English, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian and Latvian attended the seminar.

The seminar was financially supported by the European Regional Development Fund and the Estonian Cultural Endowment.

Read a report on the seminar by our Hungarian translator, published in the Estonian Literary Magazine, Autumn 2013:

Fish and water

Krisztina Lengyel Tóth

The seminar for translators of historical novels by Tiit Aleksejev and Indrek Hargla
9–12 June 2013, Käsmu 

The Lord be merciful to the chronicler who dares to write down what has happened, although she knows only what she has experienced herself, if indeed that.

On 9 June in the year of Our Lord 2013, nine brothers and sisters involved in translating historical novels started their journey at the Tallinn airport, guided by Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem, from the Estonian Literature Centre.

Fish and water are typical of our destination, the village of Käsmu. Thanks to our excellent coachmen, we soon arrived (even the bag lost in the inferno of airports arrived next day).

After we had settled in hostel Rannamännid and the Captain’s House, which belongs to the Estonian Writers’ Union, and walked around the village for a while, even managed some lunch, we sat on the terrace of the Captain’s House, at two oval tables, and got acquainted. We were all in it together: we were translating or had already translated Tiit Aleksejev’s novel The Pilgrimage or Indrek Hargla’s Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf´s Church. Melchior’s translators were Maima Grīnberga (Latvian), Jouko Vanhanen (Finnish), Jean Pascal Ollivry (French), Adam Cullen (English) and Uta Kührt (German); the “pilgrims” were Maima Grīnberga, Hannu Oittinen (Finnish), Daniele Monticelli (Italian), Jonatan Tomeš (Czech) and Krisztina Tóth (Hungarian).

We finally managed to remember one another’s names (although this was a major effort for some), and proceeded with discussions about our life and work in general, the world of books in Estonia and elsewhere, whether the end of the Gutenberg galaxy was near or whether there was no reason to moan and groan, as the world was doing something it had always done – changing. We talked about how the Literature Centre could help the translators, and the other way round. We also established that the patron saint of publishers is St. John Bosco, in case publishers involved in our translations should need some heavenly assistance.

Rein Raud invited everyone to his Oriental-style house in the evening, and the crowds of people going to a seaside concert were baffled to see our little group moving in the opposite direction. We spent a lovely evening conversing intelligently on the terrace, while the host demonstrated his skills in cooking and the hostess in the art of gardening. Besides the regal meal, we sampled Rein Raud’s novel Reconstruction, published last year. We learned how quickly an idea for a new novel may emerge and acquire textual form, pushing everything else into the background. As a representative of the older generation of the novel tried to understand the ideas and motivations of the younger generation, we discussed the world-view of today’s young people, the relations between faith and religion, and the results of constantly pushing back  boundaries. We even saw a rainbow in the sky. Later while the mosquitoes were enjoying the wine in our blood, the topics expanded, e.g. how to legally get some boulders to decorate your house and garden, and why it is comfortable to sleep in a hammock. To those of us who are lazy by nature and always enjoy a long lie-in in bed, it was interesting to hear Rein Raud explaining how wonderful it actually was to get up at dawn, grab a cup of coffee and plunge into work so that by lunchtime everything is done and the rest of the time can be devoted to people instead of work.

When we walked home that evening, we saw a rare sight in Käsmu: a cat. The poor creature had many hairless patches, it was either wearing its summer clothes or had some kind of a disease, but it was definitely a cat. Its big brother the lion is an attribute of the patron saint of translators (and cats), St Jerome. If the attribute is present, so must in some way be the saint, as medieval people thought... Looking back now, we have no doubt whatsoever that the seminar was watched over by heavenly forces.

On Monday morning, we woke early (including the above-mentioned lazybones), as we did not want to miss out on the glorious day. The guests of the day, Marek Tamm and Tiit Aleksejev, were already there, and the lectures began. The day was naturally dedicated to the topic of pilgrimages and crusades.

Marek Tamm’s talk was entitled “What is a crusade? (Generally, and not forgetting Tiit Aleksejev’s novels in connection with the First Crusade)”. Marek explained how science sees the concept of crusades and pilgrimages. The interpretation of crusades has changed, e.g. their definition (and reflections in language, i.e. names), spatial and temporal boundaries, causes, motivations, even propaganda and the logistics of the time. The legal, social and even religious status of the crusaders was rather vague even in the Middle Ages. The concept of truth is no help either: it is something useful for society. All this means that there is no clarity about what a crusade in fact was. It is better to ask: what was a crusade like? It was certainly a ‘holy war’, a pilgrimage and was supported by the Pope. In any case, the crusades were sufficiently vague to enable medieval chroniclers and modern historian great latitude.

Tiit Aleksejev arrived with a bagful of books. Not for the sake of sport, but he recommended and showed us books that he deemed important as background material for translating the novels. About medieval sources, he mentioned that later materials could be more truthful than contemporary chronicles, considering the religious fervour accompanying the pilgrimages. However, most of what we know comes from various narratives, and the chroniclers always had their own attitudes and points of view. Chronicles must be deciphered if the interests of the chroniclers and those who commissioned them differ. Every line written about the crusades is thus reconstruction and fiction. History prefers to describe great deeds by great men, whereas some writers are fascinated by small deeds of great men or the great deeds of little men. Tiit also mentioned his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He introduced the art of medieval warfare, describing in detail military equipment, strategy and how every battle increased the self-confidence and professionalism of the surviving soldiers of all ranks.

In the afternoon, we continued discussing translation issues of The Pilgrimage, such as transcription; especially in personal and place names, we were not sure whether to use Latin, Greek or some other language. Some cultures traditionally use their own versions of great European characters and names of the cities.

We discussed the problems of intertextuality, the most interesting of which was the emergence of “the culture of preachers” in the novel: using Biblical texts and Catholic liturgy in the form of oral tradition, not quoted word for word, but relying on memory. Quotations were largely used when they served the user’s purpose. The mere fact that a quotation came from the Bible afforded it definite authority, although only few knew its precise meaning. The translators had found interesting solutions in different languages for the author’s “linguistic inventions”, i.e. creative swear words, onomatopoetic expressions or  characters’ peculiar language usage. We learned a great deal about style as well, how to keep it as close to the original Estonian as possible. We finally tortured the author with minutely detailed questions, which came from too much pondering the text, and together we achieved some sort of balance between reality and fiction, keeping in mind the interests of the average reader. We even learned a new word from contemporary Estonian military slang – jörbel.

Dinner awaited us a short walk away through the rain in the Käsmu Maritime Museum, where Aarne Vaik had prepared delicious fish. At the table, we continued a bit more general conversation about literature and culture, and afterwards we returned to the Captain’s House and focused on the novel once again. When night fell, the range of topics expanded and, encouraged by wine, we tried to have a little song festival, but somehow it did not work out, so we went to bed.

Tuesday was devoted to 15th century Tallinn and Melchior, and more generally to Estonian historical novels. The guests were Inna Põltsam-Jürjo, Indrek Hargla and Eneken Laanes.

Inna’s lecture, “Tallinn at the time of the apothecary Melchior” took us back to the medieval city, and was bursting with a variety of information, e.g. the daily life of medieval citizens, and how they celebrated various events. It was a significant century for the Hansa towns, and trading determined the whole life of a town. Theft and making counterfeit money were strictly punished; for example, one goldsmith had his head chopped off because he had cut foreign gold coins smaller. The lecture offered an overview of the development of Tallinn, as each year brought more ships to the harbour. Trade flourished, although almost every ten years an economic crisis, famine, plague or fire struck. The fire regulations prohibited brewing beer without a chimney and other dangerous activities, but in 1433 the whole town still burned down. Inna talked about the urban population, relations between Germans and non-Germans, about the fact that the town’s topography did not develop ethnically, but instead according to the needs of professions and guilds, relations between Toompea Hill and the lower town, schools, health care etc. It was especially interesting to hear about the medieval patriarchal family life. The town council set limits on weddings, e.g. the size of the party and the number of guests depended on the size of the bride’s dowry. The medieval menus showed how lavish some meals were. There were also strange regulations about clothes: married women were allowed to wear gold and furs only when their husbands owned a full armour, while women of ill repute were not allowed to wear gold or furs. When a woman’s clothes had pearl buttons, she was not supposed to wear any other jewellery. We heard interesting tales from the gutter press as well: how a monk was caught in a “red monastery”, or brothel; about three apprentices who were arrested because they “moved around at night with unusual weapons and miracle-making letters that were supposed to turn them invisible”, and perhaps the most absurd documented fact – if you called someone a whore you had to be able to prove it, otherwise you had to carry the punishment yourself.

In the next talk, Indrek Hargla told us about the world of his apothecary Melchior. First of all, he specified that the main character of his novel series is not the apothecary but the town of Tallinn. He also talked about the fascinating etymology of its various names. We learned that about half of the personal names came from German sources and that using family names in the 15th century was highly unusual. According to normal medieval family models, a young man of modest means often married a middle-aged widow and of course her previous husband’s property, and then waited for her death, after which he married a younger woman who bore him children and sooner or later became a widow. Various church and town council rules and regulations determined the sexual life of the inhabitants. Indrek emphasised that Melchior’s universe was a literary universe, inspired by reality. This offered a free usage of sources and an understanding that everything that did not contradict the laws of nature was possible in a novel, whether or not it was found in sources. A novel could thus depict events that had not actually happened if the plot needed them. There are apparently some “mistakes” in the novels, but these are for the readers to discover.

The last lecture of the seminar took place in the afternoon. Eneken Laanes talked about Estonian historical novels and memory literature, and how historical fiction had shaped Estonians’ views of history. The genre began with Bornhöhe’s work; the events of St George’s Uprising could have been largely invented by the author, but people accepted everything as real. A great contribution to the awakening-era historical memory was made by Kreutzwald’s epic Kalevipoeg and by Jakobson. The topics of interest at the end of the 19th century were the crusades, the arrival of the Lutheran church in Estonia, serfdom and the awakening era. This was the first era of the historical novel as a “portable monument”; the genre was essential in encouraging the emerging sense of nationality and national identity. The second era of the Estonian historical novel arrived during the years of Estonian independence, in the 1920s and 1930s, when a need emerged for masculine, successful, militant figures; the topic of Baltic Germans and Vikings was in fashion, and this was a time when historical novels were first illustrated. Still, like elsewhere in Europe, the historical novel was not the strongest genre in Estonian modernism. The historical novel in exile literature during the Soviet era centred on European topics, and recent history was treated through different approaches. The 1970s witnessed another era, where documentary novels appeared on the literary scene, along with Jaan Kross’s novels. It was possible to discuss the complicated (recent) past only at the end of the 1980s. New historical prose arrived in the 1990s: historical fiction and alternative voices in literature. World War II was mostly tackled by memory literature.

After the lecture, the programme became quite free. Some tormented Indrek with various translation problems, while some continued to talk about The Pilgrimage. A few brave people decided to have a swim in the sea, and some preferred a walk in the forest, where swarms of mosquitoes were happy to see that dinner was served. Some worked at their laptops, some braved the sauna, and some, i.e. definitely one, enjoyed a stretch of solitary seaside, sharing it with a fairly large fox who had captured a bird. Another cat appeared in the village, properly dressed but too shy, so photographs only captured a blurred image.

On Wednesday we said farewell to Käsmu, and took the bus to Tallinn. On the way, we picked up Ott Sandrak, who guided us through the town, along “the path of Melchior”. Ott Sandrak’s knowledge of Tallinn, medieval and otherwise, is astonishing. He probably knows more about each brick than the rest of us know about the entire town. The trip was like a three-hour fairy tale about medieval Tallinn, although we only walked in the lower town. We saw St Olaf’s Church, observed the different stages of construction of the town wall and saw the oldest house in Tallinn. In Rataskaevu (wheel well) Street, close to “Melchior’s house”, we learned why the well was no longer used there: a dead cat was found in it. Heaven knows whether the little creature was suicidal or whether someone helped it to carry out the project, but its death was enough to cover up the well. At the Town Hall, we were told how courts operated in the Middle Ages and what clothes the officials wore. We were lucky to see the rest of St Catherine’s Church and the Dominican monastery. Finally we ended up in Kloostri Ait, the former armoury of the town, and tucked into our lunch of duck whose days had ended unhappily.

We also visited the Estonian Literature Centre’s premises on Brokusmägi. Our little group scattered in the afternoon: catching a flight, a bus or a train, but we all had experienced a very successful seminar. The days in Käsmu were full of useful talks and encouraging discussions for future work. We are all grateful to the Estonian Literature Centre for a fascinating programme.

Nothing of this has found its way into historical records, as records are no longer kept. In one way or another, man’s life blends into the past like fish into water. Even if it is recorded in the chronicles. Only the fish remains. Only water.[1]

[1]    Tiit ALEKSEJEV: The Pilgrimage.Tallinn, Varrak, 2008. p. 6.

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