Latvians Online recently got their hands on the English translation of the Latvian classic: – Dievs, daba, darbs, Skarbos vējos and Akmens sprostā. This is the work of a Latvian-American living in Minneapolis – Ilze Kļaviņš-Mueller – who has now made 19th century Latvian rural life come to life for the English-speaking world. An interview with the translator herself provides more insight.
Latvians Online: What inspired you to translate the Brigadere trilogy into English?
Ilze: Back in the ’80s, a listener-supported radio station here in Minneapolis had a daily children’s program. I started reading episodes I had translated from Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš’ Baltā grāmata (The White Book) on the air, and went on to translate and read a few chapters from Brigadere’s Trilogy as well. Much later I decided to translate the entire book, though initially the task seemed daunting.
Why did you choose Brigadere in particular?
I have known and loved Anna Brigadere’s Trilogy since I was little. The Latvians have a number of such wonderful childhood memoirs – Jaunsudrabiņš, Brigadere, Aspāzija, Valdis immediately come to mind. These books gave me a deep insight into rural life in late 19th and early 20th century life in Latvia – Latvian history seen through the eyes of children who experienced it. Little Annele, the protagonist of the Trilogy, was one of my favourites.
What were the challenges of translating such a classic piece of literature into English?
The challenges were many. The one that initially seemed insurmountable was the vocabulary – names for tools, foods, plants, clothing that were not in my dictionaries. When I started translating the book in the 1990s, the resources of the Internet were not yet available to me. But then I inherited from a relative the six-volume Dictionary of the Latvian Language by linguists Kārlis Mīlenbahs and Jānis Endzelīns, an incredible piece of luck. Another challenge I faced was Latvian syntax, where, for instance, the subject of a clause is frequently omitted, or the unreliability of a statement is expressed by the so-called narrative mood of the verb.
Brigadere has a sharp ear for the voices of her characters: each has a distinctive pattern of speech – how should I differentiate in English the speech of a farmhand from that of a Jewish tailor, or a pastor’s housekeeper, or a young man trying to pass himself off as a German? The important thing was to avoid obvious Americanisms or modern idioms, which would “place” the story in the wrong setting. I did not always succeed in rendering subtle differences between the voices of the various characters. But I tried.
What did you enjoy most about the process?
As I worked, I found myself “listening” for the voice of the narrator, trying to catch each nuance, searching for the exact shade of meaning. I was happiest when a translation “worked” – when a character’s voice sounded authentic. I had feedback, too, from a women writers’ group I was in whose patient ears heard the first version of my translation. They picked up on things that sounded unclear or wrong. And it was great to realise that the story held their attention, that they too loved Annele.
What new things did you learn about this classic whilst going into each sentence and word in-depth?
As a child, I had focused mainly on the story of Annele. As a translator, I came to appreciate the richness of Brigadere’s language, the subtlety of her descriptions, the craft that went into the writing of this amazing book. From my childhood, I seem to remember only the first two parts of the Trilogy (Dievs, daba, darbs – God, Nature, Work; and Skarbos vējos – Harsh Winds). As an adult, I was stunned by Brigadere’s description, in part 3, of Annele’s sister Līziņa’s fate. The narrator is never sentimental, but pitilessly conveys the tragedy of a gifted young woman’s lack of career opportunities, when marriage seems the only viable choice.
Have you translated other Latvian literary works? Are you planning more in the future?
Other than a series of poems, I have also recently translated Vizma Belševica’s wonderful Bille books (Bille; Bille and the War; and Bille’s Beautiful Youth). I am looking for a publisher for them. I no longer have the energy or the funds to self-publish them as I did Brigadere’s Trilogy.
One translation project I am considering at the moment is Valentīna Freimane’s memoir about her life growing up as a Jewish girl in pre-war Riga and her survival during the Holocaust. That’s been translated into German (Adieu, Atlantis), but so far there has been no English translation.
Who do you think would be your target readership?
I envisioned a readership consisting of my American friends here in Minnesota, and the children and grandchildren of Latvians in English-speaking countries. While many of the latter speak fluent Latvian, it may be difficult for them to read and understand Brigadere’s work in the original. People here and all over the United States have also bought the book for their friends. The Twin Cities Latvian community has been very supportive.
How long did the translating take?
I can’t really remember. I worked on the book on and off for something like two years while teaching college German. When I finally decided to publish the translation, there was a lengthy period of proofreading – at least several more months.
What did you learn about translation through this process?
Hmmm. There are several schools of translation: the translators who stick close to the original even if it sounds somewhat foreign, and the translators who smooth things for the reader, make everything sound familiar. My own philosophy is that the reader enters a translated work as a tourist enters a country he is unfamiliar with – the translator can help a little to orient the reader, but too much help would distort the reality of the other culture. My translation began by being fairly literal, and over the months I became more “emancipated”. I kept on a few Latvian words (pastala, klēts), but sometimes chose similes, metaphors, and proverbs that came from the reader’s own language and tradition. In other words, I evolved as a translator, and hopefully improved a bit.
Do you look at Brigadere differently now that you have come to scrutinise her works so closely?
Yes. I feel now more than ever that Anna Brigadere deserves to be ranked among the foremost European authors of her time.
The book costs $27 plus postage and can be ordered by emailing Ilze directly <email@example.com> or from Amazon.com (ask for The Annele Trilogy). Libraries outside the U.S. – please contact Ilze directly.