More than a decade ago, Adam Cullen set out to learn Estonian as a kind of personal challenge, to see if he could master a difficult language through total immersion. After moving to Tallinn, he casually started translating newspaper stories, and then a chance meeting with representatives from the Estonian Literature Center at a holiday party in 2010 led him into the world of literary translation. Since then, he's been busy translating works by Mihkel Mutt, Tõnu Õnnepalu, and Rein Raud. He's also published his first poetry collection, Lichen, in both Estonian and English.
You have translated numerous major Estonian authors, though you are not a native speaker. How did you go about it?
Literature should ideally only be translated or cotranslated by a native speaker of the receiving language. The translator must also be in a very deep and vibrant relationship with the work's original language. Cultivating fluency to the point of being capable of competently translating a language's, which is to say a culture's, literature and poetry requires commitment to both that literature and to your native tongue; it's a partnership, with you as the conduit. My manner of learning Estonian was through immersion and "talking around" words I didn't know, a technique that native speakers use to expand and enhance their own understanding. I believe that this approach has enabled me to receive and convey the Estonian authors' intentions with a unique degree of intimacy in my native English.
What do you see as the primary challenges facing Estonian literature and efforts to get it translated and published?
Generating wider awareness that Estonian is a language and a culture fundamentally unlike those of its neighboring countries—save for Finland—is a work in progress. However, the Estonian Literature Center's tireless efforts have been drawing ever-increasing attention to local authors and their writing over the last decade. The large number of Estonian works published annually in more than a dozen languages is astonishing, considering Estonia's size and population. Furthermore, the Cultural Endowment of Estonia provides very generous support for foreign publishers of Estonian literature in translation and for the translators themselves through the Traducta grant.
Estonians have a reputation for being taciturn. Is that the case? Is that attitude reflected in their literature?
Nordic peoples, which very much includes Estonians, are indeed characteristically quieter and more withdrawn, and this certainly is reflected in their writing. However, where dialogue is muted, the authors' observations and descriptions of nature, society, and human relationships are amplified and much richer in detail. Tõnu Õnnepalu [author, under the pseudonym Emil Tode, of Radio, among other works] is one such Estonian author, whose soft manner in both person and prose produces breathtaking intricacy. It may also explain why Estonian poetry is so powerful: the genre is perfect for someone accustomed to saying little but speaking worlds.
You have taken to writing poetry in both English and Estonian; can you tell me a bit more about the relationship between the languages and how it interacts within you, as a creative person?
I've played violin since I was four years old, and I've found that language, in terms of both learning and practice, is a very musical process for me. There are rhythms and harmonies, and at times, it more resembles the Sámi yoik: a verbal force that swells within, sometimes fleeting, sometimes echoing for hours, endeavoring to convey a scene or a person or an emotion. Language is wound within this impulse, and whether that language is Estonian or English in any given circumstance depends on factors that remain a mystery to me.