Day Two of the 2018 London Book Fair and Nora Ikstena, author of Pereine Press’s latest release, Soviet Milk, is Baltic Author of the Day. There is a wonderful review and interview with the author over at Lonesome Reader. Today, however, as part of the official London Book Fair Baltic Books Tour, I’m delighted to welcome the translator, Margita Gailitis, for the latest Meet the Translator interview. (Because without the translators, there’d be no Baltic books for the Anglophone audience to enjoy.)
Welcome Margita. How did you become a literary translator?
I returned to Latvia in 1998 from Canada as part of a team supported financially by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to translate Latvian laws into English, in preparation for Latvia’s entry into the EU.
As a poet myself, who writes in English, I was interested in contemporary Latvian Literature and so upon completion of the CIDA project, I started to translate both Latvian poetry and prose into English.
How did you become Nora Ikstena’s translator?
In 2003 I was offered the opportunity by Descant, Canada’s preeminent literary journal at the time, to source works by Latvian writers for an issue devoted to contemporary Latvian literature. I had heard that Nora Ikstena was at that time mobilizing establishment of a Literature Centre and in support for this venture I took the Descant offer to her. Given 50 years of closed borders during the Soviet occupation of Latvia, very little had been translated into English at that stage but we divided translations between several translators and the feature issue was published in the spring of 2004. Thus also started my collaboration with Nora.
Describe the process of translating Soviet Milk?
As with all authors whose work I have translated I went through my ‘Mother’s Milk’ (now renamed Soviet Milk) translation page by page with Nora. I like to do that after I have completed the whole book, usually in a several hour sit-down-session with the author, going over questions, clarifying issues etc. I did go through several drafts of my own of the English translation before this final session with the author. With this book there were two editors involved. I have an editor Vija Kostoff in Canada, and then the Peirene editor Sophie Lewis fine-tuned the translation to idiomatically fit the British context and to satisfy Peirene editing requirements. I feel both editors improved the translation.
The original Latvian title means “Mother’s Milk”. What considerations went into the title change for the English translation? Do you think it changes the emphasis of the reading in any way?
It is my understanding that already a book by the title ‘Mother’s Milk’ exists in England and that there is a TV series planned based on this particular book. It was necessary, therefore, to change Nora’s title. While the ‘Soviet Milk’ title does change the emphasis somewhat, shifting the focus from ‘mother’ to the political context, I like the title and I think it will generate interest in the book. More so, it will shift the emphasis to Latvia and its fate under the Soviets, which now is minimally known by the English public. I am pleased about that. The mother-daughter relationship is so skilfully portrayed by Nora, that this personal context will still garner reader attention.
Were there other places where you needed to be creative because the Latvian idiom didn’t translate easily into English?
Perhaps the greatest difficulty in translating from Latvian to the English language is in the absence of direct diminutives and the loss of the familiar ‘thou’ in English (‘tu’ in Latvian). In Latvian emotional intimacy is easily expressed by diminutives – mamma as mammiņa, addressed as ‘tu’ in the familiar form. So one must find different ways to express such closeness so as not to lose the emotional texture of the text.
Did the historical context present any particular challenges?
The historical context vis a vis the Soviet occupation and its deportation of Latvians to Siberia was not a challenge because I had already translated quite a few books regarding this period — for example Sandras Kalniete’s ‘With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows’, Dainis Ivans’ ‘The Regaining of the Land of Spiritual Power’, etc. Frankly it has also been quite a mission of mine to translate material regarding this period in history, given that the world at large is mostly unaware of this difficult history. Also on a personal level I have wanted to do this in memory of my father, whom I last saw when I was four years old, and who was deported to Siberia and died there in a place unknown.
What did present a challenge were the many Russian words injected in the novel. It was important to leave them in the text, so as not to lose the particular mood of the times, and to unobtrusively include translations for these terms for English readers.
You’ve also translated poetry. Deadly Nightshade by Liana Langa looks particularly interesting. Would you tell us how the challenges of translating poetry differ from translating prose?
I feel I have more freedom, flexibility to play compared to when I translate prose, perhaps because I myself write poetry. There is the challenge of trying to keep to the brevity of a particular line when in English the translation asks for some explanatory expansion. Also in poetry more often than in prose the author invents words, uses some word play that wouldn’t in any way literally translate into English.
Then there is the challenge of parallel invention or word-play in English. When I resolve such dilemmas it gives me great joy.
There is, of course the rhythm of the poetry that must be achieved, but in prose too, such a rhythm or music particular to the author must be sensed and transferred lest the author lose his or her voice in translation.
Which of your translations gave you the greatest pleasure, and why?
It would be easier to answer which didn’t, but let those remain under cover. It is hard to name one particular translation, rather I experience delight at parts of many translations, features that are particularly inventive, such as the two alternating voices of mother and daughter in Nora’s ‘Soviet Milk’, and the original surprises in Raups’ poetry collection ‘then touch me here’. I also feel a great pleasure in solving seemingly impossible translation contexts – Latvian terms or expressions unfamiliar or long lost in the English world. The legacy of an ancient pagan mythology based on polytheism is alive and well in Latvia, and elements of it figure throughout contemporary literature – creating challenges in translation.
Latvia is currently part the Baltic States Market Focus at the 2018 London Book Fair. This has been years in the making. (The memorandum of close participation between the three countries was signed in 2014.) Can you tell us what impact this initiative has had on the world of Latvian translation in general, and your own work load in particular?
In 2018 Latvia, like the other Baltic States of Estonia and Lithuania, celebrates its centenary — a hundred years since it gained its first period of independent statehood, subsequently interrupted by Soviet and German occupation until regaining its independence in 1991. With festivities planned at home and all around the world to mark this event, extra funding has been provided by the government for cultural activities, including our feature participation at the London Book Fair, as well as the translation and publishing of literature in foreign languages, particularly English.
I personally have translated three books, which have been published in English in the past year — Māra Zālīte’s ‘Five Fingers’ by Dalkey Archive Press (U.S./U.K.), Nora Ikstena’s ‘Soviet Milk’ by Peirene (U.K.) and the most recent, Knuts Skujenieks’ poetry collection ‘All I Have is Words’ by Guernica Editions (Canada). Needless to say the last couple of years have resulted in a work overload, but I, although exhausted, am happy that my ‘offspring’ will be in London in April.
Imagine that you have received funding to translate the one book you would most like to bring to an Anglophone audience. Which would it be and why?
I’d like to take a break from translation for a while and write my own poetry. So ask me this question a couple of months from now.
The Baltic Countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are the Market Focus for the 2018 London Book Fair. For further reviews of newly translated Baltic fiction, author guest posts and interviews, please visit those participating in the Baltic Books Blog Tour.