Winners Announced for VEMU’s Translation Competition

May 16, 2021

On Sunday May 2nd, VEMU (the Museum of Estonians Abroad), the Estonian Literature Centre, and the Estonian Writers’ Union hosted the final event of their Translation Competition. During this approximately 90 minute Zoom event, organizers and participants from many disparate time zones honoured all of the hard work and inspiration that went into this competition.

Commemoration was due because of how the competition connects to a much larger endeavour of continuing to translate Estonian literature into English. Back in January, the competition was announced, with an open call made to all enthusiasts of the Estonian language, particularly those living outside of Estonia. The hope was that, through examining submissions, the jury might be able to identify promising translators for the future of Estonian-English translation. As Ilvi Liive, Director of the Estonian Literary Centre, expressed during the event, “We have some translators, but it’s never enough.”

Thus, participants had until the 31st of March to translate two texts: Jürgen Rooste’s “Astrid Lindgreni surm” (“The Death of Astrid Lindgren”) and Mehis Heinsaar’s “Rändaja õnn” (translated as “Wandering Bliss” by the first place winner).

The afternoon of the results announcement began with a warm welcome from Piret Noorhani, Chief Archivist of VEMU, and Jaan Meri, President of the Estonian Studies Centre and Tartu College.

Noorhani had carried the idea for several years before it came to life. Though educated as a literary scholar at the University of Tartu, she described how she “had drifted away from literature, my first love” after working predominately with history as an archivist and museum worker. VEMU delivers programming totalling between 40 and 70 cultural and educational events per year, but Noorhani felt that “more should be done for Estonian literature.” And so she went to Tallinn in January 2019 to meet with Tiit Aleksejev, the Chairman of the Estonian Writer’s Union, and Kerti Tergem from the Estonian Literary Centre, who is a translator herself. Their discussion culminated in the competition.

Together, Kerti Tergem and Ilvi Liive helped choose the texts for the competition, fitting in with their mandate as an organization. As Tergem explained, the Estonian Literature Centre is what is “making Estonian literature travel.” They work closely with foreign publishers and support translators in their professional growth, with activities and resources that include seminars and their website, .

Leading the Translation Contest’s jury was Susan Harris, who is the Editorial Director of Words Without Borders, an online magazine that is self-described as “[expanding] cultural understanding through the translation, publication, and promotion of the finest contemporary international literature.” Another member of the jury was Sandra Kasturi, an award-winning poet, author, and freelance editor who was born in Estonia and currently lives in Toronto. Tiina Ets, who is based in the United States, was also a member of the jury. Her clients as a translator and interpreter have included the US Department of State and the White House.

The sentiment that literature is the most challenging of all texts to translate was echoed across the jury, and the two stories chosen were testament to that, steeped in poetic detail and idiomatic expressions that threatened to make translations to English clunky and difficult to read. “The Death of Astrid Lindgren” was about a cynical journalist reporting on the death of a beloved children’s book author. “Wandering Bliss” was a disturbing description of joy as it passes fleetingly from one person to another. Reviewing the work of 26 people from nine countries, the jury ultimately selected the following winners:

In third place was Ellen Valter, well known to Toronto Estonians for her community leadership and wide range of talents, and Tony Allen. Allen is not of Estonian heritage, but is a writer and considers himself “an ardent Estophile”, having learned the language when he lived in Estonia for a couple of years.

Second place was awarded to Pearu Unga and Talvi Maimets. Unga, who works at a hotel in Scotland, won favour with his translation of “The Death of Astrid Lindgren”; while Maimets’ phrasing in the same story was memorable for the judges. Recently retired as a family doctor, Maimets enjoyed the creativity of the experience.

The winner of first place was Tiina Otema, from Toronto. Harris commended Otema for her “deft phrasing and lovely word choices, [that] captured the ethereal sense of the narrative.” When her translations were read aloud, it exemplified the highest goal of translated fiction. That is, as judge Tiina Ets said, “a translation should not sound like a translation.”

Sometimes, in order to make a translation smooth, more radical changes need to be made to the way things are expressed. Indeed, the title of the second short story, “Rändaja õnn”, varied significantly. Susan Harris communicated how the variation in the way this title was translated made the judging experience fascinating. Variations of the title, of which there were about 18, included “The Hitchhiker’s Spirit” and “Roaming Rapture.” Sandra Kasturi was also amazed by the variations she read through. She maintains that translating Estonian into English, with each language possessing such drastically different roots, sentence structure, and more is “not just translation but interpretation.”

The winner of the competition will be published in the Estonian Literary Magazine and receive the chance to go to the translators’ seminar held by the Estonian Literature Centre in June 2022. Second and third place winners are to receive one book of their choosing from Apollo or Rahvaraamat bookstores in Estonia.

Translation is a thoroughly creative undertaking, and based on the enthusiasm shown by all in this event, we can expect many sensitively-crafted translations of Estonian literature for readers in English in the years to come.

Vincent Teetsov

First published in Eesti Elu/Estonian Life