Global Estonian | Kristiina Ehin’s poetry reaches Italian readers
Foto: Kristiina Ehin
Foto: Kristiina Ehin

Kristiina Ehin’s poetry reaches Italian readers

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Ülle Toode, journalist and head of the Estonian Society in Italy, writes about the publication of a bilingual collection of poetry, and the beauty and pain of translation.

Translating literary fiction is one of the most impactful ways of expanding understanding between cultures. The collections of Estonian poetry published in Italy so far can be counted on one hand. In the past decades, the works of Juhan Liiv, Doris Kareva, Maarja Kangro and Igor Kotjuh have been translated. In 1975, Poeti estoni (Estonian Poets), a more extensive cross-section of Estonian poetry compiled by Father Vello Salo and the renowned Italian poet Margherita Guidacci, sold like hot cakes and remains a coveted rarity among Italian poetry connoisseurs to this day.

In late November, the collection of poetry by the beloved Estonian poet Kristiina Ehin titled Dove infine si posa la neve was published, mostly containing poetry selected from the English-language collection The Final Going of Snow translated by Ilmar Lehtpere, and from the collections of poetry published by the author in Estonia in recent years.  

The idea to translate the works of Kristiina Ehin in Italy dates back to 2016, when the Estonian Society in Italy organised the launch of the Italian edition of Lennart Meri’s Silver White in Rome, and the musician Silver Sepp, who was asked to provide music, brought along some collections of poetry by Kristiina Ehin. Gianni Glinni, an enthusiast of Estonian language and history, received the English-language collection translated by Ilmar Lehtpere.



It was only at the start of the pandemic when Gianni proposed the idea of translating some poems by Kristiina from English into Italian and then review his work with the Estonian originals. The cooperation worked well and we decided to translate 14 poems directly from Estonian into Italian in way that would retain the grammatical peculiarities and figures of speech of Estonian as accurately as possible – for example, expressing the future through the present whenever possible, and retaining the syntax characteristic of Finno-Ugric languages. However, the most exciting part were the various onomatopoetic expressions mimicking natural sounds of water or the wind (suhisema, kohisema, tuhisema, vulisema, sulisema, sirisema). Translator Gianni Glinni says, “These kinds of words are almost completely lost in modern Italian and we had to look for old phrases that the urbanised Italians would remember and recognise.” At the same time, it is these words that demonstrate the rich and unique nature of Estonian as a very old language. Finally, help was also given by Eva Toulouze, a renowned Finnougrist, translator and specialist of Kristiina Ehin, who was born in Rome, and reviewed the final version of the translation and gave her approval to the texts.  



The translation of each poem has a story, and translating helps you to delve into the depths of sentences and turns of phrases and understand the various levels of meaning expressed by the author. The most memorable work in the recently published collection is the song Puudutus, with music written by Tõnu Kõrvits and which was performed at the 2014 Song Celebration with himself conducting. Initially, there were no plans to translate the song but on 24 February 2022, as the Estonian Society in Italy was hosting a few most esteemed members and closest friends with some Estonian Independence Day treats, we learned via the Estonian Television’s live broadcast from Tallinn that Russian troops had invaded Ukraine. The decision then came swiftly – we must also translate the story that was born as a song! Two hours later, the initial version of the translation was completed. The title Sfiorami took a little bit longer because strangely enough, it is difficult to find the right match in Italian for the Estonian word puudutus. Eventually, the content of this beautiful word was given its right semantic touch in Italian as well. 



Although Estonian language and culture have been taught academically in various parts of Italy – mainly in Bologna, Venice and Rome – as part of the programme for the academic studies of Estonian language and culture abroad for decades, no university has its own Chair of Estonian language and culture. Therefore, students interested in Estonia receive a basic course on Estonian language and culture but there are no opportunities for in-depth academic study of the language, and for training interpreters and translators. According to Daniele Monticelli, one of the best-known translators from Estonian into Italian and from Italian into Estonian and a semiotician working at Tallinn University, there are a total of about five translators translating from Estonian into Italian right now. A large share of fiction translated into Italian has been translated via a third language. For example, Border State by Emil Tode was translated from German and The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk was translated from French. Translating poetry has usually involved two translators – an Estonian and an Italian. Therefore, for the future, hope lies with Estonian-Italian mixed families, if the children learn the language of both of their parents and they have the desire and patience to translate fiction.



The fact that there is the source text on the one page and the translation on the opposite page is especially intriguing about a bilingual collection of poetry. Visually alone, the reader is looking for support from the placement of lines and words without understanding the source language.

At the book launch in Rome, Kristiina Ehin said that as she was born into a family of translators and writers – Ly Seppeli and Andres Ehin – and ever since she was a child, she had heard texts take on a new role in translation, she considers translations of fiction a bridge that creates contacts and contributes to understanding in different cultures. “Translating poetry is an expression of love between languages. No other level of language reaches the artistic reality offered by poetry. Translating it is a creative act in itself. Every translation is expressing the nuances of both the original and the target language and this is how poetry connecting human languages is born,” Kristiina Ehin said at the book launch of Fuorilinea Publishers in Rome. In her opinion, translating poetry is mystical and impossible logically, and it is all the more wonderful when these translations are created.

Translator Gianni Glinni said the work of Kristiina Ehini has a special affinity with nature and understanding of nature, which is experienced in the woman’s soul and which is almost lost in urbanised Italy. “Italians no longer understand nature because life here has been connected to the city, or civitas, for centuries and millennia. Kristiina’s poetry shows this sense of nature through a woman’s perspective and sensuality, and coveys it in a very beautiful and profound way.”

Bilingual collections of poetry are becoming increasingly popular in Italy, Franko Esposito-Soekardi, head of Fuorilinea Publishers, says, “When translator Ülle Toode suggested this project to me, I immediately thought that the collection should be published in both Estonian and Italian. We have published translated poetry like this before.” The publisher said the numbers of poetry readers have decreased in recent years but the readers are now increasingly expecting to see the source text to read it with the translation and understand the peculiarities of the original language.

Therefore, at the book launch in the club of Fuorilinea Publishers and at the event for the Estonian community at the Estonian Embassy in Rome, poetry from the collection was read by Kristiina Ehin herself in her native language and translator Gianni Glinni read them in Italian. At the event held shortly before the first Advent, Silver Sepp provided background music to take people into the holiday season with these verses and magical sounds.



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