Adam Cullen is a native of Minnesota, but for the last few years has been a resident of Tallinn, Estonia. Having mastered the language, he’s become a prolific translator of Estonian fiction and poetry, responsible for titles from authors including Rein Raud, Mihkel Mutt and Tõnu Õnnepalu. Earlier this year, he also brought out his first collection of poetry, Lichen, in both Estonian and English (and you can read a selection from it here). Deep Baltic’s Will Mawhood recently had a chat with Adam to discuss translation, Estonia and poetry.

How did you come to be in Estonia? What brought you there?
The short answer is that almost ten years ago – in December it will be ten years – I decided to move to Estonia to see if it was possible to learn a language through wilful immersion in the language itself and the linguistic space and in the culture into which that language is embedded. I kind of stumbled into Estonia from St. Petersburg, where I was studying Russian at the time as an exchange student. I finished up my degree in Minnesota, and graduating with a liberal arts degree I realised that I’m able to do anything with that and qualified to do basically nothing. Working at a cafe at the time, I decided to see if it’s possible to branch out outward, live as an immigrant, see what living as an immigrant is like and at the same time undertake this linguistic experiment, see if it was sustainable. I hadn’t planned on living here for more than four years or so – it just kind of happened.
And what was it about Estonia in particular? I imagine there were other places you visited during that period of your life?
Yes, but no places where I had that strange sense of home so immediately. It was actually the first week that I was in Estonia in my life, and I remember looking out of the hotel window and saying to a friend who was in the room “I have this weird feeling that I could live here”. And that moment passed and life went on, but I kept coming back to that. There was a comfortable feeling where it didn’t take too much effort on my own part to adapt. There’s obviously adaption to a new place in any case whenever you go to a different country. I feel like it’s a question of how much a person’s willing to put into it themselves when they move to a new place, and how deep into it they want to get.
And in terms of the language, how long did it take until you were comfortable expressing yourself in Estonian?
I started from basically zero and didn’t take classes, just learned it through immersion and at home, taking newspapers and books and whatever, and taking a dictionary and trying to pull apart the language – looking at all the pieces and putting them back together again. Like taking a clock apart or a bike apart, just seeing how what makes it work. It was about a year of working with Estonians and trying to force myself into social situations before I was conversational, but I would say until I was at a level of fluency, maybe closer to two or three years. I started translating literature when I’d been here for about four years. If December makes ten years, I started translating literature in 2011 – so about six years ago.
So by that point you felt you’d got a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the language?
Yeah – I mean, I never expected to get into translation professionally. I had started at first, just for the sake of my own comprehension of the language, translating news articles. There’s a Finno-Ugric non-profit here that supports Finno-Ugric issues across the whole range of countries in which Finno-Ugric peoples live. I ended up going to this concert of different Finno-Ugric peoples, and knowing Estonian culture and really enjoying Sami culture, I decided to start translating their news pieces that they put out. I very sheepishly sent them an email, like “hey, is it OK if I translate some of these things? Would you want them? For free – on a totally volunteer basis”. [And they said] “of course we would (laughs). Please”.
So then I was invited to their Christmas kind of dinner party thing at their office. That would have been in 2010. And it just so happened that in the same building where their office was, there was the Estonian Literature Information Centre – which I believe is now just called the Estonian Literature Centre. And the two women who ran the whole deal were invited. It turned out later that they almost didn’t go, but they said “OK, we’ll stop in really quickly and have some blood sausage and mulled wine and some preserved mushrooms”. So they ended up being there. They asked me “who are you? What do you do with Finno-Ugria?“ And I said “oh, you know, I translate on a volunteer basis”.
And their jaws dropped and eyes widened, and they said “what? You translate Estonian into English? What?” And they asked “have you translated literature”?
I’d started trying to translate one book, just on a hobby basis. They took my contact information and sent me some sample pieces just to see what I could do with them – see if I was able to translate at a literary level. I mean, I’m very afraid to look back at anything I translated then, having come a long way since then, but it was at least sufficient at the time, and they were impressed by it, so they started sending certain literary projects my way and it kind of grew from there.
There’s this idea, isn’t there, that learning another language is almost a different way of seeing the world – it’s a different system of interpreting reality, in a sense. How do you feel being fluent in Estonian has altered your perceptions? Or has it altered them at all? 
It hasn’t altered so much as opened up, broadened my perceptions – and definitely enriched them. Not simply of my understanding of my identity within the Estonian language and the cultural space, but also as a Minnesotan, and removed from that scene and removed from that language, that I understand, I can see what parts of me come out, emerge in that language when I switch back and forth. One thing I enjoy doing even – like on this library tour I was just on [Adam has just returned from a tour of libraries in southern Estonian] – I read not only my own poems in Estonian, but frequently I’ll read my translations of other authors’ poetry, and also my own poetry in English that I’ve written. And I’ll switch – I’ll read one in Estonian, and immediately after I’ll read it in English. And for me even, it’s a bit startling to hear my own voice – the change in register, as I go from one language to the other. I would say that 90% of my life here is spoken and thought and expressed in Estonian, and only 10% or so is in English.
So whenever I flip that switch, it’s that whole rush of another world. And it’s something that, to be honest, I really want to consciously wed more – to bring in more elements of my Minnesotan personality and manner of speaking and intonation even sometimes. Maybe not so much that because I think in Estonia intonation in the language is very much essential for its expression.
But I’d like to bring that more together with my Estonian, because I feel like when I activate my Minnesotan English, I do bring things along with me from the Estonian experience that I’ve had. The Estonian experience has very much affected who I am. But there are certain things that I kind of want to bring back. Even just noticing that when I’m back in Minnesota for a visit or something – or even any big city – and someone approaches you and just starts talking to you randomly when you’re waiting for a bus or in a coffee shop or something, you almost fear this interaction with people you don’t know, and I kind of shrink back and try to avoid any eye contact. And I realise “oh my God, this is a negative part” It’s almost positive here – it’s accepted, and you kind of go along with it, because you see everyone else doing it, and you don’t want to stand out as being that weirdo and draw more attention to yourself. It’s funny these waves kind of lapping back and forth, like choppy water in a harbour.

Image credit: Dmitri Kotjuh

So it sounds that it’s almost like different parts of your personality can be expressed better in Estonian or English?

Absolutely, yes. I feel like that’s intrinsic with a language. When I speak Russian, which unfortunately I do very rarely these days because I’m so focused on the Estonian side, different parts of my nature come out, that are very different from English and very different from Estonian. I’m maybe more animated in Russian, and kind of intense, which I feel just goes along with the music of the language. And I feel perhaps that’s one indicator of how a language can affect a person – the musicality of it.
So English – there are many different types of English. There are many different accents in English. That’s why I stress that I’m Minnesotan – I’m not just American, because that’s stupid. It’s huge – there’s not just one culture there. I’m very different from someone from New York or Texas or the backwoods of Louisiana – or even Alaska, for that matter, even though my accent might be closer to someone from Alaska.
But in Estonian I do speak more slowly, which is partly because I need to formulate things over a longer period of time perhaps, but you also emulate what you’ve experienced and how other people, your conversation partners, are expressing themselves. You don’t want to be this dam that the conversation breaks against, or that disrupts the flow of the social situation.

Adam Cullen’s collection of poems, Lichen

Reading the collection of poems I noticed that, while most of them are in both Estonian and English, some are only in Estonian, some are only in English. What was the reason for that? Is it that certain things can be expressed more richly in one or other language? Or something else?
It doesn’t have anything to do with richness. That’s something I wage a quiet battle against here. Sometimes Estonians will say “oh, I need to say this in English, because I can’t find the right words for it in Estonian – it’s always English, for some reason, no one ever says ‘oh, there’s this word in French that I can’t express.” I feel like that’s just laziness – you know, taking the time to enlarge your knowledge of your own language and use it more creatively. Or using different constructions just to form the same thing. It takes time and effort, but it’s worth it.
When the idea for a poem presents itself to me, or the poem just shows up in my mind, usually it will start from one word, or a phrase will just come out, and then the rest of it kind of waterfalls out from that – backwards or forwards, or however. Sometimes I feel if what I’m trying to express ends up being audibly very rooted in one language or the other, I might not have the drive or the urge to rewrite it. I feel if it’s captured so beautifully, with certain words or a certain melody or a certain rhythm. I might sometimes try to write in the other language, but it really doesn’t… it’s tied into the language in that sense – which poetry is. I mean obviously there are ways to still translate that, but that depends on the particular translator’s style.
A friend of mine – an Estonian friend of mine – has expressed his intention to translate, I forget what poem it was – it’s not in this collection, it’s a newer one – into Estonian. It’s funny – you know, I don’t have to be the one to translate all my own stuff from Estonian into English or vice versa. It can be someone else – it can be something that I’ve missed out in my own translation, and someone else can take it and make a different one. So I gave him the thumbs-up, go-ahead, green light, because I’m comfortable with the way that it is, just in that one language – I don’t have this urge to push it out into the other one. But if another translator’s able to find something that I’m not able to capture in my own mind, that’s great – it’s exciting.
It can be kind of forced, I suppose, if you’re translating everything – if it’s not always suitable.
It doesn’t need to be [translated]. And it’s not laziness – “oh, I could translate everything or write everything in two languages, but I don’t”. It’s more this gut feeling that it doesn’t work out. Sometimes I’ll write a poem in English first, and then I’ll write it – I kind of refrain from using the word “translate” too, because the original source is me. I feel in a translation, you’re removing yourself from the original source. So when I rewrite or I express the same poem in Estonian after writing it originally in English, I find it’s way better in Estonian. I can find way more beautiful word usage and word choices. And sometimes the other way around too; the Estonian might be kind of blocky and chunky, and then I write it in English, and it’s “oh, that’s exactly what I wanted to say”. It just so happens that certain word combinations and certain rhythms can really hit home subconsciously, but it didn’t happen in that language at first – it just kind of worked its way there.
And you mentioned you kind of started translating by accident. Did the same thing happen with poetry? Was it an accidental process, or was it something where you thought “I want to do this”?
It was trauma (laughs). It was the end of a long-term relationship, and the havoc and trauma that ensued afterward. So for a while I wasn’t really able to do anything – not work or creative, social, anything. But having translated a lot of poetry before that and then kind of starting to put some thoughts down on paper – which initially were super-dark (laughs), because it was a horrible, awful time – it was very therapeutic in that sense, getting it out here, out of the spin-cycle of my head and putting it onto paper. And then realising there’s this feeling of: once it’s on paper, it’s done and it’s gone too. It doesn’t fix anything, it doesn’t make you happy, but it at least kind of crystallises a certain onslaught of emotions that might be churning inside – at least you can take that and you can give it form, and you can write it in a notebook, and you can close the notebook afterward. The covers are shut on that – it doesn’t mean it’s gone, it doesn’t mean it’s stopped, but at least it’s kind of this removal. So that’s how I kind of got into it first, and how my first poems came along. And then from there, the enjoyment of writing, and the ideas keep coming. Every once in a while, something pops into your head. It’s a beautiful means of expressing anything that can happen, be it more positive or negative.
I was interested to see the little description you have of these haikus that you include – these kind of specifically Estonian haikus. You mentioned that the form was developed by – I don’t have the names in front of me – but three Estonian poets.
Actually, I don’t know if you can see this [points to picture above him]. Those three guys. It’s kind of weird that I have them right over there, but all three are good friends of mine, and the graphic was done by one of them, who is my best friend in Estonia I would say, and is a graphic designer and a poet and a publisher. Asko Künnap, Jürgen Rooste and Karl Martin Sinijärv – they were the three who started it.
The three watching over you.
Right. The three leering at me is probably the best word (laughs)
What was it that interested you about this particular form?
It’s playful. You know, it’s kind of a joke, it’s kind of not; making this an Estonian haiku – not a haiku in Estonian, but an Estonian haiku. With the syllables being 4-6-4, not 5-7-5. I think it was because – just to see what it was like to try it on. I think I wrote in the blurb – I don’t remember what was in there – that an Estonian haiku had also been translated into Finnish in a collection that was published there too. And I thought it would be interesting to try it in English too, and it turned out to be really conducive to the language as well. I feel like there are a lot of things that 5-7-5 can be cumbersome, in the way that you need to have that one syllable more, and that can be more of a burden, more of a weight on the poem.
It was fun, and I still – not as frequently, but from time to time – I’ll get into these spurts of writing a few haikus. It’s things that I could also express in slightly longer form. Most of my poetry, as you’ve seen, is relatively concise. I read very rarely from Lichen, from my collection, because I feel those are done, those are over with, they’re on paper, printed out and they’re living their own lives, and I like reading stuff that’s newer, but it’s also almost embarrassing reading from my poetry in general, because it is so short a lot of the time. Other poets with whom I perform, when they get up, they have two or three sheets of A4 paper that are one poem, and they read it for several minutes. And I get up and I have like four lines (laughs). And there’s this weird silence. So just in general I favour conveying the ideas or feelings I’m trying to convey in as few words as possible.
And you mentioned as well, it’s an Estonian haiku not a haiku in Estonian. What do you think is the key difference there?
Just the Estonian haiku being the thing that these three guys agreed. You know, a Japanese haiku is 5-7-5, and I think you could say that a haiku in English is a Japanese haiku. A haiku in Estonian would be a Japanese haiku – the traditional form of haiku. But there’s nothing stopping anyone from figuring out a different structure of haiku for English as well, or for French or whatever.
And do you think the haiku form is particularly suited in some way for the Estonian experience, in as far as there is one, or for the culture?
As for the language – compared with Finnish, at least – it’s very concise. To craft a Finnish haiku would be maybe like 12-17-12 (laughs) – they have these crazily long words. A lot of the time, if you look at Finnish – Finnish and Estonian being very closely related –  you’ll have very similar-sounding words with the same meaning, and the Finnish word will be four or five syllables and the Estonian word will be two. And it’s essentially the same word, but really cut down and short.
I think Estonian is beautiful in that way, but it also presents a challenge with translating, because there are many of these kind of basic words, that are short, that are one, two, three syllables, that could almost be seen as being overused. This handful of certain terms or words.And even sentence structure, where it’s placed in relation to other words, can open up this whole background of knowledge, of imagery that is important to what you’re trying to convey.
So when I translate texts from Estonian literature into English – poetry too – the English version is much longer, because in Estonian you can conjugate and express many other things, you can also just change around word order. In English, you also need to have all these articles [“a”, “the”, etc., for which there is no parallel in the Estonian language]. In general, the English sentence really expands, really bloats sometimes, whereas the Estonian – I mean, you can have very long words in Estonian, which will probably convey a whole paragraph of meaning in English.
Sometimes I get in a kind of rut where seeing a certain word in Estonian or a certain group of words which are very basic words in themselves, and getting in this rut of translating it using the same, more direct word and not enriching it more, and afterwards I need to go back over it again and use a wider vocabulary in English that I’ve forgotten to do. There are a lot of beautiful words in Estonian that are used less frequently, and are rich in meaning, but a lot of this richness lies in the simplicity of the sentences themselves. And the country itself could be a metaphor as well – the nature and the sea and the woods. There’s richness hidden there. If you take it at face value, it looks simple, but it’s hiding a lot more.
This is something I’ve also noticed in Latvian. You know, in English if you keep using the same word again and again – particularly if you’re writing – you just seem a bit thick; it’s like you can’t think of any other words. But there doesn’t seem to be this negativity associated with it in other languages.
Yes, I’d definitely say that. There are writers who go out of their way to use very complex and perhaps underused words. But then there are other writers who can express ideas, and create worlds or visions that are just as rich, without having to do that.
It’s kind of interesting you have this focus on the haiku in the second part of the collection. One thing I noticed in the other poems in that there seems to be a certain preoccupation with transitoriness. And obviously in a haiku, you’re pinning down a certain kind of image. I mean nothing really happens in a haiku – or very little. Just something I picked up on – I don’t know whether you feel that’s accurate.
It’s quite possible. I fully believe that there is no one “right” way to interpret a poem or a work of literature or a work of art. In that sense it’s very much up to the reader – the reader has all the freedom to do that. The writer can’t really dictate what it should be or what it shouldn’t be. But it’s quite possible. Now that you say it, I hadn’t thought about it before – but there is this kind of transitoriness and this sense of passing in certain of the longer ones. I mean haiku is nice in that, but it’s a little flash – it’s there and then it’s not.
Reading sometimes other Estonian writers’ own haikus – both Estonian haiku and haiku in Estonian. The fad hasn’t really caught on, and there aren’t really many writers at all who have written Estonian haikus – they’ve just kind of laughed about it and gone on their way, but it will still continue. It’s happening; it’s out there. There’s a Wikipedia page (laughs). I’ve been reading some of these other haikus in Estonian. Some I find really beautiful and some I find really moving in their simplicity, but some of them I just really breeze through and they leave no mark, and I never think about them a second time. It’s that brevity – it has all the opportunity, it’s just if it resounds more with that particular reader in that particular moment. It can, but it doesn’t have to.
What kind of challenges do you find in translating Estonian literature for an audience who, presumably in some cases, won’t know very much about Estonia? Do you think that there are details that need to be explained?
It really depends on the author. Like in my translation of Rein Raud’s book The Brother, there was only one word we needed to remove to make it entirely non-specific in terms of place. And apart from the names – and I can’t remember if I anglicised them; it might have happened on a couple of occasions, and then it could have happened in a rural British town or an American town. But Rein Raud is also a more general writer.
But there’s this book which I’m going to start work on next spring, which is thick as fuck. It just came out a few days ago, but it won the novel competition. The Writers’ Union posts a novel competition for manuscripts. The winner gets a publishing deal, basically, and now this year for the first time they’re offering that they’ll do a little to help support the translation of the manuscript into English. So this particular novel that won is called Serafima and Bogdan, and it takes place on the shore of Lake Peipsi, the lake between Estonia and Russia, where there are all these Old Believers – Old Orthodox Believers who fled there in the 16th, 17th century, fleeing from the Russian regime. Those communities – you know, a very Russian background, but there are also Estonians there. There are so many very, very intricate things that are so tied to the place that it would be impossible to remove it, because it’s important that it takes place in that place.
So then you have the options of: OK, do you reword certain things, do you leave out certain things, or do you put it in a footnote? And footnotes are, as a rule, to be avoided – it really breaks it up. Some authors use them extensively – and recklessly, I would say – other authors less so. I prefer to not use them, and to somehow, within the text, add an explanation that’s not an explanation. So you can somehow insinuate from other things, and the reader can seamlessly move past it.
There’s a novel that I translated that will be coming out later this winter titled Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid – she hasn’t been writing for very long, it’s her second novel. It did very well in Estonia, and Peter Owen Publishers picked it up, so it will be coming out later this winter. But it takes place in Tartu, kind of during the period of 1946 through to the present day, pretty much – mostly until the mid-‘60s or so, and then skipping over and then certain scenes that are today. And it’s actually very tied to the city of Tartu, and it mentions a tonne of street names and place names and certain buildings and looking at the city landscape as it changed – rebuilding after the war, and then through the period of Stalinism and after that. It’s very tied into that. So it’s very difficult to find that fine line where you’re not just removing all these place names that are so important to the book. When it’s published, worked within the design it will have a map of Tartu in 1960 or whatever, with the street names.
And that will be necessary. There’s a chapter where the protagonist goes on a run through the city, and it’s just this constant list of place names. But it was also very important to the book to keep that chapter and those descriptions in there. It’s really a case-by-case basis. But I feel it’s an added value, and definitely something to be preserved at all cost is the connection to this place – that’s the reason it’s Estonian literature, and not Latvian or French literature. That’s why people want to read translated literature as well.
Image credit: Kadri Palta

You can find out more about Adam Cullen’s translation work and poetry at the Estonian Literature Centre, or on his Facebook page
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