Estonia 1850-2010: Texts, Agents, Institutions and Practices

The project

Over the last three decades, research in translation studies has shifted attention from texts to the contexts in which translations are produced and circulated. Translation history thus becomes the history of the role of pivotal individuals, and of practices of intercultural mediation. It does not limit itself to comparative stylistics or the ways in which texts are transcoded from foreign languages, but studies the broader cultural transfer brought about in and by translation, paying particular attention to relations between translation and power.

The Translation in History project aims to:
1) write a new multi-authored and multi-layered narrative history of translation in Estonia (1850–2010) that is structured around fundamental changes in the social and political history of the country;
2) explore the fundamental role of translation and translators in the cultural, social and political transformation of Estonia by combining statistical and translation analysis with insights from the sociological turn in translation studies;
3) highlight the centrality of translation and translators for transnational cultural history by promoting international cooperation between scholars in translation studies, history, literary and cultural studies.

Our research focuses on the institutional and social settings of translation, translation norms and practices, translators, translated literature and the place and function of translation in culture in different periods of Estonian history. While successive changes in political regime have had a significant effect on the extent, selectivity, position and function of translation and its attendant practices, the continuities and ruptures in Estonian translation history do not always overlap with canonical historiographical understandings of the relative periods.

We will structure our work around the following, tentative translation-oriented periodisation of Estonian history, testing its validity during the research:

Although the educated German Kulturträger, as the dominant cultural force in the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire, was progressively replaced by Estonian intellectuals, the cultural horizons of the Estonian national movement continued to be largely modelled on German examples. Up to the end of the 19th century, the incipient Estonian literature, which played a major part in shaping the standards of the Estonian language, largely consisted of undeclared translations from German sources, many of which have still not been discovered and studied. This gap has to be filled in order to create an integral picture of the cultural and ideological environment of the birth of the Estonian nation and the preeminent role that translations and adaptations played in the new Estonian newspapers that forged emergent public opinion. This period ends with the plagiary scandal of 1894 when the publication of adapted translations as originals was for the first time publicly denounced and criticised.

In this period the birth and development of an autonomous system of literary translation within the literary polysystem and cultural field did not marginalise translation but turned it into a means of struggle in the context of cultural and political emancipation. For the Young Estonia movement, which promoted a radical program of linguistic and cultural renewal between 1905 and 1917, translation from European languages other than German and Russian (for example French, Italian, etc.) became an ideological strategy for reformulating local identity in cosmopolitan terms and for modernising Estonian culture. Some questions to be investigated for this period are the emergence of clearly recognisable author-translators and the incipient institutionalisation of their translating activity, the fundamental shift occurring in the perception of the ‘foreign’ and the challenges this posed to previous understandings of national identity.

The birth of the independent republic in 1918 reshaped power relations and cultural balances in the country. The expanding cultural industry entered a series of interactions with the cultural policies of the state, conditioning the dynamics between the different components of the Estonian cultural polysystem. Despite the fundamental importance of translation, and major disputes over it, the Estonian cultural history of this period has not been studied thoroughly from a translation perspective. A study of translation will help to reveal the continuities and changes in the cultural orientation of the new republic over the two decades of its life, and the place of translation and translators in the emerging cultural industry, which importantly reshaped the hierarchies of different writing activities, genres, and cultural institutions.

After the war translation was turned into a deliberate vehicle for the new ideological and cultural values, which had to support the Sovietisation of Estonian society. However, the cultural in-betweenness of translation and translators never ceased to represent a threat to Soviet power, as it contradicted the totalitarian aspiration to perfect self-sufficiency and introduced texts from the ‘open’ world to the ‘closed’. It is important to study the relations between the dynamics of Soviet power and the dynamics of translation in Estonia, the different uses of translation by the regime and by intellectuals, and the effect of translation practices, which manifest different ways of relating to power from self-censorship to negotiation and resistance.

The increasing pace of importing translated literary texts, initially filling the gaps of the Soviet era, but progressively conforming to the international market, belongs to a broader spectrum of new means of cultural transfer, accentuated by the emergence of digital technologies. The anxieties about the possible loss of cultural identity and national sovereignty under the pressure of global economy and culture are thus in cultural debates related to the translation traffic, the proportions between original and foreign literatures/cultures in book production and school curricula, state cultural policies, multilingualism, etc. The study of translation here becomes a means of investigating the field of cultural, social and political tensions of the new Millennium.