Not Lost in Translation

TALLINN, ESTONIA–Before a recent trip to Tallinn, a Russian-Estonian friend told me I should pick up for my nephew the book  “Kaka Ja Kevad” (translation: “Poo and Spring”), which has been the most popular children’s book in Estonia for the last two years, having sold over 10,000 copies and making it a bestseller in a country of only 1.2 million people. “I can’t read Estonian,” I told her, mocking her recommendation. “Well, it’s for the illustrations,” she told me. “And it’s about poo, so that’s all you need to know.”  I didn’t get the chance to get the book while on my trip but “Kaka Ja Kevad” did peak my curiosity. So when I came across the Estonian booth at the London Book Fair, I decided to pop in and see if they had the book, written by Andrus Kivirähk with illustrations from Heiki Ernits. Thought they didn’t have the book on hand they did have an entire brochure about children’s books on offer from the Baltic country, something they were hoping might be of interest publishers and translators. Flipping through the pamphlet, I was surprised no only to see that Estonia has a large selection of titles but also they were gorgeously illustrated.  I guess I was not the only one. “People from different publishing houses that we have met at book fairs [have been] interested in the books,” Katlin Kaldmaa, who works with the Estonian Children’s Literature Centre, tells me in an email. “Many publishers were somewhat surprised that our children’s books are of such a high standard when it comes to illustrations and written content. We have every intention to keep it that way.”

kakajakevadNot having kids of my own, the only time I venture into the children’s book section at my local bookshop is when I need to get a birthday present for my friends’ children. And, to be honest, the books I have seen for sale recently have not particularly wowed me. As a kid I remember being transported by the illustrations (and the stories) in books by people like Maurice Sendak who created magical—if a slightly spooky—worlds that I could speculate and ponder over. So what struck me about the kids book selection on offer from Estonia was the high quality of the illustrations—proper art in their own right. “Estonia have some fantastic artists,” Neal Hoskins, the founder of British e-book publisher Winged Chariot told me. “But they have traditionally rarely been published outside their own country. It is a very small proud nation with some great story tellers [but] they are not getting much exposure abroad.” Hoskins says that digital publishing of children’s books could open up a whole new world for Estonian—and other countries—children’s books authors and illustrators.

Piret Raud is one such writer/illustrator. Born in 1971 to two of the country’s most popular children’s writers—Eno Raud and Aino Pervik—Raud studied printmaking at Tallinn’s Academy of Fine Arts. Due to her parents’ success, at first she shied away from the genre of kids’ books. “As a child, writing did not seem so interesting to me, it seemed kind of boring to see your parents behind a desk all day,” she tells me. “But it was always exciting when the illustrators came over to the house to show them their works—that made me want to be become an illustrator.” In 1994 Raud entered—anonymously—her first book “Ernesto’s Rabbits”, into a competition that was looking for new children’s writing talent. She won the award, her book was published and it became a bestseller. Since then, Raud has illustrated some 40 books—seven of which have been children’s books she has also written—and she has had her works translated into German, Spanish, Latvian and English (by Winged Chariot). She thinks one of the reasons while Estonian’s children’s books have started to draw attention from international audiences is because of the quality of the illustrations. “We have a huge sense of freedom when we illustrate,” she says. “The publishers give us full control. In other countries illustrators have to work with the writer, the editor, the publisher and they say exactly what they want. But in Estonia, there is no pressure. Yes, they will tell you if they want the illustrations in black and white or color but [aside from] that we have artistic freedom.”

Kids’ lit has always had an important place on the Estonian literary scene. Back in 1922, the first monthly literary magazine, “Laste Room” (Joy of Children) was established and even during Soviet times there was a strong emphasis on the genre. “Besides ideologically correct children’s books, there were also books that emphasized the importance of universal values like friendship and loyalty,” says Kaldmaa. “Many of those books written in that [Soviet] period are still widely read and considered classics.” While there are a large crop of younger writers breaking into the genre like Kristiina Kass, Jaanus Vaiksoo and Kaspar Janus, there has been a move by novelists and poets to dip their toes into children’s lit as well. And there has been a push by both the Ministry of Culture and the Estonian Children’s Literature Center to get many of these books out onto the international market. “Once you have one or two writers who [become] internationally well-known you get publishers who go and see if others are around in that country,” says Hoskins. “That is how it works in publishing.” I hope for my nephew’s sake, someone publishes “Kaka Ja Kevad” in English soon.

1st Illustration courtesy of Piret Raud

2nd Heiki Ernits and Varrak publishing house

1 reply
  1. Emily Vencat
    Emily Vencat says:

    Wow — if this gets translated into English, I am totally getting it for my boys!!! Hilarious!

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