Jaan Kross passed away

Thursday, December 27, 2007 at 16:34 | Posted in Estonia, History, literature | 7 Comments

I just heard in the radio and read in the paper that the great Estonian writer Jaan Kross passed away today at the age of 87. He was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel price in literature but was unfortunately never rewarded.

Jaan Kross was imprisoned during WW II by the German occupation and after the war by the Soviets. He was deported to Siberia by the Russians. His career as a writer started when he was allowed to return to Estonia 1954.

Kross started his career as a poet but he is best known of his historical novels. The Wikman Boys, 1988 and Tahtamaa (2001) are in my bookshelf. Between Three Plagues, 1970 and The Czar’s Madman, 1978, are among his most celebrated books.

Jaan Kross had a long and outstanding life. Unfortunately he did not survive to experience the 90th anniversary of Estonian independence which is five days after what would have been his own 88th birthday.



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  1. Yes, Kross was a kind and humble man and an interesting author.

    I was Googling just now to see what the press outside Estonia had to say, but could find very little, except for brief mentions in the Finnish online newspapers. The Benazir Bhutto assassination on the same day has rather pushed Kross out of the news. But the Estonian press is jam-packed with articles, of course.

    I translated one of his novels, “Treading Air”, which appeared in 2003 but is, lamentably, already out of print. In 1995, I had translated some short-stories entitled: “The Conspiracy and Other Stories” (also out of print!). Anselm Hollo, the American-Finnish poet, has translated a further two of his novels, “The Czar’s Madman” and “Professor Martens’ Departure”. All these books have appeared with Harvill in London and, I believe, Random House in the United States. Kross was very helpful if you, as a translator, asked him points of detail.

    The Professor Martens novel is about a man who never won the Nobel Peace Prize. Sadly, Kross never made the literature one. Actually, the latest Nobel Laureate, Doris Lessing, reviewed “Treading Air” in the British weekly “The Spectator” back in June 2003. She was very positive about that novel, and Kross’ books in general.

    Kross wrote about fifteen novels in total and, in his historical, and his semi-autobiographical novels, he gives an excellent picture of life before and during Soviet times. His syntax is somewhat convoluted at times, a challenge to the translator (don’t I know it!), but he does capture every subtlety.

    Those who know no Estonian can read more about him at: http://www.estlit.ee/index.php?id=646

    Larko, or whoever you are, can clearly read Estonian. Knowing languages means you can read things without waiting for the translation – which might never come. Although, I do hope that English-language publishers revive their interest in Kross’ work.

  2. Thanks for filling in, Eric. I wrote this post immediately after hearing the news. And indeed soon after that the news about Mrs Bhutto reached me. It was almost too much to cope with, two prominent persons dying the same day, one so violently and in vain, the other ever so sadly but yet as a natural course of life.

    I agree that translating Jaan Kross must be quite a challenge. He brought new expressions to the Estonian language in almost all of his novels. While I very much appreciate the efforts of translators, Jaan Kross is one of the authors I would not like to read in any other language than Estonian. Incidentally, Andrus Kivirähk is another.

  3. As many in Estonia he spoke several languages, once I saw him at a reading. Excerpts from hisbook “Kolme katku vahe” in Münster (Germany).
    And of course he was reading in German. I guess he knew the translation, maybe he gave advices to the translator. But anyway without knowing the Estonian context others will miss a lot of the meaning.

  4. The few times I met Kross we spoke English. My spoken Estonian wasn’t up to it. But German was indeed his best foreign language, apart from Russian, which must have come in rather handy during his 8 years in the Komi Republic during his involuntary sojourn there…

    German and Russian were also key languages for his researches into historical events. He also had a reading knowledge of Swedish, and will have read Finnish, too. Since several of his novels involve the Swedish period of Estonian history [17th century], the Czarist Russian period, the Soviet era, and so on, a knowledge of languages will have been crucial to background research.

    Even with German, there is a complication. The version spoken historically in Tallinn by the burghers was Low German (Plattdeutsch), which closely resembles Dutch. While what the Baltic-Germans spoke and wrote in the pre-war period when Kross will have heard it on the street as a child was ordinary German (Hochdeutsch).

    As for translating Kross, I can cope with neologisms, even puns (such as türa-nnia, which appears in “The Czar’s Madman” – a pun on tyranny and penis) but it was his syntax that sometimes baffled me. Actually, he approved of my title “Treading Air”, which isn’t exactly the same as his “Paigallend” (i.e. flying on the spot, making no headway). I used the analogy of treading water, which you do to keep your head above the waves.

    I’m going to read his 600-page autobiography one day. It takes the reader from Kross’ childhood to 1962, when he and his wife moved into the flat he lived in until his death. There are photos, too. The little of it I have read shows where he borrowed from real life experience to write his stories.

    Look out for a partial bibliography in English, which will hopefully soon be posted on the “Three Percent” translation website, run from the University of Rochester, New York State.

    I don’t like reading translations either, really. But if there were no translations we’d all be very limited. Prose perhaps travels better than poetry in this respect, and with Kross, we non-Estonians who can read Estonian must be very few. It would be a pity to confine Kross’ readership only to Estonians. Luckily there are several Russian, Latvian, Finnish, Swedish and German translations of several of his novels. So the world gets to hear about his work.

  5. Eric Dickens, thanks for the insight. I hope there will be a German translation of his memoirs too. The best time of Estonian literature in Germany was in the years after 1991 but the publishing of new books translated are very rare now. As for the German translation of Kolme katku vahel there are a two names of translators, one sounds German one Estonian, seems to be it was very thoroughly done.

  6. Btw, the second part of those memoirs is going to the print in January and is expected to be published in late February.

  7. Kross’s memoirs, as well as poetry – and all but forgotten part of his legacy – are well worth translating, although I suppose they would need a thorough commentary for the readers not very well acquainted with Estonian history and literary history; yet I’m afraid this tremendous work would bring no fortune to the publisher, and must thence wait for the time when Estonians will finally start a national translation program to influence the actual image of Estonia a little more than the unfortunate “Welcome to…” project has done, and this, in turn, may very well mean such translations will appear a little after their readers worldwide will have lost all hope and patience, learning Estonian already, and a pretty short while before the hell will freeze all over; and still, I suspect I’m running out of words before I can construct a single sentence that would, at least by its length, if possibly not by eloquence and rare, good-old-time-fashioned style, stand up to the usual standards of
    Jaan Kross.

    (A tiny poem in prose, if I think about it.)

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