Eesti antiigitõlke traditsioonid / Traditions of Estonian Translation from Ancient Greek and Latin


  • Janika Päll University of Tartu



The tradition of translating ancient Greek and Roman authors into Estonian is short, beginning with first attempts at the end of the 18 th century and the close adaptations of two Anacreontic poems (21 and 24) by the first Estonian poet Kristjan Jaak Peterson (in 1818), which remained in manuscript for a long time. The continuous history of printed translations began in 1878 with the translations from Homer by Jaan Bergmann. At present, a new, extensive and regularly updated bibliography with a database of earlier translations is being created (EAB 2012), which also includes the translations in the journals and more extensive citations in articles, as printing separate books with ancient literature started very late (1908) and was very rare in the beginning.  The periods in Estonian translation reflect the history of the country. Almost every period has its own specific trends, beginning with the focus on Greek and the role of periodicals in the first, resembling the patchwork-model of translation that has been described by Karl Eimermacher. Alongside the wish to entertain and educate, we see a strong tendency to use these translations for the development of Estonian national identity by comparing the Estonian epic “Kalevipoeg” to Homer’s epics and translating pieces from Tacitus’ “Germania” as early references to Estonia and thereby extending Estonia’s written history.  The 1920s and 1930s bring first attempts to create a canon, with a stress on Latin and the translations made for school, as well as the development of verse translation. However, all this was disrupted by the almost total abandonment of the classical tradition during the war and the Stalinist period. The comeback in the 1960s brought the translation of central authors from the classical canon (Homer, Vergil, Sophocles), supported by other activities of canon-building (anticipated partly in the 1920s and 1930s): the composition of anthologies and histories of literature. The expansion of canon through a broader choice of works (and studies of central authors and genres) as well as more translators has occurred since the 1990s, when classical philology was taught again at the university.  The general trends are toward increasing specialisation, the important role of periodicals and a marked tendency to achieve two goals: to educate and to entertain. Next to the patchwork model, characteristic of initial phases, we also see another model in the periodicals (and some translations made for the theatre): a laboratory, where the translator proceeds towards the translation of the whole work, experimenting and publishing it, at first in parts, in (different) journals.


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