All about Estonian books in English

Estonian novels translated into English in 2018

In 2018, six Estonian novels were translated into English, and now it’s time to look back and count the literary achievements for the past year.

With Estonians celebrating their 100 years of being a free and independent country, a larger emphasis has been given to make Estonian literature available to a wider audience.

According to Estonian Literature Centre, a total of 95 Estonian books were translated from Estonian into another languages, among them 21 into English. While the numbers may seem small, for a nation where each is one in a million it’s impressive achievement. Among the six translated books, three are classics and others are by contemporary authors. As one would expect from jubilee celebrations, all six novels have a recurring historic theme.

The Misadventures of the New Satan”, by A.H. Tammsaare

God has come to the conclusion that sending people to hell is unfair as it seems that humans are incapable of living a decent life on Earth. If that’s the case, hell will be shut down and the human race written off in an unfortunate mistake. Satan is given the chance to prove human beings are capable of salvation. To ensure the survival of hell, he agrees to live as a human to demonstrate it is possible to live a righteous life.

Following the advice of St Peter, he ends up on earth living as Jürka, a farmer and a tenant on a run-down Estonian farm. His goodwill and best intentions are tested by the machination of his unscrupulous landlord as well as the social and religious hypocrisy.

It’s the last novel by Estonia’s greatest twentieth-century writer, Anton Hansen Tammsaare (1876-1940). The story combines satire on the inequality of rural life and the absurdly strict social attitudes with themes of mythology, folklore and the bible.

Toomas Nipernaadi”, by August Gailit

August Gailit’s romantic vagabond story. It’s summer and the sky is deep blue (unless it happens to rain), the midnight sun is keeping the nature up until wee hours and the male protagonist, Toomas Nipernaadi, is on a journey. With a long days and brief, fresh nights, the counting of the cuckoo bird echoing back from the vast forests and along the fields, the road reaching for the horizon brings out the longing in one’s heart.

Nipernaadi’s carefree wonderings take him from a village to a village and from a story to a story.  Lyrical, not letting himself be disturbed by reality, traditions or truth, his only aim seems to be charming people and telling (and let’s be honest, inventing) stories. While occasionally light-hearted and funny (nothing politically-correct about him, these were different times), the protagonist’s melancholy longing for a beauty, romance and happy endings makes a whole story deeper than just a farce.

Published in 1928, it was also made into a vastly popular movie in 1983 and firmly set in the hearts of readers. A story of short Estonian summer with a dream-like white nights.

I Loved a German”, by A.H. Tammsaare

It has been a good year for classic literature translations, including two translations from A.H. Tammsaare, one of the best-know Estonian authors. “I Loved a German” is one of his latest  works. Estonian own star-crossed lovers, Oskar is an Estonian university student while Erika is a descendant of a once-noble Baltic-German family.

In the newly independent Estonia, people talk about moving forward and leaving the dark past behind. However, it’s not easy to look past the habits formed due to centuries of oppression and prejudice. Going beyond the external obstacles, Tammsaare looked into the human mind. Oskar, a descendant of the people who used to work on the estates of Baltic-Germans, starts doubting the source of his own love. Is Erica a prize to be had in this new world, desired for the past, or does he love her for who she is as a person?

Published in 1935, it has been adapted for theatre as well as movies. The story was written in a diary format and is praised for its psychological realism and considered to give a unique perspective into Baltic-German society at the time.

Burning Cities”, by Kai Aareleid

Two decades of family history, told from the retrospect of a now-grownup Tiina. After the Second World War, her home town of Tartu, that was destroyed by Nazi invasion, is rebuilt and re-mapped by Soviets. The grownup word is one of distrust, suspicion, worries and heavy drinking. Tiina, in the middle of it all, hears whispers and things grownups say and don’t say and knows many secrets, even if she doesn’t know what she knows.

The times are complicated. In addition to a political instability, there are shortage of food and living space and a surplus of mistrust and hostility. While historic background has its role to play, the story is a child’s perspective and the retrospect storytelling makes it into a melancholy coming-of-age-story.

Translated for the first time into English, “Burning Cities” is an intimate portrayal of life under the Soviet occupation and an absorbing family drama.

Hanuman’s Travels”, by Andrei Ivanov

A story about the daily lives of two asylum-seekers at a Danish refugee camp and on the road in the late 1990s. The two companions in misfortune, a Russian-Estonian and an Indian, wait to go the promised land, the Danish island of Lolland. Meanwhile, they have to survive among scams, humiliations, lies and big and small disgraces.

“Hanuman’s Travels” was shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 2010, translated into German and French and put on the German stage. It is a picaresque tale of hopes and fears in a setting where thousands of people’s dreams and plans intertwine. Ivanov was inspired to write this novel by his own vicissitudes as a stateless person living in Denmark. Their struggle at times engenders dismissiveness and even intolerance, but also humanity, courage and the wisdom born of experience and resignation.

Pobeda 1946. The Car Called Victory”, by Ilmar Taska

In Tallinn, in 1946, a young boy is transfixed by the beauty of a luxurious cream-coloured car gliding down the street. It is the Soviet Pobeda, a car called Victory. The sympathetic driver invites the boy for a ride and enquires about his family. Soon after the incident, the boy’s father disappears.

Ilmar Taska’s debut novel captures the distrust and fear among Estonians living under the Soviet occupation after the Second World War during Joseph Stalin’s reign.

A world seen through the eyes of a young boy shows a society where it is difficult to know who is right and who is wrong. People disappearing, informants and the tortured living under the same fears themselves.

“Pobeda 1946: The Car Called Victory” is Ilmar Taska first novel, and it’s based on a prize-winning short story from 2014.


Cover: A screenshot from “Nipernaadi” (1983), the movie based on the novel of the same name by August Gailit.

Six children’s books by Estonian authors that are translated

What is the best way to sell books? The information passed on from person to person seems to be a pretty solid way to get the word around, Edith Soosaar writes.

More translated children’s books to follow up on the first story, Estonian authors translated books.

Since our recent article, people have reached out and told me about other authors and their books and I’m happy to share three more authors and six more books by Estonian writers that are not only translated into English but are also actually available to buy. Some are a few years old while others are up for pre-order.

The Family Tales by Epp Petrone and Piia Maiste

The first listing is not a book but rather an author. Epp Petrone has written, published, translated and published again six children’s books that are all translated and available to order abroad. Four of these books make up “The Family Tales” series. Epp Petrone’s storytelling and Piia Maiste’s illustrations describe the everyday adventures of a family with children. The books are intended as a bedtime reading for little boys and girls alike.

The first book of the series, Marta’s Toes, was written by the author as a gift for her own daughter’s birthday. The story shows a world through the eyes of a small girl growing up next to a big city and the sea.

The second book in the series is Anna’s Teeth. A new family member is bound to change things. Marta becomes a “big sister”. Young human beings have small, everyday adventures – from snail racing to playing with a baby sister.

The third book of the series tells the story through a baby’s perspective. Lena’s Laugh is from the point of view of the newest family member, Lena. A baby who still remembers her time in the belly is learning about her family.

The fourth book, Furry Purry, centers around the family pet, a tabby Furry, and Lena, who can still speak “cat language”. They teach each other about the cat and human worlds.

Coming soon – new translations of Estonian children’s books available to pre-order

Then there is a new book by Piret Raud, The Ear, on the horizon.

It’s a tale where the protagonist is not just any old, unwashed hearing instrument – but the ear of Vincent Van Gogh, the painter (in)famous for severing part of his own ear. What has an ear got to do when suddenly finding itself headless?

Raud is one of the best-selling children authors in Estonia, with an incredibly clever and unique writing style. Her books have been translated into 12 different languages so far – and multiple prints have been popular enough to have been sold out already.

And then there’s an old classic that is due to be available in English. The Gothamites (Kilplased) by Eno Raud is an absolute classic among Estonian children’s books.

When originally wise Gothmites find that with all people coming to ask for an advice they have no time to deal with any of their own problems, they decide to become stupid in the hope of being left alone.

It doesn’t quite work out as intended and the hilarity is ensured. Illustrations by the renowned Estonian animator, Priit Pärn, have brought into the picture the characters that have been a butt of many jokes for the generations of Estonians growing up.


Cover: An illustration by Priit Pärn for The Gothamites by Eno Raud.

Estonian author Indrek Hargla about reading, writing and publishing

Edith Soosaar interviews one of the best known and best-selling fantasy and fiction writers in Estonia, Indrek Hargla – the author of the popular Apothecary Melchior detective novels – who shares thoughts about his writing process, experience in publishing and translating, and becoming a writer.

Indrek Hargla has written novels, novelettes and short stories. He became famous with the Apothecary Melchior stories (historical crime-fiction set in a medieval Tallinn) of which the first two are translated and available in English. Over the years his works have been translated into French, English, German, Hungarian, Latvian and Finnish. His books are available to order from the Book Depository, (yes, this is affiliate link and these are good books).

I would like to know more about your writing process. Do you plan out the story before you start writing or start from the beginning with a vague outline and see where the characters take you?

I use both methods; writing must be an adventure and disciplined craftsmanship at the same time. You should always have certain ideas what you want to write but sometimes you don’t need to stick to original plans, the story and characters come alive and guide you. The genre is important; in crime fiction, the genre dictates the structure, disposition of characters and events. Crime and science fiction readers have certain expectations and writer must fulfill them, play by the rules but be original and innovative.

I do a lot of outlining when I write Melchior novels. Crime fiction always involves “engineering” – you just cannot kill somebody and see what happens and who might be the killer. I must know from the first sentence who did it and why. Then again, outlining and research must be minimal; a writer must not be enslaved to outlining. Usually, when you have written about one-third of any text, it is a right time to read it over and assess what kind of thing it wants to be, where it goes, what is the soul and spirit inside it; what it needs to succeed.

The thing is, you do not know your characters before writing. They develop and start to live on their own, listen to them, argue with them but try to understand them.

You have emphasised in your previous interviews the importance of the writer’s voice. How long did it take for you to get comfortable with your own writer’s voice? What would you recommend for young authors to develop theirs?

About 10-15 years I guess, and I am still not very comfortable with my own voice, but I am getting there.

The most important thing I recommend: do not write your story as you’d think this kind of story is usually written. In your mind, you imagine a certain way of style and choice of words how writing generally goes, and you try to replicate, to mirror this. That is the wrong way, this way you get very average, ordinary, a mediocre blend of a very usual literature – a kind of second-hand derivative stuff.

There is no other way but to meditate, work hard, concentrate really hard. You must write as you write and not how you think it is usually written but not overdo it, not to be too original, postmodern or challenging or too cool. About 70% of excellent writing is standard, common to all good literature – clear storytelling, colourful characters, sharp ideas, eloquent and powerful style. If it is not in you, then it’s not in you. When the real you is a bad writer, you have to face it and try not to write anymore.

How do you discipline yourself through the writing and multiple editing rounds? Do you use the Pomodoro technique (20-minute writing, 10-minute break) or some other time control-technique?

I do not use any specific technique. I just work, contemplate, meditate, plan, research and plan again whenever I can, and this is how it is most of the time. I may sit behind the computer for five hours and not write a single sentence – and then suddenly write three pages in one go. I think four or five pages of quality text per day is enough and one cannot demand more.

How do you decide on the genre for a new book? Have you had a case where you started writing with an idea in your head, but the story didn’t work, and you had to change something really fundamental (like a genre, location etc) to make it work?

No, you cannot change the genre. Novelettes can grow into novellas and novellas into novels, yes – but genres do not change. Maybe sub-genres can – what you originally planned as a steampunk-themed, may turn into more science fantasy, but no more. When you start a crime novel and cannot stick to the rules of the genre you probably end up with a boring mainstream book nobody wants to read.

Once I started a novel and after a while, I felt I am not up to it. I put it aside for a few years and then suddenly realised that the main idea was still there and still good – so I thought why not to write a short story? And I did; I transformed the idea of a novel into a story, or a novelette rather, and I am still satisfied with it. “Raudhammas” (The Iron Tooth – editor) is the name of the novelette; people still remember it and it was broadcasted on national radio.

What do you consider your weakest point/downfall as a writer? What’s your strongest side? What is the hardest part about being a writer? What’s the best part?

Weakest point? Impatience maybe. I am lazy enough to be a writer, but you have to be lazier. You write a sentence or a chapter; you know it’s not perfect, but it is passable, and you think: fine, let it be. There is always a better choice of words, which comes with more meditation and concentration.

The strongest side? A wish not to write ordinary stuff that has been written so many times before. The hardest part is the realisation that writing is not easy. It takes so much from you – time and energy – so basically, you give something away. The best part is this miraculous feeling when you see that suddenly things are falling into right places. You have put some ideas and elements into the story and you do not know why… And then you see it, everything fits like someone has been guiding you.

Do you find it harder to come up with positive or negative characters?

Positive ones, probably. Positive characters tend to be very much the same and ordinary. You need to give them some bad traits, make them from good characters into chaotic good ones, or so.

Being a writer seems to be an ever-learning process. What are the things you feel you still need to master? What is the most useful skill you have learned to help you along with your career? Both as a person writing books as well as helping your books reach the audience?

Ever-learning, yes. As I said, there is always a better choice of words. I have learned not to use common expressions in fiction. I learned there are words that a more loaded, suggestive, thought-provoking and full of possibilities than others and you need to find them. If you cannot write a good dialogue between two characters, then do not write that scene. You must always put interesting and unexpected things into every scene. Do not deliver empty scenes.

It takes much more time to come up with interesting ideas and that’s why I am such a slow writer. But I feel I must not give anything away.

Apothecary Melchior stories

Two of your books from Apothecary Melchior murder mysteries have been translated into English. Did you search for translationpublishing options yourself or was its initiative from the publishing house?

No, I never do that, I do not search for options myself. In fact, I cannot even remember now how the first two books got published in English. French and Finnish translations are much more important to me.

The Melchior series gets better all the time if I’m allowed to say this. The fifth and sixth novel really stands up for me and I am very happy that they are published in French. Jean Pascal Ollivry, my translator, was this wonderful person who once took the initiative to recommend the Melchior series to the French publisher.

It’s not uncommon to add a character flaw or a handicap to the protagonists to make them more humane and balances as humans. In Melchior’s case, you choose to add his health condition. What other options did you consider when first building his character?

I cannot really say I considered any other options. I just came up with the idea when I wrote and inserted it into the story not knowing what I am going to do with it or how important it was going to be, if ever. It just felt like a right or interesting thing at the time.

In later books, I picked it up and started playing around. Writing is like this – you just sit alone, come up with things and hope somebody takes interest in reading it. Melchior’s curse was not a product of careful engineering, just a spark of an idea that I used, in hope it would help make the character more interesting.

How did you come up with the Melchior’s health condition? Did you had a specific condition in mind or is it made up for the story?

It is made up. Mostly. But the reasons behind it and the true essence are not yet revealed so I cannot say anything more.

Do you control the story, do the stories take over as you write or is it a joint effort?

They must take over. They must come alive and guide me, they must tell me what they want. But writing a crime novel is an “engineering” to a large extent. There are certain rules and you must be disciplined to follow them. There have to be suspense and surprise ending in crime fiction; you have to deceive your readers, but you cannot cheat.

There can be a love story in crime novel but it can’t be a romance novel as a whole. You can use an element of horror or thriller, make them organically part of the story, but you must not lose focus and concentrate on a murder mystery. Murder must have the central role and prevail over other storylines. The crime novel is meticulously crafted, constructed and engineered product but it must look effortless.

Publishing home and abroad

Tell us about your very first novel manuscript? How long it took to write, how many rewrite rounds? When you had a manuscript ready how did you go about finding a publisher?

My first novel, “Baiita needus” (The Curse of Baiita – editor), is a very badly written novel. I wrote it quickly, I seem to remember. It was written by an aspirant of literature. I sent it to a local novel competition. Eventually, unfortunately, it got some honourable mentioning there, so one publisher approached me and bought it. I do not want to be remembered for that novel. Estonia is that small that even raw material like this gets published.

Do you participate in the marketing of your books abroad? How? The London Book Fair? Festivals? Books signings?

I do when I am asked. I do not market anything on my own. When I am invited to a festival, I go. I was not invited to the London Book Fair. Mostly, I have been to France for different fairs and festivals.

How is the marketing of books for the international audience different from marketing in Estonia?

Well, nobody knows anything about the Estonian literature abroad, so it must be very tough for a foreign publisher to publish an Estonian novel. I do not think that any Estonian author would ever be sold at airport book stands. You must be an Anglo-American or Scandinavian author to be really promoted in the international market.

Despite being one of the best known, bestselling and widely read Estonian author, you have chosen not to be a member of the Estonian Literature Association. Why?

I left the association before the last elections. Some members from the board were recruited to a certain left-wing, pro-Soviet party, and started intensely to use their membership in literature association to promote left-wing politics under the red flags. Most of the supporters of this party do not even speak the Estonian language. It felt like the association was hijacked by Soviets, so I chose to give up my membership.

I do not think that you can be a member of the board and speak in the name of all association to promulgate ideas that are against the principals that form the core of Estonian statehood.

Who in your opinion is currently the best writer in Estonia and in the world?

I do not know about the world. In Estonia, I could name three – or two, rather – because Rein Põder recently passed away, probably the best novelist of all times in Estonia. The other two are Meelis Friedenthal and Andrus Kivirähk.

In your Q&A session at the Estonian Opinion Festival 2015 at Rahva Raamat’s (Estonian book retailer) garden you said Estonia already had plenty of “looking-out-the window-and-telling-what-you-see” books and Estonian literature could use some more fiction writing. Do you feel the situation has improved since?

Not much. Realism and writing about yourself and every-day life are the main paradigm of Estonian literature. Those who dare to venture away from that mainstream do not write well yet.

Asimov or Adams?



Cover: Indrek Hargla at the Lyon Literature Festival book signing.

Four Estonian children’s books translated into English and where to find them

Edith Soosaar ventured out to collect the information about the Estonian children’s books translated into English from the last few years and where to find them for mail-order abroad.

If you have tried to find an Estonian children’s book translated into English that would be available to mail order abroad, it turns out to be less than trivial. Translations of Estonian children’s books are a rare occasion well worth celebrating. While over the last decade approximately one book per year has been translated into English by Estonian publishers and publishing houses abroad, many are sold out while others are only available directly from the authors or publishing house.

“Everyone’s the Smartest” by Contra and Ülle Saar

The latest (2018) addition to English translations of Estonian children’s books is a poetry collection. It comes with six pages of supplementary materials, giving young readers prompts and tips on how to write their own poems. Originally published in 2014 under the title “Kõik on kõige targemad”, it has won the Estonian Literature Annual Award for Children’s Literature. 

Illustrations by Ulla Saar, translated by Kätlin Kaldmaa, with the assistance of Charlotte Geater and Richard O’Brien.

Available from Book Depository (yes, this is a big scary affiliate link, but we love to recommend them as they have books and ship worldwide for free).

“Estonian Child – Mild and Wild” by Kätlin Vainola

The book is talking about what it’s like to grow up as a child in Estonia through the eyes of Uku and Leelo, friends and the main characters of the story. Together they play the discovery game and explore what is the life of Estonian kids like. Step by step and level by level they discover different childhood milestones, starting from birth and being named – all the way to participating in the song and dance celebration.

Among other topics, kids find out about kindergarten, ukaka, biscuit cake, nature trip, kama, kaerajaan and the national holiday traditions. Going through the levels will help the reader get an idea what it’s like to be a kid living in Estonia. The book contains colouring pages, jokes, comics, a recipe to make a biscuit cake and room for notes.

Illustrations and design by Ulla Saar and translation by Livia Ulman.

Available from the Rahva Raamat online shop directly from Estonia.

“Grace & The Magic Flame” by Eleonora Raus

“Grace & the Magic Flame” is a book for six to eight-year-olds, and it was written, illustrated and published in 2016. The story is about a character, Grace, who learns about the important value of gratitude by accidentally getting lost in the woods and meeting a magical fire flame. The flame guides her way out of the forest, and along the way, they meet various creatures, all of whom are grateful for different things in their life.

The author has made her own illustrations. For now, the book can be ordered directly from the author’s website. Always good to support the artist directly. Part of the profits goes to a nonprofit that fights against excessive deforestation of Estonian old-growth woodlands.

“Mau Nau Colouring Book Comics” by Okeiko and Maari Soekov

This is a colouring book-comic for all ages. The texts are parallel in English and Estonian, making it a fun and helpful addition for a person who learns Estonian. 

MAU NAU tells a tale of a chance encounter, beginning of a friendship and the celebration of life. Through the hands of experience of filling in the colors in the comic, a reader gets to give the story a unique personal touch. The book includes pages with colourful stickers.

Available via Amazon.


Cover: Book cover of “Grace & the Magic Flame”

Estonians are the biggest bookworms in the world

According to a study by the Australian National University and the University of Nevada in the US, Estonians lead the world in the average number of books people own.

A new study by researchers at the Australian National University and the University of Nevada in the US has revealed which countries are the world’s biggest bookworms – and Estonia leads the way.

On average, Estonians own 218 books per house and 35% of the respondents own 350 books or more.

An average number of books per house when people were 16

Estonia – 218

Norway – 212

Czech Republic – 204

Denmark – 192

Russia – 154

Germany – 151

Australia – 148

UK – 143

Canada – 125

France – 117

World – 115

The benefit of books

According to the study, published in the journal, Social Science Research, having more books when growing up improves educational outcomes. Adults with university degrees, but who grew up with fewer books, had the same level of literacy as those who left school in year nine – basic education – but who had a lot of household books as teens.

The study also established that the number of household books at age 16 had a positive correlation with literacy, numeracy and IT skills in later years – independent of how much tertiary study a person did, or how often they read as an adult.

The benefit of books was consistent across the world, and independent of a person’s education level, their job as an adult, sex, age or the education level of their parents.

Researchers surveyed adults across 31 countries, between the ages of 25 and 65, and asked them how many books they had in their home when they were 16.

The fact that Estonians buy a lot of books and read a lot may not come as a surprise – in a country of only 1.3 million people, one can find bookstores in any large shopping centre. Besides, several independent bookshops still survive in Tallinn and Tartu. Even more puzzling – considering the market size – is the number of publishers in Estonia, estimated at almost 900.


Cover: A young reader in Estonia (the image is illustrative/courtesy of Rahva Raamat).

Estonian children’s book “Everyone’s the Smartest” now available in English

A poetry book for children, “Everyone’s the Smartest”, written by the Estonian author, Contra, is now translated and available for readers in English.

“Everyone’s the Smartest” was originally published in Estonian as “Kõik on kõige targemad” (2014) and won the Estonian Literature Annual Award for Children’s Literature. Colourful illustrations for the poems are drawn by Ulla Saar. The collection comes with six pages of supplementary materials, giving young readers prompts and tips to write their own poems.

The Estonian author, Contra, born Margus Konnula in 1974, is Estonia’s contemporary poet. Since his debut in 1995, he has published at least one poetry collection every year.

Contra’s playful, absurd, heavily rhymed poems have made him a hit on Estonian television, at public events and in schools. He is a laureate of the Oskar Luts Prize for Humour, the Bernard Kangro Award for Literature and the Estonian Cultural Endowment’s Award for Children and Youth Literature for 2015.

The illustrator and artist, Ulla Saar, has an equally impressive reputation. She has won the Best Young Illustrator 2013 award by the Estonian Association of Illustrators and her first illustrated book, “Lift”, was listed in the 2014 White Ravens catalogue by the International Youth Library. Since then, she has illustrated close to 20 books.

The book is translated by Kätlin Kaldmaa, with the assistance of Charlotte Geater and Richard O’Brien, who are poets and editors at the Emma Press, a Birmingham, UK-based publisher.

The publication is available via Book Depository (Yes, this is a big scary affiliate link, but we love to recommend them as they have books and ship worldwide for free).

Cover: “Everyone’s the Smartest” cover motif, illustrated by Ulla Saar.

First impressions from the Hay literature festival – an interview with writer Ene Sepp

Edith Soosaar interviews a young Estonian author, Ene Sepp, at the Hay Literature Festival in the UK, an event that the former US president, Bill Clinton, once called “The Woodstock of the mind”.

Ene Sepp is an Estonian author who writes young adult fiction. She started writing her first book at the age of 14. By now, she has six published novels that have been warmly received by writers as well as critics.

You were invited to speak at the Hay Literature Festival in the UK this year. Could you tell us a bit more about it?

The Hay Literature Festival is considered to be the biggest literature festival in the UK. It takes place in a tiny village Hay-on-Wye, positioned between England and Wales. The Hay-on-Wye is called the book capital of the UK just because of how many bookstores you have there.

The Hay Festival is sometimes referred to as the Woodstock of the Mind and Spirit and it’s really popular and well known. This year’s famous quests included, for example, Margaret Atwood and Benedict Cumberbatch, so really big names.

How did you get invited to speak there? Did you know the organisers or met them somewhere before?

It was quite a surprise for myself as most of my meetings with readers are in libraries and schools. Moreover, my books have not been translated into any other languages yet. Usually, you don’t end up at festivals in those cases.

However, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were honorary guests at the London Book Fair this spring. One of the organisers from the Hay Festival started to chat with a person at the Estonian desk and as it turns out, they were missing a person from the young adult panel. Somehow my books were recommended as a good fit.

It must have helped that my book was selected for the 2017 children’s literature catalogue that was presented in London. I myself wasn’t even there, but due to the Baltic countries being the theme, the Estonian booth got more attention.

Was this your first literature festival?

Almost. I had visited the Estonian literature festival, Head Read, but only single events. Hay was the first festival where I stayed for several days in the row and participated fully. It was more concentrated, a lot more information and different events.

What are your first impressions of the festival?

The festival area was put together from different tents and areas that created rooms. Everything was covered, as in the UK, it can rain a lot of time, so it was quite nice that you didn’t have to worry about getting wet. Even the walking areas were covered. Definitely a nice addition.

You were invited to speak in the panel session.

The panel idea was to discuss if and how the books written for young adult readers are different in different countries. Participants besides me were from Latvia, France and the UK. There was supposed to be an author from Zimbabwe but, due to a delay in the visa process, she didn’t get to travel to the festival.

The whole discussion was nice and friendly. I was quite nervous about how I will speak and what will happen to my English. Although I have lived abroad quite a few years, speaking in front of an audience is quite horrible. I was introduced to other participants before in the writers’ lounge so we had time to chat and get to know each other. Eventually, when sitting on the stage, it just felt like we were a group of friends in the brightly lit room, chatting over books. There were bright lights so I barely saw the audience, that helped.

What is your takeaway from the panel? Do you feel you got the new information?

With young adult writing, an author has to follow a really fine line and avoid becoming patronising. It’s always a temptation to try to hide teachings in your writing. What happens, however, is that nobody really wants to read that. It’s a fine a balance of what to write and how to write.

Also, readers in different countries are still looking more or less for similar things. A book written by a Brazilian can still interest a reader in Poland, for example. Young people’s lives, problems and interests have a lot in common despite the cultural differences. Another thing all participants agreed on was that more books should be translated, and not just from English but also vice versa, from smaller languages.

The countries that participated in the panel were all from the Western culture space. Do you feel that international conclusions drawn from this panel are still valid? Do you think that young adult readers from India or Africa would enjoy your books?

I have a feeling that quite a lot of them would enjoy them, but some would probably hate them as well. The British children’s novelist, Jenny Valentine, who has been to Hay for many years, travelled around the world with the festival last year. They stayed in Mexico, Peru, Columbia and elsewhere. She got a lot of experiences that she brought to the panel. So, in some ways, at least South America was represented. Of course, it would have been nice to have actual writers from there but Jenny did a good job.

Did you get any interesting questions from the audience?

I tried to write things down when I got off the stage but my memory was playing tricks. I only remembered a good feeling and how nice it was, but the specific details are gone. I was just so nervous that I couldn’t remember.

Do you feel that the Hay festival can give a young writer a good networking opportunity? How did you do? 

I wish I would have been in the writers’ lounge more. That’s the area designated for the festival speakers. Hanging out there was a really nice way to meet other writers. I’m a shy person, especially when I need to talk about something that is really important to me – like writing. In the writers’ lounge it was easier. Unfortunately, I misunderstood and thought I can only access it for the same day my panel took place. Later I found out I could have been there also on other days. This is the one thing I will know better next time.

Do you feel the event was a success for you?

It was a huge success for me personally. It’s difficult when you haven’t done a lot of networking before. You go to such a big event for the first time and simply have to do it. It’s a huge learning curve. The Estonian mindset is being humble and not to praise yourself or others. Do what you do but never say anything good about it. It has taken me years to start doing any self-promotion or even start telling people I am a writer. Because I had this idea in my mind that I need to be humble and can’t praise myself. To be successful in book promoting, you need to do the complete opposite. So it was a great experience for me to practice self-promoting and learn to talk about my work.

What Jenny Valentine said is that there is an exercise she does in her lessons to train a habit of a self-promoting. One person is to say something good about their own work. The other simply replies, “well bragged”, and replies with something good about their own work. This trains a good mindset for a young writers to promote their book.

Will you go to Hay again next year?

It’s hard to predict. This year I was invited because of the good fit for the panel. It’s possible that as an author I might not get an invited again. But if I’m going to be in Europe at that time, I would love to go again as a visitor. Listening to other authors and speakers on different topics was really interesting. I got a lot of new ideas as a person and as a writer.


Cover: Ene Sepp with her books (images courtesy of Ene Sepp).

Rein Raud.

How can Estonian writers reach the English-speaking market? Interview with Rein Raud

Rein Raud has published eight novels and three collections of stories; three of his novels have been published in the Anglophone world. Estonian World asked him to share his experience with reaching out to the English-speaking market.

Estonians have become a reading nation, but it becomes more and more clear that Estonians also write a lot. With novel competitions getting plenty of submissions it seems there is no need to worry about the next generation of authors. The Tänapäev publishing house annual young adult novel competition got 30 manuscript submissions; although the number may feel modest considering the population, it’s an impressive achievement.

A small nation writing to each other with so many promising novelists and fiction writers, will there be enough possibilities to find readers? It’s only natural that an author would like to have their work read by as many as possible. Also, despite the deeply rooted image of a starving artist creating the immortal prose while freezing in a tiny basement apartment (penthouses have become fashionable and therefore out of reach for most aspiring authors), there is no shame in wanting to get paid. With many people speaking and writing good English, all the possibilities of an international market seem in an easy reach. From self-publishing to submitting manuscripts to publishing houses abroad, there are a lot of opportunities, but obviously the competition is also international.

Estonian World asked an established Estonian author, Rein Raud, to share his experience with reaching out to the English-speaking market. Through his decades as a writer, Raud has published eight novels, three collections of stories and a number of translated works in Estonia. Three of his novels have been translated and published by publishing houses in the UK and the US, the latest being his “The Death of the Perfect Sentence” in 2017 by Vagabond Voices. He was also one of the authors asked to represent Estonia at the London Book Fair 2018.

Tricks of the trade – the practical side of getting your book published in the UK and the US

You have selected traditional publishing over self-publishing that has become so popular lately. Why?

Unless you are already really good at something, better leave the practical side of things to professionals. All of my publishers in the Anglophone world have dedicated readerships who follow their production, so their choice of my work is already an endorsement in their readers’ eyes, which even a good marketing campaign would not necessarily match.

Do you use a literary agent? If so, how did you find yours? Through the Estonian publishing world, searched yourself through cold contacts or networking on literary festivals, friends recommendations?

The Estonian Literature Centre has been doing a wonderful job in representing Estonian authors at events worldwide and bringing international publishers to Estonia to meet the authors. It seems Estonian authors aspiring for international success should perhaps concentrate on the quality of their writing in the first place.

You speak many languages, why did you choose not to make your own translations? How do you find the translator?

Well, on the one hand, my plate is quite full already, but even so I don’t have the confidence of a literarily gifted native speaker for all the stylistic nuances and registers. Just speaking a language, or even being able to write academic text in it (as I do in English) is not enough for literary translation of sufficient quality.

I do proofread many of my translations though, and I have a rule that I do not correct sentences that do not feel right to me, regardless of whether the translator has followed the original verbatim or not. Obvious mistakes stick out, of course – luckily, there are never so many of them – and sometimes there are stylistic choices I would definitely not have made myself. So if somebody wants to translate me from English, they are welcome to, because the text has been verified by me.

Rein Raud.

Marketing and networking your own book

How are the sales of your books going? If it’s not too personal, did you sign up for a flat fee or a sales-based contract and why?

The conditions of contracts differ and are based on the standards of the publishing houses. None of my books is a huge bestseller, but I hear “The Death of the Perfect Sentence” has entered its second printing. I also have received quite a few favourable reviews for all three books and I’ve been selected by some independent bookstores for promotion, which also helps.

You participated in the 2018 London Book Fair. How did it go and was it what you expected? How many business cards did you bring, how many did you hand out? Did you get a writer’s cramp from signing your books? Has anything solid come out of that experience or is it too early?

Oh, I didn’t count my business cards and I certainly didn’t expect them to immediately produce great publishing deals. There was a lot of interest though, in all Baltic authors, and quite a few of the discussions started during that fair have continued since.

A writer-in-residency – have you done it? Do you find it useful for concentration, networking and/or resume boosting or is it just a fashion thing?

Yes, I wrote the bulk of “The Reconstruction” during a wonderful month in Italy, a small town near Rome, in a spacious apartment and a nice balcony, and almost forgetting the sound of my own voice during the process, as there were sometimes days on end without anyone around to talk to. As to writers’ houses with lots of people working there at the same time – I’ve been to some a few years back, and written a bit, too, but I normally need solitude for my work. Luckily, for the last seven years I’ve had a country home and most of my writing is done there.

What networking methods do you recommend for an aspiring author? You are quite active on Twitter. What other self-marketing have you found most effective?

Well, my presence in the social media probably contributes toward the sales of my books a bit, but I am not on Facebook and Twitter for the purposes of marketing, even if I sometimes post about my books, lectures or readings. I have given interviews to all kinds of media outlets, including independent book bloggers in the UK and the US, but this is also not something I actively seek.

You have a personal website, do you manage it yourself? What benefits do you feel you get from it?

Yes, that is something I indeed do myself, but it is not so much trouble. I suppose the site comes up in Google searches among the first items, if someone has decided to look me up, so I have gathered a lot of information and links about myself in one place. About whether it is useful or not – I really can’t tell. But it is surely better to have it than not.

Rein Raud's “The Death of the Perfect Sentence” was published in the US in 2017 by Vagabond Voices.Bits and bobs

Is it plausible to make your living as a full time author?

No. There are very few authors in the world who write literature of high quality and also have such sales figures that they can live comfortably off it. Most of them come from big language areas and have the power of a strong establishment behind them. Children’s literature is an exception though, as parents still often prefer to buy good books for their children even if they don’t read much of these themselves.

Is it better to aim to be a big fish in a small pond or small fish in the ocean? Do you think it’s important that Estonian authors should try to get published abroad? There are writers who write in English already saying that the Estonian market is just too small.

If considerations of market size, income and fame are primary in the motivation of an author, my advice to such a person would be to do something else. I write in Estonian because this is my language, and this is where I am from. This does not mean there is a distinct “Estonianness” to my writing, or that anyone’s literature inevitably bears a stamp of their pedigree. I hope my books are interesting to their readers because they manage to touch something more broadly human than just the local sentiment, and yet the topics and characters of my work come from the life I know, or the past that continues to haunt it.

But I do also feel the fish pond effect. Let’s say, if there is one person in a thousand who likes to read the kind of literature I am trying to write, then there would be about a thousand of such people around in Estonia, and maybe not all of them would find their way to my book. In neighbouring Finland, for example, the population is five times bigger than ours, but the number of members in their Writers’ Union is just about twice the amount of ours, even though in Finland you are offered membership of the union automatically after you have published two books, while in Estonia there is a more complicated procedure and there are quite a few authors who have published a lot, but do not belong to the union. Our literature is thus quite big, considering the number of its readers. On the one hand, this suggests, of course, that our literature is thriving, but on the other, this also means it is much more difficult for our authors to achieve a stable readership.

In your interview on the turbulent times of 1992 you mentioned that the US was far more aggressive and dangerous in a sense of cultural takeover than Russia ever was. Two of your books are published in the US. Is that your attempt to bring culture to the US? Do you feel that, over the last 26 years, the cultural craving of Estonians have developed beyond hamburgers?

To the last question: yes, luckily. It should be stressed that I was talking about the cultural, not the political situation. We unfortunately still have to fear a lot from the side of Russia, especially now that it has reverted to autocracy, but for the same reason the likelihood that the Russian popular culture would outweigh Western influences in our world is close to zero. However, the pressure on Estonian literature has remained. Books in English are cheaper and most Estonians freely read English, some even speak their mother tongue with a large percentage of English words and expressions, sometimes so that only the grammar is what remains Estonian, with its case endings and tenses. So the fate of our culture is, for the first time in centuries, entirely in our own hands.

I have no tolerance for nationalism in the sense of thinking one’s own ethnic heritage is somehow superior than anyone else’s, but I do think our language should survive, and nothing but writing things in it that will really speak to others – including foreigners who might want to learn our language – can preserve it. Luckily, there is also the Estonian Cultural Endowment, a foundation to which a certain part of taxes on alcohol, tobacco and gambling are diverted and the funds are then distributed, not by state officials but artistic professionals, to projects fostering different parts of Estonian culture, literature included. If the cowboy capitalism of the early 1990s would have become the foundation of the Estonian cultural politics for a longer time, the Estonian literature would probably already be on its way to extinction, as the competition with imported works would be much more severe.

As to the US and the Anglophone world in general, I am very glad that the interest toward translated literature has risen significantly over the last decades and started to include also literatures in smaller and less known languages such as ours. All things considered, Estonian authors are doing quite well in the international market. Of course there is no need to “bring culture” to the English-speaking readers of literature, but to broaden the scope –well, maybe.


Cover: Rein Raud has published eight novels and three collections of stories; three of his novels have been published in the Anglophone world.

Four books from Estonia that make a good gift 

Estonian World highlights four notable works from Estonian literature translated to English that will make a great gift to introduce Estonia to your foreign friends and family.

Books by Estonian authors have been translated into many languages over decades. With all the possibilities of mail ordering and e-books, the options to obtain Estonian literature in most parts of the world is easier than ever. After all, next to living among the actual people, what better way is there to get to know the nation and its origin than to read its thoughts.

Here are a four authors and their books that would make a good gift idea for an estophile to be.

Fantasy – “The Man Who Spoke Snakish” by Andrus Kivirähk

Andrus Kivirähk is probably one of the most varied authors in Estonia. His works include novels, theatrical plays, children’s books etc.

“The Man Who Spoke Snakish” is a phenomenon of its own. A masterpiece of a fantasy novel set in the times of far past, not long after the crusades, when most of the fighting has been overcome and new way of life starts to settle in. In a world where hunting, respect for nature and stories have been replaced by obedience, farming and Sunday church. The last man who can still speak with animals decides that some things are worth fighting for. He is looking for a way to pass on old wisdom, to keep it alive for the times when Estonians may have a need or a desire for it.

People as part of nature, co-existing with sensible respect rather than lording over it, was a cornerstone of the old beliefs and Kivirähk captures an amazing story of the fading time of legends. The old way of life is dismissed by most for a softer and relatively care-free life of servitude and obedience. The old knowledge is nearly forgotten, and a magic has almost faded away if nothing is done to preserve it.

A good gift to anybody loving fantasy but would also be a treat to an older generation that may have left their homeland decades ago.

Myths and legends – “Estonian Folktales – The Heavenly Wedding” by Piret Päär and Anne Türnpu

This beautifully made book is a collection of Estonian folk tales. Short stories about the Heavenly Wedding, the Greedy Wolf, the Moon Maiden, the Singing Tree and other tales passed down through the times.

Fairy-tales can express the way of thinking like nothing else. Each nationality comes with its own history and temperament that results in a different way to dream, caution their young and make wishes. Legends passed on through the time show what people considered to be important lessons, what they feared and hoped for. Beyond being all metaphysical and a mirror to the soul of the nation, these tales simply make an enjoyable read.

This book makes a great souvenir from Estonia to a family with children or to an omnivorous reader, interested to learn about what yarn is used to make these strange creatures called Estonians. It can also be read to children as a bedtime story.

A difficult history meets the contemporary – “Purge” by Sofi Oksanen

“Purge” by Sofi Oksanen, an Estonian-Finnish writer, is a more serious read. Two women and their lives meet in the fresh new world of the Republic of Estonian that has restored its independence. Aliide’s past and Zara’s present create an intense story or tragic family history, mistrust, fear and shame. The past and the present intertwine; the book depicts the hardest times of the Soviet occupation and newly liberated Estonia through two women and their past and present.

Oksanen deals with some heavy themes like sex trafficking, horrors of war and the ugly side of the human nature ready to use regime changes to personal advantage. She depicts the extreme things people are willing to do to survive and how to live with the choices afterwards. What does it even mean to make a choice when there are simply no good options?

“Purge” is a good reading gift for people interested in history and more serious topics.

Light and contemporary – “Mission Estonia” by Justin Petrone

This book is a vivid picture of the life in contemporary Estonia through a person whose vision is sharpened by a different background. Justin Petrone was born and raised in the US but made his home in Estonia when he married a local woman. He learned the language, made his life and livelihood in an environment alien to him – and writes about the experience.

Such background gives him a perspective to notice and point out what makes this country and its people different. Stories include all the mandatory mentions of the meat jelly (sült) and sauna, cold winters, bogs and drinking adventures.

“Mission Estonia” would make a nice present and an easy read to a young person thinking of visiting or moving to Estonia.

A great gift

Estonian literature makes a great gift, either to get as a unique souvenir from an Estonian or simply to introduce your country to friends or foreign in-laws and especially when you have children who might like to know the origin of Estonians. Most of these books can be ordered in paperback or e-book form from Amazon. “The Man Who Spoke Snakish” is also available as an audiobook. You can also contact Estonian World for ordering.

What books have you found useful in introducing Estonia to foreigners? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!


Cover: A segment of the book cover for “The Man Who Spoke Snakish” (the image is illustrative).

The London Book Fair focusses on Estonian literature

The London Book Fair 2018 focussed on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as the countries are celebrating their centenaries; numerous events at the fair concentrated on Estonian books, writers and translators in the city that is considered a gateway to the European markets.

The London Book Fair, held from 10-12 April 2018, is over. It has always been an event for discovering opportunities, to do face-to-face business. This year, over 25,000 delegates from 130 countries participated, over 200 professional events like panel discussions, seminars and training sessions took place. Traditionally, it is a showcase for individual publishing markets, where contacts are made and deals are done.

It was, no doubt, a great moment for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – the countries that were focussed on at the global market place – and one may only hope that the grand event at Kensington Olympia will get transformed into a remarkable impact in the publishing industry of the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world. As several European publishers still consider London a gateway to the European markets, the impact might even be echoed on the continent. Perhaps even on several continents, one never knows; all we know is that in the modern world writers are as essential as a glass of water.

Audio books and non-fiction becoming popular

What is the news in a nutshell regarding the LBF 2018? It is the first time one notices such a remarkable growth in the use of audio books – especially among men in their twenties, thirties and forties. Also, the importance of poetry has grown – probably as a counter-reaction to politics. Blogs, literary blogs are getting more and more noticed. And no doubt, the book fair highlighted the interest in book illustration. According to statistics, children are remarkably good readers, so one can be sure that books have a great future; and not only traditional books but also e-books.

The popularity of non-fiction is growing fast; a good example being the huge pre-publication interest in “Meghan: A Hollywood Princess”, written by Andrew Morton. A generation ago, Morton’s book, “Diana: Her True Story”, was an explosive account on the princess’s conflicted secret life. The book on Meghan Markle involved a thorough research, on the basis of which the author claims that she is the person who has made the royal family relevant for the next 100 years.

Translations and translators are in the limelight, as are many cross-cultural and global topics. Brexit means insecurity for all those tens of thousands non-UK citizens who work in different sectors, including the publishing industry of the United Kingdom. Moreover, it may mean a shift from the traditional use of London as the publishing markets’ gateway to Europe.

Translators turn into writers

But back to the translators, and also the translators turned into writers. The latter may have a great future due to their obvious capability of presenting their texts in a more accessible manner for readers of the global village. The panel discussion during which Maarja Kangro (who explained that she was a translator who grew into being a writer), and Christopher Moseley (who has translated several Estonian authors into English) teamed up on the topic was utterly intriguing and most enjoyable.

Be it a box of Malta, a display area of Estonia or display areas of China, translators were given a voice. Miriam McIlfatrick, Susan Wilson, Adam Cullen, and Christopher Moseley – experienced and creative translators from Estonian into English – were seen taking part in different events of the book fair. Be it Estonia or the UK, publishers are interested in getting good translations from the translators who have developed a cross-cultural grasp and perfect language skills.

Over the years, the Estonian Literature Centre, headed by Ilvi Liive in Tallinn, has made a remarkable effort to train those who translate Estonian books into foreign languages. It is not an exaggeration to say that among many other things, the Estonian Literature Centre has managed creating a global network of professional translators.

The other side of the same coin is translating from foreign languages into Estonian. Interestingly, the topic drew a remarkably wide audience at a busy hour of the book fair. The translator and publisher, Krista Kaer, and the publisher, Christopher MacLehose, were in a gripping conversation that painted an intriguing cross-cultural picture of the history of translating into Estonian. By the questions and answers time, Christopher Moseley joined in, and the jostling of cameramen around them was swiftly followed by several one-to-one filmed interviews.

Moseley translates fiction not only from Estonian into English but also from Latvian, Finnish and Scandinavian languages – and somewhat surprisingly, even from Livonian. He teaches at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, and for those English speakers who have studied Estonian, his name is familiar thanks to the complete course, “Colloquial Estonian” – the most popular text book written by him for learners of the Estonian language.

The most recent good news is that on top of grammar, from 2018 it will be possible to study under his supervision an undergraduate course introducing the literature of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in English translation.

The list of Estonian writers Moseley has translated is impressive, including Andrus Kivirähk, Indrek Hargla, Maimu Berg, Anton Hansen Tammsaare and even Ene Mihkelson, whose “Plague Grave” is a remarkable challenge for the most experienced translator (a chapter of the book is available in the Riveter magazine, Riveting Baltics Writing, April 2018).

Moseley’s most recent translation of a novel is “Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory”, written by Ilmar Taska – the book that has just been published by Norvik Press and is now available for the readers living in the United Kingdom.

Problems reflected in the Taska’s book as relevant as ever

“Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory” is Taska’s first novel. Published by Varrak in 2016, it has already been translated into Finnish, Lithuanian, German and Danish, and enjoys both critical success and popularity among readers in the respective countries. Taska is a modern and sensitive author with a remarkably visual style of writing. His career started in the TV and movie industries: he has worked at Tallinnfilm, the Swedish television and Hollywood film companies.

Compared with many authors, Taska’s grasp is global; however, while reading this book, one realises quickly that it is a very personal story – Taska was born into a family that had been deported to Kirov.

Taska’s novel is based on characters turned into archetypes; from victims to the new era collaborators, each character gets a voice in the light of the power change that impacted the lives of people in occupied Estonia. Moreover, each character has his or her hopes stemming from their perception of the changing world; and when the hope dies, the voice certainly dies.

As the book has been published only recently, the conversation between Taska and Rosie Goldsmith (the director of the European Literature Network and a former BBC journalist) that took place in the framework of EstLitFest was keenly followed by would-be readers.

Taska cleverly draws a line between collective and individual: on the one hand, there are people who have lost their names in the narration – the main characters are “the woman”, her son who is just “the boy”, and a KGB man who is “the man”; on the other hand, there are those who still have their names, the two striking individuals – Johanna, an Estonian opera singer and Alan, a London-based BBC news director – whose love story stamps the book with great hope. Having said that, I must admit that there stays a nagging question regarding “the boy” – will he become “the man”?

Johanna’s problems are in many ways the problems reflected on by Sofi Oksanen in “When the Doves Disappeared” and by Margaret Atwood in “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Will the woman who succeeds escaping the totalitarian world be understood in the free world? Will the door behind her be locked forever? And just to think of all those many other questions following the first two.

The problems reflected on in the Taska’s book are as relevant as ever; the wartime is not the past.  The picture he paints of news production, and the way readers are led to follow Johanna in order to discover the real news within the news is pretty amusing. It reminds one of a Russian doll, and maybe brings to mind people discovering messages left by famous tailors into the suits and dresses worn by their famous clients. Date of arrival is often depending on the mind-set and resourcefulness of the recipient.

Finally, I hope my reader will forgive me for not having been capable of shedding light on so many other truly interesting events that took place in the framework of the ever-vibrant London Book Fair. I do believe seeing is believing, and I hope to see it all continued next year, at the London Book Fair 2019.


Cover: London Book Fair 2018 at Kensington Olympia (credit: LBF). All images by Ann Alari except where stated.

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