I first went to Lithuania in 1995, just four years after it had established its independence from the Soviet Union. Despite the many problems the country faced, it was a wonderful place to be. Vilnius was a beautiful, old city and to walk its streets was to walk some of the most turbulent years of central European history.
In the twentieth century Vilnius had been ruled by Tsarist Russia, Poland, Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany then Soviet Russia again. It finally became an independent Lithuanian city in 1991. Vilna. Wilno. Vilnius. It was a city with many faces and some brutal stories – not least the extermination of its Jewish population which had once earned it the sobriquet ‘The Jerusalem of the North’ from Napoleon (who had also passed through, leaving a cemetery of his dead soldiers as he retreated in 1812).
It’s a city whose stories you would want to hear.
As a budding writer, I really wanted to read Lithuanian writers. I wanted to know what their stories were. I wanted to hear their voice.
However, unless I was going to learn Lithuanian, one of the most archaic European languages and notoriously difficult, then I would have no access to Lithuania’s literary landscape, because almost nothing was translated into English.
Somewhat ironically, the first Lithuanian fiction I read was a book I picked up in a small shop in Palma de Mallorca, where I subsequently went to live with my Lithuanian wife. Doubly ironically, it was a collection of the stories of Chaim Grade, translated from Yiddish. The voices of a community that had been wiped from the face of the earth first spoke to me about life in those narrow, curling lanes of Lithuania’s historical capital.
In 2016 there were no living Lithuanian novelists published in English.
Scouring Lithuanian bookshops I would inevitably be offered the same titles – a collection of short stories by one prominent writer and the novels of Ruta Sepetys, which hardly counted as she is American and writes in English.
Frustrated that it was simply not possible to read any contemporary novels, my wife and I decided to do something about it. We established a small press that would bring some of the best Lithuanian voices to an English reading audience. Noir Press was born. Since then we have published a number of prize-winning living Lithuanian writers including Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite, winner of the EU Prize for Literature for her beautiful, dark psychological drama Breathing into Marble and Grigory Kanovich, one of the great Jewish writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
As an accomplished author in your own right; having written The Last Girl, Amber, and The Song of the Stork, how has the process of translation affected your own writing and creative process?
My writing has always been international in its focus; my novels are often explorations of cultures and times in history that I have wanted to understand. The Song of the Stork is about a Jewish girl on the run in Nazi-occupied northern Poland, who seeks refuge in the house of a Russian mute.
Reading stories from other places has always been important to me. It’s interesting to see how another culture reveals their world. To see the commonality and differences of the human experience.
Though I read Lithuanian (if slowly and painstakingly), I don’t actually translate the books. One of the reasons for the scarcity of Lithuanian fiction in translation into English is that there are so few English literary translators who are able to translate from Lithuanian. The majority of the handful that are working in this field today come from the Lithuanian-American community, but their interest has, more often than not, it seems to me, to have been with the literature of the Lithuanian-American diaspora rather than contemporary Lithuanian fiction.
I do work very closely with translators and as I edit the texts I have the Lithuanian original by my side, trying to ensure that the distinctive literary voices of the texts are preserved in the translation. I think our translators have done a great job with that. You can feel the rich poetry of Cerniauskaite’s prose and the light irony of Rasa Askinyte’s tone. Renata Serelyte’s existential detective drama is written in a style that is as fractured and broken as her Soviet era investigator.
Is there a specific characteristic of the Lithuanian literature you’ve read that stands out to you as defining? Or perhaps a recurring motif that seems to exist in the cultural consciousness?
Lithuanian fiction is dark – there are no two ways about it. Even where there is humour, it has a sharp edge to it.
That has been particularly the case with the women writers we have published. The female protagonists in all of the novels have a darkness to them. Breathing into Marble is the story of Isabel. Isabel is married and has a young son who suffers from epilepsy. She decides to unofficially adopt a Russian boy called Ilya. Soon after that, the family spirals towards catastrophe. It’s a dark novel told beautifully. What is incredibly interesting is the relationship that Cerniauskaite develops between Isabel and her adopted son. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like Cerniauskaite in English. World Literature Today called her ‘a major talent of this generation’.
Rasa Askinyte’s voice is equally distinct, though very different to Cerniauskaite. To say it lightly, The Easiest, translated by Lithuanian-American translator Jura Avizienis, is a story of unrequited love. But it is so much more than that and has one of the most disturbing narrative voices I’ve come across in a while.
What is a Lithuanian idiom that was a special challenge to translate into English?
Lithuanian, generally, is difficult to translate into English as its sentence construction is entirely different. The fluidity of word placement in a Lithuanian sentence is difficult to replicate in the English and the fact that Lithuanian verbs are always very specific can seem very affected if translated directly. In English, ‘have’ a huge amount of things—from cups of tea, to baths, to a bad day. You can’t be that generalised in Lithuanian.
Lithuania also does not have a huge amount of curse words—though more than my wife originally communicated to me. When learning the language first I thought it important to add these words to my vocabulary, but my wife informed me (as many Lithuanians will) that Lithuanian does not have swear words. Speaking some time later to a male Lithuanian friend he happily offered to share them with me and wrote a list of the crudest Lithuanian phrases he could think of on a piece of paper, which I then left out on the kitchen work surface to the horror of my wife who feared that our young daughters or the au pair would come across it (I had been careless, as crudity in a foreign language always seems less offensive).
There are some great Lithuanian idioms: Kaip šuniui penkta koja—about as useful as a dog’s fifth leg. Bėda viena nevaikšto—troubles never walk on their own. Rather than having dirty thoughts, Lithuanians have curly ones—garbanotos mintys.
What new titles from Noir Press are you most looking forward to seeing in English?
In March 2019 we will be publishing our second title by the Jewish Lithuanian writer Grigory Kanovich. Kanovich was born in a small Lithuanian shtetl in 1929. When he was twelve years old Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and he was forced to flee to Russia with his parents. When he returned at the end of the war, the whole Jewish population of Lithuania had been massacred, many in forests outside the towns. His grandparents were murdered along with the rest of the community he had grown up with. He wrote poignantly about his early years in Jonava, Lithuania in his novel Shtetl Love Song which we published in 2017; the novel was a requiem to the world that was lost—a warm portrait of his grandmother and mother and the characters that peopled the shtetl. Devispel is the next stage in that journey. It tells the story of Danuta Haddassah, a gentile woman who tends to the Jewish cemetery in Mishkine along with her half-Jewish son, when the Germans invade. What is remarkable about the novel, especially coming from the pen of a holocaust survivor, is that the tone is often gently funny and warm. It’s a beautiful and—inevitably—painful novel about one of the darkest periods in Lithuania’s history.
Stephan Collishaw was brought up on a Nottingham council estate and failed all of his O level exams. His first novel The Last Girl (2003) was chosen by the Independent on Sunday as one of its Novels of the Year. In 2004 Stephan was selected as one of the British Council’s 20 best young British novelists. In 2016 he set up Noir Press, a boutique publishing house bringing new voices from Lithuania and Central Europe to an English speaking readership.
Follow Stephan on Twitter at @scollishaw
Follow Noir Press on Twitter @PressNoir