Putting focus on the Baltic Sea and its literature
Not too far from my own home in Berlin lives Klaus-Jürgen Liedtke, writer, translator and head of the literature project “Baltic Sea Library”*. We meet on a grey, rainy afternoon in his appartment, have coffee at the kitchen window and talk about Liedtke’s relation to the Baltic Sea and the ambition that drives his engagement for literature from the region.
Tobias Koch: Dear Mr. Liedtke – before we start I would like to kindly ask you to present yourself in a few own words to our readers.
Klaus-Jürgen Liedtke: I was born in the Baltic Sea Region, in Schleswig-Holstein in a small village close to the Danish border. After studying German, Scandinavian, English and American philology in Kiel, Uppsala and Berlin I started working as a translator from Swedish to German in 1975. In the late 70′s I went to live in Turku for five years and became part of the editorial team of the literary annual “Trajekt” and was in charge of the Finland-Swedish part. My international Baltic Sea Region activities started in that period and I got the chance to start spearheading projects. In 1992 there was the legendary cruise of writers „Baltic Waves“. 400 writers from all over the region came together and travelled for two weeks all around the Baltic from Saint Petersburg to Sweden and back. I joined the cruise and one year later the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Visby, Sweden was founded. From 1997 onwards I participated in the annual meetings of the Baltic Writers’ Council in Visby, which I became head of in 2005. As I met many writers from all over the region, we all realized that there was little that we knew about the literature of our respective origins. We began to focus on the Baltic Sea and from the end of the 90’s onwards the idea of a Baltic Sea Library began to take shape.
TK: Nevertheless it took about ten years to establish the library?
KJL: Yes, that was mostly a matter of finding the right people and editors. I wanted to have a great team of younger and older men and women. Also finding editors from all over the region was difficult.
TK: How would you describe the work of the Baltic Sea Library?
KJL: Right now we are 15 people with different professional backgrounds, that are the editorial team. Unfortunately we meet too rarely. Last time all the editors met in 2011 – so our work is not as continous as I imagine it to be. Initially we all chose three most important texts, that were to be published on the platform. There are many ideas, wishes and potential for what texts we want to publish. For instance among our 300 texts, there is no text written by Swedish August Strindberg. That is something we need to tackle.
TK: What are the difficulties in your work?
KJL: Publishing translations is always a question about purchasing the respective rights. Not all texts are easily available or affordable. We try our best getting the texts we want and still respect the criteria of selecting texts that deal with other people, countries of the region or with the Baltic itself. We also try to select texts that are forming an echo to other publications or events. When I worked as an editor at “Trajekt” I learned for instance, that there are poems from Estonia functioning as responses to Bertolt Brecht’s escape to Denmark, Sweden and Finland. They seem to be really interesting and we would like to include these in the library!
At this point we start losing ourselves in talking about Brecht and his refuge in Svendborg and Helsinki, Mati Unt’s processing of Brecht’s life in Finland in “Brecht ilmub öösel” and the misconceptions of Brecht’s life as a refugee. We somehow get on track again …
TK: It’s great to see that you can publish and work on new texts, when you meet on an irregular basis. How do you do that?
KJL: Well, some of us do have the chance to meet once in a while when attending translation workshops. I would like to see a Danish-German translation workshop in 2014, where we could also bring the editors together again. The last workshop we had was in 2012 in Rybachi in the Russian part of the Curonian Spit. The participants came from Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria, Berlin, Riga, Moscow and we had a busy and promising time there. These kind of events connect writers, translators and help us advancing the Library.
TK: What about the impact and the range of the Baltic Sea Library? Do many people know about the project and also use it for their purposes?
KJL: Yes, they do! I recently received the statistics of 2013 and there were 30000 site requests from all over the world, with 15000 that stayed longer on the website. That actually means that there are four times as many visitors as in 2012. Of course that kind of a platform needs to grow, but we’re proud of what we have achieved so far. We do get feedback from all over the world now and are even offered texts for publication. That is great progress!
TK: Would you say that there are core-topics in literature from the Baltic Sea Region?
KJL: I think that literature always, probably even because of experiences of war and conflicts, has the task of identifying, processing and eventually overcoming loss. I’m thinking of expressive and forceful texts, like for instance Polish descriptions of post-war Gdansk after the Germans had left.
Also, the antagonism in the Baltic Sea Region is so striking. There are so many manifold texts. It starts with the raids of vikings in Curonia in Egils saga and then there are the biographies of people like Tomas Tranströmer, who wrote the poem “Östersjöar”. There he portrays his grandfather who worked as a pilot for ships in the Stockholm archipelago. This poem is central to the Baltic Sea Library’s work and has been translated to all other languages.
Beyond that the 8 percent of world wide trade that pass through the Baltic from China, Russia to Hamburg are also significant. There are only few texts about trade, surely you can name Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” as one of them, that deals with the golden time of trade. And it is even related to another text. Norwegian writer Tor Eystein Øverås travelled around the Baltic Sea for eight months and wrote a book about it. There he poses the hypothesis that Thomas Mann was greatly impressed by another family story, namely Alexander Lange Kielland’s novel “ Garman & Worse” (1880). Our library does not only publish texts, but also reveals connections and influences.
Klaus-Jürgen Liedtke jumps off his chair and disappears for a short time in his impressive, personal library, talking on and trying to find his personal copy of “Garman & Worse”, a novel which I had never heard of before. He comes back and hands the beautifully designed copy of the German issue to me. I enthusiastically browse through it and tell myself to get a copy.
TK: What are the future plans of the Baltic Sea Library?
KJL: I want to have a thousand texts on the platform. And I would like to see that we can select texts for translation and let people apply for translating them. That would enable us to support rare translations from for example Finnish to Latvian. The language diversity in the region is fascinating. It actually allows us to stress the similarites of the languages as well as their diversity and uniqueness. That is so exciting about translations – you translate, but put it maybe a little differently and that unleashes new impacts.
TK: How do you see the Baltic Sea in the public awareness?
KJL: I’d like to see the Baltic Sea gain more attention again. It’s more than the “leisure sea” which it unfortunately is to many in Germany. In GDR times the Baltic was the “sea of freedom” and people dreamed of the Swedish skerries. I wonder if utopian images are needed in order to get interested in your neighbors again?
TK: What other plans do you have in your drawer for the Baltic Sea?
KJL: As I’m convinced that the Baltic Sea has a lot more potential, I want to publish a Baltic Sea anthology in two years time. It shall also feature younger and more recent writers’ contributions. I would like to see it published in several languages, like Swedish and Russian in addition to German.
TK: Thank you, Mr. Liedtke and good luck with the library and your other projects!
*The project Baltic Sea Library has since 2010 selected, translated and published literature from the Baltic Sea Region on its website www.balticsealibrary.com in 13 languages.
P.S.: The Baltic Sea Library is currently looking for translators for the text ”Tellikaatne” by Jüri Tuulik to any Baltic Sea language. If you’re interested just contact: firstname.lastname@example.org