Lacplesis epic reborn in English

  • 2005-05-18
  • By Stephanie Milbergs
RIGA - Finally, the Latvian epic poem "Lacplesis" (The Bear Slayer) has been translated into English, thanks to Australian Professor Arthur Cropley, who holds no Latvian roots whatsoever.

"My first intent was to tell a good story to native speakers of English who are capable of appreciating epic-heroic English and epic stories," Cropley explained to a small group of interested scholars and students at the University of Latvia on April 20.

Andrejs Pumpurs (1841-1902) wrote "Lacplesis" in 1888. The poem is set at the end of the 13th century and is divided into cantos. Similar to the Finnish epic "Kalevala" or the German poem "Nibelungenlied," the Latvian story can only be compared to the "Iliad" or "Aeneid" in terms of imagery, such as the wandering sea. Yet the text holds just as much grandeur, and in the last line declares: "The day will come when the Bear Slayer will defeat the Black Knight and cast him down into the river to drown. On that day, the Latvians will be free!"

Although "Lacplesis" does not have a specific, special place in modern-day Latvian society, in the past it served as a defining point of Latvian nationhood.

"Most people [Latvians] probably haven't read it, but know about it… it has become part of popular culture in that sense," explains Professor Valters Nollendorfs, who works at the Occupation Museum and has done quite a bit of Latvian-English translation himself.

To some people, a "nation needs a common language, culture and an epic," continues Nollendorfs. An epic confirms that there is nationhood. Thus, the professor explains, Pumpurs put Lacplesis into the historical Crusader period because Latvians lacked an epic during that time.

Translations of the poem already exist in Japanese, Russian, Estonian, Lithuanian and Polish, but surprisingly not English. Before Cropley, a woman by the name of Rita Laima-Berzins completed an English prose translation in 1988, but it is nearly impossible to locate a copy of this work.

Thankfully, Cropley has formulated an excellent poetic translation, as his masterpiece cannot be called a direct translation of Pumpurs' work.

"It is impossible to translate directly," says the professor with a plush white caricature mustache that curls up at the ends. "'The Bear Slayer' is not a ballad, but I've basically turned it into an Australian ballad poem."

Many literature buffs have complimented Cropley for his great accomplishment and work.

"Sometimes I enjoy the translation more than the original," says Kaspars Klavins, who holds a doctoral degree in history.

"I really think this is a work of art. Cropley should not hide behind Pumpurs' name," adds Edgars Kariks, director of the university's Baltic Studies' Office.

Ojars Kalnins, director of the Latvian Institute, also has only praise for Cropley's work: "I think it's a wonderful job, not only to understand the story but to feel it through verse… a collaboration between Andrejs Pumpurs and Arthur Cropley."

"I find it an admirable, major undertaking and on the whole very successful," Nollendorfs chimes in. "You cannot fail but improve on Pumpurs."

So what possessed an Australian retired professor to translate "Lacplesis" - particularly one who has no Latvian connection and didn't know Latvian or the epic story until five years ago?

Cropley says the people he met sparked his interest in Latvia, the language, and its literature. "Strange people made me interested in Latvia. I've never met Estonians and Lithuanians quite so strange or I would have been interested in them," he explains with the utmost respect.

In 1997, Cropley met some Latvians who invited him to lecture at the University of Latvia. After his lecture, he was invited to return. "Well, I figured I'm spending lots of time in Latvia, and of course language is a sensitive issue here, so it's only polite to learn the language," says Cropley.

He spends a couple weeks every year in the Baltic country and was even based in the university's Baltic Studies' office this past month. "I have put tremendous effort into learning the language - at least ten hours a week for four years."

Although Cropley admits it is difficult for him to speak Latvian, he has an excellent command of the language's grammar and sentence structure, which enabled him to translate thoroughly.

Coming from southern Australia, where epic poems are quite important to the people and society, Cropley has always been interested in poetry and especially keen on Australian epic poetry. He explains he "became interested in Latvia, its language and identity through poetry."

The translator feels it is essential to share Latvia's epic with a wider audience. "When I read 'The Bear Slayer' in Latvian, it occurred to me that it needed to be translated into English."

Pumpurs' and Cropley's poems are both about 4,800 lines. However, Cropley's is not exactly a line-for-line translation, as he left some lines out, added some of his own, and occasionally changed the order of the original text.

"Ninety to ninety-five percent is true to the original," says Kalnins.

For instance, Cropley changed line order and added explanations when he needed to clarify a Latvian god, goddess or national traditions. "When I refer to a Latvian mythological character, English language readers will not have the faintest idea who this is," he says. "As a principle, I did not translate Latvian names because they are beautiful, exotic and distant."

But Cropley ensures that "the story is not changed in any way."

The starkest difference between his version and Pumpurs' original is that the English rewrite is structured in rhymed iambic pentameter, having 10 syllables to a line. The main reason for this is that English is an iambic language and ballad poems always rhyme. "Iambus is certainly the meter of choice in English," affirms Nollendorfs.

It took Cropley about two years to complete his translation, working on average between 10 and 12 hours per week. He used Jazeps Rudzitis' book as his chief source of research, especially for understanding Pumpurs' symbolism.

The only trouble now is that Cropley has not found a publisher, which is proving to be an especially difficult and frustrating task. Surprisingly, the Latvian Literature Center has not demonstrated any interest. Cropley has been turned down by many places in Britain and the United States, most of whom didn't even take the time to read the poem.

However, according to Kalnins, Cropley is waiting for a response from Northwestern University in the United States, and the Latvian Institute could potentially publish a lower-cost version by fall - or a version could be put up on the Web.

"It's not going to be easy to find a publisher," says Nollendorfs. "Maybe [it would be easier] to find a small press outfit, perhaps in Australia, that is willing to take more of a risk. [It is necessary] to find a publisher who is not looking through the glasses of commercial success. Smaller journals can cater to a more select audience, and small journals eventually percolate up to the big press."

However, despite publishing trouble, Cropley appreciates all those who have supported and encouraged his work. Kalnins emphasizes that Cropley's work fills a gap in knowledge about Latvia. "Anyone who wants to understand Latvian culture will read 'The Bear Slayer.'"

"I'm dumb-founded by how few people have encouraged me, because I'm convinced I'm doing something good," says Cropley.

Even if he has to do it himself, he promises the work will be published.