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  • Othello in Estonia
  • Maris Peters

Estonia is, despite the invasions from East and West for nearly a thousand years, virtually a mono-racial country. Although Estonia has various minorities—the largest such group is Russian—it can hardly be compared to the ethnic mix of most Western countries. The rest are likely to be either tourists, Chinese exchange students, visiting scholars, or people who are just "passing through." Before Estonians regained independence in the 1990s, which ultimately gave people a chance to travel, the most multi-racial experience Estonians had was by being moved, either voluntarily or involuntarily, around parts of the vast Soviet empire. An Estonian production of Othello, therefore, involves Estonians, themselves considered non-temperamental northerners, producing the play for the same type of cool northerners (with probably a rare exception of a visiting foreigner in the audience). Racial elements, obviously, cannot be an issue in the same way they are for a Western production;1 something else must be foregrounded.

There is another element one must consider. If the vast masses of English-speaking people around the world see performing Shakespeare as their self-evident right, almost a duty of honor, all the non-native speakers have learnt to appreciate Shakespeare in their native tongue as a part of world cultural heritage that belongs to them as much as to anybody else. Estonians, like many others, perform Shakespeare in their native language simply for the joy of it. The first translations (and adaptations) at the end of the 19th century were transcribed from the German, and translations from English appeared soon after. In 1910 Shakespeare was for the first time translated into Estonian from English. Not surprisingly, the translation was of Hamlet. It was published in St. Petersburg. Translations of other plays followed. In the circles of the cultural elite of that time there was no doubt that Shakespeare should become available in the Estonian language; it was seen as shameful that so little of Shakespeare was translated.

A lot of the work of disseminating Shakespeare in the first half of the twentieth century was done by Ants Oras, who translated some of Shakespeare's sonnets and eight of his plays. The beginning of the Second World War and ensuing Soviet Occupation created some setbacks in the development of Estonian Shakespeare "business." Many academics, Oras among them, fled Estonia, and others were sent to Soviet prison camps. It was not until 1959 that the seven volumes of the complete works managed [End Page 74] to reach a press. Published over 16 years, the last volume coming out in 1975, this set still remains the definitive Complete Works of Shakespeare in Estonian. The translation, though deemed too "bookish" because of its extensive notes and commentary, is still occasionally used for stage productions. Some new translations exist, commissioned by theatres for their companies. The theatre critics who grew up with the originally translated Complete Works under their pillow complain occasionally about the loss of poetry in the new translations. This situation could be altered if new translations could be published, but the Estonian publishing houses consider such projects too esoteric and expensive.

Since Shakespeare is produced in translation, he cannot be put on stage for the sake of his poetry. The new purpose-made translations usually cater for the needs of a particular production, stressing elements that support the reading the director wishes to apply. It allows the language that people hear from the stage to be less strained (the iambic pentameter is not natural to Estonian) and closer to their everyday speech. Those who are used to hearing their Shakespeare in English may ask why Estonians should produce him at all, and particularly why they should produce Othello when it must, apparently, be robbed of some of its most important, perhaps essential, elements. Shakespeare has become so deeply embedded in Estonian culture that at present it would extremely awkward removing him from the local theatrical scene: as early as 1939 the special issue of magazine Teater (Theatre), dedicated to Shakespeare, stated that he was more closely connected to Estonian theatre than any other classical author. Shakespeare has remained the touchstone by which the artistic ripeness of a...


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