Estonian Art And Literature: Big Ideas In A Small Country


For a country with only 1.3 million people, Estonia has a hell of an art scene. There are several good museums and galleries and a lively round of readings and exhibition openings.

One of the biggest names in the Estonian art scene is Raoul Kurvitz. He’s been big for a few decades now, producing a steady output of installation pieces, experimental films and paintings. Right now KUMU, the Art Museum of Estonia, has dedicated an entire floor to his work.

While I’m a hard sell with contemporary art (see my ambivalent response to Damien Hirst) I found Kurvitz’s work consistently challenging and innovative. He ranges from accessible videos like this cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness to weird art happenings that leave the viewers scratching their heads and feeling slightly disturbed.

This is an artist that takes risks for his art. In the 1989 experimental film “When Lord Zarathustra was Young and Polite,” he gets flogged by two female assistants and then washed into a Finnish river by an opening sluice gate. In another video he’s surrounded by fire. And I have to wonder what that blue paint tasted like when it came out of the fish’s belly.

KUMU is an ultramodern building chock full of Estonian art of all periods. What’s interesting is how they followed all the great Western traditions such as Impressionism, Cubism and the rest but put their own twist on it. And then there are the mavericks like Edvard Wiiralt who veered off into their own high strangeness.

The literature scene is doing well too. I was lucky enough to meet Piret Raud and Kätlin Kaldmaa, two Estonian authors who gave me the lowdown on writing in a language that only a little more than 900,000 of their countrymen speak. The rest of Estonia’s population are native Russian speakers and tend to look eastward for their reading material.

%Gallery-179740%Given such a small readership, you’d think publishing would be all but dead in Estonia, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fall of Communism led to an explosion of publishing houses. Where once there had only been a couple of official state-run publishers, now there’s more than a hundred indies. Many are micropresses with only one or two titles, while others are major houses with long lists.

That breath of freedom must have been a relief after decades of Soviet occupation. During those times many Western books and magazines were banned and sailors made a good side income smuggling them in. One of their best sellers, I’m told, was Playboy magazine. Pornography was banned in the Soviet Union. They saw it as Western decadence, I suppose. So admiring the Playmate of the Month became an act of political defiance. The world is a weird place.

Besides reading illegal imports, some Estonian writers bucked the system by participating in the Samizdat movement, writing subversive books and distributing them through a postal network to like-minded individuals. Since the Soviets didn’t exactly dole out printing presses with the ration cards, most of these books weren’t bound. They’d be typed out with a couple of carbon copies or simply handwritten. Kaldmaa told me some books were even photographed page by page and you’d get a stack of photos in the mail.

I would have loved to meet one of these writers. I write what I feel and all I have to risk is some anonymous coward giving me shit in the comments section. Say what you felt in the Soviet Union and you could end up in a KGB torture chamber. Writers back then had balls.

On my last night in the capital Tallinn I was invited to a poetry reading at Kinokohvik Sinilind, a rambling cafe/bar/arthouse cinema in Old Town. Several poets and a band took turns on the weirdly lit stage doing their stuff while a large crowd listened and chatted. The poetry was all in Estonian, of course, so I listened to the cadence of the words rather than their meaning. An odd experience but a rewarding one.

There were a lot of prominent writers there. Kaldmaa introduced me to a poet who specialized in translating poems from Japanese, Chinese and Korean into Estonian. He spoke French and English too. Scary. I met a whirlwind of others too, at the table or at the bar. Everyone seemed to have their latest book tucked under their arm, all cleverly designed by local talent.

I’m jealous of poets; they always get nicer covers.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Eating and Drinking in Estonia!

Google Translate for the iPhone arrives in the App store

google translateGoogle Translate voor de iPhone is nu beschikbaar in the App Store! Android users have had access to Google Translate in an app for some time, but they now get to share the fun with iOS users.

Google Translate is by far one of the best translation apps available for any mobile device, and offers translations in 65 different languages, 24 of which come with speech recognition.

Translation results can be shown full screen when you rotate your phone, which is perfect for showing someone what you are trying to say. The app stores your translation results (and lets you clear them) and you can “star” frequently used translations.

Since all the translation work is done online, you will need a data plan to use – which makes international usage quite expensive. I’d recommend doing text only when you are on roaming data to reduce costs.

The app is free of charge, and can be found on your device in the App Store, or though this link.

This location had absolutely tall!

Apologies for the insane article title, it’s one of the results of passing a piece of text through “Blahblahfish“, a fun yet useless re-translator.

The site takes any text you enter, and translates it to one of the 28 languages supported by the translation site, then translates that back to English again.

“This location had absolutely tall” is actually “this site is absolutely fantastic” in English to Croatian and back.

The purpose? None. But it makes for some absolutely hilarious results. The “highest rated” Blahblahfish translation managed to turn “Oh Shit!” into “Human waste of Ohio” when passed through English to Korean and back. Passing “George Bush” through a Latin translator, yields “Agricultural Shrub”.

Of course, if you need a way to justify wasting 10 minutes of your life on creating gobbledygook text, then you could always claim you are doing scientific research on automated translation sites, but the real lesson here is that online translation sites are horrible at doing their job, and that using them for anything serious might be a bad idea.

(Via our friends at Download Squad)

The pocket translator goes mobile

One of the more difficult parts of my trip to Russia last year was the language barrier. Aside from having to navigate a whole new alphabet, it was difficult at times to find anyone that understood English. I frequently found myself pointing and gesturing or making use of a few phrases of poorly pronounced Russian I had picked up from my guidebook. That’s why I was excited to hear about Steape, a Dutch company that produces a line of language dictionaries and phrasebooks you can download to your mobile phone.

According to the Steape website, the company offers two main products, Steape Travel and Steape Mini Speaking Dictionary. Steape Travel offers a catalog of around 100 commonly used travel phrases, whereas the Mini Speaking Dictionary offers a database of around 500 traveler-friendly words. Both can be purchased on the Steape site for only $4 each. If you purchase Steape Travel or Mini Speaking Dictionary, you’ll also get Steape Knowledge as a free bonus, which has basic vocabulary like numbers and days of the week. The interface for each application works basically the same way – you search for a word or phrase you want to use and press the action key to have it pronounced using your phone’s speaker.

Currently, the applications are supported on more than 160 phone models and in 17 different languages. Check out the site to verify compatibility for your particular phone model and language needs. For only $4, Steape seems to have a cheap and highly useful application on their hands. Then again, as Jamie suggested recently in her post, there are “alternative” methods to help you learn foreign language phrases for your next trip.

[Via: Xellular Identity]