Meet the translator: Adam Cullen on Estonian children’s literature

On the occasion of Estonian Mother Tongue Day on March 14, World Kid Lit’s Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp speaks with Adam Cullen, prolific and inventive translator of numerous Estonian contemporary and classic children’s books…

WKL: Welcome to World Kid Lit! So, you’re an American poet and translator living in Tallinn. What brought you to Estonia and to learning Estonian?  

Adam Cullen: I was at the University of Minnesota, and as part of my program studying abroad was mandatory, which is just great for learning other languages. I spent a semester in Saint Petersburg studying Russian. And I ended up traveling here to Estonia. I took the bus. It’s a long bus ride from the eastern border to Tallinn. And I just remember this sense of recognition that started seeping in. And I remember walking around Tallinn, hearing Estonian being spoken, and something about it was so fascinating.

I came back a couple of times over the next few years. I wanted to learn the language, but I couldn’t find any Estonian textbooks.  All I could find was an Estonian-English dictionary and a kind of phrasebook. I started in my free time, pulling the language apart, translating literally line by line. And obviously that doesn’t work, but gradually you get more of the context and start to figure out what’s going on. It’s like taking a car engine apart and then trying to put it back together to see how it works.

I came back for another month in the summer for a language course. And then after I finished my degree, I just moved here. I was graduating with a degree in liberal arts where you’re able to do anything and you’re qualified to do nothing. I was working at a cafe in Minnesota at the time, and I figured, well, hey, maybe I could come out here, try to get a job in a cafe or something. My initial plan was to spend perhaps 2 to 4 years here, see if it was possible to learn the language through immersion, by giving up English for as long as I could, and making friends. And it’s now, it’s been 15 years.

WKL: Amazing! And so inspiring to hear. And how did you shift towards being a translator? Was it challenging?

AC: Actually I did get a job at a cafe and did those kinds of things. And then I got some translating jobs for a while, general work, not literary. I’d never dreamed of translating literature. I never considered the possibility until I was at a Christmas party for a nonprofit organization I volunteered with. I did English translations of their news articles. So as a thank you, they invited me to their Christmas party, and they happened to share a building with the Estonian Literature Centre.

Luckily the heads of the Estonian Literature Centre came to the same Christmas party. And then they asked me: Who are you? What are you doing here? Would you be interested in translating books? I was like, Yeah, absolutely. So that was where it began. That was the end of 2010 or 2011. And then shortly after that, I was able to go full-time with literary translation.

WKL: The language is spoken by a very small population (with around 1.3 million speakers), but we get the sense at WKL of a lively literary scene. Are there many translators working full-time translating Estonian literature?

AC: I’m the only full time, to my knowledge! Most others are, you know, college professors or have some other kind of job and do it on the side, as a fun project. I’m the only one who does it as a full-time job to make money and try to make ends meet, which is a challenge. It was scary at first, obviously, but then as I got established it was amazing to be able to turn down work, things like people wanting contracts translated or technical texts. 

WKL: Sorry for the blunt question (at WKL we’re interested in the practicalities of how literature travels) but how does it work financially? Is there funding from the Estonian government that pays for your work, or is it a combination of that and other sources?

 AC: Yes, it’s a combination. Half, or even a little bit more, is government funding. There’s the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, which covers translation costs if a foreign publisher agrees to publish an Estonian work of literature. In fact, there’s even a separate publishing grant to cover printing costs. So an English-language publisher basically gets a free manuscript and free printing. And then they just have to do their own marketing and I think pay for the copyright and that side of it. But it’s a fantastic opportunity. It’s really the only way that Estonian literature would get out in the world.

WKL: It absolutely punches above its weight! Estonian literature seems very well represented in translation, especially children’s books. You’ve published at least five translations that are marketed for younger readers. Can you tell us about how they came to the attention of English publishers? 

Oskar and the Things

AC: I’ve actually translated much more. Perhaps five or six of them have been published. I do a lot of work with the Estonian Literature Centre and the Estonian Children’s Literature Centre. I translate a lot of excerpts and even full-length book samples for them, which they use as their marketing materials. If an English language publisher would like to purchase the rights, then it’s available.

These samples are also used to help sell to the Italian, German and French markets and wherever publishers are interested. Obviously most foreign publishers would prefer the entire manuscript to be available, though that’s a big investment, especially for a book like Oskar and the Things. It’s about 40 chapters! The Emma Press bought that on the strength of a sample I had done earlier.

WKL: What about approaching publishers and pitching books to them: Are you involved in that process, or is that led by the Children’s Literature Centre?

AC: I have to date not yet approached a publisher myself about children’s literature. It’s the Children’s Literature Centre that leads on that.

I do obviously have some ideas of books I would like to pitch, though. Now that I have a relationship with a few publishers, I have some ideas of things that I can show them. For most publishers I work with, it’s their first Estonian work, but it might open up an interest in finding more.   

WKL: From your work as a translator, do you have any tips for translators working from other underrepresented languages or smaller languages? Anything you’ve learned along the way?

AC: Well, if anything, what I’ve learned is that it’s difficult to get publishers’ attention. To be able to pitch your works to them. To convince people that your very small language is valuable and that it does have something to contribute to the greater literary discussion. It’s not easy work.

That’s why I’m so thankful that we have the Estonian Literature Children’s Literature Centre. Ulla Saar is amazing. She sells the foreign rights and is the foreign representative at the Children’s Literature Centre right now. She does tireless work presenting Estonian books to different foreign publishers and at book fairs.

WKL: She was also the illustrator of Everyone’s The Smartest, a collection of poetry for children by Contra, which was The Emma Press’s first book from Estonian.

Can you tell us more about the challenges of translating Estonian, and how the language compares with English? Does the text sometimes have to change a lot in the process of translating?

AC: It really depends on the text and on the author as well. Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language, the largest being Finnish, and then I think Hungarian, and then Estonian. And then there are the Sami languages, with tiny populations of speakers.

It’s a whole different language tree from the European languages. The first question I usually get is, oh, is it like Russian? It’s as far from Russian as you can get. Same with Latvian. It’s very, very far from Latvian, even though these are Estonia’s neighbors. Russian and Latvian are Indo-European languages, and Estonian is from a very different language family.

Estonian has 14 different cases, only Finnish has more with 16 cases. It means you can add so much context and so much meaning to simple words just by the way that you conjugate words, or change their endings.

Ellie’s Voice, or Trööömmmpffff

And then there’s the way that words are set in position within a sentence. There’s so much depth to it. I also love translating poetry from Estonian, but it’s such a challenge. It can be simple in the Estonian poem, using very simple words, but there are constellations of meaning that arise from the way the words are structured together.

WKL: Are there any challenges specific to translating children’s literature?

AC: I believe translating is never easy for any culture in any language, but it’s especially so given the topics. Estonian children’s authors really don’t shy away from difficult topics: death, now war obviously being a very pressing topic, different family structures, separations and divorces. And violence. Domestic violence can even come into play in some of these books. That’s really striking, and sometimes far removed from something you would think of as children’s literature in English.

Panga-Rehe Stories

There’s one book, for example, that just came out this fall, called Panga-Rehe Stories (50 Watts Books, 2022) by the late artist Jüri Arrak. The stories are so unusual. They almost remind me of Native American stories. I have a few collections by Barry Lopez of the Coyote tales. And like those stories, these stories are striking in their structure. The way that they end and the turns that they take are so unlike Western European narrative traditions. It just makes you kind of twitch a little bit. Unnerving.

The stories feature the artist’s children. There’s one very memorable story about a well, which is obviously a story to teach kids to stay away from wells or else you might fall in. I actually met the artist’s widow and his oldest son: one of the two sons who are in this book. He told me the story about what actually happened there: he actually did almost fall into the well.

It was funny to hear him talking to other Estonians about the book. All the Estonians who were born in the sixties, in the seventies, they all vividly remember being terrified of these pictures and of these stories. They were definitely wary of wells afterwards. It’s amazing how these stories continued through the generations. You hope that books will live on in another generation, and this one keeps alive the work of that incredible artist.

 WKL: Living in Tallinn, when you go to the library with your young daughter, does anything strike you about Estonian children’s literature or the publishing scene? How would you characterize Estonian children’s books?

Ma ei karda!

AC: I would say they’re very bold. I’ve been translating for the Children’s Literature Centre since 2011 or 2012. Every year I translate their whole catalog. So I’m very much aware of what’s going on in the literature scene. I haven’t been surprised so much by anything, in as much I’ve been excited to have an excuse to go and buy these books or to check them out of the library and show them to my daughter.

There’s one that came out recently called I Am Not Afraid (Ma ei karda!) by Kertu Sillaste. It’s wordless. There are illustrations of this little girl confronting various things that children might be afraid of like spiders or barking dogs. And then there’s war. So it gives the parents or whoever is reading to the child, an opportunity to discuss these things. Like, what is this? What might that character be feeling and why is she afraid? And questions like, What is fear? It’s amazing. So much can be said without words.

WKL: Are there any other books or authors that you’ve done a sample of that you would love to see come out in English?  

Endel ja Kati

AC: There are a lot! One of the recent ones I like is called Endel and Kati (Endel ja Kati). It’s by Kadri Kiho and Stella Salumaa. The title is two names. It’s about this bus driver, Endel, and Kati who is the tiny woman who lives inside the dashboard, behind all the blinking lights. She’s the voice who announces all the names of the bus stops.

She gets sick one morning, so she can’t do her job. So Endel says, okay, I’ll take care of it. But he has this anxiety about speaking aloud. He’s very shy, very withdrawn. It’s about him overcoming his anxiety and fear, and getting his tongue around these very funny, weird names that she makes up for the different bus stops. And then he starts to enjoy it and finds out that it’s not so scary after all. The book just won an award here, and I know that they will be promoting it at the book fairs starting this year.

WKL: Thank you so much Adam for your time and for helping us explore this wonderful world of Estonian children’s books!


Read more Estonian children’s literature translated by Adam Cullen


Adam Cullen (1986) is a poet and translator of Estonian prose, poetry, drama, and children’s literature into English. His latest translations include Andrus Kivirähk’s Oskar and the Things (The Emma Press 2022), Martin Algus’s The Lion (Best European Drama, BBC Audio Drama Awards 2022), Jüri Arrak’s Panga-Rehe Stories (50 Watts Books 2022), Kertu Sillaste’s I Am an Artist (Graffeg 2021, longlisted for the 2023 UKLA Book Awards), and Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Exercises (Dalkey Archive Press 2020, nominated for the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s Award for Literature). A member of the Estonian Writers’ Union, Cullen has resided in Estonia since 2007.