“Fischkutter in der Nachmittagssonne” by Max Pechstein (1881 in Zwickau–1955 in Berlin West).

Features baltic sea library about “Balticness”

The Baltic Sea Library is a web-based literary project run by a group of editors from all the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, plus Iceland. The website resembles an anthology and contains poetry, novel excerpts, and other genres in all the literatures of the region. The unifying aspect is something the editors call “Balticness”, and each text is accompanied by an explanation of its connection to the Baltic Sea.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 27, 2012

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The Baltic Sea Library is a web-based literary project run by a group of editors from all the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, plus Iceland. The website resembles an anthology and contains poetry, novel excerpts, and other genres in all the literatures of the region. The texts reach across time from antiquity — Tacitus’s Germania and Pomponius Mela’s De Chorographia — to today's contemporary Estonian prose. The unifying aspect is something the editors call “Balticness”, and each text is accompanied by an explanation of its connection to the Baltic Sea. Balticness brings the material together and allows the works and the places to be reflected in a context broader than the national literary canon. Conversely, Balticness also acts as a filter; the selection is deliberately narrow. Translation is central to the project. The visitor will find Tomas Tranströmer’s poem cycle “Baltics” translated into the Nordic and Baltic languages and into English. The ambition is for all the original texts to be presented alongside professional translations to the other languages of the region, and to English in order to make the texts more widely available.

The project has engendered remarkable interest among prominent figures in the regional library community. Last year, the editors arranged a conference on cultural diversity, language, and digital content in Berlin, sponsored by the German Foreign Office. Scholars, writers, translators, and librarians from the countries surrounding the Baltic took part, along with representatives of organizations including the Council of the Baltic Sea States, Bibliotheca Baltica, and the Goethe-Institut.

Digitization is the greatest modern challenge for the library as an institution. New forms of international cooperation have become necessary, beyond the interlibrary loans that have always endowed libraries with a measure of internationalism. References were made during the conference to several ongoing digitization projects at the national, regional, and European levels. In particular, university libraries in the Baltic region have established and continue to be involved in international partnerships.

The biggest development projects right now are two web portals, the European Library and Europeana. Not only are they public sources of information, but they also function as engines of cultural policy for national libraries when it comes to digitizing collections and developing joint technical solutions. So far, the main content is a large body of metadata, so a search for a specific title often ends with a library catalogue entry. Europeana is funded by eContentplus, the EU Information and Communications Technologies Policy Support Program. Several million euros are funneled into the project every year.

The Baltic Sea Library is tiny by comparison. The project will spend a total of 93,000 euros over the first three years, funds provided by the German Foreign Office, the Goethe-Institut, and the Nordic Council of Ministers. Ultimately, the virtual library will hold about 200 original texts and a varying number of translations.

What explains the tremendous resonance of such a small-scale project? Perhaps the Baltic Sea Library embodies both the ambition to make literary material accessible on the net, as well as a cross-border, regional partnership. The twelve editors form a network that corresponds to the UNESCO definition of cultural diversity. The effect of their work in selecting material is a kaleidoscopic view across the Baltic, a landscape penetrated by borders for so long that it has been difficult to distinguish as a shared cultural space.

I met the foster father of the Baltic Sea Library, writer and translator Klaus-Jürgen Liedtke, in Berlin. He said the idea for a virtual Baltic Sea library was a long time in germinating. In 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Liedtke took part in the Baltic Writers’ Cruise around the Baltic, organized by and for writers and translators from all over the region. The cruise was the precursor to what would become the Baltic Writers Council. Liedtke has been the German delegate to the council since the 1990s and was elected chairman in the 2000s, when he conceived the idea for a virtual library. The organization issued a call for funding and partners for the project in 2008. Following the initial editors’ meeting in Ventspils, Latvia, the website was launched in mid-2010.

“To my mind, the Baltic Sea is actually a lost province. And what had been lost was a sense of affinity with the countries in the east. But this space was reopened via all the initiatives of the 1990s, especially the formation of a regional writers’ and translators’ council. A partnership was established, but the question was, partnership around what? What was important to me during my time as chairman was to look at the content of this newfound thing”, says Liedtke.

That the twelve editors make a selection is an important part of the project. Their preparatory work is building a framework and differentiating the Baltic Sea Library from other, considerably larger digitization projects. What is the selection process?

“The library is interested only in topographically oriented literature, and the texts are our point of departure, not their authorship, although the writers are also brought to the fore. The places are important. You can imagine a visit to the library as a virtual journey from city to city around the Baltic: Thomas Mann’s Lübeck, Anna Achmatova’s Saint Petersburg, Tomas Tranströmer’s take on the Stockholm Archipelago. We devote special attention to travel literature. Everyone sees the sea from their own shore and the literatures in the region are actually very different. But a poem by Eichendorff about Saint Mary’s Church in Old Danzig and a text by Stefan Chwin from the Polish Gdansk of the postwar era echo each other.”

To the extent that there is a shared narrative in the Baltic Sea region, it is indeed one of echoes, Liedtke notes. Writers and poets have engaged in direct and indirect call and response, even when the Iron Curtain made physical travel impossible. The previously unpublished poems of Estonian writer Paul-Eerik Rummo are one example. He wrote them in the 1980s in answer to Bertolt Brecht, who spent the early years of his exile in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. Rummo used poetry as a means to explain why, despite everything, he did not want to leave Estonia.

Liedtke relates that he read the work when it was written, but that publishing it would have been too risky for Rummo (who later became the independent Estonia’s minister of culture). These poems will soon be published for the first time in the Baltic Sea Library, along with new translations into Latvian, Lithuanian, and Russian. Thus will the original echo be reproduced.

You are exploring the Baltic Sea as a literary landscape. The idea of a mythical tie connecting literature to the people and the space, has served ideological purposes, not least in this region. How do the editors approach this in selecting texts?

“I don’t see this as a risk, although we have agreed not to include texts that are interesting only in relation to the problem of national identity. The editors represent their respective languages, rather than nations. This is a crucial distinction. On a more general level, I would say that the landscape itself does not possess its own mythology; this is created when the place or the region is ‘discovered’. The Baltic was discovered in this way most immediately in plein air painting, by artists like Pechstein and Beckmann. But the mythology woken to life in art can also be recast. The Baltic Sea Library deals with the Baltic as a border that has been done away with, making it possible for people to rediscover their neighbors. The texts are also neighbors; they are engaged in dialogue with each other. And the German perspective on literature and the people has also changed, in large part due to Karl Schlögel. Today, it is once again permissabe to read history through the space, which was frowned upon for a long time.”

You have managed to publish the original works and several translations for some writers, while other shelves in the library remain empty. How are you dealing with copyright restrictions?

“We have to approach the copyright owners in each individual case. They may be heirs, the writers themselves, or publishers. Existing networks and personal contacts are important and have in some cases given us free access to material. Also, the translators still have their digital rights, which has helped to a certain extent. But the situation varies widely and we have to pay considerable royalties for some works.”

New translations make up one tenth of the holdings of the Baltic Sea Library. Liedtke is clear that he regards the project as a sort of job creation plan for translators, especially those who work between the smaller languages in the region. The website is also a vehicle for putting the spotlight on translators, who are presented in the same way as the writers, with photographs, biographies, and so on.

What happens next?

“The active project will end in 2012. Until then, we will be publishing even more texts and translations. Two of the editors and I will be holding a workshop for Russian-German literary translators this autumn, with material we want to have translated for the library. It will probably be held in the intersection of Russia and Germany in the Kaliningrad area. Beyond that, Bibliotheca Baltica may have a significant interest in perpetuating the Baltic Sea Library.”

Why do we need a Baltic Sea Library?

“I meet a great many people who really want something between the level of the nation and the level of greater Europe — the local region. There seems to be a need for a new, somewhat larger identity. After the Wall fell, in the 1990s, there was an upturn in the need for people to rediscover each other. Interest waned somewhat thereafter, but it has now returned, at the political level too. At the same time, we still know far too little about each other. But there is a lost heritage to return to, legacies, and through translations we can find each other again.” ≈

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