Latvian dainas are poems, each a small, perfectly self-sufficient miniature, polished by the generations who passed them on orally. They express the deep wisdom of the ancient Latvians and are as profound as any literature of other great cultures, such as the Bible. For decades, I grumbled about the lack of adequate transpositions of these gems into English, but my grumbling did not have any effect. Eventually and by default, I took it upon myself to see if I could do anything to address this.
Dainas were collected in written form only in the late 1800s, although scholars surmise that they originated well over a thousand years ago. The oldest surviving written documentation of these dainas dates to the late 1500s. Today’s collection has grown to roughly 1.4 million four-line poems.
Some dainas refer to specific historical events, such as the Plague. Others represent the compressed memories of an entire generation. Most often, the dainas reflect significant personal transitions (such as joining a new family in marriage), sorrows (death, slavery), and the resolution of conflicts, and nearly all reveal an intense connection to nature. Some use humor, some are heart-breaking, and some hide their meanings in metaphor but they all reveal deeply held attitudes toward God, nature, life and work. The generations that enjoyed these dainas used and referred to them in their daily lives and special occasions; the poems were regarded as entertainment, certainly, but also as a tool to convey critical cultural values and, later, to unify a nation whose people suffered and rejoiced together.
Today, we excavate their beauty and meaning from a very different, thoroughly modern
A daina has a specific form. It usually consists of four lines. Each line has four feet of eight syllables if the trochee rhythm has been chosen. Each foot has the first syllable stressed and the second unstressed. If dactyl has been selected, then each line has two feet and each foot has three syllables, the first is stressed, the other two unstressed. It may be somewhat disconcerting to find that occasionally in the same four line poem both rhythms are used.
The dainas use familiar poetic devices: meter, metaphor, simile, personification, alliteration, parallelism, hyperbole, and repetition, but only rarely rhyme. This is most likely because rhyme would counteract the delicacy of most dainas and would be unappealing to the Latvian ear. To please the English speakers’ preference for rhyme, I have allowed some rhymes to creep in.
Thanks to their brevity, the dainas include few details; those would have been unnecessary to the people of the time, who shared a cultural lexicon; they understood associations with “skylark” (happy, bright) and its contrast to “crow” (ugly, sinister) just as we do but in thousands of ways specific to agrarian cultures. Just like in most modern poetry, when reading the dainas, the reader must contribute by supplying both the background and the details. However, because today’s reader of dainas no longer has all the information to do so, I’ve added copious notes.
The task of transposing poetry from one language to another is daunting. The enormous gap between the agrarian culture in which they were composed and our information and technological age is the first obstacle. This divergence creates barriers to understanding because the nature-based images of the dainas are no longer clearly perceived.
There are also enormous linguistic barriers. These consist of the usual ones: mismatched or missing connotations for words with similar denotations. One example is the meaning of the word “white.” In Latvian folk poetry it signifies the blend of all good moral qualities and skills. For example, the line “My white mother reared me white” means that my noble and exalted mother reared me to be a worthy person. But in English, ”white” has come to evoke race, and presenting it without explanation risks confusing the reader. Even “noble” is problematic, as it evokes class rather than the Latvian (and Jeffersonian) concept of excellence in character and achievement.
So what to do? The absence of English words for certain ideas makes translation imprecise. Furthermore, the differences in the structure of the languages make maintaining the rhythm difficult. For instance, Latvian stresses the initial syllable of each word; this works beautifully with the trochaic foot (one stressed followed by one unstressed syllable) used in 90% of dainas. It also works well with the dactyl, which has one stressed and two unstressed syllables per foot. However, English requires singular nouns to be preceded by an unstressed article, which is the exact opposite of the Latvian rhythm, making it very difficult to create the same rhythmic flow.
Another obstacle is the absence of the affectionate diminutive. English still retains a few diminutives such as “lambkin” and “leaflet,” or “booklet,” but these refer only to size – a little lamb, leaf or book. In Latvian, a special diminutive expresses affection: “Dievs” is God, but “Dieviņš ” is “Deargod”, “māte” is mother, but “māmiņa” or “māmulīte” is dear mother. (There exists a demeaning diminutive as well.) Dainas use the affectionate diminutive generously, and most often to express tenderness. In a four line poem, diminutives can occur five or six times. So how should they be translated? How many “dear” and “sweet” can an English version contain without sounding unbearably cloying? Unfortunately, omitting them fails to evoke the mood of gentleness and love. For all these reasons, it has been accepted by many Latvian writers and the general public that dainas cannot be expressed in English.
I have come to reject that assumption, at least in part. While the mythical and more poetic dainas lose too much in translation for the English speaker’s enjoyment, the more concrete ones can be made accessible, even as I readily concede that many meaningful nuances will be lost. I have been forced, at times, to sacrifice precision in order to make the main point more easily understood. I hope enough of the essential substance has been retained to make the dainas also meaningful and enjoyable in English.
Although I am not a poet, I decided to enter where more capable and qualified people have wisely refused to tread and undertook the task of transposing dainas into English. I ask for your kind understanding of this decade long effort to present to you, in its own words, a wise and gentle culture that deserves to be brought to wider attention. It is very likely someone will read my work and think, “I can do better!” Nothing would gratify me more than if I were to inspire that kind of reaction and somehow provoke the continued study and translation of Latvia’s poetic treasures.