By Leonidas Donskis
There is a fine institution situated in Visby, Gotland Island, Sweden: the Baltic Center for Writers and Translators (BCWT). I hold this Center to be the jewel of Swedish cultural policy and public diplomacy in the Baltic region. The BCWT is the Baltic region’s symbolic home, a place where Nordic and Baltic languages, literatures, and translators come together.
In many ways, the BCWT is an exceptional institution, better than anything else at creating a space in which Lithuanian and Swedish translators can meet jointly to translate the verse of one of the greatest Lithuanian poets, Sigitas Geda; where one of the greatest Russian writers, Andrei Bitov, holds forth on the manuscripts of Alexander Pushkin, which he has interpreted together with Lithuanian jazz musicians; and where the poets working there read their just-created poems, prose excerpts, or translations.
No wonder, then, that I saw translators and poets from Russia, Ukraine, Cyprus, Poland, and other countries, whose work in the field of Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Icelandic, or Norwegian literature or of the history of ideas was and continues to be of critical importance for the broadening of the concept of the Baltic region and of Scandinavia. They shed more light on the interconnectedness of European creative projects and intellectual exchanges than any political project or official and state-sponsored program.
At the time of a profound crisis in the EU, it becomes vitally important to sustain creative and cultural projects that are able to strengthen the intellectual and cultural integration of Europe. It is striking that no politician has overtly admitted the fact that the only sphere where Europe, as our common home, became a fact of life, rather than a manifestation of wishful thinking, is in education and culture. The BCWT, in my view, is a success story and an unprecedented instrument of the new Europe in terms of vision, a sense of belonging, political reciprocity, creative solidarity, and, most importantly, mutual (re)discovery of Eastern and Western Europe (even of Southern and Northern Europe, if you will).
Such great voices of the Nordic countries as the Icelandic writer Sjon, or the Finnish-Swedish writer Kjell Westo, became key figures in representing their immensely rich literatures and cultures precisely due to their ability to serve as the spokesmen of their respective countries and at the same time linking them to and bridging with other countries’ sensibilities. Since they spent much of their time in the BCWT participating in poetry and prose reading nights and other public events that open up the BCWT and allow it to reach out to wider audience, both of them could be taken as the best example of how the BCWT serves as an intersection of the public and the private, the world of public affairs and that of ideas and creative solitude. This tends to become a pattern not only in such countries as Sweden, Finland, or Iceland, but also in the Baltic States. Without a shadow of a doubt, this is the impact of the BCWT.
The future of Europe is unthinkable without the art of translation. Without revealing the new forms of life and thought of each other, we will be unable to accommodate the immense diversity and richness of European literatures and cultures within the EU. The new forms of life and thought can only be revealed through the translation of novels, poems and essays. We will inexorably fail in our EU policies if we will relegate literature, culture, and the art of translation to the margins of European life.
If there is a chance that the EU can survive the 21st century as a club of democratic nations, or even as a federal state able to blaze the trail for other nations seeking the rule of law and democracy, it will occur only on the condition that we give justice to education and culture. The breaches and differences among EU members can be successfully reconciled and turned into advantages only through the interplay and rediscovery of languages, literatures, and the art of translation – this symbolic bridge of the nations and their most precious legacies.
This is far from a detached and politically naive wish; in fact, this is a matter of fact. The EU failed where politics was unable to overcome national selfishness and disbelief in the European project. Yet the EU up to now was successful everywhere where it spoke the language of education, literature, and culture.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D.. is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
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