Literature Review: Dainas – Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry


Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time an English language collection and analysis of ancient Latvian "dainas" (folk lyrics) translated by Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi over many years and published in 2018.

“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 (..).”[1] After 18 years of diligently studying Latvian folklore, Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi’s 2018 book Dainas – Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry gives insight into ancient Latvian culture by providing folk lyrics translated in English. Because of the brief, simple, explanatory and reflective commentaries, it should be comprehensible to readers who are new to dainas and Latvian traditional culture in general, as well as interesting and educational for many Latvian readers.

Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi, the author of this work, is a diaspora Latvian who lives in Los Angeles. She is a linguist and architect, as well as a retired teacher. Her decision to translate Latvian ancient poetry stemmed from a need to educate the rest of the world about the great ethical and moral wisdom that it carries. Not being a poet herself, she waited many years for someone else to take on this project before finally deciding to do so herself. Therefore, she is very modest about her translation and encourages others who are more capable and qualified to continue the work she has started.

In reading this book, the introduction mustn’t be missed. It gives a wider explanation of what dainas are, and describes the specific form and rhythm that are essential aspects of these little pieces of art and make them nearly impossible to translate into English. The introduction also discusses vocabulary that is common in dainas but very unusual in English, thus making the process of translating very challenging. For example, the word “white” is often used in dainas. In Latvian it expresses good moral qualities, while in English it is often associated with race and skin colour. Therefore, “white mother” without any further explanation could cause some confusion.[2] 

This and other examples give the English-speaking reader insight into how difficult it is to take something from a completely different time, historical background and culture and present it to modern society in a different language. Every translation is always based on the translator’s interpretation and shows their priorities. Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi claims that she has wanted to avoid giving plain literary translation or simply retelling the plot, and has tried to keep the original feeling of the Latvian ancient poetry as well.[3]

450 dainas are organized in thirteen chapters that talk about the daily lives of ancient Latvian peasants, paying great attention to farming, marriage and family, as well as highlighting virtues and values. The author has chosen to start the book by showing what are likely the most significant characteristic of dainas, which is the attitude towards work and singing.

Matters not how I grew up,
Songs have always been with me;
Sweet songs helped me all my life
Even hardest tasks to do.[4]

The song as one’s best life companion, even in the darkest moments which appear in Latvian folklore, was a good base for the society to create and keep alive the idea of Latvians as the singing nation, an idea which manifests even in modern times through many impressive cultural events. This topic is followed by many others that reveal the understanding of traditional religion and of life and death, describing which qualities apply to good spouses, parents and children, and tell about the serfdom, or in other words slavery, that the Latvian nation was suffering for hundreds of years.

Sweetest sun so soon is setting.
‘Bandoned in the shade am I.
Dearest mother, gone forever,
None to set me in the sun.[5]

In addition to dainas that are written in both the original Latvian language and in English, there are short commentaries about the text after every two or three poems. As already mentioned earlier, it is necessary to explain certain things about the Latvian language or culture that are very unique or unclear. However, while reading the book I had a feeling that the most important task for the author was to show that the ancient Latvian poetry can also be relevant to the modern human. The commentaries are like a conversation about dainas. The author briefly compares their moral standards to those of The Bible, Soviet times, and modern society, eras that are not connected with the historical aspects of dainas but illustrate how we can read these ancient poems and find some life wisdom from them in a completely different time and economical and political situation. For example, one daina describes a situation where a young woman sees her neighbor in a shameful situation (sleeping during the work) and she decides not to greet him in order not to make him feel disgraced. The commentary beneath says: “The girl above is sensitive to the feelings of others and does not want to add to the pain in life. Today’s pop culture would probably record the scene and put it on YouTube for all to ridicule the fellow. To what good purpose?”[6]

Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi hopes that this could be a book that Latvians give to their English speaking friends, relatives and colleagues so they can learn about an amusing part of Latvian culture,[3] and I agree with her. I also think this would be a very good book for Latvians who have lived in Latvia their entire lives and grew up learning folksongs and singing them in choirs too, because we very rarely think about the deeper meaning of dainas. Dainas – Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry has a decent amount of folklore material that is well organized and commented on with explanations, observations and rhetorical questions that can keep the reader on track and help better understand the text.

Finally, I would like to mention that the author of the book has provided the email latvianwisdom@gmail.com where any reader is welcome to send their suggestions, comments and questions about the work. Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi is currently continuing her work, and in a few years from now we will hopefully have another book of more translations of dainas.

[1] Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi “Dainas – Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry” Vol. 1. Second Edition, 2018. 7.
[2] Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi “Dainas – Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry” Vol. 1. Second Edition, 2018. 9.
[3] Zigfrīds Mutupavels "Kulturas Rondo" Latvijas Radio 1 13 July 2018 https://lr1.lsm.lv/lv/raksts/kulturas-rondo/ieva-auzina-szentivanyi-tulko-un-komente-latviesu-dainas.a106227/
[4] Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi “Dainas – Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry” Vol. 1. Second Edition, 2018.17.
[5] Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi “Dainas – Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry” Vol. 1. Second Edition, 2018.105.
[6] Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi “Dainas – Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry” Vol. 1. Second Edition, 2018. 203.

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