Literature Review: Dainas (Velta Sniķere)

Līga Horgana is back with a literature review of another English language collection of Latvian "dainas" (folk lyrics), this time translated by Latvian poet Velta Sniķere and published in 2019. 

“Dainas are ancient Latvian folksongs passed from generation to generation, from century to century. The main collection contains more then million dainas,” Velta Sniķere explains in the foreword of her book “Dainas” that was published by Mansards in 2019 (Snikere, p. 7).

Last year I wrote a review about another collection of dainas translated into English by Latvian American Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi. Her book had a longer introduction as well as commentaries that explained the challenges of translating dainas, such as culture and language barriers and their very specific form. Dainas are the kind of literature a lot of people believe are impossible to translate. Sniķere also used to belong to this group (Sniķere, p. 7), however, being a bilingual poet herself she has been able to come up with some amazingly good translations. 

This is the perfect time to write about this book in honor of the talented poet who is celebrating her 100th birthday at the very end of the year. Velta Sniķere was born in 1920 in Latvia, but during World War Two she left as a political refugee and has lived in London since 1946. Sniķere has studied philosophy, history and religion. In one of her poems, the author described herself as a dancer, poet and yoga trainer. In 2007, she received Latvia’s highest civilian honor — The Order of the Three Stars.

This small collection of Latvian folk song translations first stole my heart with its wonderful design by Isobel Aveston. The dark red Latvian flag color hard cover with white printed titles on it underneath the white dust jacket was minimalistic, symbolic and very aesthetically pleasing — I loved it as well as the size, length and formatting. The design perfectly reflects the book’s content, and I see this collection as a perfect greeting from Latvian culture to the rest of the world.

This bilingual book is 140 pages longs. It starts with a foreword by Velta Sniķere, where she thanks people who have helped her complete this work. The introduction is written by Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, a former president of Latvia and scholar of Latvian dainas. Then comes the text of different Latvian “daina” folksongs in both English and Latvian, each taking up a separate page. The book ends with an afterword by Vilnis Korns, who has signed as a meditating physicist and emphasizes the spiritual experience and knowledge Velta Sniķere has as a yoga trainer, which helps her understand the deepest meanings of the ancient Latvian poetry. At the end of the book, there is also some biographical information about Velta Sniķere and a list of her other works. 

Each of the 59 dainas are printed on their own set of left and right pages. They cover different topics, the most significant ones being song, work, wisdom, virtues, dear mother and marriage. Some of the translations helped me to better understand the archaic language of the originals, while others were evidence of the idea that sometimes overcoming the linguistic barriers might be too big of a challenge. However, I was most excited about the ones where the translator was able to keep the traditional rhythm of the daina;

Dziedot dzimu, dziedot augu,
Dziedot mūžu nodzīvoju;
Dziesot Dievu ieraudzīšu
Paradīzes dārziņā.

Singing born, I grew up singing
All my life was but a song;
I will look on God still singing,
Singing still in paradise. (Sniķere, pp. 14-15)

Bīsties grēka, svešā māte,
Neraudini bārenīti;
Bārenītes asariņas
Maksā zelta gabaliņ’.

Stepmother, beware of sinning,
Do not cause an orphan’s tears;
Orphan’s tears are very costly,
They are priced the same as gold. (Sniķere, pp. 74-75)

In his afterword, Vilnis Korns says,

“This translation is a great gift to all Latvians – especially for those who travel or live abroad. At the same time, for foreign readers who have an interest in our common Indo-European roots or simply in the cultural heritage of other nations, it is a fantastic opportunity to get to know our dainas in a profound way.” (Korns in Sniķere, pp. 134-135)

I agree. In fact, after getting my first copy of the book, I ordered two more to send to friends and relatives abroad because this is exactly the kind of book I would like to gift someone with warm greetings from Latvia.

  1. Sniķere, V. (2019). Dainas. Rīga: Mansards.
  2. Velta Sniķere. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2020, from

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