A Momentous Translation


The translation of literary work is a task requiring substantial – if often unsung – effort,  particularly in the category of the classics. In late September in Toronto, a translation was launched at an event which also welcomed the novel “The Last Book Smuggler” by Lithuanian American author Birutė Putrius. That day, Violeta Kelertas and Marytė Račys also presented their translation of work called “Marriage for Love”, by Lithuanian author Žemaitė.

Žemaitė was the pen name of Julija Beniuševičiūtė-Žymantienė (1845-1921), a realist writer and feminist who broke with traditional didactic and religious writing in Lithuania. ”Žemaitė”, meaning female Samogitian, or inhabitant of the Lowlands (Žemaitija) in northwestern Lithuania, immediately brings to mind the general characterization of “žemaičiai”, who live in Žemaitija, as Lithuanians so proud of their specific heritage that they will mention their Žemaitija roots in any and all conversations. They are known to be stubborn. This is not a criticism, but a fact – in Lithuanian there is a saying to that effect: “užsispyręs kaip žemaitis”. Another fact is that žemaičiai sometimes speak in a dialect so thick as to be barely understandable to other Lithuanians.

The image of Žemaitė, possibly remembered by many as part of the curriculum at Lithuanian Saturday school, is that of an older woman in a kerchief, with the serious face of a farm woman. She was the first to paint colourful pictures of farm life and mores, as well as a depiction not only of women’s status at the time – when spinsters were deprived of home and property, but even if married could be worked to death. Ironically, she also writes of a male bachelor farmer whose mother dies, and being left with no housekeeper, he is at the mercy of a matchmaker, who saddles him with a lazy wife with a minimal dowry.

Such stories in “Marriage for Love” are charming, but sad. The English translation is far easier to read than the Lithuanian even for the average Lithuanian-speaker, due to unfamiliar vocabulary (e.g., “pagumūturiuotas” = tightly wrapped). The translators have certainly captured the already intricate turns of phrase and verb forms expressed in the Lithuanian language of the original, as well as rendering lyrical descriptions of nature and even imitation of bird calls in English. Truly a literary feat.

Equally important is the fact of bringing this unique author into the light of the English-speaking world. As an impoverished farmer with little education, an alcoholic husband and seven children, she lived in an unknonwn corner of the Russian czarist empire, far from any cultural activity. Yet she became not only an author, but a feminist, rebelling against the patriarchy of the time and the bondage of arranged marriages. During World War I, she lived in Chicago and travelled throughout communities from Illinois to New Hampshire, speaking about Lithuania and asking for help for her suffering country.

According to Prof. Dalia Leinarte of Vytautas Magnus University,  “Žemaitė is a Lithuanian Virginia Woolf. She created her own self, becoming a pillar of the national literature and a source of inspiration for generations of women”.

Marytė Račys, formerly of Toronto, where she studied English Literature, Library Sciences and theatre, is the great-granddaughter of Žemaitė, and a librarian at the Seattle Public Library. Violeta Kelertas is a literary critic, translator and editor, affiliated professor at the University of Washington.

Marriage for Love – A 19th Century Lithuanian Woman’s Fight for Justice (Birchwood Press, 2020) is available on Amazon.