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The young Johannes Semper translating French poetry

From Verhaeren to the translator’s own self

For Johannes Semper the 1920s were a prolific period full of diverse activities, all contributing to his maturation as poet and author. These were also his most prolific years of translating French poetry, while the authors, epochs and text types chosen display wide diversity. Several of his translations of that period have become part and parcel of the Estonian canon of French poetry. Towards the end of the decade Semper published a self-compiled collection of his favourite Verhaeren.

During the intense translating process Semper delved deeply into the problems of poetic form. In his prefaces to his more substantial translations (Hugo’s Hernani, 1924, and Verhaeren’s  selection, 1929) he discusses the Estonian options for rendering different types of verse (alexandrine, free verse). An analysis of his translations shows that although Semper never developed any fixed formal equivalents or ideal methods of translation, his flexible solutions are based on the conviction that for any text the poetic form should, first and foremost, support the rendering of the general idea. Later, Semper’s theoretical efforts in translating French poetry have served as basis for more than one compelling treatise and discussion (esp. Ants Oras, Ain Kaalep).