ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2015 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 61, No.1 - Spring  2015
Editor of this issue: Almantas Samalavičius

Book Review

Rainis. The Golden Horse: A Solstice Fairy Tale in Five Acts.
Translation of Zelta zirgs. Translated by Vilis Inde. Marfa, Texas: Inde/Jabos Publishing, 2012. xxvi + 197 pages. IS BN: 978-1-47-521205-1. 

Rainis, pseudonym of Jānis Pliekšāns (1865–1929), was one of two major authors of the Latvian National Awakening in the early part of the twentieth century. The other was his wife Elza Pliekšāne-Aspazija (née Rozenberga). He wrote eight dramas and ten tomes of poetry. A lawyer by profession, he practiced law part of his career in Vilnius and Panevėžys. He joined the Latvian Social Democratic Party, to seek autonomy and later independence for Latvia. The Russian imperial government exiled him twice for his political activities, and he emigrated to Switzerland to avoid continued political persecution. He served as a member of the Latvian Constituent Assembly and Saeima (Parliament) and, after unsuccessful bids for chairman of Saeima and president, retired from politics. He became the director of the Latvian National Theater and later Minister of Education. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Rainis’s idea for The Golden Horse (Zelta zirgs, 1909) came from an Estonian folktale of the type “The Princess on the Glass Mountain.” He adapted the story to Latvian folklore motifs. It is an allegorical and melodramatic conflict between good and evil, represented by Father of Light and Mother of Night, with her seven ravens. It also serves as a marvelous children’s tale. Antiņš is a simple peasant hero, the youngest of three orphaned brothers. His siblings steal his meager inheritance. Father of Light encourages him to rescue Princess Saulcerīte (Hope for the Sun) from a seven-year bewitched sleep high atop a steep, glass mountain. Mother of Night had cast this spell on her. In the guise of Saulvedis (Leader of the Sun), he ascends the mountain three times with successive bronze, silver, and golden steeds and armor. He succeeds the third time, but innocent boy that he is, does not know how to “unlock her lips,”—he needs to kiss her. This awakens her body, but not her spirit: she is trapped in a sleepwalking state. She gives Antiņš her ring for their wedding. The dishonorable Wealthy Prince tries to marry her, but she does not recognize him. Since he cannot remove the ring, the Wealthy Prince cuts off Antiņš’s finger, but this does no good. In a final dramatic moment, Antiņš reappears, Saulcerīte recognizes him, and they are wed. The action moves quickly, the characters are larger-than-life, and the audience cannot but side with the forces of good against the darkness of evil. Politically, the play represents seven centuries of foreign domination that only Latvians themselves can end by the humblest of means. Saulvedis’s heroic rescue of Saulcerīte symbolizes the Latvian national coming-of-age and attainment of independence. 

Rainis wrote this drama in a mixture of poetic verse and prose dialog. The verses are infused with folkloric rhymes, assonance, and diminutives. For example, the play opens with the dying father saying farewell to his children: 

Es jau jūtu, ak, jau jūtu 

To, ko nevēlos vēl sajust. 

Vēsums pūš no durvju puses,—xVecais dēls, vai durvis vaļā? 

He speaks in the cadence of a folk song. Inde translates these complex lines, as follows: 

I feel it. Oh, I feel 

That which I do not yet want to feel. 

Old air blows from the doorway. 

Oldest son, is the door ajar? 

Like any other translator, Inde has choices. Does he want to translate the literary nature of the original? Does he wan to convey the driving ideas of the play? He declines the first option and opts for the latter. His translation approximates the versification of the original. The dialog generally reflects contemporary American English. His overall goal is to make this classic of Latvian literature accessible to Latvian youth abroad. Native speakers of Latvian today have a difficult time with the richness of Rainis’s lush belles-lettres. Nonnative speakers can easily get lost in deciphering his linguistic code. 

All Latvians know Rainis’s The Golden Horse or are supposed to. It is part of the cultural canon. They might know the story from summaries, but they would not appreciate its linguistic beauty, nuances, and lavishness. Inde’s translation seeks to achieve a cultural bridge from the era of early twentiethcentury Latvian intelligentsia to the early twenty-first-century Latvian Diaspora. 

There is also a generational gap. Young Latvians abroad today are apt to understand current Latvian jargon and nuances. For example, they all know Ainars Meilavs’ rock rendition of the folk song “Ai, jel manu vieglu prātu,” and can sing along to it. In contrast, The Golden Horse is not part of their postindependence, Gen X sensibilities. Their parents, on the other hand, can probably sing the Antiņš and Saulcerīte duet from Jānis Zābers’s opera Zelta zirgs, based on the Rainis play. 

Inde’s translation includes an introduction and an afterword. The introduction provides a background on Rainis and the Latvian setting for The Golden Horse. It discusses Rainis’s use of diminutives (as prevalent in Latvian folklore as in Lithuanian: “dear brother,” “beloved father,” “little fire,” etc.), rhythm, neologisms, and archaic vocabulary. Inde consciously forgoes these in his translation for the sake of readable English. The multipart afterword ostensibly provides the historical and political context of Rainis’s drama. It somewhat ironically opens with a thought-provoking quote from Marx and Engels. It begins with an excellent Latvian cultural and political history leading up to The Golden Horse. Then, it continues with a history of Latvian politics to the present, but the connection to The Golden Horse is not maintained. The afterword concludes with a well-grounded discussion of Rainis’s cultural legacy. 

Vilis Inde (1958–) is a Latvian-American lawyer with an artistic avocation, much like Rainis. Inde’s creative works focus on art photography and managing a gallery of minimalist art with his fiancé Tom Jacobs in Marfa, Texas, near the Mexican border. His translation was published with support from the American-Latvian Foundation Cultural Fund. An earlier translation appeared in Alfreds Straumnis’s Golden Steed (1979), an academic anthology of six Baltic dramas in English. 

Every Lithuanian should be familiar with at least a modicum of the Latvian culture created by our friendly neighbors to the north. Both countries share many cultural similarities; they call each other, brāļu tauta/brolių tauta (brother nation). Rainis’s The Golden Horse, a classic of Latvian literature, is now accessible to the English-speaking public in a very easy to read translation. 

Vilius Rudra Dundzila