Interview by Skirmante Ramoskaite
Q: Does feminism and the Soviet legacy influence your language as of a literary critic?
JOHANNA ROSS: The Soviet legacy probably doesn’t show very much in contemporary Estonian. On the surface, we’re quite europeanised. But given that I personally pursue Soviet studies, I definitely engage with the language of the time. And although I fancy myself a conscious language user, the readers may not perceive my texts as such. For example, once I used the term ‘positive hero’ in a review of a contemporary Estonian novel. The term was a staple in Soviet literary theory and I employed it in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. Although I was born during Soviet time (1985), I’m young enough not to have been personally traumatised by the system. So I can treat my material in some distance and, at times, in a kind of ironic attitude. It turns out though that somebody saw it as a case of a young Euro-Marxist who has completely forgotten the past and taken up the terms of an oppressive regime uncritically. So this is a sensitive matter.
As for feminism, I’m a lost cause in that I simply always notice the gender of the author and the protagonist; in what terms women are described; how much say female voices are given, etc. I can’t help it — that is my default reading model, although I hope that not the only one. Nevertheless, I try to curb the use of any heavily loaded theoretical terms in my reviews, and that includes feminist theory. That’s not only because the readers might be averse to certain parts of the feminist discourse due to the very same Soviet legacy. It’s also because I believe that a literary critic should first and foremost follow the text, instead of using it as a material to prove or disprove her own theories.
Q: What is your criteria for choosing an author to translate? What cultural messages do you seek to translate?
JR: Thus far, I haven’t really picked out the texts myself. I once tried with Donna Tartt, but that particular publishing house was not interested at the time. (By now, fortunately two of her novels have been translated into Estonian.)