New publication – Charles Darwin “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex“

Text by Lauri Laanisto

At first it might seem a bit strange claiming that Darwin´s Descent of Man is a new publication, and moreover – that it is somehow related to our workgroup. But it is and it is, because couple of weeks ago this book was finally published in Estonian and I am one of the editors of “Inimese põlvnemine”.

Instead of talking about the book, or Darwin, I´d like to give you a little overview about how this, and some other Darwin´s books were translated to Estonian. Because it´s quite a curious case. Darwin´s autobiography, The Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man were all already translated to Estonian by the end of 1960, but they all were published nearly half of century later (2006, 2012 and 2015, respectively). Moreover – none of these books were translated into Estonian in Estonia, but far away in different parts of Siberia. In different prison camps of GULAG (Гла́вное управле́ние лагере́й, Main Camp Administration).

(There are tons of excellent literature available on this topic also in English – for example books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1970 mainly because of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “The Gulag Archipelago” which both deal with life in such prison camps. To go even further with this digression – The Gulag Archipelago manuscript “survived” Soviet times right here in Tartu, from Wiki: “While held at the KGB’s Lubyanka Prison in 1945, Solzhenitsyn had befriended Arnold Susi, a lawyer and former Estonian Minister of Education, who had been taken captive after the Soviet Union occupied Estonia in 1940. Solzhenitsyn entrusted Susi with the original typed and proofread manuscript of the finished work, after copies had been made of it both on paper and on microfilm. Arnold Susi’s daughter, Heli Susi, subsequently kept the “master copy” hidden from the KGB in Estonia until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.”)

Back to Darwin. A young biology student, Mart Niklus, wanted to translate The Origin of Species to Estonian and even managed to get an official state contract for doing that (all publishing went through state during Soviet times). The idea was to publish it in 1959 – to celebrate 150 years since Darwin´s birth. But soon after graduating University of Tartu as a zoologist, he was arrested for “nationalism and espionage in favor for state´s enemies” (common charge if you were asking the wrong questions and making wrong jokes) in 1958 and sent to GULAG for eight years.

Back then USSR was kind of friendly with South African apartheid regime, and because of these friendly relations, somehow somebody managed to send him Darwin´s books from South Africa straight to prison. And Niklus started translating. The guards were rather suspicious because the book contained “fascist alphabet”, but somehow Niklus managed to translate all three Darwin´s books he had in the prison and smuggle the manuscript out of prison to Tartu. As Niklus spent lots of Soviet times in GULAG, mainly in Mordovian region, from 1958–1966, then 1976 and again in 1980–1988, publishing these translations was ideologically impossible.

But finally all the translations are out!

Cover of the Estonian version of “The Descent of Man”

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