Archival research: A process piece

By Jamie L. Hoehn
Assistant Archivist, Migration and Social Services Collections

Sketch of a character from Oskar Seliaru’s original puppet production, See oli unenägu. The sketch shows the front of the puppet, which has a distorted face and wears a red vest with a green hat and green gaucho pants. The back of the puppet is included in the upper right hand corner of the drawing. The puppet has bushy white eyebrows and a scruffy beard. The drawing was created in the Augsburg (Germany) Displaced Persons Camp, circa 1946.
Sketch of a character from Oskar Seliaru’s original puppet production, See oli unenägu. The sketch shows the front of the puppet, which has a distorted face and wears a red vest with a green hat and green gaucho pants. The back of the puppet is included in the upper right hand corner of the drawing. The puppet has bushy white eyebrows and a scruffy beard. The drawing was created in the Augsburg (Germany) Displaced Persons Camp, circa 1946.

Sometimes opening up an archives box is like opening a birthday present; you have no idea what might be inside.

Even with a detailed finding aid and a well written collection description, there are always surprises. This sense of discovery is oftentimes magnified when one is working with an “unprocessed” or minimally described collection. Such was my experience with the Oskar Seliaru papers.

During the initial phase of research for my First Fridays presentation (a monthly series based on materials in the University Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections), I broadly searched the Immigration History Research Center Archives database for any materials related to the performing arts or theater and then I determined whether those collections might have a connection to humor or comedy. I identified a number of possibilities but the words “puppet” and “marionette” in the Oskar Seliaru collection description really grabbed my attention. I decided to take a closer look.

Within minutes of opening a box, I suspected I had found the topic for my First Fridays presentation. The collection is visually rich, full of biographical details and contains an array of reviews, summaries and descriptions of theatrical performances. (Oh, and I should mention, almost every document is in Estonian. No, I cannot read Estonian.)  

Down in our caverns, several leagues beneath the Earth’s surface, I was faced with a decision. My first option was to concede to the language barrier, replace the box cover and forget about Oskar Seliaru and his puppets. Alternatively, I could embrace the research challenge and undertake the intellectually laborious and time-consuming endeavor of translating documents into English from a language with which I had no prior experience.  

Puppet drawings won her over

Sketches of three puppets. The bodies are in full color but the heads are only drawn in outlines. There are notes, written in Estonian, to confirm color selections. The three male puppets are all dressed in long tunics with capes. The drawing was created in the Augsburg (Germany) Displaced Persons Camp, circa 1946.
Sketches of three puppets. The bodies are in full color but the heads are only drawn in outlines. There are notes, written in Estonian, to confirm color selections. The three male puppets are all dressed in long tunics with capes. The drawing was created in the Augsburg (Germany) Displaced Persons Camp, circa 1946.

In the end, it was the puppet drawings which won me over. Created in the Augsburg Displaced Persons Camp, they are still so vivid and bright, even after 70 years; they are, simply, beautiful. Five minutes after finding these drawings, I was crafting a presentation around them. I decided that I would neither admit defeat nor refile the collection. Instead, I resolutely pulled all three boxes, put them on my cart and brought them to my office.

As I began to dig deeper into the collection, I was fortunate to find several key documents written in English and German. These documents greatly advanced my research and gave me the momentum I needed to keep exploring the collection.

Cover to the program for Oskar Seliaru’s original production, See oli unenägu. The cover reads “Eesti Nukuteater, Seli Marionetid”. The program was published in Estonian, English and German and was printed in the Augsburg (Germany) Displaced Persons Camp, circa 1946.
Cover to the program for Oskar Seliaru’s original production, See oli unenägu. The cover reads “Eesti Nukuteater, Seli Marionetid”. The program was published in Estonian, English and German and was printed in the Augsburg (Germany) Displaced Persons Camp, circa 1946.

When I found an English language program for Oskar Seliaru’s original puppet production, See oli unenägu (It was a Dream), I knew my project would be a success. In this document, published in 1946 in the Augsburg DP Camp, there is a scene by scene summary of the production, plus descriptions of the unique challenges which the theater company had to overcome. This program states, “The living conditions of refugees do not facilitate the creation of art.”

Furthermore, this program explains the goals of the puppet theater. “In his refugee days [Seliaru] resolved to revive the Estonian Puppets [T]heatre in this foreign country in order to bring some animation to the dull existence of his compatriots, to save us from spiritual degeneration and to introduce to the outer world the achievements of our National Culture.”[i] The production was a success; over the course of a year, Oskar Seliaru and his theater company, Seli Marionetid, performed more than 70 times to audiences totaling nearly 20,000 attendees.

Hours spent translating from Estonian to English

Image reproduced from a program for the Eesti Draamateater: Nukuteater, printed circa 1941 in Tallinn, Estonia. There is a block of Estonian text and a picture of a puppet production. The picture features several puppets, both human and animal, in front of a wooded backdrop.
Image reproduced from a program for the Eesti Draamateater: Nukuteater, printed circa 1941 in Tallinn, Estonia. There is a block of Estonian text and a picture of a puppet production. The picture features several puppets, both human and animal, in front of a wooded backdrop.

As for completing the translation work, it was intense. I spent hours translating theater programs, puppet theater organizational records, newspaper articles, correspondence and travel documents from Estonian to English. I also enlisted the assistance of student employee Kal Randa.

One thing for which I am grateful is that many of the records were typed. Translating the handwritten records was especially challenging, and in some cases, beyond my abilities. I used Google Translate for the most part, although from time to time I did use other online resources (and a good deal of critical thinking).

There were certainly instances when something got lost in translation. For example, when you type the title of Seliaru’s original puppet production, See oli unenägu, into Google Translate, you get the result It was a Nightmare. However, an English theater poster advertised the production as It was a Dream and a German poster confirmed that title, reading Es war ein Traum.

Photograph of Oskar Seliaru, taken circa 1956. The portrait was scanned from a program celebrating Seliaru’s 50th birthday and 30th anniversary as an actor. The image was used frequently, appearing in various programs and newspaper articles.
Photograph of Oskar Seliaru, taken circa 1956. The portrait was scanned from a program celebrating Seliaru’s 50th birthday and 30th anniversary as an actor. The image was used frequently, appearing in various programs and newspaper articles.

In the end, my presentation on the Oskar Seliaru papers was nearly 30 minutes and, honestly, it was a challenge to be so brief. Despite my original reservations about conducting primary source research using materials in an unfamiliar foreign language, I was able to assemble far more information than I could use.

Although archival professionals anticipate that researchers may face any number of challenges (language, format, condition, location, access restrictions, etc.) when working with special collections, this reality often comes as a surprise to new researchers. I hope my experience illustrates that it is possible, and worthwhile, to explore collections in foreign languages. Yes, even if you are unable to read a single word.

More information about collections

For more information about the collections at the Immigration History Research Center Archives, please send us an email at IHRCA@umn.edu.

[i] Eesti Nukuteater/Seli Marionetid, program, 1946, box 1, Oskar Seliaru Papers, Estonian American Collection, IHRC Archives, University of Minnesota.

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