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Behind-the-scenes: cover design for The Year the River Froze Twice

The Year the River Froze Twice, translated from Inga Ābele’s Duna by Christopher Moseley, features a striking cover – a thoroughbred among the #horsesofinstagram herd, we think! Essi Viitanen, our cover designer, shares her creative process…

The cover needed to communicate the historical nature of the novel. Its original title in Latvian, Duna, can be translated as ‘thunder’, as in ‘the thundering of hooves’ – a nod to the significance of horses in the narrative. This is taken up in the cover of the original, published by Dienas Grāmata:

Here the equine theme of the novel is combined with its darkness, as the lowered gaze and muscles undulating beneath the horse’s flesh communicate strength as well as vulnerability.

However, the English-language title The Year the River Froze Twice – chosen in recognition of the Daugava river, which flows throughout the narrative – opened up alternative avenues for the visual style of the Norvik edition. Water, ice and river imagery was explored for inspiration:

The image search yielded a beautiful set of cool palettes and the intricate textures of winter. The practical challenge with many of the photographs was to find enough space in the images to incorporate text. One option was to go for a bold enough font that wouldn’t get lost in the photograph.

The initial idea was to build the six-word title into a graphic element and see if the ice theme could be incorporated to this, but these options proved too difficult to read.

Even with cleaner options with less texture, the vertical text hindered the legibility of the title. We also rather quickly decided that these covers were too general – they didn’t sufficiently reflect the book or capture its poetic delicacy and atmosphere of unease. So, after a design detour to frozen landscapes, we were back to horses! Keeping in mind the cover design of the Latvian-language original, we searched for captivating photographs of these beautiful beasts:

Two images were mocked up into covers, but the clear winner was the horse in profile. It had the regal air and corporeal force of the racing horses described in the book, while its stable-mates had the slightly dishevelled look of horses put out to pasture.

The final tweaks were to change cover fonts from Neue Kabel to Garamond to evoke the content, style and period of the novel, and adjust the colour of the typography to stand out better. And with that, the race was run and we were ready to bet on our cover’s odds in the wild of bookish social media.

Thank you, Essi! To read an extract of this novel, click here. To purchase a copy and support your local bookshop at the same time, click here.

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Interview with the translator: The Year the River Froze Twice

Following the publication of Inga Ābele’s Duna in English as The Year the River Froze Twice, we sat down (remotely!) with the translator, Christopher Moseley, to discuss his experiences of translating this work for a non-Latvian readership.

Norvik Press is known for promoting Scandinavian literature (although there are some notable exceptions, particularly some novels from Estonia, including your own translation of Pobeda 1946. What led to this project to translate a Latvian classic into English?

It’s the first Latvian novel I have translated, although I have worked on short stories before, including the Norvik anthology From Baltic Shores. I gained experience in Latvian during 19 years at BBC Monitoring, as a news translator. This particular project came about when I met the author at a summer school for translators at UEA. While working together on translating one of her short stories, we got to talking and I introduced her to one of the Directors of Norvik Press. At that time, Duna was Inga’s most recently published novel. I completed a sample, got hooked on it, and was lucky enough to get accepted to translate it for Norvik with support from Latvian Literature. These kinds of meetings at UEA and (pre-COVID) at Riga, are important for translators of Latvian fiction into English – there aren’t many of us!

Duna is included in Latvian Literature’s list of 10 Saddest Latvian Books. Did translating the novel take an emotional toll on you?

Yes, it did – it’s a pretty grim story. I consider myself hard-nosed, cynical, but it moved me to tears at times. It’s centred on a researcher interviewing a man, Andrievs, whose experience of life has taught him that horses are more trustworthy than people. He’s quite cynical himself, having suffered at the hands of the Soviet system – he’s a bit of a recluse, restrained, reserved, he doesn’t give easily of himself, but the researcher gradually gets him to open up. She really has to draw him out – he’s learned that talking too much gets him into trouble – and that’s what’s interesting about the novel, we learn the information alongside the researcher. Andrievs is emblematic of all those others who suffered. It’s a road trip novel too – the researcher takes him back to earlier scenes from his life, along the Daugava River – there’s a map included in the book – and most of these flashbacks are painful. Intriguingly, the researcher remains nameless – it’s very much Andriev’s story.

What challenges did you encounter in translating the novel from Latvian into English?

Big translation challenges! I was constantly asking the author for advice. Latgale – the province in eastern Latvia, bordering on Russia, that the story leads towards and where horses are famously bred – has its own dialect of Latvian: Latgalian. It’s close enough to Latvian to be understandable but tantalisingly different too, so difficult for the translator!

There were two further translation challenges: the terminology of communism, and the terminology of the trotting track. There are lots of communist terms that Latvians of a certain generation would be familiar with (the book is set around 1949, with flashbacks to the Second World War), but which need explaining for younger generations. And I’m not an expert on ‘the track’, so I had to learn fast! Involvement in the trotting track is Andriev’s main occupation and it’s also through this that he is tricked into a situation that is a crime in the eyes of the Communists. The Communists actually attempted to control the betting system on the track – even winning prizes had to be socialised via Moscow. Andrievs is a victim of this. It makes absolutely no sense, he’s arrested for something he doesn’t really understand, but this is part of the interest of the novel: it’s political.

How did you exercise creativity as a translator?

My role in the creative process is to try and capture the voice of the author as closely as I can – the creative part is trying to make the book sound as if it’s not translated, to capture the author’s voice. In this book, footnotes are used to contextualise its events for non-Latvians, which could have a distancing effect but in this case reflects Inga’s voice, how well-researched the book is, by highlighting the extensive knowledge Inga gathered. I’m sure that even native Latvians would learn a lot from this book [Duna was originally commissioned as part of the historic novel series We. Latvia. The 20th Century to celebrate the centenary of Latvian independence]. As just one example, after I’d finished the translation, the author sent me what had been a highly secret protocol that is now being released under the Latvian equivalent of the Official Secrets Act. This document reports on the events of 25 March 1949 – the year the river froze twice! – when there was a mass deportation to Siberia of Latvians who were considered a threat to the system. It’s from the Latvian KGB to Moscow, and it’s written in Latvian – not Russian, as one might have expected. I translated this too and it’s bloodcurdling to read. Inga’s mission is to reveal the truth to a new generation of Latvians before it’s forgotten or erased. I think that’s what’s most important about this book.

A lighter note to end on: what are some of your favourite Latvian words?

I’m so fond of Latvian, my favourite word is usually the last word I saw! But I particularly like the word for ‘history’: vēsture. The word for ‘wet’ is delightful and sounds like exactly how it should sound: slapjš. I teach Latvian and I enjoy telling my students the tongue-twister word for ‘railway’: dzelzceļš.

Many thanks to Christopher Moseley and to Latvian Literature for subsidising the translation. An extract from The Year the River Froze Twice can be read here, and copies can be ordered from

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Norvik Press launch English translation of Ābele’s Duna

Andrievs Radvilis is a former jockey on the Riga trotting track whose solitary retirement is interrupted when a young journalist comes to interview him about his career. Their meeting leads to a journey of reminiscence across Latvia, never straying far from the mighty Daugava river, which flows through the story as Radvilis recalls his early life. The weeks leading up to the fateful date of 25 March 1949, when Stalin launched his deportation campaign in Soviet Latvia, form the main historical backdrop of this novel. As an independent-minded man who would not engage with Stalinism nor compromise with the truth, Radvilis is imprisoned and blacklisted. Bitter experience of war, love and politics lead him to trust horses more than people.

Inga Ābele was born in Riga in 1972. She studied biology at the University of Latvia, and worked for three years as a trainer on a horse-breeding farm. Her work shows evidence of her rigorous scientific training, balanced with her deep understanding of human motives. Ābele’s prose works are the product of thorough research; she is fascinated by the little-known by-ways of Latvian history and its more unsung heroes.

This translation by Christopher Moseley was supported by Latvian Literature.

You can read an extract of the novel here, and if you’re champing at the bit for the complete novel, you can order it at or Hive (and support your local bookshop at the same time!).