A Cheerful Note on Literary Translation

Seven Finnish housewives wave paperbacks at each other. The mood in this little house in a forested suburb of Seattle is elevated, as are voices. We’re discussing the hottest new literature out of Finland. My Finnish teacher has invited me to her book club to meet Lola Rogers, my favorite Finnish to English literary translator. She’s translates Sofi Oksanen and Riikka Pulkkinen’s work. I kinda idolize her. Even if I’m dreaming of the day I won’t need her work to access the literature I love. Even if I’m scheming about having her job.

“You want to translate?” she asks. “Oh good. There’s a little boom in Finnish literature right now. And there are only, uh let’s see… maybe five of us translating to English. I think we got three Finnish novels published in America this year, and that’s on top of the Leena Lehtolainens. But if we have more translators, maybe we can keep this going.”

St Jerome wasn't the most prolific with Finnish-to-Latin.

St Jerome wasn’t the most prolific with Finnish-to-Latin translations.

Rogers doesn’t seem overexcitable by nature, but even my beginners interest in translation has her in the grips of enthusiasm. She says it took her ten years of constant study before she felt she could translate. Don’t give up, she says.

Now, after five years of intensive study and a stack of Finnish novels half navigated, I begin to suspect that tens years is an optimistic estimate. But I won’t give up. How could I, faced with the plethora of freaky, awesome novels published in Finnish every year? When I read a Finnish novel, how can I not engage in the submarine process that is reconciling the expressive quirks of my mother tongue with an aesthetic code shaped by a wildly different grammar? How can I resist something so mind expandingly fun?

Every literary translator I’ve spoken with emphasizes joy, if not expressly then by simply overflowing with it whenever the topic of translation comes up. So what’s with the tendency to write about literary translation within the rhetoric of the hopeless battle?

Books from Finland, an English language blog of Finnish literature, has run articles asking “Why translate?” and “A thankless task?” Over at The Finnish-English Literary Translation Cooperative a headline retorts “Translation, Pleasure and Responsibility.

The rejoinder is familiar, but expected as it is, literary translation is often negatively framed. As a rhetorical move, it’s just too easy. It’s a shitty, swiftly encountered fact that you will make a substantially heftier paycheck mopping floors than translating literature. Just as swiftly you will encounter a small but rabid pack of moonlighters and hobbyists, who like nothing better than to pour hours of their free time into transiting meaning, transposing voice, and transforming style.

“It’s just a hobby project,” my friend assures me. She’s translating a Finnish fantasy novel into German. Working and attending university full time, she translates a couple of paragraphs each day in the wee hours before bed. “After all, I’m not being paid,” she tempers her excitement with modesty. The novel is something interesting she found, the work of an acquaintance that she feels ought to be read more widely. Its translation rights have yet to be sold. In the end, her work will be a gift to the author. Still, she describes the novel to me happily, noting cultural sticking points and proposing then rejecting a string of solutions with outright pleasure.

Her joy echoes the happiness I’ve experienced nitpicking with ten other translators-in-training whether “chunks,” “sheets,” or perhaps poetically “tattered scraps” best describes how the sleet slips over a the windshield of a moving car in Leena Krohn’s clause “rännän riekaleet liukuivat pitkin tuulilasia.”

A challenge is fun. Translation requires the translator to distill meaning and aesthetic along as many dimensions as she can access in order to reformulate them in a way that is clear and true in the target language. But every language opens dimensions all its own.

After four years of studying Japanese as well as the language’s history and literature, I felt I had immersed myself sufficiently in this very different ethos and aesthetic to translate a collection of ten deathbed haikus. Just 30 lines — I was at it for two months. I produced an essay’s worth of notes. Because Japanese is written in kanji, each character containing or recalling multiple other characters, tiny poems unfold suggestively on a visual dimension that the roman alphabet simply does not access. For example, adding one stroke to the character for ‘painful, tough’ gives the character for ‘happy, lucky.’ Though in a sentence a word might clearly read “lucky,” on the visual dimension there will be pain lurking.

“Translating poetry is natural, claims Tarja Roinila; it is a continuation of writing it, for works of poetry are not finished, self-sufficient products.” So opens another Books from Finland Article, this one pondering the conflict of sound and meaning that arises when trying to translate Finnish poetry that embraces the synthetic nature of the language with words like valokupolikiihko, “light-cupola-ecstasy” perhaps or “éxtasis-cúpula de luz” as the author settles, into an analytic language like Spanish.

Nothing written is really ever finished. To read is to interpret, to spool new meanings out of yourself on the wheel of language. For a close reader, as translators inevitably are, an engaging work practically cries out that you continue writing it. The voice of a good author can inspire you to improvise on their tune. It can make you long to share it with others. They say a foreign language opens new vistas, but more vast and beautiful are the vistas that open in the congruence of two tongues.

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4 Responses to A Cheerful Note on Literary Translation

  1. Natasha Gilmore says:

    A kindred spirit! I’ve only been studying for a year but my goal is translation as well! Onnea!

  2. Elizabeth Oakes says:

    Kiitos samoin! It’s a goal that feels difficult to reach, but getting there is a lot of fun too. :)

  3. Lola Rogers says:

    So glad to hear you haven’t given up!

    As far as half-navigated novels, I remember having a tough barrier to reading for a long time as a student of the language. It just wasn’t fun looking up words all the time and reading so *slowly*, until I happened to pick up a suspenseful crime novel (Joensuu’s Harjunpää ja rakkauden nälkä) and couldn’t be bothered to let my limited comprehension slow me down. I just read it the way I used to read “grown up” books as a child, guessing meanings from context, however imperfectly, sliding over the parts I didn’t understand, wanting to keep turning the pages. I’ve enjoyed reading Finnish lit ever since.

    Another trick is to start with books that have stories that are already familiar, such as a Finnish translation of a book you’ve already read, or one that has been adapted into a movie or television show you’ve seen.

    Whatever you need to do to make reading fun – that’s the key. Reading for pleasure is one of the very best ways to increase your knowledge of the language.

  4. Elizabeth Oakes says:

    Thank you for the tips! It’s true – I’ve read a novel that had a movie adaptation that I’d seen earlier, and that book was much easier to finish. When I’m reading in my mother tongue, my taste runs towards the bizarre and experimental, but books like that are really tough to read in Finnish still. I should give a page turner a try next time.

    Thanks once again for the encouragement. :)

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