On not getting lost in translation
Translations are but as turn-coated things at best’, said the 17th century English writer James Howell.
Translation has been debated endlessly over the millennia. Some Coptic translator must have found Sumerian verbs very annoying some 5,000 years ago. How does a translation best ‘serve’ the original text? Does it ever? The French say that translations are like women: either beautiful or faithful, but never both. Very funny. The American poet Robert Frost (died 1963) claimed that ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation’.
The new issue of the American CONTEXT magazine, published by the Dalkey Archive Press (www.dalkeyarchive.com), discusses literary translation, perhaps partly because there is amazingly little of it in the United States, just as in the United Kingdom – just some two per cent of published fiction titles are translations. In Finland the figure has recently varied between 30 and 40 per cent.
Inspired by both articles in CONTEXT and the translations for this issue of Books from Finland, I’m again thinking about what a difficult job our translators face. They often have quickly to find a ‘voice’ for an extract from a book that they don’t have time to read before the deadline. And the gospel truth is that Finnish and English are two languages that differ greatly from one other, so finding that voice is not just about choosing the appropriate synonym.
In Finnish, incidentally, a translator may kääntää, but if he or she does the job from a foreign language into Finnish, the verb suomentaa is also applicable – perhaps suomentaa, to make something Finnish (cf. suomi, the Finnish language, and Suomi, Finland), appears more promising than kääntää, which can mean both ‘to steal’ and ‘to turn’ – for example, soil with a spade, or the other cheek. Or coats.
In a conversation reprinted in CONTEXT, the British translators Nicholas de Lange and Ros Schwartz agree on that a performing musician can be compared to a translator: ‘You give your reading, your personal interpretation, a personal rendition’; the original text needs to be ‘performed’.
Translation is always subjective, translation is ‘intervention’ – it transfers a work of art into something that isn’t quite the ‘same’ as the original. And yet, at its best, it becomes a new work of art, both beautiful and ‘faithful’.
One of the editors of CONTEXT, Martin Riker, lists some literary qualities that make the French writer Raymond Queneau’s style difficult to translate; among them are puns/wordplay and jokes, and a baroque style.
In this issue there are extracts from a novel that consists of the thoughts running through the mind of a woman almost a century old. This flow of consciousness ignores things like punctuation and ordinary sentence structure. The style in Marie, by Arne Nevanlinna, could indeed be called ‘baroque’. Humour is culture-specific, as Riker says. The funny stuff is represented by extracts from the novel Elmo by Juhani Peltonen, a contemporary classic of paradoxical style. Elmo (1978) depicts a melancholy sports hero with playful gloominess and parody mixed with verbal acrobatics. See what you think; Lola Rogers and Owen Witesman have done their jobs of offering you their reading of these writers’ voices.
In addition to baroqueness and fun (we hope), we offer you a recipe both for preventing the overheating of the Earth by Risto Isomäki and for cooking the traditional delicacy of... mämmi. Baltic herring, meeting Indian spices in Olli Löytty’s essay on the encounter of cultures, provides more food for thought.
New poems by Riina Katajavuori take us into the woods, also viewing things from the wicked witch’s point of view , and a clever Moomin way of avoiding the end of the world is presented as well.
We wish you long carefree days in a hammock on your summer holiday (or any holiday, depending on which side of the Earth you happen to be), reading this copy of Books from Finland!