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Literal discriminations
by Thanos Kalamidas
2007-03-09 09:48:29
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I don’t usually judge critics for the simple reason that I strongly believe that to like or dislike a piece of art is a totally personal decision and I have often doubted expressions, such as, "This is a classic!" After all, as the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler said, “It is a mistake to believe that a critic is there to be right. It exists for one and only reason: to start a conversation about a piece of art. Without conversation you can not shape an opinion.”

However, after reading a small article in the last issue of the Finnish magazine SixDegrees, the ignorance of the writer, which I hoped had naïve motives, has forced me to write about an unfair expression of opinion regarding Finnish literature. The article is written by Mrs. Anna Shepherd and dealt with the difficulty of translating Finnish literature into other languages, plus the way some books have been brought to foreign readers.

She uses examples, such as Väinö Linna’s The Unknown Soldier, improvising - I cannot think for a better word - that the book ‘exists as an English-language action thriller, even though the Finnish original is known for its realistic characters and critical views of war’. As a multilingual myself, I have had the chance to read the book in three different languages – Finnish not included, since I’m not a Finn – and I was introduced to the book as a hymn to the anti-war movement; 'action thriller' was not included as one of its characteristics. Actually, I first read the book long before I ever discovered where Finland sits on the map.

Obviously the writer of this article did not have enough with Väinö Linna because in the very same article she continues, 'Translators of Finnish fiction are faced with an array of unpredictable problems, such as the curt declaration of love stated by Akseli, a character in Under the North Star by Väinö Linna. This may be deeply moving for the Finns but readers from cultures, perhaps used to more rosy and sentimental declarations, may not even notice that it is there.' Amazing, if you are a foreigner you cannot understand when somebody expresses love.

I’m afraid that Mrs. Anna Shepherd of SixDegrees never actually read any of the above translations otherwise she would be aware of the superb work Mr. Richard Impola did for Väinö Linna’s books and that the translation of the book Under the North Star is his life work. To translate any work of literature is not an easy thing and the person who does this work, as T. S. Eliot often said, is writing a new book.

Mr. Impola, in his translation, shows not only his love for the book but his excellent understanding of the English reader often using phrases and sentences that come from English language literature. In this way the English reader becomes familiar even when it comes to Akseli’s ‘curt declaration of love’ - Mrs. Anna Shepherd definitely needs to improve her English when she writes something like that.

Furthermore, her declaration that, “readers from cultures, perhaps used to more rosy and sentimental declarations, may not even notice that it is there,” is prejudice and I would suggest she avoids characterising people from ‘other cultures’ and be more careful with the words she’s using.

Living in Finland and reading a great deal of translated Finnish literature, I have often encountered the translator’s excuse that there are certain words that cannot be translated and the most often used example is the word 'sisu'. To a certain point they are correct, but the excuse is very poor since it is pure semantics. The Greek word ‘τσαμπουκάς’ cannot be translated in any language as a word but it can be explained as an idea and, oddly enough, the meaning is exactly the same with the word ‘sisu’. Mr. Impola very successfully accomplished that by describing the meaning of the words using a language familiar to the reader.

Before I suggest to Mrs. Anna Shepherd that the next time she decides to write anything about translations to make sure that she has read and understood a translated book and familiarised herself with language and the people for whom the book is translated, I would like to emphasize something more important: with articles such has this the only thing you manage to do is alienate foreigners from Finnish culture, especially those living in Finland.

However, this is something SixDegrees magazine has managed pretty well in its current issue. For example, one of the main articles of the magazine has the title 'Immigrant votes' and it seems that the editor of the magazine hasn’t realized that only nationals can vote despite their origin. By calling them ‘immigrant votes’ it alienates and discriminates against them from the population they actually belong - these people have rights and obligations equal to any other Finnish citizen and voting is one of their supreme rights and obligations, proof of a democratic society.

It is pity when a magazine that supposedly promotes equality provokes discrimination instead.

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Sand2007-03-10 09:51:34
Just a side note. You probably mean Literary Discriminations

Thanos2007-03-10 10:49:43
I’m afraid in this case it is …literal!

tangatti2007-03-10 22:55:22
No surprises. It's no news that SixDegrees provokes discrimination. Sad!

Anna Shepherd2008-04-14 08:33:33
I'm afraid you seem to
misunderstand the essence of the translation-related problems I aim to describe.

Jarl Helleman writes about the history of the translation into English of the Unknown Soldier in his book "Kustantajan näkökulma" (Otava 1999, ISBN 951-1-16145-8) and, according to him, Alex Matson's translation into British English got very heavily edited by the American publisher and ended up, in Matson's words, being "Moby Dick without Melville". As I pointed out, sometimes many different versions of the same original exist. No less than seven German translations of "Seitsemän veljestä" exist, serving different readers, different times and different translation norms, some more 'domesticated' and some more 'foreignised' (see Kujamäki Pekka, 2001. Finnish comet in German skies. Translation, retranslation and norms. Target Magazine. 13 (1):45-70). Unfortunately, as the work of translators is often not held in very high regard, translators do not always have strong rights when it comes to protecting their own work (although I hope the situation is improving).

The 'Americanized' version of the Unknown Soldier is indeed disapproved of by many. It has been criticised, amongst other things, for omitting so much dialect and language variety. This topic has been researched by Marja Suominen, who has compared the original Finnish to the Americanized English and the Greek translations. An example of her findings relates to the dialect used by Hietanen, a character in the book, and exemplifies problems faced by translators: "Hietanen's thoughts have been completely left out of the English translation. One reason for this may be that the book was meant to be marketed to the American readership as a war novel. But there may be another reason also, and that reason may lie in the global translation strategy of standardization, omitting the dialects. If Hietanen's thoughts had been presented in the source text without the dialect, in standard Finnish, the lines would have conveyed a stupid man, since the necessary sociocultural background would have been missing. I suspect that an English-speaking audience would also have regarded Hietanen as simply stupid if his argument had been translated into standard English." (Suominen, Marja 2001. Heteroglot Soldiers. http://www.eng.helsinki.fi/hes/Translation/heteroglot_soldiers.htm)

Moreover, Tapani Kilpeläinen has written an essay dedicated to the flaws and problems in the English version of the Unknown Soldier in an anthology of writing on Väinö Linna (Kirjoituksia Linnasta. Teos. 2006. ISBN 951-851-071-7)

I find your opinion about there being no cultural barriers to expressing and understanding emotion hard to understand. I was merely pointing out that differences in ways of communication are one challenge faced by translators - I never said that the translator had done a bad job in finding a solution in this particular example. Shakespeare's sonnets are quite different from the somewhat minimalist dialogue of Chekhov’s plays, for example, even though both might be portraying the same universal feelings and emotions. Cultural differences exist - in expressing emotion, in perceiving the world - whether the author of this article wants them to or not. But a talented translator finds solutions to overcome linguistic barriers and cultural differences by finding a way of expressing the same feeling in a way that is understandable to the target audience, just as you point out. Holding on to the idea that the same text could be somehow universally understood in the same way, however, would be ignoring postmodernist and post-structuralist ideas in linguistic, literature and translation theories completely (with regard to translation theory, see e.g. Christiane Nord, André Lefevere). Meaning is not an inherent and unchanged feature of a text once produced, but it arises from the reader’s interpretation in a certain unique context influenced by his/her cultural, linguistic background and own personal history. Ignoring differences would be naïve and, in fact, result in intolerance.

I have never meant to demean the work of translators of Finnish literature into English in any way, as you would for some reason like to make out. With a degree in translation studies and an understanding of the highly demanding nature of translation work, I hold translators in high regard and consider their work invaluable to cross-cultural understanding. I have nothing but the highest respect for translating Finnish literature, which I know requires a great deal of talent. But I also think it is important to keep in mind cultural and linguistic differences as well as aspects that may be 'lost in translation' (as they inevitably sometimes are, as can be seen in the example of Hietanen’s dialect). I believe this way the work of the translator can be truly appreciated - by understanding that a translation is not just a copy of the original technically reproduced in a different language, but a new work and, like one would consider of a piece of music, an interpretation of an original played for a new time, place and audience.

Disagreeing with me on principles relating to translation is fine, but accusing me of not having familiarised myself with the translation and its history or in some way 'improvising' on the subject is downright slander. I have tried to be as explicit as possible with regard to all references used for your further reference.

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