Encounters with a language

12 December 2014 | Articles, Non-fiction

Mistranslation: illustration by Sminthopsis84/Wikimedia

Mother tongue: not Finnish. How do people become interested enough in the Finnish language in order to become translators? In the olden days some might have been greatly inspired by the music Sibelius (as were the eminent British translators of Finnish, David Barrett or Herbert Lomas, for example, back in the 1950s and 1960s). We asked contemporary translators to reminisce on how they in turn have become infatuated enough with Finnish to start studying and translating this small, somewhat eccentric northern language. Three translators into English, one into French, German and Latvian tell us why

Only temporary?

David Hackston, English

I ended up studying Finnish by accident. I spent a year on exchange at Åbo Akademi in the city of Turku, my aim to study Swedish and Nordic literature. My Swedish teacher in London assured me that I would have no problem speaking Swedish in Turku – after all, there’s a Swedish-speaking university there and Turku is a Swedish-speaking area.

At the tender age of 19, I didn’t know any better. But when I tried chatting with the stall keepers at Turku Market in my beautiful sing-song Swedish, the reaction was so abrupt that I had no choice but to start studying Finnish too.

Finnish was new and strange, fascinating and frustrating. After returning to London my interest grew further and I continued studying hard. Eventually Finnish won out, and when in 2001 I was invited to Finland for 6 months as an intern at FILI, I didn’t really need to think twice.

After my internship, I decided to stay in Finland ‘for a while’ to see whether I could scrape together a living as a translator. During the past 13 years Finnish literature has experienced quite an international breakthrough, and my colleagues and I now have more work than we have time to undertake, a pleasing situation indeed. New, challenging, exciting projects are already in the pipeline, bringing more Finnish titles to English-language readers.

Among David’s translations of Finnish fiction are Johanna Sinisalo’s Birdbrain (Linnunaivot) and Kati Hiekkapelto’s thriller The Hummingbird (Kolibri). He lives and translates in Helsinki – except that until summer 2015 he will be studying baroque music in Porto, Portugal.


Weird, beautiful

Nicole Herbst, German

Like so many others my first conscious encounter with Finland and the Finnish language happened through music. Unlike many other stories mine is not connected to heavy metal rockers in troll costumes.

Back then I was living in Cologne and a friend who was organising monthly drum’n bass parties (that hectic electronic music that seems to have disappeared from the face of the Earth) had invited two Finnish dudes to play some records. What enchanted me oh so sweetly was however neither of the guys but the very unusual language they appeared to be able to make sense of. This rough but gentle, weird but beautiful language gave me goosebumps. I was intrigued.

Three months later I visited Helsinki for the first time and it felt like coming home. This was the beginning of my love story with the Finnish language. A slightly frustrating stor at times, but we are both determined to make this work.

A bookseller by profession, Nicole, who majored in Finnish and Nordic studies, has just spent six months as a trainee at FILI, having helped to prepare and run the arrangements for the Frankfurt Book Fair. Currently she keeps herself busy in Finland by translating all sorts of texts from Finnish and Swedish into German.


It’s HIM

Anete Kona, Latvian

I developed an interest in Finland in my teens, when my world revolved around a certain gloomy band. The band’s name was HIM, and the lead singer’s enchanting voice and the guitarist’s dreadlocks persuaded me that it was undoubtedly necessary to learn Finnish in order to make the right impression on my dream men when I came to meet them. This hasn’t actually happened yet, but a couple of other Finns have helped me to learn their language.

I began to study Finnish in Riga, in my sixth-form college and later at university, too. I became more closely acquainted with Finland and Finns as an exchange student in wonderful Turku, as a volunteer at the atmospheric Sodankylä Film Festival and as a summer worker in Kuhmo, surrounded by nature and music.

I love the different dialects of Finnish and am always amazed that people consider Finns quiet and reserved… My first translation of a Finnish book was published in November and I really hope it will not be my last!

Anete’s first translation has just appeared in Latvian: it is the first part of the Snow White trilogy – with a 17-year-old girl named Lumikki (Snow White) as the protagonist – by Salla Simukka, Punainen kuin veri (‘Red as blood’, 2013). Anete lives in Riga.


Different coffee

Lola Rogers, English

It all started in high school in 1982, when I asked a Finnish exchange student to teach me how to say ‘coffee’ in Finnish (we were at a coffee shop at the time). Imagine my surprise when she answered ‘It depends what you want to say about it.’

When I eventually majored in linguistics, I happily chose Finnish as my mandatory one year of non-Indo-European language. Of course, after studying Finnish for one year I could barely order a cup of kahvi, so I studied for another year, and another, and I’m not sure when I’ll be done.

Anyway, in the late 1990s I became a fanatical Ultra Bra fan and started making copies of their albums for my friends, complete with my (no doubt terrible) translations of the lyrics. This was so fun that I decided to become a translator. I talked some soft-hearted Finnish lecturers at the University of Washington (where I was an office worker) into providing independent study in translation, then put together an MA degree, worked as an intern at FILI, and here I am.

Lola lives in Seattle, WA. Among her latest translations are the new novels by Sofi Oksanen, Johanna Sinisalo and Rosa Liksom.


Claire Saint-Germain, French

I lived my wonderful and hard student years – majoring in philosophy – between the hills of the Quartier Latin and the cellars of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One melancholy evening I was dancing the valse triste in the darkness of a damp cellar lit by a couple of candles. The feeling of frustration chimed well with the existential atmosphere of youth, but I thirsted for a new, exciting life.

Kebang! Some guy came from upstairs and ordered me up by the sleeve. As we walked through the crowd, my guide stopped at a table to announce that this was the woman of your life. Quite: side by side sat three blonde high-cheekboned beauties – who would be the right one for me? I offered a glass of wine: Miss Right consented to share with me a glass of the cheap elixir of love.

My cupid had hit the spot: soon I was visiting Helsinki for the first time and beginning to study Finnish in Paris at the Finnish Institute and at INALCO. I admit it: without the Erasmus programme and the Finns’ love of travel this ten-year story (of which five have been spent in Finland) would never have begun. Mon histoire est une histoire d’amour*, in Finnish.

A student of Finnish, Claire will graduate shortly from Helsinki University. For the past four years she has translated Finnish fiction – by, for example, Riikka Pulkkinen, Laura Gustafsson and Roope Lipasti – and her forthcoming translations include the first novels by Tommi Kinnunen and Pajtim Statovci.

*(Historia de un Amor by Carlos Almaran is in Finland a popular bolero sung by Reijo Taipale: Rakkauden satu)


Walking on thin ice

Owen Witesman, English

I came to Finland because a letter showed up in my mailbox telling me to. Being an LDS (‘Mormon’) missionary in Finland was equal parts Kaurismäki, Dudesons, and Sibelius. Long days with nothing happening punctuated by run-ins with pistol-wielding drunks, getting to know pistol-wielding drunks, naked sauna hijinks, naked avanto hijinks, not naked napakelkka hijinks, walking on thin ice (not figurative), genuine spiritual communion and anything else you can imagine happening when you send earnest young people out two-by-two to chat up strangers about religion all day every day in a paradise of natural extremes.

Byproducts of this included seeing more Finnish living rooms than any Finns who aren’t interior designers, learning the proper conjugation and declination of all the finest curses in several dialects, and making the best friends of one’s life out of people from every stratum of society. Don’t believe the press – Finns make the greatest friends by far.

After those two years, the happy accidents of graduate degrees and internships and networking and generous patrons that all conspired together to lead to a career in translation feel almost like an effect of a pine-tar and salmiakki-scented gravity. Or perhaps a better word would be siunaus.

Owen’s recent and forthcoming translations from Finnish include the thrillers Cold Courage and Black Noise by Pekka Hiltunen, Snow Woman and Copper Heart from the Maria Kallio series by Leena Lehtolainen, and Salla Simukka’s Snow White Trilogy. He lives in Springville, Utah with his wife and three daughters.

Beware! Illustration: NicolasMartinFontana/Wikimedia

Beware! Illustration: NicolasMartinFontana, Wikimedia

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