Sunday, 22 March 2009

Thomas Warburton - translator

Literary translators tend to be backroom boys and girls, and to a certain extent this is just. We are not the original creators of the texts we translate, so we are indeed nearer to musicians, actors or anyone else who transforms and interprets the work of others. Nevertheless, many people who enjoy the fruits of our labours do not realise what makes a literary translator tick. You see the actor or musician on stage and in the newspapers; the life of a literary translator, hidden behind his or her typewriter or PC, is mostly shrouded in mystery.

The translator Thomas Warburton (born 1918) has lifted the tip of the veil regarding literary translation in his little book Efter 30 000 sidor (After 30,000 Pages; 2003). This book was published in a joint edition by Söderström & Co in Finland and Atlantis in Sweden. It has now appeared in Finnish translation by Eila Kostamo, an appropriate fate for a book of memoirs dealing with the skill of translation. The 30,000 pages of the title are what Warburton himself estimates to have translated during his long career.

I am myself translating this book into English, thanks to a grant from Svenska kulturfonden, Helsinki. (Publisher, as yet unknown!) I am very happy to do so, not least because I recognise some of the good and bad things that can happen to a literary translator. But Thomas Warburton has translated a vastly larger amount of books than I have. Hence the title of his 140-page book of translator's memoirs. The reason this book is suitable for an English-speaking audience is that Warburton has translated important works of literature from Finnish and English into his mother-tongue, Swedish.

Thomas Warburton was born in Vasa, Ostrobothnia, and during the 1940s he ended up in Helsinki. It was in the 1940s that his career as a literary translator took off, after he had finally given up his forestry studies. Most curiously, one side of his family is English, as can clearly be seen from his name which has the traits of neither a typical Finland-Swedish name, nor a Finnish one.

While working part-time for the Schildts Swedish-language publishing house in Helsinki, he managed to translate important novels and poetry from English and Finnish. English-language works include Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Joyce's Ulysses, Henry Green's Loving, the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, plus works by Faulkner, E.E. Cummings and George Orwell. Also plays for stage and radio by, among others, Dorothy L. Sayers, Peter Ustinov, Dylan Thomas, Tom Stoppard and Sean O'Casey. From Finnish, Warburton translated, for instance, poetry by Uuno Kailas, Eeva-Liisa Manner, Paavo Haavikko and Leena Krohn, plus prose by Mika Waltari, Pentti Holappa, Antti Tuuri, and others.

One of his major achievements, alongside Joyce's Ulysses and Sterne's Tristram Shandy, is the two-volume novel by someone that Finland regards as their own Joyce or Proust, Volter Kilpi (1874-1939). The stream of conscious novel is called Alastalon salissa (i.e. I salen på Alastalo / In the Hall at Alastalo). This novel combines sea stories with narration that involves very slow takes on a group of shipowners, and experiments with vocabulary and point of view. It is not surprising that Warburton devotes a whole chapter of his memoirs to the course of this translation. The English translation was started a couple of decades ago by a British translator, but I believe that he gave up, daunted no doubt by the sheer complexity of the task. I do hope that one day, another translator from Finnish will have a try.

But Warburton also touches on a number of practical matters such as payment, working hours and making a living out of translation. One of the first financial risks he took early on in his career was to give up his forestry studies in order to translate Ulysses for Bonniers publishers in Stockholm. After that he never looked back, but was always thankful of his part-time publishing job to help him, his wife and their small daughter make ends meet.


David McDuff said...

Warburton is a Yorkshire name, I think, and the family dates back at least to the 18th century. Once, over 20 years ago in Helsinki I asked Thomas Warburton if he still spoke English, but he said he only read in English nowadays. He may not have been entirely serious about that, I don't know. He must certainly be Finland's most learned living source of information on the history of Finland-Swedish literature, and his output of translations is prodigious.

Eric Dickens said...

It would be awfully nice (in the world of flying pigs) if Britain would stop putting loads of academic resources (read: money) into analysing the absurdly few things translated into English, and then proceeding to publish endless highfalutin books about their findings. This, in a country where maybe not more than a hundred people of 60 million inhabitants are likely to read these books about translation studies and the like. And 90% of those reading the books will be MA students looking for a good crib to impress their tutor with.

Warburton worked at the coalface: in both translating and publishing. In the whole ofhis book of memoirs (mentioned in the main text above here) he kept a respectful distance from academia, while not entirely shunning it out of cussedness.

But as he translated about 30,000 pages (N.B. pages!)in his long career, this meant that people in Sweden and the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland could enjoy "Tristram Shandy", "Ulysses" and "Alastalon salissa" and much else in their mother-tongue.

It is time that translation became a respectable profession in Britain too. We translators surely exist to pick and identify the best literature from any country and, allowing for the changing tastes from epoch to epoch, translate and publish such works.

I do not feel it is the role of the translator to always be dependent on the tastes of target-language publishers when they, in turn, have borrowed their ideas from foreign publishers who are in it for sales and money alone. Nor do I feel that the role of the translator should be the extended arm of the money-making end of the publishing industry, introducing as many thrillers and crime novels as possible into Britain, while ignoring more general novels as not "sexy" or "edgy" enough.

David McDuff said...

I think that the status of the literary translator is probably equivalent to that of the piano accompanist for solo vocal recitalists in the world of classical music. Occasionally this acquires the character of a "duo", but more often it's a rather subservient and even anonymous occupation. And paid on a basis that's somewhat similar to that of the "gigging" pianist.

Unknown said...

dear David mcDuff: I'm having a hard time contacting you because I don't know how Google+ works, but I'd love to hear if you are still working on the translation mentioned above. I am working on an English trans. for Alastalon salissa, and would find Washburton's reflections helpful. Please be in touch if you can or wish to be of any help - joshcalvo at gmail.