Thursday, 23 April 2009

Far Out

Not long before her death in 2006 at the age of 56, the Norwegian-Sami literary critic and translator Nøste Kendzior wrote an essay about the translator's profession. Kendzior, who translated a large amount of fiction into Norwegian from other Nordic languages, especially Finnish, had an acute sense for the spirit of Nordic literature, and sought with dedication, hard work and dry humour to transcend the local rivalries that sometimes prevent Nordic writers from making a unified contribution to European literature as a whole. Translation into English may be important for authors who write in the relatively little-known languages of Scandinavia. But as Kendzior points out, the translation of Nordic literature into Nordic languages may have even more significance.


Being a translator is not a status profession. Translation, that art of the invisible, is carried out by persons whose name the reader never even notices. Most people apparently believe that literature – the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the Donald Duck comics – just falls from heaven, ready-translated into their mother tongue. Few readers ever reflect that someone, someone or other, has taken the trouble to translate the books they read. And even fewer people ever consider that this anonymous someone-or-other has translated the book in a certain way, a way of his or her own, and that the book would have been quite different if it had been translated by someone else, or by the same translator at a different point in time. Not even literary critics consider this. The work of the translator is seldom mentioned in book reviews. If the translated book has an elegant style, it is the author who receives all the credit for it.
If there is any status connected with the translator’s profession, it must be found among those who translate from Greek, Italian, French – in short: those who translate literature from a refined culture.

Seen with Norwegian eyes, Finnish culture is not a refined one. Finland is one of Norway’s neighbours. Norway shares seven hundred kilometres of border with Finland. In spite of this, there is scarcely a country in Europe that Norwegians know less of than Finland. A journey to Finland is a journey in the wrong direction. Finland is a country for those with a special interest.
For on the one hand, while Finland is a little too exotic for Norwegians, on the other it is not exotic enough. Too exotic, because the language is considered incomprehensible and impossible to learn, and because the Finns are thought to obscure and unpredictable. And not exotic enough, because Finland is situated too close, too far to the north, and too far out.

Finland is associated with wilderness, hard life, wild conditions, isolation, primitive emotions and inexplicable actions (such as, for example, whipping oneself with a birch rod while sitting in a room that has the temperature of boiling water). One might be tempted to believe that most Norwegians view Finland and Finnish culture as something frightening that is best kept at a reassuring distance. What is more, until recently Finland belonged to a different world from the other countries of Scandinavia; Finland has been involved in things that were part of life behind the Iron Curtain. The fact that Finland today is famed for its pioneering work in technology and design, is a member of the EU (unlike Norway), and also uses the euro in such a sophisticated way as a means of payment, is not enough to eliminate Norwegians’ prejudices about Finland as an out-of-the-way, inaccessible and undeveloped country.

So the translation of Finnish literature has no status. For it is in no way connected with refinement.

Most people I come into contact with think I translate from Finnish because I have spoken the language since the cradle. I am from Finnmark, or Sameland, the most northerly part of Norway, and we who come from up here are descendants of Finnish migrants crossed with Norwegians, Sami, Russians and anyone else who came along.

But I never learned Finnish at home. Finnish and Sami were spoken behind closed doors; we children had to learn Norwegian, the only ‘real’ language. I probably started to learn Finnish because I was attracted by the mysterious and impenetrable, by what was different. It could have been Sami. But Sami was spoken in Norway, and Finnish was more strange and special; a language that belonged to another country and another world.

So I studied Finnish at the universities of Copenhagen, Helsinki and Oslo. In Oslo I majored in Finnish and specialized in the work of Marja-Liisa Vartio. For the past seven years I have made my living as a freelance journalist: I am primarily a translator, of Finnish, Danish, Finland-Swedish and Swedish literaure. But I am also an essayist, literary critic and commentator. In Norway I would never have been able to make a living solely as a translator of Finnish literature, even though I have very little competition.

Today I have translated about fifty works in all. One of them is Aleksis Kivi’s Seitsemän veljestä. As far I have been able to ascertain, that book (Seven Brothers) got one review. A Finnish bestseller in Norway is something I am still looking forward to, but authors like Annika Idström, Leena Lander and Rosa Liksom have had a fairly decent reception. Anja Snellman has also now been launched in Norway, and soon some books by Pirjo Hassinen will appear. My favourite author is Marja-Liisa Vartio, who wrote in the 1950s and 1960s. I have translated her novel Hänen olivat linnut into Norwegian, and am now working on a translation of her poetry.
Not even my fellow translators associate my knowledge of Finnish with refinement. A Norwegian translator from Italian would roll his eyes in vexation if I were to betray a zero knowledge of Italian literature, film and history. The same rolling eyes would acquire a glassy blankness were I to mention Väinämöinen, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, or Pentti Saarikoski, and the word ‘Kalevala’ would be a cry in the wilderness.

I was looking for a different landscape. And of course I found it, just around the corner! That discovery has not given me high status in the world, but it has given me a couple of prizes, and also a state artist’s pension, at the minimum level. And sometimes I detect a small gleam of respectful curiosity in other people’s eyes: I translate peculiar literature written in an extremely complicated language by a barbaric people in a distant land beyond all civilization. Ergo, though I may not be refined, I am fearless, indeed – heroic.

translated from Norwegian by David McDuff

1 comment:

Eric Dickens said...

It's a great shame that someone so productive and enthusiastic has now died. Inter-Nordic links are just as important as translations into English.

The fact that they know virtually nothing about Finnish culture in Norway is telling. Even I ran into similar ignorance a decade or two ago when I asked, in English, på ett lite aninglöst sätt in various bookshops in Stockholm and Uppsala whether they could show me some Finland-Swedish authors' works. Most bookshop staff were helpful but perplexed. Most hadn't a clue. One suggested Gerda Antti (a Tornedals Finn by origin, married to the Swedish author Walter Ljungquist). Maybe one found Kjell Westö. But the ignorance, among the staff of leading bookshops was shocking.

In the olden days, Scandinavian readers would read Danish, Norwegian and Swedish literature in the original language, leaving only Finnish, Faroese and Icelandic to the translators. More recently, I noticed that there were more shelves of Swedish literature in the original language in Norwegian bookshops than vice-versa.

So Nøste Kendzior was providing a valuable addition to literature in Norwegian translation, especially by her books from Finnish.