Saturday, 11 April 2009

On translating Jac. Ahrenberg, author, architect, and cosmopolitan

Jac. Ahrenberg (1847-1914) was a Finland-Swede avant la lettre. The term finlandssvensk was only used after the language reform of 1906, when the status of the Swedish language was weakened within the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire. By that time, Ahrenberg had written many of his novels and stories.

However, his major achievement was, in the opinion of many, the series of six volumes of biographical sketches about people he had known personally, entitled, fairly predictably Människor som jag har känt (People I Have Known; 1904-1914). Here Ahrenberg writes in lively and by no means old-fashioned style about many of the people he met in Viborg, Helsinki and elsewhere. His descriptions are gems of clarity and insight, sometimes funny, sometimes wistful, sometimes tragic in tone. The people he knew ranged from Finnish generals in high positions in the Russian Empire to painters such as Fanny Churberg and Albert Edelfelt, a cardinal, a composer, and so on. Plus the now notorious Count Gobineau, then French Ambassador to Stockholm, whose theories about ethnicity and development have been frowned upon for decades, associated with ultra-rightist thinking.

As an architect - his main profession - Ahrenberg designed the city hall and a girls' school in Oulu, the post office in Viborg, churches in Hangö and Kajaani, a wing of what was then the Governor's Palace in Helsinki, and the synagogue, also in the Finnish capital. He acted as art adviser to various important people.


But what makes Ahrenberg fascinating, beyond what he wrote about, was the language he used. He was brought up in Viborg, not only when it was still a part of Finland, but also a cosmopolitan city rather than the almost exclusively Russian-speaking backwater it has now become. So Ahrenberg's use of Swedish was not entirely pure, by Stockholm standards, or even those of Helsinki. In those days, everyday life could involve using or hearing Finnish, Swedish, Russian and German. Whatever your mother-tongue was, it became affected-infected by the other languages.

As the Swedish scholar studying at Åbo Akademi Julia Tidigs has pointed out, the fact that Ahrenberg allowed himself to use local colloquialisms here and there in his writings, plus foreign phrases and other non-standard language items, led publishers' editor to "normalise" his spelling and usage in subsequent editions of his works. Use of language also has a bearing on the translator.

His central story dealing with language is Utan modersmål (No Mother-Tongue; 1890) where the narrator meets a shabby man, a former schoolmate, who now speaks a muddled mixture of German, Russian and Swedish, and his clumsy use of language has cost him his fiancée. As Tidigs clearly recognises, language is more than stringing words together. Language is part of our identity. So using Russian and Finnish phrases in Swedish and German introduces a sociological, even ethnic, dimension. The very fact a word is translated or not points to the status of the language in the context of the novel or story.

When translating that story myself into English, I had to tackle a macaronic use of language that was all part of the plot. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. When the hapless Fritz Nikolaievich von Dravershausen Kaporien - his name exemplifying his mixed background - proposes, he says: "Vill du vara mitt hustru". This grammatical gender disaster ruins his chances. But the translator into English has a problem: English has no noun genders. Instead, I substituted the archaïc "mine wife". Also, when Fritz expresses regret, Ahrenberg has him say "tjuvärr", i.e. "sorry" in Swedish, but with a Russian accent. I tried with "unfawtunately". And so on.


I came across the works of Jac. Ahrenberg quite by accident in the mid-1990s at UEA, Norwich. I was staying at the BCLT, and one day, browsing in the university library, I found books by him. This was ironically thanks to the fact that Scandinavian Studies had been closed down at Newcastle University, and all the books shipped down to UEA. Nowadays, UEA has lost all its Scandinavian connections as well. So I have bought my own set of Ahrenberg's books, in case those at UEA suffer the skip treatment.


Julia Tidigs wrote a fascinating pro gradu (roughly: MA) dissertation in 2003 and posted me a copy in 2007. This deals in detail with the language aspects of the Ahrenberg novel Familjen på Haapakoski. Inspired by what I read there, I included a section on Ahrenberg in my talk last year at the Nordic Translation Conference in London. At the end of April 2009, Tidigs herself will be giving a talk on Ahrenberg and Karelia at the SASS conference in Wisconsin, entitled: "Beyond the Margins of Finland-Swedish Literature - Jac. Ahrenberg and the Karelian People".

In a world where multilingualism is the norm rather than the exception, and people move from country to country as part of their career, Jac. Ahrenberg is still as topical as ever. When I've checked through my translation of the story Utan modersmål again, I will post it up here.

1 comment:

David McDuff said...

This puts quite a different gloss on the concept of "Skandinavisk"...