Lost and Found in Translation

First, I should mention that I have not actually read the Purge but the original novel Puhdistus written by Sofi Oksanen. I highly recommend the Finnish version for its sublime language. Yet, I’m certain any translation of it is worth a read because of the story itself. Based on the first chapter of Purge, I’m fairly confident that the translation is good (as defined in Oxford dictionary, not the synonym to satisfactory to avoid any confusion). Someone once said that successful communication is accidental at best, or something to that effect. I’m curious what that person would have said about translations.

It is inevitable that some things are lost in translation. Dialects and accents never survive the brutal adaption process intact, if at all. Having to strip a piece of writing to its bare bones using standard language is a pity. In the novel, Aliide Truu, has a distinct way of speaking appropriate to her age. As an example, the following translation is correct, but fails to convey the speaker is Aliide and most importantly her tone. Aliide comes across more harsh in the English version compared with the Finnish version:

Sofi Oksanen Puhdistus, page 18: “Että mistä sitä oikein on tultu tänne?”

(Trans. Lola Rogers) Purge, page 12: “Now where exactly did you come from?”

Imagine a translation in its place that begins with something an old woman would say, but shows less concern and surprise than for example “Oh my” and ends with a reserved curiosity rather than interrogation.

It is a miracle if any translation remains true to the original work while achieving greatness at the same time. Once in a blue moon, the translation exceeds expectations and is even better than the original. An example that comes to mind is from the Finnish subtitles of the 1980’s Star Wars spoof movie Spaceballs. There is a scene where Lone Starr (Luke Skywalker) jams the radar by throwing a jar of jam into a satellite dish. Dark Helmet (Darth Vader) investigates the thick red goo and says: “Raspberry. There’s only one man who would dare give me the raspberry: Lone Starr!” The Finnish translation obviously misses the joke with “jamming the radar” and the sexual reference, but translation for “giving the raspberry” is still priceless when Dark Helmet gets to say in Finnish “…vattuilee”. The Finnish word “vattu” for raspberry has been made into a verb that conveniently differs only by a single letter from the commonly used profanity equivalent to “f-ing with”.

Another example is the name of the beloved character Jon Snow from George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series translated into Finnish by Satu Hlinovsky. Jon’s Finnish surname Nietos is type of snow that accumulates and hardens and the poetic word is also suggestive of something that is not quite what it seems. A very similar noun “keitos” in Finnish is derived from the verb “keittää” “to boil” or noun “keitto” meaning “soup”. “Keitos” itself is either diminutive soup or something whisked together by too many cooks. You could similarly give new meaning in English to noun “soupling” especially if you couple it with the word “dumpling”.

One of the cherished Finnish novels is Tuntematon Sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) written by Väinö Linna in 1954. It tells a story of the ordinary Finnish men on the Karelian front during Continuation War of 1941-1944 that followed the Winter War between Finland and Soviet Union. The most recent film adaptation, to celebrate the 100 years of independence, was directed by Aku Louhimies in 2017 based on the original manuscript Sotaromaani (the war novel), that Linna pitched to the publisher WSOY with “to give the soldiers, who bore the weight of the calamity, all the appreciation and strip war of its glory”. One of Linna’s motivations was to give the lowly soldier a brain as he felt other stories written by Swedish speaking elite fell short on that front.

The publisher subjected Tuntematon Sotilas to self-censorship known as Finlandization to some degree but most edits served to improve the story. It is a rare depiction of war that has no great heroes or generals as the main character, or any one lead character for that matter, but men from different corners of Finland, all speaking with their distinct dialects trying in their own way to cope and live to see another day. The novel achieves greatness by delivering the first hand account of the low level pawn caught in the senseless war. It has been translated to over twenty languages and should be part of the curriculum everywhere. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, the original translation to English left something to be desired. Spoiler alert if you are not familiar with Finnish history: the last lines of the novel depict men on their way home after the war has been lost. The benevolent sun is shining on them and the last line is affectionate “aika velikultia”. The first English translation fell far from the mark with blunt “Those were good men.” I hope Liesl Yamaguchi solved this one better and the new translation conveys the brotherhood and bond formed between the soldiers.

Finally, I would not do translations of Finnish novels justice if I didn’t mention Mika Waltari’s Sinuhe egyptiläinen (The Egyptian) published in 1945 and translated to English in 1949 by Naomi Walford via the Swedish translation. This breathtaking novel transports the reader to ancient Egypt and tells a story of an orphan, Sinuhe, rising to become the pharaoh’s physician during historical era when you lived and died as one man saw fit. The depictions of professions and life in Egypt was so well researched that no one believed it had been written by a Finnish author who had never set foot in Egypt. Waltari took artistic liberties with some minor details, using medical practices that were not used until 1000 years later and borrowed a familiar scene from the Old Testament. Still those serve the story that highlights the contradiction between ideals and the reality. The circumstances might have been different thousands of years ago but human condition has not changed. While Sinuhe, the expat of Egypt, was born from the imagination of Waltari, albeit inspired by real historical man, his life journey challenges the misconceptions we humans so easily harbor when it comes to culture, religion and history. The Egyptian was the best seller for two years following its US publication and remained the most sold foreign novel in the US until Umberto Eco came along in 1980.

This entry was posted in Essays, This Blog and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s