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Shop Talk The Marvelous Bonfire
On translating Finnish literature into English.
My history as a literary translator began with reading. For my college graduation, my uncle mailed me a copy of the collected poems of Finnish poet Arto Melleri. I didn’t expect to like the collection, titled Runot or Poems (Otava 2005) mostly because the poet was always, in every single photograph, dressed like a slightly fancy cowboy . But I read the volume, and though I occasionally found its speakers disagreeable, it wasn’t the relic I expected. Instead, it gave me that shuddering, pleasurable feeling that very good writing can gift its reader. If a thing you read gives you that sensation, it’s your responsibility to share the piece with someone. Together, you can attend and experience the marvelous bonfire. I still believe this, and stand by it. But this book didn’t exist in English, so I was at the pyre by myself.
It felt appropriate, in a way—I was trying to break my attachments to Florida. I was a recent college graduate, and I had no boyfriend, and I was about to turn in the keys at my stupefyingly dull clerk job in order to stuff my belongings—clothes, books, and an oscillating fan—into a car and drive from Palm Beach Gardens to New York. I was going to hug my mother and sisters and then go off to poetry school. I’d rented my first apartment. I was all set for solitude.
The problem, though, was that I wanted to arrive at school prepared for others—cool, smart, and armed with something more intellectual than printouts of dramatic, unpolished poems. The material didn’t seem to be backed by enough rigor on my part; I felt the imposter-y feeling that I am still always working so hard to overcome. I wanted something to validate my presence.
Translation would turn out to be that thing, although I didn’t yet know that as I began my painstaking project of turning Melleri’s poems into English. I’d spent my college years poring over seventeenth-century texts, yet was about to go to school for something that felt easy. (I didn’t yet consider poetry to be “work” because I hadn’t developed an editing practice.) Translating poetry, though, felt like a bridge between academic labor and a creative project: There was enough drudgery, enough agonizing over the placement of a comma, for it to feel like real work. Enough tension gathered in my shoulders and behind my eyes to remind me of my weeks with databases like Early English Books Online. But at the same time, as poetry, it spoke the magic of possibility. It was my last few weeks living in the last working class neighborhood in the golf capital of the world, and I wanted to prove I was an intellectual artist.
To fuel my own fire, I used the family desktop computer to do some cursory research on translators of Finnish poetry. I found that just two existed: the late Anselm Hollo, of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and the late British poet and translator Herbert Lomas. I suddenly felt galvanized and exceptional—I was working on something new, and had some responsibility over cultural ambassadorship. There were no women translating Finnish poetry, much less young women. I could do what I wanted! I could translate what I loved! Nobody could critique my process, or compare my translations to anyone else’s. There was room for me in some canon, in some tradition.
In New York, I continued to hold on to translation as my secret key: In my very first workshop, I asked my instructor if he would consider looking at some of my Melleri drafts during our one-on-ones. He said he wouldn’t mind. Grouchy as though he could be otherwise, Stephen Dobyns was a great proponent of translation—he introduced us to Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, and Vasko Popa that semester alone. “Ezra Pound made a living for years as a translator,” he told me when I asked him if someone could simultaneously be a credible writer and translator. Little by little, translation started to make sense as a back door not just into school but also into the formidable literary scene. It started to seem like something I could do, and do visibly.
My first real assignment happened because of persistence, luck, and the generosity of an author I’ve still never met in person. I was by then living in Brooklyn, out of grad school, lacking money and a sense of purpose. I also hadn’t done anything with my Melleri translations. A couple of them had been published in journals, but my motivation to cull from the translations a full-length manuscript had fizzled because the conversation was one-sided: Melleri passed away in 2005, and if I wanted to do anything with the work, I had to go through his publisher Otava, one of Finland’s oldest and largest publishing houses. I didn’t know how to navigate publishing; I had no meaningful body of work or negotiation power, and I found grant writing baffling, so I talked myself out of the project.
Desperate to read new Finnish poetry by women, I searched online and found Poesia.fi , a print and web publisher that also publishes its print books online as PDFs. I read several manuscripts, but Tytti Heikkinen’s work struck me as the strangest and yet the most capable of making me feel real feelings. Her work is antipoetic, philosophical, often crass (and sometimes viscerally repulsive), and completely contemporary. Aspects of it are also incredibly, subjectively feminine.
I wrote to Heikkinen out of the blue, and we exchanged many emails before she asked me if I’d like to complete a full-length translation of her writing. I said yes, and we ended up with a selection from her first two books, which she called The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal .
Two years, with their ups and downs, passed while I completed the translation and then began to pitch the book. (I also acted as its de facto stateside agent.) After another year, it was finally picked up by Action Books (whom I also cold-emailed, incredibly). You can read some of the book’s poems at the The Brooklyn Rail , at Montevidayo , as well as a review in Vice. Action Books, if you aren’t familiar, is the project of the indefatigable duo of Johannes G ö ransson and Joyelle McSweeney. They publish some of the most boundary-pushing, avant-garde, corporeal, terrifying books in existence today, both in translation and in English. It was my dream home for the book, and it was an incredible first book experience.
Even though I started translating to “belong” in the literary sense, it took me a long time to think about how I could be a part of the world of translation itself. It took me longer still to read about translation theory. I think this is because before I’m a translator, I’m the person sitting alone at the kitchen table, reading the text, and feeling feelings because of it.
To do your job as a translator, you have to read well. Translation calls for a very deep, immersive, prolonged kind of reading. You read and reread each sentence, and then read and reread the paragraph that those sentences form to make sure you’ve sucked out every bit of possible meaning. You read to ascertain that you’ve understood the information, but also that you’ve noted the order in which it’s revealed.
You also have to know that the language you’re working with has a unique set of challenges. Finnish has no articles, definite or indefinite. There are also no gendered pronouns, which means the translator must decide, based on context, the gender of the sentence’s subject in order to make it work within the limitations of English.
A translator makes a series of decisions, one after the other—and draws parallels based on her own understanding of the subject. Lawrence Venuti writes in his essay “Translation, Community, Utopia” that translation “never communicates in an untroubled fashion because the translator negotiates the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text by reducing them and supplying another set of differences . . .” Imagine if your translator is a broke twentysomething in Brooklyn. She has a limited worldview to contribute to the project, and that worldview is different from that of the original author. The resulting translation won’t be perfect, even if the translator has the luxury of talking it over with the author. Her choice of what to translate in the first place is flawed and based on taste.
A translation will never be perfectly faithful to the original, but it contributes something else: It opens the work up to new readers.
It’s full-contact reading when I translate. I work a paragraph at a time, holding the book in my lap, glancing up from it to my computer screen to make sure my fingers are still correctly aligned on the keyboard. I touch the pages; I underline words I think are key, and ones I think I might need to reexamine in my second pass.
Below is a passage from a book I’ve been rereading for translation, 27: Or, Death Makes an Artist, by Alexandra Salmela. Its speaker is a young woman obsessed with creating something meaningful before she turns twenty-eight, and with the idea of the “27 Club.” This passage, though, just concerns a certain holiday tradition.
Here is an example of a first translation—straight through, just to get an initial impression:
From the Christmas tree, there hang, in desperate-looking arrangements, the eleven red ball ornaments I was able to find; on two opposing branches, two glass birds that have seen better days show off; and decorating the top of the tree, the pink star, familiar from my childhood but by now badly dinged up. We haven’t bought chocolates because Dad decided to obtain them from the post-Christmas markdowns. The five strands of ancient electric candles that he’s been keeping in some dusty box just had to be arranged somewhat symmetrically into the sparse tree.
“Nice tree,” Dad says, clearly moved, after powering the whole arrangement.
The lit-up tree blinds me.
“Well, it is handsome.” Grandma agrees with him, for the first time in seven years.
Grammar in Finnish is complex—there are fifteen grammatical cases, for example, while English only has three. This makes the long sentence that comprises most of the first paragraph an immediate challenge. I opt for semicolons to keep the list vibe, then I question each of the graph’s descriptive words, adjusting them as necessary. A more honed result might look like this:
From the Christmas tree, there hang, in desperate-looking clusters, the eleven red ball ornaments I was able to track down; a pair of glass birds that have seen better days preen on opposing branches; the pink star of my childhood, familiar but by now badly dinged up, tops the tree. We haven’t bought chocolate because Dad has decided to wait for post-Christmas markdowns. The five strands of ancient electric candles that he’s been hoarding in some dusty box just had to be arranged somewhat symmetrically into the sparse tree.
“Nice tree,” Dad says, clearly moved, after powering on the whole arrangement.
The lit-up tree is blinding.
“Well, it is handsome,” Grandma says, agreeing with him for the first time in seven years.
And I keep reading like that.