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A bumpy road – Sonja Tirkkonen-Condit

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 4, 2009

Translation Studies


© 2009 Sonja Tirkkonen-Condit


Sonja Tirkkonen-Condit

Ritva Leppihalme has done research on cultural bumps in translation. This is a reminiscing story about some cultural and other bumps that I have run into on my academic road. How did I, a factory worker’s daughter from Varkaus, end up as a professor? My idea as a schoolgirl was to study at least as much as my language teachers, whom I admired. But there were two professions that I decided to avoid. I did not want to become a teacher or a nurse. I remember pondering about these things during my cycling trips from school. After finishing school I gained a place at the University of Helsinki to study English, but I decided, instead, to go to the Helsinki School of Economics. The reason for this (stupid) decision was that instead of studying just one language I could take up four! There was nobody in my family who could have given me advice about academic studies and how they related to career prospects. And so I ended up in a place which was said to be haunted by “a managerial spirit”. My study programme was business correspondence with English, Swedish, German and Spanish as main subjects.

The career prospects for the girls in the correspondence programme – we were all girls – were not managerial. They were secretarial. This dawned on me in the numerous business firms in which I worked in the sixties. I decided very early that I would carry on my studies for a master’s degree while working as a secretary to earn a living. I got my master’s degree at the age of 30, and in 1972, at the age of 32, I finally got a job that was interesting and challenging. That was a translator’s post in the Ministry of Education. By that time I had spent almost 10 years working as a secretary.

I still think it was a waste of time. In 1972, however, there were other interesting prospects as well. The language institutes of Turku and Savonlinna advertised new vacancies for lecturers in English, and I applied to both. I never got an answer from Turku, and to date I do not know if my application got lost in the mail or what happened. But Savonlinna appointed me, and so I left my job in the Ministry, and moved from Helsinki to Savonlinna. I was lucky to have a good friend, Paula Hyttinen, to accompany me on the bumpy road to Savonlinna. Paula got a one year’s temporary post as a deputy lecturer at Savonlinna, and so we hired a driver with a van to take us and our few belongings to Savo. The next year Paula went back to her job at the Bank of Finland.  My job at Savonlinna was permanent, and so I started a very challenging and tough career at the Language Institute. Nine years later we joined the university system and became Savonlinna School of Translation Studies.

I worked as a lecturer of English until 1979, and my teaching load included theory and practice of translation and a variety of other subjects, such as interpreting. It became clear to me very early that I knew virtually nothing about translation theory, and that I could not do my job properly without further study. So I studied Applied Linguistics at the University of Essex, first for one term in 1975 and then a whole academic year in 1977-78. I had got married to my colleague Dr. Stephen Condit, who came to Savonlinna in 1974. Our daughter Outi was born in April 1977, and our little family sailed to England in September. My husband was finalising his PhD while taking care of Outi.

I still look back at our year in England with nostalgia. We had a lovely flat at Frinton, and I commuted to the university by combining cycling and a train trip. I cycled to the station at Frinton, put my bike on the train, got off at Wivenhoe and cycled to Wivenhoe Park, where the university campus was located. The trip took one hour or 90 minutes, depending on whether there was a change of trains at Clacton or Thorpe-Le-Soken. If there was, there was always time to have a little chat with the station master. I was the lady with the bike, and he was always ready show me the carriage which took bikes.

It was wonderful to be a student again, and I enjoyed the intensity of studies in the M.A. programme. We had essays to write, books and articles to read, we had lectures and seminar sessions in small groups where we discussed the topics of interest. I did my M.A. in Applied Linguistics with a distinction, and would have liked to carry on for a PhD, if only I had had the money. In those days foreign students had to pay fees, and the fees for one academic year were about 10,000 marks. I had to take a bank loan to finance it.

After coming back to my job at Savonlinna I was full of new ideas of how to teach translation, and I looked at the teaching job quite differently after having been a student myself. It was then that I started to seriously plan post-graduate studies. I contacted Professor Kari Sajavaara at Jyväskylä, who told me that there was a temporary assistant’s job in the department of English which I could apply for.  So I worked as an assistant for one year. I commuted between Savonlinna and Jyväskylä by train: to Jyväskylä on Sunday evening and back to Savonlinna on Thursday. At that time our daughter was only 2.5 years old, and Steve was a part-time single parent again. My teaching load was only 4 hours a week plus some consultation hours, so I had plenty of time to devote to my own research. My M.A. degree at Essex was considered to be equivalent to the graduate studies required for a licentiate’s degree, so I could start to prepare my licentiate’s thesis immediately.

I was also encouraged to apply to the research assistantships at the Academy of Finland. In my first round of application, I was the tenth on the waiting list, and I was congratulated on this achievement already! In the second round I got half a year’s term, and then a full term of three years. For the first time in my life I was paid a salary for studying and doing research. In such ideal conditions I completed my licentiate’s degree in two years and my Ph.D. in three. I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on argumentative text structure and translation, and defended it in May 1985. My magnificent opponents were Heikki Nyyssönen and Juliane House. But up to that point it had not been just plain sailing. I had handed in the first version of  my manuscript one year earlier for pre-review, but it was turned down by one of the reviewers, Auli Hakulinen. She said simply that the thesis was not ready yet, and gave me a great number of comments and suggestions for revision. Finalizing the manuscript was very hard work, and it took me almost a year. But it was worth it. I am grateful to Auli for giving me a hard time, because the book was obviously “not ready” in its first version.

In August 1985 I started as a deputy associate professor of English at Savonlinna, and decided to take up all the challenges that the job offered. One of the challenges was to make Savonlinna a place which attracted translation researchers from all over the world. Many people laughed at such a childish idea. But at some point in recent history it seemed that this dream in fact had come true. In the eighties and nineties there were no graduate schools, and doctoral students in different universities did not have many opportunities to meet each other. To fill this gap I organised summer schools and seminars to which students and researchers of translation studies were invited. Many of those students are now university lecturers and professors. Among the first participants in Savonlinna’s seminars were, for instance, Ritva Leppihalme, Outi Paloposki and Kaisa Koskinen, who are now world-famous for their work as researchers and teachers of translation studies.

One of the big names was Gideon Toury, who visited Savonlinna on several occasions. He was first invited to Savonlinna in 1988 as a plenary speaker to our TRANSIF seminar. In this seminar, there were other participants who are now well known but were not celebrities at the time: Kitty van Leuven-Zwart, Christiane Nord, Miriam Shlesinger, Christina Schäffner, Kinga Klaudy, Wolfgang Lörscher and Candace Séguinot. The other already famous people were Nils Enkvist, Albrecht Neubert and Ghelly Chernov.

My research topics seem to have developed in a natural course. The topic for my licentiate’s thesis, translation quality assessment, derived from my work as a teacher of translation. The evaluation of translation quality was problematic, and empirical work in this domain was virtually non-existent. The need to describe the structure of entire texts also goes back to quality assessment. The evaluator needs an overall picture about the whole text to be able to decide what weight should be given to a particular error or shortcoming in a translated passage, or the other way round, to a particularly successful solution in another passage. I started by developing a model for the description of argumentative text structure, and ended up studying argumentation as a cultural phenomenon. This is how I became familiar with the international community of argumentation scholars such as Frans van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst and Sally Jackson.

And how did I end up studying translation processes? The first impetus was in a little seminar organized by Juliane House in Hamburg as early as 1984. There were some scholars who had collected think-aloud data by video-taping students who wrote a translation on the blackboard while thinking aloud. When my first M.A. students were looking for topics for their theses, I had the idea of think-aloud as one option. There was one student, Riitta Jääskeläinen, who took up the challenge. Riitta did her M.A. thesis, licentiate’s thesis and Ph.D. thesis on translation processes using think-aloud data as material. Our subjects in the pilot studies were students, but it soon became necessary to get professional translators in addition. Expertise in translation became the next area of interest in my own research as well as Riitta’s.

I was appointed professor of theory of language and translation in 1993. In addition to taking charge of post-graduate research I carried on conducting M.A. thesis seminars and supervising M.A. theses. Supervising M.A. projects was one of the most rewarding obligations in my work as a professor. Even in times when there seemed to be no time or energy for my own research, students’ advancement in their work gave me the feeling that I was still alive as a researcher.

Another source of inspiration were the numerous international conferences which I was able to attend. Even in a badly organized conference there was always something that attracted the eye and gave new research ideas. One such occasion was when Arnt Lykke Jakobsen demonstrated the Translog software which he had developed with his son Lasse Shou. This is a word-processing software package which registers all keyboard and mouse activity while typing. It also measures time with an accuracy of 10 milliseconds. It was developed for translation research purposes and thus gives access to abundant data about translation as a writing process. I was enthusiastic to use Translog myself and I also advertised it in my thesis seminar.  And there was one M.A. student who took up the challenge and started an M.A. thesis project which involved gathering data from as many as 18 professional translators. This student was Sini Immonen, who is now working on her Ph.D. The focus of her research is on pausing in translation versus monolingual writing.

Professional translators’ work was also in focus in corpus-based research of translation, which is another fascinating domain. Research on translated Finnish had always been on our agenda at Savonlinna, but it materialized into a properly financed project thanks to Anna Mauranen, who was appointed professor of English in the mid 1990’s. Anna’s project soon generated doctoral theses, research articles, conference papers, and finally, the international conference on Translation Universals made the corpus research done at Savonlinna known world-wide. The collective volume edited by Anna Mauranen and Pekka Kujamäki was published by John Benjamins in 2004.

One domain of corpus work leads to another, and it seems that chance has a role to play in this, as well as some other turns in my career. It must have been in 2001 or 2002, when we had one of our “working life seminars” at our school. These were occasions to which people working in various translational professions were invited to talk about their work to the students and staff of the school. One of the speakers in this particular seminar was a translator from the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. She was a translator of subtitles, and she mentioned in passing that YLE had saved most of their subtitled material electronically in their original form as they had been transmitted to TV viewers. I asked if it might be possible to get the material from YLE for research purposes. She said that this possibility should be negotiated with her superiors. A year or so later I contacted Esko Vertanen about the matter. He was very enthusiastic, and arranged a contract with our school which enabled us to use their subtitle material to develop a corpus of subtitles for research purposes. Thanks to Jukka Mäkisalo’s hard work the school now has a well-organized corpus of 100,000 running words of subtitles. A variety of research projects are under way, and a number of M.A. theses, conference papers and articles have already come out as a result of this project.

I retired two years ago, and I am enjoying the freedom, even though sometimes it seems as if “the other half” of life is missing. However, I have some new areas of interest that seem to take a lot of my time and enthusiasm. One interesting domain is writing. All my life I have written scientific reports and  articles and other kinds of factual prose, but now I have discovered the fun of learning how to write poetry. The courses at Orivesi are like a second home to me, as is our little poetry club here at Savonlinna.  Another interesting area that I have discovered  is politics. A friend asked about a year ago if I would like to be a candidate for the Green Party in the local election. After a long time of consideration I agreed, but the day before the Greens were to publish their candidates I changed my mind and contacted people of  the Left Alliance instead. So I ended up as a deputy member of the City Council representing the Left Alliance. That is a good place for a worker’s daughter.