University homepage | Suomeksi | På svenska | In English

From Philology to Translation Studies – Marja Jänis

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

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 4, 2009

Translation Studies


© 2009 Marja Jänis


Marja Jänis

Ritva Leppihalme and I  are similar in age, so it is tempting to look at our careers and to point out the parallels and separate routes that we have taken in the course of our progress   from being students of philology to becoming researchers in translation studies.  We both started our studies in English philology at Helsinki University in the mid 1960s. We attended the same classes and most probably were taught, at least partly, by the same tutors. At that time we did not know each other, nor did we anticipate how our paths would eventually cross in translation studies.

Ritva continued with the English studies. I grew excited about the Russian language having attended a beginner´s summer course in basic Russian.  I started with Russian from zero at the age of 19, because at that time it was impossible to study Russian in Finnish schools, with the exception of a few places in Helsinki, one in Lappeenranta (for boys only), and perhaps also in Tampere. I continued with Russian at Helsinki University and decided to make it my major subject, but I also continued with English philology as my minor, along with literature and theatre studies.

After two years of Russian studies, I started to make use of my knowledge of languages: I was guiding bus tours to Leningrad with English- and Swedish-speaking tourists every week during the summer of 1966. Later in my student years I was asked to take on interpreting assignments.  Those were the days of leftist political activities, and we had a lot of contacts with Soviet politicians, artists, musicians, movie people etc., and all kinds of organizations made use of those few people who knew Russian.  I soon started to think that I was good at interpreting. I also dreamt of a career as a literary translator, but my attempts in that field were not successful.

Before the 1980s there was no academic training for translators in Finland. Confident in my interpreting skills, I started to undertake translation of non-literary texts as well. The only model for doing this was what had been taught at school and at the university, when translating was a form of language learning, or of testing the results of learning. As Ritva Leppihalme [1] writes, the idea underlying that concept was that translating involved very close rendering of the source text words and structures. The question of target text readers´ interests was not taken into consideration at all.

With Russian it was even more complicated, because Russian and Finnish discourse differ considerably and a word-for-word translation from Russian leads to quite odd Finnish. Lately I have been re-reading my old translations, and wondering why the Finnish language of those texts is so far from normal Finnish discourse and why such translations were tolerated in Finnish media discourse [2].   I assume that there was a norm of verbatim translating from Russian into Finnish, possibly for historical reasons. In addition, the fact that word-for-word translations of Marxist political and philosophical texts were undertaken with deep respect for the original made us young translators adhere to very close renderings of the source texts.

Inkeri Vehmas-Lehto [3] has analyzed translations of journalistic texts sent in by the Soviet News Agency APN, where I worked as a professional translator in 1973-1975. She terms those translations quasi-correct. My quasi-correct translations did not end up in being analyzed in her dissertation, but I now certainly recognize the main problem involved in translating the APN news reports: the general and almost sole task was to render the original as faithfully as possible. What the Finnish reader will gain from reading the translation was less important, although attention was paid to the formal correctness of the Finnish language.

Ritva Leppihalme stayed at Helsinki University and continued teaching English to new generations of philologists.  I moved to Joensuu in the mid 1970s and worked at the Russian Department of the University of Joensuu teaching Russian to new generations of Russian language students.

Besides teaching, I continued to interpret in official and unofficial settings in Joensuu. The official settings included locally significant historical events such as the negotiations concerning academic cooperation between the University of Joensuu and the University of Petrozavodsk (in Soviet Karelia)  and the Karelian section of the Soviet Academy of Science, and I also translated the text of the agreement.  It was an uncommon agreement at that time: in the Soviet Union the Karelian Republic was very peripheral, so the decision to allow the local university to collaborate with a foreign university was exceptional. That agreement has also led to long-lasting contacts in various fields of research and teaching between the university of Joensuu and Soviet/Russian Karelian academic institutions.

The unofficial settings where I acted as interpreter included encounters between Russian teachers at the University of Joensuu with people from Joensuu and North Karelia. I have  interpreted talks on Russian literature in small village libraries, helped in organizing Finnish-Soviet fishing competitions on the frozen lakes of North Karelia, gone down into the mines of Outokumpu with Finnish and Russian geologists, etc.

My great love of the Russian and Soviet theatre resulted in my editing and translating a book called Teatterin Lokakuu (October in Theatre) by the well-known  Russian/Soviet theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold in the late 1970s [4]. That task made me really think about translation, its limits and its possibilities: I wanted to preserve Meyerhold´s funny and colourful language, but at the same time I wanted to ensure that Finnish theatre people could follow Meyerhold´s way of thinking.  Subsequently, I began calling this kind of non-literary text with a very marked, specific style an avtorskij tekst (an author´s text). [5] In translating that particular text I consciously played a double role, serving two masters. I felt that I had to preserve Meyerhold´s witty, full-bodied style,  but that I was also allowed to combine sentences, reduce the emotionality, and explicate and add explanations, if I felt that it was necessary to do so for his ideas to come through in translation. I wrote my licenciate dissertation on Meyerhold and defended it as a postgraduate student at Helsinki University, my old  alma mater, where I also acted as Professor of Russian literature in 1984-1986. During those years I do not recall having met Ritva Leppihalme. We were not yet in translation studies.

The Savonlinna Institute of Foreign Languages was annexed to the University of Joensuu in the mid 1980s. I had received my secondary education in Savonlinna and vowed never to return to that small town. But when I was asked to work there in translation studies, I forgot my promise.  I started teaching in Savonlinna in 1986 and immediately felt at home: my colleagues and students were lively and enthusiastic and the atmosphere encouraged  research.  Our professor of translation studies, Sonja Tirkkonen-Condit, had asked Academy Professor Nils Erik Enkvist to supervise our doctoral seminar.  Both of them were doing research in text linguistics, a field of linguistics that has a direct bearing upon translation studies. Enkvist called Sonja the  “mother of Finnish text linguistics”, himself being the father.  He managed to create a motivating intellectual climate in our seminar: he had the ability to listen to what  research novices had in mind, he respected even minor attempts to try to formulate a research plan and he commented on them in a way that was never discouraging or cynical.  Of course, Professor Enkvist – or Nils, as we called him – was not responsible for the way in which our research plans would be accomplished.  Keeping a tight rein on that was Sonja´s responsibility. Be that as it may, those early encounters and endless discussions led to active pioneering research, international conferences, and made us proud of being part of the Savonlinna School of Translation Studies.

Another unforgettable person on my path to translation studies was Professor Gideon Toury, from Israel. I had first met him at the first international conference in Savonlinna.  Gideon Toury was asked to supervise the CERA Summer School of Translation and Communication in Belgium at the University of Leuven in 1989. The application form for the Summer School said that they encouraged applications from young talented students of translation studies. I hesitated to apply: I was already over 40. However, I was accepted. That summer school had a lasting impact on my way of thinking about translation. I will never forget Gideon Toury, nor also José Lambert of the Catholic University of Leuven, who were the leading figures of those intensive seminar days in hot dusty Leuven. The students were from all over the world and they were dealing with all kinds of topics: oral translations of foreign films at international cinema festivals in Turkey, the analysis of translated encyclopedia metatexts, the translation and publication of  detective stories, censorship policies affecting the translation of children´s literature, the acceptability of tourism brochures, etc. The themes were reflected in the eventual publication of Translation and (Re)production of Culture. [6] Descriptive translation studies offered a new way of looking at translation within a systemic framework and from a historical perspective.  I have recently been going through my notes from those Leuven days, and I still like one of the comments that I wrote down at that time – I don´t remember whose words they were: “Linguistics tends to concentrate on seeing  translation as problem-solving on the level of  the source language system and language use versus the target language system and language use. Literary studies tend to concentrate on translations as unique interpretations, although literary translations from a certain period tend to have something in common.”

I defended my doctoral dissertation in translation studies in the early 1990s, and Ritva Leppihalme defended hers at about the same time. Our philological backgrounds and our interest in culture are reflected in the themes of our dissertations. Mine was on drama translation, while Ritva´s was on cultural “bumps”. As established translation scholars we now started meeting at Finnish and international conferences and gatherings.

For several periods of time I have also lived in Tanzania, and that experience of being lost in translation whenever I have attempted to understand and be understood  has also been a motivating force for my interest in communication via translation and interpreting.

In more recent years, both Ritva and I have become members of the pool of supervisors for the sub-programme of Translation Studies and Research into  Professional Communication under the auspices of the Finnish Graduate School in Linguistic Studies Langnet. We have also participated in the project of writing the history of translated literature in Finland. [7]

We are both philologists who have turned into scholars in the field of translation studies, and sometimes we have asked each other why we have done so.  In translation studies there is something pioneering.  At present, the sheer number of new publications and conferences far exceeds the capacity of an individual scholar to follow them all. Nevertheless, there is freshness in this field of knowledge, because we still know very little about how communication via translation and interpreting is undertaken in different parts of the world, and how it has been done in different times and different settings. It must also be something personal: I like starting new things, discovering new methods, but I am also not particularly good at finishing what I have started.

Both Ritva and I retire at the same time, and – who knows! – perhaps we´ll both continue to do research in the field that has shaped so much of our working lives.  Or do something totally different.


[1] Leppihalme, Ritva, Käännös eteenpäin: ajatuksia kääntämisen opettamisesta.  Oittinen, Riitta, Mäkinen, Pirjo (eds.) Alussa oli käännös. Tampere University Press, Tampere. 2002:50–64.

[2] These ideas I have developed further in Jänis, Marja, Sanatarkasti venäjästä suomeksi. Idäntutkimus 2/2009: 27-37.

[3] Vehmas-Lehto, Inkeri,  Quasi-correctness. A critical study of Finnish translations of Russian journalistic texts. Neuvostoliittoinstituutin vuosikirja 31. Helsinki. 1989.

[4] Meyerhold, Vsevolod. Teatterin Lokakuu. Suom. ja toim. Marja Jänis. Love Kirjat, Helsinki. 1981.

[5] See eg. Jänis, Marja. Venäjästä suomeksi ja suomesta venäjäksi. Aleksanteri-instituutti. Aleksanteri-sarja 1/2006. Helsinki. 2006.

[6] Translation and (Re)production of Culture. Selected Papers of the CERA Research Seminar in Translation Studies 1989-1991. Leuven 1994.

[7] Suomennoskirjallisuuden historia I-II. (Ed. H.K. Riikonen et al.), SKS, Helsinki. 2007.

Back to top