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On How I Became a Translator… – Nely Keinänen

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

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 4, 2009

Translation Studies


© 2009 Nely Keinänen


Nely Keinänen

I certainly didn’t set out to become a translator, but perhaps like the best things in life, I stumbled upon it while looking for something else. As a child growing up in a Finnish-Cuban-American household, I grew up amidst a swirl of languages, though unfortunately everybody spoke English to me. I loved listening to my relatives speaking their mother tongues: the rapid-fire barrage of tío Ramoncito’s jokes; my Cuban aunts and great-aunts exclaiming mira, qué linda whenever they saw me after a long absence; my cousin Henry, then about three, shouting ¡Mami, el tren, el tren! while we were stopped at a railroad crossing. The grownups were always dancing, and their language danced, even in the quietest moments, like when my mother wished me goodnight and told me, que sueñes con los angelitos.

Finnish was different, partly because Finland was different. I still vividly remember stepping off the DC-3 at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport the first time, when I was four or five, and smelling the forest air, cool and clean, infused with the scent of birch and spruce and pine (so much sweeter than the grass and oak and maple of home). The smells only intensified as we made our way to Kirjokallio, the family property in Tuusula, where my grandmother, aunts and uncle spent their summers. Of course there was pulla. To our unending delight, my grandmother let my sister and I knead the dough, pulling and smashing it with our little hands, breathing in the cardamom. Every morning we picked leaves from the black currant bush and made mustaherukka tee, sweetened with honey we got from a local farmer, so thick you could plunge a spoon into the jar and pull out a big chunk. We picked chives, ruohosipuli, literally grass onions, cutting them with scissors into tiny pieces to flake onto the new potatoes we ate at practically every meal.

The houses had funny-sounding names, all compounds: Ylätalo, Keskitalo, and our favorite, Härismäki, the little cottage my grandfather had built. The words had a different kind of music than English, where a saw-na bath became sow-na, the Americanized Keinanen became Keinänen, which everyone could pronounce better than me.

As a child I knew very little Finnish. My father taught me to count to ten, and my mother taught me to say anna minulle rahaa, the only phrase she knew, courtesy of my grandmother. The dogs of my cousins brought further vocabulary, along with practice in rolling r’s. We tried to coax Karre to tule tänne and yelled at Arto, pois siitä. Finnish readers may chuckle to learn that at home in the US my father referred to the bathroom as kusiputka, a word whose actual meaning I only learned as a young adult when I asked a salesperson at Stockmann’s, in my best fledgling Finnish, “Anteeksi, mutta voisitteko te kertoa missä teillä olisi kusiputka?” Pause. “Ei meillä ole sellaista!” (My father got an earful after that.)

Thankfully, I was mainly spared further humiliation as I learned Finnish. I moved to Finland in my early twenties, to discover my roots, to learn at least a smattering of Finnish in case my father forgot English like Antti-setä. Just before I left the US, one of my father’s cousins asked me the first question anybody had ever addressed to me in Finnish: nukuitko hyvin? I had no idea what she said, but after some explanation managed my first answer: Nukuin.

That first year in Finland I attended a winter course at Viittakiven Opisto, an adult education center located in Hauho. My course had just over forty participants, drawn from 14 or 15 countries. The school was bilingual (Finnish and English), with everything translated consecutively. We foreigners took a Finnish course, taught by an earnest woman called Anja, a poet, with porcelain skin, thin brown hair, and far-seeing blue eyes. With infinite patience, she helped us get our mouths around vowels like ä and ö, to understand that the silly musta kissa in our textbook could be pöydällä but a hat was päässä, that we went to saunaan, but sometimes you have to say saunalle. And we learned to say terveisiä saunasta, which did not mean greetings from sauna but something like sauna’s free, your turn.

Despite Anja’s best efforts, none of us learned much Finnish, as almost all out-of-class communication among the course participants was in English. I remember hitch-hiking with my roommate Sanna to Lahti, to see Matti Nykänen ski jump or go to a Hanoi Rocks concert. Sanna insisted that I talk to the driver. Me menemme Lahdelle, I said. He just looked at us. Sanna helped: Me mennään Lahteen. How was I supposed to know? We were always going to Hauholle, and even Tampereelle. I learned to play the guitar, started memorizing the songs of Juice Leskinen…Katu täyttyy askelista, elämä on kuolemista, pane käsi käteen, ollaan hiljaa. Most of the time, I had no idea what I was singing, but apparently my pronunciation wasn’t excruciatingly bad and my friends thought I was making great progress.

At the end of the winter course, a few of us managed to get summer jobs at Viittakivi: I got a job as a keittiöapulainen, and my friend Aija-Leena got a job as a siivooja. We had befriended Sari, from the previous year’s winter course, who was working in the kitchen. My first day in the kitchen was easy, as Sari was there and told me what to do. Things changed on the second day. There were two Finnish ladies working in the kitchen at the beginning of that summer, Hilkka, the emäntä and Terttu. Neither one spoke English, or at least didn’t speak English with me. And I basically knew how to say we were going to Lahti. But that morning I learned the words for peel and potato, by afternoon I’d mastered salad ingredients, while evening brought vocabulary for scouring and mopping. I was on my way.

It was quite a summer in one other way as well, thanks to the arrival of the eldest son of one of the Viittakivi teachers. Suddenly I had another reason to learn Finnish.

I decided to stay through the next winter, living with my aunt and uncle in Tuusula. They bought me Fred Karlsson’s Suomen peruskielioppi (which I’ve never read), a Finnish-English dictionary (which I have), and switched from speaking English with me to Finnish, another milestone in my road towards becoming a translator. I got a job as a kirjastoapulainen in the Political Science library at the University of Helsinki. Technically I was hired to speak English with the foreigners, but aside from one Egyptian fellow (who talked all the time with everybody in any number of languages) there were very few foreigners. And indeed, the one time another foreigner actually came to the library, she insisted upon speaking Finnish (and turned out to be an American from Wisconsin).

I learned a lot about the dangers of translating literally from English into Finnish from conversations with my co-workers. On my first day, I asked a woman who was working there “Mitä sinä täällä teet?” thinking I was asking her to describe her duties. Another time I tossed out a casual “Mitä kuuluu?” thinking I was saying “Hi, how are ya?” to which the proper response in my mind was “Fine, thanks.” The person looked positively surprised, then launched into what felt like a terribly long answer.

That winter I took the first of three Finnish courses I’ve taken in my life, held in the Main Building of the University of Helsinki. I sat in the back of the room with a crowd of British men. Mike was already married to Sari and really was trying to learn, Tim was living with a Finnish girlfriend but was having trouble slogging through, and there was also Jim, a tall, lanky Irish architect with curly orange hair who was working on the Forum shopping center. At the front of the room stood Eila Hämäläinen, a wonderful teacher, energetic and funny, who spoke only Finnish. It wasn’t long before we started understanding at least some of what she said, like pidetäänkö nyt tauko?

As much as I was enjoying my time in Finland, something (read: my mother) was telling me I needed to get on with my life. I’d always been good at English, so I decided to apply to graduate school, thinking maybe one day I could teach English, preferably Shakespeare, whose language had enthralled me from the very first sonnet we’d read in high school. I only applied to one school, my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I liked the people, and where my sister was studying genetics. For eight years, I immersed myself in Shakespeare, women’s writing, feminism, history. Finland felt very far away, even though at some point the teacher’s son moved in with me, and some years later we married. As a wedding present, his siblings presented us with an oil copy of Taistelevat Metsot, so K (a shorthand I will adopt here as he will figure largely in what follows) wouldn’t forget his roots. (We recently had it properly framed and now after a long spell in the attic it’s hanging above the couch at our cottage.)

While I was finishing up my dissertation, on bonds between women in Shakespeare and women writers of the early modern period, we moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where K was studying music. There was a small Finnish mafia in Bloomington: Annukka, a singer; Ilpo, a sociologist; Timo, a biologist; Marcus, a music theorist; and Niilo, a political scientist married to an American woman Anne, a historian. Superior numbers dictated that our language of communication was Finnish, with Anne and I gamely trying to keep up. I remember one outing where we nearly burst our sides laughing at a screening of Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, though for some reason the Americans around us didn’t find it nearly as funny. Niilo introduced us to vorschmack, which I still order every now and again at Lasipalatsi in Helsinki. Anne and I took a course in Advanced Finnish at Indiana University, taught by the irrepressible Pirkko Forsman-Svensson. We were the only students. Pirkko is one of the rare teachers who can actually answer a question about why you can say this but not that, often giving us mini-lectures on the history of Finnish which helped us understand the point at hand. It was then that I started reading Finnish literature, slowly, painfully, with much recourse to the paper dictionary, or preferably, the human one nearby. Pirkko also gave us the very useful pointer that if you don’t know which case ending to use, try the partitive plural, as it’ll be right about three-quarters of the time.

Eight years after starting graduate school, I emerged with a Ph.D., but little by way of job prospects. There were about 800 people applying for the handful of academic jobs in the US in my field, and while I’d come close a few times, I still hadn’t gotten an academic job. The jobs I’d been working to pay the bills didn’t come with health insurance. K finished his degree and was getting homesick. So we decided to move to Finland, for a year, to see what might happen.

What happened was that Lotte Troupp, a lecturer in Shakespeare at the Department of English, University of Helsinki, chose that very moment to retire. Her job was opened. I got it. On my application letter I’d mentioned my family ties to Finland and said that I spoke some Finnish, could perhaps teach translation along with Shakespeare. We arrived in Finland in January; in September of that year I found myself for the first time in front of thirteen beautiful faces, my first students in Translation I, Finnish into English.

Words cannot describe the terror I felt before those students. Mind you, I had sailed through graduate seminars on the teaching of composition and the teaching of literature, and had eight years of college teaching experience. I had six other new courses that semester, and wasn’t losing sleep over any of them. But translation? In terms of translation theory, I knew nothing, not even the concepts source text or target language. In terms of translating from Finnish into English, I was on slightly better ground, as the previous spring K and I had started taking on some small translation jobs as a way to make ends meet. K would do a raw translation, and I would check his language, more often than not without even looking at the Finnish original.

That first year, I spent three or four hours choosing each of our short texts, then many more hours translating them beforehand. I also assigned sections of the invaluable textbook Finnish into English: An Introduction to Translation, by Andrew Chesterman et al., which helped me to structure the course. The students were friendly, did their homework, asked questions. If I didn’t know the answer, which was almost always, I asked my colleague Eugene Holman, who usually did.

K and I continued to do translations on the side, even long book projects, on ICT in education, feminist psychoanalysis, the history of adult education in Finland. We began to have fascinating arguments about what you could and couldn’t say in English, and, increasingly, what the Finnish actually meant. I found myself turning to the Finnish when I was checking his language, seeing if I could puzzle out a solution by myself. Sometimes I could, at least in my opinion, but K always went through my corrections with a fine-tooth comb, to make sure I hadn’t changed the meaning.

All this time I didn’t think about translation very theoretically. I wasn’t bothered about notions of equivalence, norms, text types, or the politics of translation. I needed the proper term for lapsiasiainvaltuutettu or a way to translate a sentence like Kestävä kehitys pitää sisällään ympäristöllisen, sosiaalisen ja taloudellisen ulottovuuden. Because I wanted to improve my own translation teaching, I took a course on translating from Finnish into English co-taught by Andrew Chesterman, an academic, and Diana Tullberg, the owner of a translation company. Andrew had us contemplating great questions, like “What is Translation,” questions which only started to interest me much later. I found myself looking forward to Diana’s lessons, which felt ever so much more practical (like whether you can leave out muun muassa). Speaking of practical issues, during a coffee break we once found out that every single woman in that course could touch type, but none of the men, professional translators all. I never found out if any of the men tried to learn afterwards.

The best part of the class was getting to see Diana’s and Andrew’s translations of the texts we’d done. They were always so different, and yet each so right on its own terms. Since then as a teacher, I’ve also tried to present multiple solutions to any given translation problem, challenging my students’ wish to see the “right” answer. Sometimes I sense they find this rather frustrating, but to me it’s much more fun to see how many good ways there are of translating a given word, phrase, sentence, text.

So time went on, as time does. I added Translation II to my repertoire, and began developing new exercises-on collocations, on cognitive differences in the two languages-based on suggestions in Mona Baker’s In Other Words and Andrew Chesterman’s Memes of Translation. I began collecting Finnish idioms, untranslatables, quirky texts. After years of teaching, I also began to get slightly bored. Not of the students, whom I adore, but of everything else. I needed a new hobby.

As part of my Shakespeare teaching, I had long been organizing trips to Stratford-upon-Avon and London, and to as many Shakespeare productions in the Helsinki area as I could make time for. In 2003, I organized a trip to see Juha Lehtola’s play Othellohyrrä, a modern rewriting of Othello, being performed at the Finnish National Theater. I was transfixed. I was first struck by the language, realizing that I simply hadn’t seen any new plays recently. The modern idiom was enormously refreshing, sharp, with such different rhythms from the Shakespearean language I was used to. My students were similarly transfixed, finding themselves drawn into this world of workaholics, layoffs, betrayal. I just had to write about this play. So I sent a letter to Lehtola in care of the theater asking whether the play had been translated into English. It hadn’t.

Ah-hah, I thought. Maybe I should try translating it myself. Or maybe not. During the translation course, I’d done far better on the business or academic texts, totally bombing the more creative assignments. I’d dabbled in fiction, written a few poems, never published anything. I was in a writer’s group, which was basically an excuse to get out every now and again for a beer with some friends. There was K, the best reader anybody could hope for. And there was my colleague Ritva, to whom this book is dedicated. “What a good idea,” she said, smiling, when I told her this plan. “I’d be happy to help you.”

The good thing about Lehtola’s play is that most of the speeches are short. The bad thing about Lehtola’s play is also that most of the speeches are short, but that’s perhaps another story. I sat down one afternoon, it must have been winter since it was already dark, and I typed the first words after the title, which I naturally skipped (Othellotop? Othellowhirl? Othellotwirl? It was K who later came up with Spinning Othello, at a time when American politicians were always trying to “spin” the news):


OTHELLO, about 50
MONA, 24, a student
HUGO, about 45, Sales Director
EMILIA, Hugo’s wife, about 40, a secretary
PAKARINEN, Mona’s father, about 55, CEO
PAULIINA, about 40, Project Planner
TIMO KASURINEN, about 35, Project Manager

Thank heavens plays begin with a cast list, because until you start figuring out how you’re going to deal with the names, it’s always the easiest thing to translate.

Due to my own insecurities, I started a translation procedure which I’ve stuck to since then because it seems to work. I do a raw translation of the play, leaving anything in red that I don’t understand. K goes through the play and does what he can with the reds. I ask the author about the remaining problems. I go through the play again and again until I’m satisfied with how it reads. I read the translation out loud to K, who follows along with the Finnish text. He informs me where I’ve misunderstood the original. Usually there’s something really comical on page one, which keeps me humble. In Othellohyrrä, my biggest mistake came towards the end, when Kasurinen and Pauliina were breaking up, and I’d completely misunderstood Kasurinen, as did Pauliina in the next line. K laughed for five minutes.

The first time I also asked three people to read the translation, two academics, Ritva and Andrew, the two people I know who know the most about translation, conveniently each a native speaker of one of the languages. Both asked good questions, not just about particular choices, but also about larger things, like who the translation was for, what was my philosophy of translation (none!). I think it was Ritva who suggested I write a preface, which both also read. My friend Kati, who had been coming to Stratford with me to watch Shakespeare, also read the translation, offering fascinating criticism of the title character. I’ve since dropped this step, as it seems an awful lot to ask of anybody, and the read-through seems to catch any remaining problems (authors catch the funniest things, too, like missed puns).

After making all those corrections, I next arranged to have the play read aloud by a combination of native speakers of both languages, mainly my colleagues at the Department of English and my writing friends, because I wanted to test whether somebody else could read it as fluently as I could, whether it sounded “natural.” Lehtola came too. I was so nervous that I hardly slept the night before, and probably looked like the top of the title as I spun around making photocopies, putting out snacks, and herding everyone into the coffee room to start reading.

The reading ended up being a huge amount of fun. Readers came up with better suggestions for individual lines, which was enormously useful, and I also got a chance to hear the rhythms and sounds, saw where readers stumbled, where they sailed. Lehtola cautioned me more than once about not over-translating, making things explicit in the translation which were not explicit in the original. This felt, and sometimes still feels, strange, as in all our academic translations we struggled to make the meaning as clear and transparent as possible.

Once I’d translated one play, it turned out to be relatively easy to get another (I’m now finishing my ninth). I signed with Lehtola’s agent, Nordic Drama Corner, who still represent me and commission new translations. I also got to know some of the people at the Theater Information Center, who do great work publicizing Finnish theater abroad, and have also helped organize commissions and funding for me. Through a course they arranged, taught by the enormously talented Jukka-Pekka Pajunen, I’ve also gotten to know other translators who translate out of Finnish. We sit around a huge table, with Finnish as our lingua franca, asking each other questions and listening to each other’s translations. Amazing.

Experience is a great teacher, but again thanks to Ritva, my knowledge of the translation process, of what I’m trying to do, took a great leap forward when I finally found the time and energy to do something she’d been asking me to do for awhile: write about my translation process. I noticed that the Finnish literary journal Avain was doing a special issue on style, including style in translation. With Ritva’s help (and the help of two anonymous readers of the journal, to whom I will be eternally grateful), I began reading about style in translation, and about drama translation more generally. An eye-opening experience, whose biggest lesson was probably that I could be even more fearless when it comes to reproducing style, not always settling for the “natural” solution when the source text challenges norms. More recently, I found myself fretting about how to translate a very topical comedy, and couldn’t decide how to deal with all the allusions to Finnish culture, puns in names, and so forth. I trapped Andrew in the stairwell at work, begging for enlightenment. Read Ritva’s Culture Bumps, he said. I did, and was grateful to notice that there really isn’t any perfect solution which I would discover if only I were smart and creative enough. (For the record, I ended up making two versions of that comedy, one set in Chicago, my home town, the other in Finland. The two versions have a lot of the same words, but are completely different plays.)

I’ve sometimes wondered whether it would have been better to take up an entirely different hobby, one that would send me outdoors, away from the computer I already spend so much time at with my academic job. A hobby that doesn’t add deadlines to my already full schedule. Until we moved quite recently, I did almost all of my translation at a little desk set up in my living room, 80 cm wide by 40 cm deep, with three dictionaries (Finnish-English, Collins Co-Build and The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations) on the piano bench next to my chair, our stereo system butting against my head. I mainly translate between 6:30 and 8:00am, whenever I can, a word or phrase at a time. I can feel the tightness creeping into my right shoulder, which I try to ward off by stretching my neck down towards the left, then back again towards the right, slowly, gently, my muscles and sinews straining against the pull, like a thick rubber band unwilling to let go. I carry translation problems around with me, like once to the ice-skating rink where I spent an hour fretting about whether to keep a Finnish surname, Jalovaara (which my sister had laughed at), or use something else, like Northcliff (which the producer hated) while teaching my child to skate backwards.

And yet, something always draws me back. Sometimes, early in the morning, when the sky is still dark, the only light coming from the computer screen and my small red lamp, everything just works. I gallop through line after line; I can almost just close my eyes and hear the play in my head, sensing the characters, the timbre of their voices, their movements, the lights, the music, hear the audience gasp or cry. Or sometimes I’m swept up by what I’m translating, like a moment towards the end of Spinning Othello, where I burst into tears reading aloud my translation to K, because Mona and Othello would never be able to make up; or more tears, at the end of the read-through of Laura Ruohonen’s Olga, where Olga declares her love, and her speech really is perfect. Of course it was Ruohonen who made it so, but also me.

Every journey through a play is different, but my support group has pretty much remained the same. Ritva will no doubt think I’m exaggerating her role in my work, but she’s been such a comfort to have there in the periphery, answering questions, providing bibliography, showing the kind of interest which is necessary for any kind of creative or academic endeavor. I remember her once telling the first year students that she sometimes experienced herself as an academic mother or grandmother (before we all became facilitators of knowledge). To me she’s been like an academic big sister: caring; generous with her considerable expertise as well as her precious time; showing us by example how to achieve the things we want. For this, I thank her. Thanks, too, to the editors of this Helsinki English Studies, for giving us this opportunity to reflect on our journeys into translation.