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The Three Big Gs – Gradu, Graduation and Gratitude – Niina Koskipää

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

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 4, 2009

Translation Studies


© 2009 Niina Koskipää


Niina Koskipää

I never wanted to be a translator or a translation scholar. I wanted to become a doctor, a biochemist or a fighter pilot. And these were not childhood dreams; this was when I was graduating from lukio (high school). Translating, or rather thinking about translation, was just a cherished hobby to me. As a major TV buff, I learned English almost solely by watching television. I would jot down phrases and expressions from ALF, McGyver and Northern Exposure, and memorize them at bedtime, sounding out the words, and probably making my parents think I was somewhat of a “special” child. The translations of these culture-bound elements already fascinated me back then.  It is often thought that picking out translation errors in subtitles is the favorite pastime of many television viewers, but for me it was the good-translation-spotting that gave me immense pleasure.  How could subtitlers have such wide-ranging knowledge not only of language(s), but of culture(s) as well that nothing seemed to stump them? Somehow through a twist of fate I did not end up in a hospital, a laboratory or an aircraft hangar, but at the Department of English at the University of Helsinki. Soon thereafter I   realized that translation was the field closest to my heart. However, I only had the practice of it in mind. It was not until I took a course taught by Ritva Leppihalme called “Kulttuurisidonnaisia käännösongelmia” (Intercultural Studies) that I finally realized that what I had considered as a fun hobby could actually be the object of serious study.

The course placed culture-bound elements and their translation in an academic context. I was immediately hooked, and Ritva’s inspiring teaching, whether it was due to her skills as a pedagogue or her own interest in the topic, further strengthened my belief that I had found my thing, my niche in the overwhelmingly wide-ranging world of academia.  On the last page of my final essay for the course, twenty pages too long, Ritva had written: “Is this the beginning of a Pro Gradu thesis?” The thought had honestly never occurred to me, but I was at once excited about the prospect. This all happened in the year 2003. It took me another three years before I started in Ritva’s translation seminar (Translation and Creativity), and began the dreaded process of turning an idea into a hundred pages worth of academic research. Ritva always considered Pro Gradus to be just that: academic studies to be taken seriously, not just by the student/writer, but by the teacher/adviser, and the future readers as well. This did not mean, however, that we all had to shoot for the stars with our thesis. The first thing I learned in the seminar was that when devising the research question we should already consider what we wanted to achieve with our theses; not just academically, but in the bigger picture of our future lives. She would support us whether our number one goal was to get those graduation papers in our hands, pursue an academic career, or something in between.  I gathered from this that Gradu writing is ultimately an individual process, a test of academic stamina no one could pass in our behalf.

I began the seminar with mixed feelings about the Gradu writing process. I was excited about my topic, but it had yet to form into a definite, executable, plan. Moreover, even though I had studied at the University for six years, I felt that I had little methodological or theoretical basis for carrying out a translation-related study. I noticed that my knowledge of literature and linguistics did not help me here. I had to, for lack of a better expression, wipe the slate clean and start over. Besides one course in translation theory, superbly taught by Professor Andrew Chesterman, I knew next to nothing about where to begin: what to read to build my theoretical framework; how to devise and revise a research question to make it feasible; and how to deal with my primary material. In Ritva’s seminar all this was discussed extensively and in a very pragmatic way; something that was invaluable to me and, if I hazard a guess, to the rest of the group as well.

I finally ended up doing my thesis on how realia and allusions had been translated in the subtitles of an American television series called Gilmore Girls.  I combined my love of television with my interest in translation and culture-bound elements in texts, and came up with a plan: to divide all the instances of realia and allusions I could find in thirty hours of television text according to existing classifications of translation strategies, after which I would figure out what the frequencies of different translation strategies meant in the context of subtitling. This kept me busy for almost two years. It was not exactly groundbreaking as a plan, but it was certainly ambitious, and the study turned out to be very time-consuming to carry out. Surprise, surprise. The size of my primary material was, well, sizable, and the approach attempted to be both quantitative and qualitative. In fact, I still remember being told by one of the students in my seminar that I would never make it, that I needed to scale the plan way down for my own sake. She was probably right, but my faith never faltered. This was not faith in my scholarly capabilities, far from it, but faith in my enthusiasm for my topic, and my tenacity, and perhaps hardheadedness, in seeing the process through. When I did have moments of doubt, I could always count on Ritva to say that I would get through it. Hearing this was vital, because sometimes I sincerely though I was losing my mind, not to mention going stir crazy in my little student apartment.  After all, I did nothing else for a year and a half but delve through Gilmore Girls episodes, transcribing, taking notes, picking out every allusion and instance of realia I possibly could, tracking down sources of allusions, categorizing translation strategies,  and making sense of this all on paper.  Finding the source of a single obscure cultural reference in the source text, even with Google and Wikipedia at my disposal, could take me weeks and take up all the creativity I had.  Of course Ritva’s support was more than psychological; it was concrete help with whatever was the problem du jour. Help that was always constructive and useful, but never handed on a silver platter.

After most of the heavy lifting had already been done, and I was putting the finishing touches on my thesis, I got the seemingly unfair advantage compared to my fellow thesis writers of receiving a job as a secretary at the English Department. This was in the spring of 2008, mere months before the end of the old degree system, and the spring of the worst Gradu rush we had ever seen. Ritva was even busier that year than usual, due to long lost students coming out of the woodwork and wanting to graduate before the end of the transitional period between the old and the new degree systems. The degree system change we could hardly forget, for Ritva emailed us at regular intervals of how many days we had left to turn in our thesis if we wanted to graduate in the old system. No pressure there. Of course these messages were not meant to add to our stress, and in fact they not only pushed me to push on, but also cheered me up every time I saw them in by webmail inbox. The graduation rush that spring, sometimes catching people in full panic mode shaking and crying, was such a serious matter to me and many others that it seemed almost comical, especially considering the fact that as a university administrator I knew that failing to graduate within the transitional period would result in no great disaster.  Nonetheless, the feeling of panic was omnipresent, and not to mention in the pit of my stomach.  So seeing Ritva daily in the corridors of the department and in the staff break room gave me ample opportunities to take a load off myself and put the load right on her; in other words, be a total pest. I was in constant stress over my thesis: Was it good enough? Would I fail? Or worse, would I only receive a Magna? I was a perfectionist of the worst kind, and expected myself to deliver a flawless piece of writing and research. There was no room for error. So, I kept bothering Ritva at every turn; when she was trying to enjoy her lunch, on her way to the restroom, or rushing to give a class. “Just one quick question,” I would say, and deliver a question not so quickly.

Ritva always remained patient, and always found the time to help me and my fellow thesis writers when we needed it most. One piece of extremely sound advice I received from her was when Ritva told me to consider the following saying: “Paras on hyvän pahin vihollinen” (The best is the [worst] enemy of the good). This was not an easy lesson for a perfectionist such as me, but it was a very useful one. I realized that at some point I had to let go of my thesis, accept its necessary failings, and move on. There is life, academic and otherwise, after handing in the Pro Gradu. And so I did, and a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. Naturally, the relief lasted only as long as I realized that it would take weeks before I would receive my grade. This time I bothered everyone but Ritva about it. Everyone at the English Department got to reassure me that a poor grade would not end my life, and that post-graduate studies could be embarked on even with a “non-perfect” grade. I ended up getting the grade that I had aimed for, but realized soon after that it had mattered much too much to me. Now I keep telling the students I advise in the department office to be happy with the mere fact that they have done it; they have made it through years of studying, sometimes while working to pay the bills, taking care of children, or struggling with health issues. As a final test they have managed to put together an academic study with all that it implies: endless hours of thinking, planning, reading, researching, walking through library stacks, shifting through material, writing, rewriting, proofreading, checking references, and eating candy and chewing gum while tapping the computer keyboard frantically (I like to assume that this is standard practice). Having done all this, and being able to say that you are now a Master of Arts is most definitely something to be proud of. In the “real world,” academic and otherwise, it is just a beginning, however, a starting post on a track that has no real finish line. I have only just started that race to become a translator and a translation scholar, so I will leave those stories for another time.