A Journey to Another Time and Place: How a Victorian Children’s Classic was Translated in Postwar Finland – Irma Hagfors

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

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume1, 2001

Translation Studies

© 2001 Irma Hagfors


Irma Hagfors

Abstract. The Wind in the Willows is a British Victorian children’s classic, a story firmly set in a specific historical and social era. When such a book is translated into another culture and transposed into a different period of time, a translator has to make a decision on the type of global and local strategies she or he will use for the translation. This paper discusses the Finnish translation of the book (1949) and the global strategy which explains the translator’s choice of local strategies used. I have focused on culture-bound elements as those illustrate best that a book is tied to a particular culture and time.

1. Introduction

“All texts reflect the period of time and culture where they were written” (Oittinen 1997:13, my translation). This is what Riitta Oittinen discovered when she studied three different Finnish translations of the British children’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Each of these translations was made in a different period of time. Oittinen’s aim was to study how the period of time in question and the stage of Finnish culture concerned had affected the translations.

In this paper, my intention is to apply Oittinen’s hypothesis to another British children’s classic, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) and to discuss what kind of effect time and culture have had on its translation into Finnish. Like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows is not an ordinary children’s book. These two books have much in common. Written around the same period of time, they both represent a specific genre of children’s literature common to the British culture of the Victorian period; they are both multilayered stories which include one level for children and another level for adult readers. In The Wind in the Willows, the latter level is a rather sarcastic and ironic social satire, in which the different animal characters of the story represent archetypes of the different British social classes of the time. The protagonists are five human-like animals who live a leisurely life in an idealized community in the River Bank. Mole, Rat, Badger, Otter and Toad are civilized country dwellers, each of whom has his own characteristics and personality. Together and separately they face all kinds of adventures and try to cope with everyday life. Then there is the enemy in the form of the weasels, ferrets and stoats who live in the Wild Wood, a place where the River Bankers never set foot. This distinction between the two communities creates a certain tension in the story and is one of the main themes of the book.

The Wind in the Willows has a unique place in British culture. Generation after generation is familiar with the book, which continues to be sold in large numbers in Britain. One of the most interesting features of The Wind in the Willows for the contemporary adult reader is the fact that it is so firmly set in a particular culture and period of time, that is, Great Britain in the late Victorian period. As observed by Hunt (1994:10), “the book’s setting and ambience is quintessentially English”. This feature becomes evident, for instance, in the way the different characters in the story speak, eat and live. The protagonists speak in a distinctive register, using idioms characteristic of the period. They eat food characteristic of the era, and their living conditions reflect those of the British middle-class of the time. According to Haining (1983:243), The Wind in the Willows represents the social structure and attitudes of Victorian society and the plot sums up the shifting features of the Victorian period, as well as Grahame’s reaction to them (Hunt 1994:96).

The Finnish translation of The Wind in the Willows, Kaislikossa suhisee, was made by Eila Piispanen in 1949. This is so far the only unabridged Finnish translation ever made of the book. In the 1940s, British culture was not yet very well known in Finland. Thus, it is interesting to see what happens when a book that is so tightly bound to its own culture and period is transferred and implanted in a totally different historical, cultural and linguistic situation and how this type of transfer affects the translation. How has the translator coped with the task of translating the various culture-bound elements of the book at a time when British culture was still relatively unfamiliar in Finland? In order to find answers to this question, I have studied both source and target texts and interviewed the translator in person. To help set the book into its historical and social context, I will first briefly introduce the Victorian period and the social structure of Victorian society, as they are so important for the understanding of The Wind in the Willows. In order to contextualise the translation, I will then take a look at Finland at the end of the 1940s, and lastly I will consider the translator’s strategies.

2. The Victorian period

In the strictest sense of the term, the Victorian period refers to the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Some historians, however, use the concept in a larger sense and apply it to a longer period which covers the years 1815-1915 (see e.g. McDowall 1992). This is a period of time when Britain went through some of the greatest changes in its history. The Industrial Revolution (1750-1850), the collapse of the agricultural society and the disruption of the class structure were only a few of the changes that characterized the era. These are all reflected in The Wind in the Willows. According to Bédarida (1979:37), England in the Victorian period was a tripolar society composed of three classes: the upper, middle and lower classes, each of which had several sublevels. The upper class consisted of the aristocracy who did not have to work for a living and who had a high status in society. At the lowest rank were beggars, tramps and down-and-outs, who were despised and laughed at by those better off in society. All in all, Victorian Britain was an inegalitarian society where the sense of hierarchy was deeply embedded in people’s minds (Bédarida 1979:40). All of this is reflected in the world of Grahame’s book: all the characters represent one social class or another. Toad is an upper class squire or an upper-middle class “nouveau riche”. Badger, on the other hand, is a respected landowner. The middle middle classes are represented by Rat and Otter, and the lower middle classes are represented by Toad. The lower classes are the ferrets, the stoats and the weasels (Hunt 1994b:50-74). In addition to these animals – or animal disguises – the story features rabbits, who are portrayed as being simple and slightly stupid. Although Hunt does not discuss their social status, probably they are to be included in the lower middle classes because they are laughed at and ignored by others and as stated by Bédarida (54), “it was the bounden duty of every citizen [ …] to ignore those beneath him”.

3. Finland at the end of the 1940s

The structure of Finnish society was very different from that of Victorian Britain when The Wind in the Willows was translated into Finnish in 1949. First of all, Finland was at the time still recovering from the war. For a long time, the country’s standard of living was modest and there was a serious shortage of goods and materials. Determined to pay its war reparations on time, Finland’s national economy was under great strain, which forced the country to reconstruct its industry (Klinge 1990:136). As a result, Finland went through a period of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation.

How, then, did The Wind in the Willows come to be translated into Finnish in this specific period of time? According to Piispanen (personal communication), the initial idea to have the story translated into Finnish came from David Barrett, at the time one of the British lecturers at the department of English in the University of Helsinki. Barrett, who had connections to the publishing house Werner Söderström (WSOY), felt that more British children’s classics should be translated into Finnish. Thus, in 1949, he decided to offer a translation job to one of his best students and asked Eila Piispanen if she would be interested in translating The Wind in the Willows into Finnish. Piispanen translated the book chapter by chapter and revised each one in cooperation with Barrett. The book was published that same year and became an immediate success.

So far WSOY has reprinted Kaislikossa suhisee six times, the latest edition dating from 1995. All the editions, which altogether have sold about 34,000 copies, have long been sold out. This means that each edition has sold about 6,000 copies on average, which according to Rajala (1999) is an exceptionally large number in Finland. It is worth pointing out that The Wind in the Willows has been so popular in Finland that it has been the primary source of inspiration for some Finnish children’s writers. Jukka Parkkinen’s first book, Korppi ja Kumppanit (1978), for instance, was intended to be a Finnish counterpart for Grahame’s story (Parkkinen n.d.).

4. On the translation of culture-bound elements in The Wind in the Willows

Let us recall what Oittinen said (1997:9): “Every book is a journey to a particular time and place.” In this paper, I have tried to demonstrate that The Wind in the Willows is a journey to Victorian Britain. In general, it would seem logical that the primary function of a translation would be to let the readers make the same journey and to transport them to the same time and place as the original. But readers of translations make two journeys. They are not only transported to the time and place of the original, but they are also taken to the time and place of the target text, that is the period of time when the book was translated. Thus readers of older translations cannot judge them from a modern point of view. Instead, the translations have to be seen in their proper context and readers have to understand that translators’ means of working and their facilities to obtain information have not always been what they are today.

When an old, culture-bound text is transferred into another language, culture and time, it is evident that problems will occur. In the case of The Wind in the Willows, one of the essential problems for a translator is that it is a multilayered book which was originally written for a rather specific audience, and was intended to be read by both adults and children in a specific culture. One of the problems that the translation of such a book, then, creates for the translator, is what type of global strategy to follow: how and for whom to translate it. Global strategies are choices that the translator makes before the actual translation process (Séguinot 1989 as cited in Leppihalme 1997:125). When Piispanen translated The Wind in the Willows into Finnish, the norms of translated children’s literature in Finland were different from what they are today as the main role of Finnish translators then was to enrich Finnish language and literature. Tarkka (1970) notes that the norms of translation for children were still strongly influenced by the so-called suomalaisuusaate (‘the Finnish language movement’). This meant that translated children’s books were largely domesticated in order to become a part of Finnish children’s literature and that there was less interest in the meaning they had in the source culture. In practice this meant that culture-bound elements such as titles, proper names and names of food that tied the story to a foreign culture were either replaced by Finnish ones or with more general terms to make them fit the Finnish target culture.

For a large part, this is the strategy used in the Finnish translation of The Wind in the Willows. Most intralinguistic culture-bound elements (such as titles and names), as well as extralinguistic culture-bound elements (such as references to food and drink) have been domesticated by replacing them either with a Finnish equivalent or with a less specific term. In the case of names, the species names of the main characters have been translated (Rat > Rotta, Mole > Myyrä, etc) and the proper names of two young field-mice, Bill and Tom (Grahame 1992:111), have been changed into Ville and Tommi (Grahame 1966:86). Buggins’s product (1992:114) has been replaced with Niemisen valmiste ‘Nieminen’s product’ (1966:88) and the beer label Old Burton (1992:115) with

a generalisation, vanhaa hyvää laatua ‘good old quality’ (1966:89). The exotic guava jelly (1992:286) has understandably been changed into the more familiar ananashyytelö ‘pineapple jelly’ (1966:214).

There is, however, some inconsistency in the translator’s choice of a global strategy. Instead of domesticating all culture-bound elements, she has transferred some of them into the Finnish target text unchanged. For instance in a passage where Grahame describes Mole’s house in detail and explains that there were brackets carrying plaster statuary – Garibaldi, and the infant Samuel and Queen Victoria, and other heroes of modern Italy (Grahame 1992:106), the names of the historical people mentioned have been transferred into the Finnish translation directly, and the Finnish reader can hardly suspect that Grahame is making fun of Mole’s attempts to imitate an upper-middle class lifestyle. Thus, the term that perhaps best corresponds to Piispanen’s strategy of translating The Wind in the Willows is what Shuttleworth (1997:36) refers to as cultural transplantation. This term, which was originally used by Hervey and Higgins (1992), means that details of the source text are replaced by target culture elements with the result that the text is partially rewritten in a target culture setting. This description applies to Kaislikossa suhisee quite well. While many elements have been replaced by target-culture ones, other elements have been translated directly. As a result, the Finnish text is partially, as opposed to totally, rewritten in a Finnish setting.

The older the source text, the more problematic the translation of culture-bound elements may become. In translating between two cultures as diverse as Victorian Britain and postwar Finland, for instance, there are sure to be culture-bound elements which simply cannot be brought across from one universe of reference to the other. As stated by Chesterman (1997:90), when translating an older source text, a translator has to make a decision on whether to modernize or historicize the source text in the translation. Whichever the choice, the fact that a book has been written in a different culture a long time ago may complicate the translation process. As regards the translation of culinary terms, for instance, the dish in question may be one that is not commonly served anymore. Even the language changes: for example the kind of register used by the author may have changed its connotations or disappeared from use altogether. The older the text, the more difficult this type of information may be for the translator to obtain, or it may not even be available anymore.

Although many of the culture-bound elements discussed in The Wind in the Willows were foreign or totally unheard of in postwar Finland, there were also some, though very few, surprising similarities. In this book, Grahame describes several new inventions of the Victorian period, such as railways and motor cars. Although motor cars were not a new invention in postwar Finland, they were rare. In 1949, there were only 21,000 motor cars in Finland (Haavikko 1992:150). Thus Finnish readers could perhaps easily identify with the enthusiasm that Toad had for this invention. Similarly, Finnish readers could probably understand the protagonists’ delight in coffee, a drink of high value in Victorian times, as in postwar Finland coffee was long a truly appreciated luxury. So, although Victorian Britain and postwar Finland at first seem like worlds apart, there are some similarities that may have helped the Finnish translator to understand the original function of some culture-bound elements in the story.

5. Conclusion

When culture-bound elements are translated, translators have several strategies to choose from. The strategy they choose depends, among other things, on the function of the target text, on the type of text they are translating and on their intended readership. After choosing a global strategy, the translator decides on his or her local translation strategies, for instance how to translate specific culture-bound elements. The choice of both global and local strategies, however, depends on several factors, and is not always easy for translators to make. Social and ideological factors as well as considerations of readership all have an effect on the strategies used by the translators, which is why they are sometimes referred to as “forms of explicitly textual manipulation” (Chesterman 1997:89).

When choosing the appropriate local strategy for a particular problem, translators should first consider global strategies, such as the relation between the source text and the translation. Should the target text aim at the same effect as the source text? Or should it have the same function in the target culture as other target texts of the same type? This is of interest as regards The Wind in the Willows as a representative of a very particular genre: a children’s book with a satirical level that opens up only to adult readers. If the book were to be translated into Finnish again today, it is likely that the global strategy a translator would opt for would be foreignisation (cf. the 1995 translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). First of all, there is no longer a norm requiring domestication. Secondly, foreign cultures, including Britain, are much better known in Finland today then they were fifty years ago. Thus there is no reason why the Britishness of The Wind in the Willows should be neglected in a translation today. I would like to end this paper by making a few suggestions on alternative translation strategies for a new Finnish translation of the book.

One possibility would be to translate The Wind in the Willows as a social satire set in a Finnish context. Although the British class system of the Victorian period is by no means, and never has been, comparable to the Finnish social structure, there are some features of the Finnish social structure that could be made use of in the translation for instance in the dialogue. The characters in the present translation mostly speak rather formal Finnish (Hagfors 2000:44-49), but the nouveau-riche Toad, for instance, could be a Swedish-speaking Finn and utter a word of Swedish here and there. The Wild Wooders, on the other hand, could speak some well-known old working-class slang, such as that of Sörkkä in Helsinki. The young hedgehogs and field-mice could use colloquial expressions of the type: no mä niiku tota…

In 1985, a new edition was made of the Swedish translation of The Wind in the Willows. In this edition the original translation (Grahame 1932) was otherwise retained except for alterations of the most archaic features, which were changed and translated with a different strategy in mind. Perhaps the Finnish publisher could take the same line by keeping Piispanen’s excellent narrative but foreignising at least some of the culture-bound elements in the story. A foreword providing information on both source and target texts could also be added. A retranslation along these lines might attract adult readers by revealing the satirical level of Grahame’s book for them.

E-mail: ihagfors@hotmail.com


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