The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
© 2001 Seija Paddon
LANDER IN TRANSLATION, OR CASTING A LONG SHADOW OF REPLENISHMENT
Abstract. There is a common error at the heart of much critique concerning literary translations. All too often, the translator is held accountable for all aspects of published texts from stylistics to semantics. My aim in this paper is to provide a larger and more realistic picture of the process that results in a published text by employing as a selective case study the English translation of the Finnish novel Lankeaa pitkä varjo by Leena Lander. Among the many concerns outside the actual act of translating, the work encounters gender politics, matters of cultural plausibility concerning the target readership, commercial aspects that are in opposition to textual aesthetics, matters of varying editing responsibilities, and multilingual intertextuality with its sometimes polemical acceptability by the target culture. In short, to be a translator, an agent of dialogue between literary cultures, often encompasses many more facets of book culture than mere rewriting of a text in another language.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
(Shakespeare. Titus Andronicus. V.i.133-37)
I was fortunate to read Leena Lander’s Lankeaa pitkä varjo (1986) when discussions, both oral and printed, often centred on new concerns, not only about the ways in which historians and scholars were inquiring into the recording of historical events, but into the events themselves. Judgmental exclamations such as “History is a crock” (in the sense of an inefficient, biased, broken-down, worn-out vehicle for truth) and “History is the propaganda of the winners” were dismissive enough to call forth reconstructive reading and thinking. It is no secret that “the story” in terms of gender was his story, most often a litany of battles won, empires built, and records of the vagaries of male power. The enormous gap: what did women do while men distinguished themselves, or not, as men; what was happening to women, called for inquiry. Such inquiry was often mistakenly viewed as “feminist” by those who considered the unadulterated male world the norm, when, in actuality, the reconstructive research better deserved the inclusive label “humanist”. In her novel, Lankeaa pitkä varjo, or Cast a Long Shadow in English, Leena Lander sets out to reconstruct, as it were, one of the many challengeable “constructions” of mainstream history which call for closer scrutiny, and in doing so, Lander, remarkably, accomplishes no less than an inquiry into the nature of the art of fiction itself.
The novel’s subject matter, the infamous witch trials of the 1660s in southern Finland, is well known, and through the translations of her work, the novel’s author is familiar to a wide circle of readers. Hence, I shall not expand on either; rather, my focus in this article is the act of translating Lander’s novel into English, what the work entailed, and equally importantly, what finding a publisher for the translation involved, since publishing and the book trade itself have, in my case, always been central to the process of seeing my work in print.
After some rejections based on the mere mention of the novel’s subject matter, and before the recipients of my submissions had even bothered to read a sample of the translation, I began to wonder whether it was realistic to assume that a publisher would take on the project in a marketing atmosphere which is distinctly hostile to translations, particularly ones from a lesser known language culture. I had sent out samples and inquiries to English, American, and Canadian publishers during the period of 1991-1993, the responses to which were, as usual, slow in coming and distinctly negative. On closer review of the more curt than informative responses, a specific narrative emerged. It became clear that a male editor-in-chief would not consider the manuscript, no matter how brilliant the original prose and/or the translation. Such literary giants (and males) as Goethe and Shakespeare had of course dealt with the subject of witchcraft, but, significantly, done it by carnevalizing the phenomenon. More recently Arthur Miller, the brilliant American playwright, had written a play titled The Crucible (1953), which was based on the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Unquestionably, the play alienated many people, but for several reasons it succeeded for many others: Miller was a well-known name in American letters; the play was based on familiar American history, references to which had long been part of well-known folklore; it was in its original language, and most importantly perhaps, enough people could view the subject as analogous to McCarthyism. They, like Miller himself, could detect many similarities between the relatively recent political “witch hunt” from which America has not yet recovered, and the actual witch hunt of some three centuries earlier.
Lander’s novel, on the other hand, does not ‘distance’ the actual history on which it is based by carnevalizing it or likening it to identifiable political paranoia. Rather, her telling brings the actual times and the wrongfully accused as well as their accusers uncomfortably close by giving them a recognizable human face. Hence, unavoidably, her novel in translation not only involves issues of language and culture, but also invariably the issue of gender. For the translator, then, the options of getting the text published narrow considerably. Many among the so-called women’s publishing houses that appeared to be the only possible choices, were and are operating on a budget that allows no margin for error. In their struggle for survival, they have to find a safe market for a project before its acceptance makes any economic sense. Significantly, in weighing a manuscript’s acceptability for publishing, the insularity of American readership plays a major role in decision making. All the while, the time spent in searching for a publisher, and the bulging correspondence files that result, are testimonies to the immeasurable and uncompensated work the translator has to justify somehow. Pushkin has said that “[t]ranslators are the post-horses of civilization” (Hyde 1993:3). In the English-speaking world, such an acknowledgment, provided that I understand Pushkin’s meaning correctly, carries a questionable echo. Fortunately, in the end, my search bore fruit. Second Story (Feminist) Press of Toronto (from hereon referred to as SSFP) accepted the translation for publication. The director of SSFP was interested in the subject matter because it fit within the feminist traditions of the publishing house. In measuring the project’s ultimate success, many factors come into play. Among them the most significant ones are the meager marketing budgets of Women’s Presses and bookstores’ policies of rejecting lesser-known translated literature out of hand. Faced with these odds, clearly the novel didn’t reach the sales figures of such “home-grown” success stories as the works of Margaret Atwood, but among translated literature the comparisons are favourable.
In embarking on the act of translating itself, certain unusual aspects of the novel become immediately obvious. The work is not what we have come to term “a traditional historical novel”, the kind Sir Walter Scott developed, and one that describes events and manners of the period in which it is set. At the outset, such a novel requires translator competence in the act of “straight” or “ordinary” translating and at the most it might also require the checking of historical data should the original lack competent editing. Instead, and while Lander’s novel is based on actual recorded history, she merges history and the fantastic in her novel. Hence her strategy is, in terms of literary theory, a violation of the relativistic norms of historical fiction. Given that the fantastic is divorced from anything to do with the “real” world of things and ideas, the text’s dealing with the fantastic relies entirely on the perceptual and imaginative processes of the reader. Such textual elements in translation, I would argue, require additional consideration for example in terms of how they are perceived and understood by the target readership. Put simplistically, at stake is the construction of cultural plausibility for the benefit of the target audience.
In the first instance, one is dealing with the publisher’s interpretation of what the target readership can be expected to accept for example in the area of stylistic choices. Here commercial aims all too often override artistic function as the latter is recognized as incidental and something that appeals to a limited readership. To cite an example: Lander, at the opening of the novel, as she summons the reader to witness the first meeting between the shadow narrator, a long-dead judge, and the author, as well as in other such self-reflexive parts of the narration, uses italics in the original text. SSFP, however, considered that the stylistic device of italics would cause reader confusion, hence the italics were omitted in the translated version. Similarly, Lander’s subtitle for the novel: Absurdi kronikka or An absurd chronicle, in view of its negative connotations in English, was left out altogether. The publisher saw the subtitle as a factor that would undermine the novel.
At the centre of the fantastic in Lander’s telling is the magical resurrection of a dead judge (hence my choice for an epigram at the beginning of this paper). Fortunately, the employment of a ghost or ghosts is a frequent enough occurrence in the English-language literary canon not to appear as an anomaly in translations. We see Lander creating a “helpful” loophole in terms of reader plausibility and in order to give the fictional “replenishment” of historical facts a context; she frames the fantastic, that is the judge’s story and dialogue, within the discourse of the author’s self-reflexive imaginative powers. Within Lander’s brilliant strategy, the latter becomes a study of authorial creativity, self-doubt, frustration, at times emotional exhaustion, and spiritual questioning. Thus she provides yet another “story” within the main frame of the novel. Here the translator, then, is dealing with thought processes based on multiple strands of narration, an aspect which in the act of translating requires careful attention in order that each will maintain its proper significance.
At the beginnings of both Part I and “The Latter Part” of the novel, Lander employs quotes by C.G. Jung in Finnish translation, quotes that present a momentary dilemma. Upon consulting Lander as to their source texts — after all, the Jungian oeuvre is considerable — and doing research into Jungian theory, I found the English versions of the quotes. A word for word scrutiny with their Finnish counterparts, however, did not find them to be literally equivalent. Already, at the point of focusing on the first quote, a curious conundrum presented itself: since both source text and target text of the quotes are translations, to determine the “correctness” of either, one would have to spend additional time to locate the original German text, but since it couldn’t (in this case) be employed as part of the translated novel, the possible third option would have been the quote’s re-translation from German into English. However, since the quote is part of a scholarly text, one that an interested reader of the novel should be able to identify and locate in print, the published English version had to be the final choice.
The Jungian quotes are not, of course, the only examples of “foreign” text fragments or titles to which the novel refers; rather, Lander writes from an archive of Western culture rich in historical texts or novelistic references dealing with witchcraft. She exploits the potential for the incorporation of quotes and references to outside texts with the result of foregrounding the material aspects of her own text. Put in other words, Lander can also be seen to function here as the manager and editor of historical works and documents, an important, albeit unrecognized aspect of her art of fiction. Such a method of narration, however, in terms of cultural acceptability, could be seen as a liability in the translated work. The English literary tradition, which is deeply pragmatic, does not take kindly to such borrowing (Hyde 1993:15).
Strategically, aside from the Jungian quotes which stand by themselves as prefaces of a kind to the two parts of the novel, other quotes are absorbed into the main narration and their function in the novel is to support claims the narration makes. Thus in the novel the translator encounters several textually coexisting worlds. To be specific: Lander also incorporates “foreign” texts by using Latin and German quotes and naming the authors and titles of several works in the field. That particular aspect of the work provides the translator with an extraneous and time-consuming challenge, one quite divorced from the actual act of translating, since contrary to the English-language publishing tradition, and as far as I’m aware, Finnish publishers do not always incorporate the scrutiny and editing of manuscripts by in-house editors as an integral part of the production of texts. As a consequence, the onus is on the translator to check typographical and bibliographical aspects, as well as possible misquotes and mistitles in all such references; in short, to function as an editor as well. Because of the nature of this novel, the research and verification involved, besides at least some translator familiarity with classical “intertexts” and their function, and having a grasp of what is seen as “the double-think of the medieval mind”, spending time in institutions such as the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies and its library. To clarify the above, I shall mention two of the necessary changes I made in the translation: the source text uses the term “stigma diaboli” in one chapter, “stigma diapoli” in another, while the accepted form in the translation is “stigma diabolicum”. Among titles, for example Constitutio criminalis cariolana‘s correct form is Carolina Constitutio Criminalis (a text which was available for my scrutiny at the above library). It should be mentioned, however, that since texts from the Middle Ages are notorious for containing multiple variations and proper names sometimes appear with slight differences in spelling, this factor adds to the translator’s difficulties in determining a “correct” choice. In cases where a single correct form cannot be established, the main emphasis has to shift to mere consistency. While one might reflect, then, what extra skills beyond the necessary language skills the translation of texts such as Lander’s novel takes, for the inquisitive, the translation process is an opportunity to brush up on much forgotten knowledge or to acquire new; an aspect that becomes an unexpected and intellectually stimulating bonus.
Stylistically, Lander’s often lyrically expressive language calls for translator attention to what Jakobson (1990) calls the “poetic function of language”. There is, for example, the crucial question of what kind of relationship exists between the source and target languages; that is, what are the areas of their reciprocal relationship (Benjamin 1989:72)? To that end, and leaving aside translation skills, or lack thereof, one is called upon to reflect to what extent the target language succeeds in evoking the emotional catharsis, to use the Aristotelian term, or aesthetic delight of the original. At that point, the act of translating does not follow expressly linear thinking; rather, associative thinking with its evaluation of insights within varying nuances of contexts becomes the determining mode.
While I’m aware that in scholarly terms we are on rather unsteady ground here (after all, no translator any more than anyone else can be called upon to judge the readers’ “inner” reactions to a text), it is possible, however, to make comparisons on a general level as to the aesthetic and emotional effectiveness of a text. To clarify, we might consider examples of Finnish prose in which language is permeated by an extraordinary range of expression and idiomatic humour inherent in a variety of dialects. As an example Väinö Linna’s Tuntematon sotilas (1954) (translated as The Unknown Soldier) comes to mind, or the subtle and gentle aesthetic reverence and subjectively rich lyrical elements that permeate Juhani Aho’s writing, the literary magnificence of which would be utterly flattened and the aura (to use Benjamin’s term) of both creations destroyed in standardized English translations. One might go so far as to claim that the flattened results would presuppose no engagement of deeper intelligence on the part of the target readership, nor would they require concentration on, or savouring of, the authenticity of such literary expression. In short, a translator’s tragedy lies in being summoned to serve only the commercial aspects or expediency of publication because they stabilize their own value system, often in opposition to textual aesthetics.
Among the many considerations in translating Lander’s novel, doing justice to the lyrical elements of her language and the successful preservation of the elements in English can be viewed as some of the translator’s primary concerns. Paragraphs such as:
Kotimatkalla valitsin rantatien. Meri oli yhtä harmaa kuin sinä päivänä, jolloin isä näytti sen minulle ensimmäistä kertaa. Sama meri, mutta toisena päivänä harmaa ja luotaantyöntävä, toisena sininen ja kultaista välkettä täynnä (LPV 248)
or in translation:
On the way home I chose the road along the beach. The sea was as grey as on the day my father had shown it to me for the first time. The same sea, but on one day grey and alienating, the next blue and full of the glitter of gold (CLS 253)
are not only manifestations of Lander’s creative use of language, but evidence of her literary impressionism. Through a momentary, fleeting impression, such textual elements become artistically significant in many ways, among them the creation of specific moods. In these sentences Lander’s selective details become the “brush strokes” of what can be termed as “sense-data”, both visual and to a lesser degree (in this case) kinaesthetic, the building blocks of impressions. Hence the challenge for the translator is to use similar “building blocks” in English in order to achieve equally impressionistic effects.
Along with lyricism, Lander’s “impressionistic” sentences in their sparseness often carry powerful elements of drama. The following lines from the last chapter in the novel, among many other examples, illustrate my point.
Ovi hänen takanaan oli auki. Hieno, harmaa pöly nousi valoa vasten, tuuli oli yltymässä. Ikkunassa näkyi pikkutytön litistyneet kasvot. Luultavasti lapsi yritti turhaan nähdä hämärään käräjäsaliin (LPV 259).
The door behind her was open. Fine, grey dust rose against the light; the wind was gaining strength. A little girl’s face was flattened against the window. Probably the child tried in vain to see into the dark courtroom” (CLS 264).
The mood and emotional impact Lander’s language creates is palpable here as her narration portrays a moment of suspended action. The people in the courtroom, including the jury, are holding their breath in anticipation of the last wrongly accused woman finally comprehending that she is an object of a miracle, she is free to leave, to return to her family. Remarkably, to put it in Jonathan Culler’s terms, in the quoted lines above, Lander’s literary language in a sense negates language while functioning to create silence (Culler 1996:205-206). There’s a clear suspension of action while the immediate world of the central event awaits. This is an example of an instance where a single reversal of a sentence order in translation or an omission of a sentence would notably undermine the sense of suspense that Lander’s pen creates.
Piaget, in his play theory, maintains that a schema “is the outcome of our constant endeavour to adapt to the world we are in” (cited in Iser 1996:331). Ultimately, and in retrospect, after the translation project was finished and I looked back, I saw that that was precisely what I had been doing. I had tried to adapt the re-creation of Lander’s text in English for the world of the target readership; that had been the schema in my translation. The target world “we are in” often introduces any number of sometimes even unexpected challenges that require equally unexpected adaptive responses. “Finished”, however, is a misleading word. During re-readings of the novel Cast a Long Shadow, which is included now among novels by Christa Wolf and others in a course titled “European Women Writers”, taught at York University in Toronto, I keep finding word choices I would like to change, and presumably I could go on working on the “finished” translation were it still possible. On such nagging occasions I find a great deal of comfort in remembering a teacher in Israel who has her students make numerous readings from a mere three sentences. Whether or not her reasons have anything to do with translating, I can’t think of another and more contemporary approach to language and reading that would be as propitious to the act of translating. No blindly assumed single “correct” sentences here. At the other end of the scale we have — among authors — Vladimir Nabokov whose disdain for translators was monumental and who, together with his wife, undertook to scrutinize word for word and rework translations of his work with dictionary accuracy as their aim. During these battles for “accuracy”, it would appear that the Swedish translations were considered the worst, resulting in the Nabokovs’ demand for the withdrawal of books already in bookstores. Small wonder that Michael Glenny, who had translated Nabokov’s Mary into English, and for whom one can only have an enormous amount of collegial sympathy, saw Nabokov as “some kind of lexicomaniac” (Schiff 1999:341). Authorial egos aside, as a literary translator one has to believe firmly in the fluidity of language and the mystery of its varying implications. Equally importantly, and linguistically speaking, one must get used to working as if on parallel bars, or at times as if on one’s toes. In the end, it is Walt Whitman, the colossus of American poetry, who in his enthusiasm and praise for the printed word best expresses a translator’s sentiments on a work brought to completion: “O how those little rustling leaves — those dumb letters — enwrap a creation in their scope” (Whitman, cited in O’Driscoll 1999:300).
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Culler, Jonathan (1996) “On the Negativity of Modern Poetry: Friedrich, Baudelaire, and The Critical Tradition.” In Budick & Iser (eds) 190-208.
Hyde, G.M. (1993) “The Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis and the Translation Muddle.” Translation & Literature 2. 3-16.
Iser, Wolfgang (1996) “The Play of the Text.” In Budick & Iser (eds) 325-339.
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Lander, Leena (1995) Cast a Long Shadow. Trans. Seija Paddon. Toronto: Second Story Press.
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