Norms and Storms: Pentti Saarikoski’s Translation of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye – Laura Routti

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

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume1, 2001

Translation Studies

© 2001 Laura Routti


Laura Routti

Abstract. The present paper discusses the relation between translation and norms through a case study focussing on Pentti Saarikoski’s Finnish translation of J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. It is concluded here that in an attempt to render the stylistic qualities of Salinger’s novel in his translation, Saarikoski was compelled to violate the norms regulating the use of language in the target literature of the time. Following the initial ‘shock’ in the target culture, Sieppari ruispellossa is, however, seen to have gained an influential, norm-initiating role in the evolution of the Finnish literary system as a translation through which the use of slang was introduced to it as a new, alternative means of expression.

1. Introduction

In culture-related aspects of translation the concept of norms is a frequent subject of discussion. It could be argued that it is the cultural specificity of norms that makes translating such a highly challenging activity. As norms are, in the majority of cases, not universal but particular, a translator, maintaining a position between two cultures, is frequently faced with a situation in which (s)he has to choose whether to conform to the norms prevailing in the source culture (SC) or to those prevailing in the target culture (TC) in order to avoid a clash between the two.

The relation between norms and translation, however, is not all one-way, as not only do norms influence translators, but also vice versa. As mediators between cultures, translators are in a position to change norms of the TC through their translations and, in this way, to contribute to the development of the target literary system. There are, of course, cases in which a translation conforming to the SC norms is altogether rejected as norm-violating by recipients in the TC, but in other cases such translations may, in fact, gain a position as exemplary literary models which authors in the target literature are willing to follow.

This paper discusses Sieppari ruispellossa, Pentti Saarikoski’s Finnish translation of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, from a descriptive, target-oriented perspective. Regarding translation as an activity characterised, at least in theory, by a double obligation, i.e. faithfulness to the source text (ST) on the one hand, and loyalty to the norms prevailing in the target culture on the other hand, my aim in this paper is to shed light on the context, and on the specific constraints in that context, in which Saarikoski’s translation was produced, as well as on the impact it came to have in the evolution of the Finnish literary system.

2. The challenge to the translator

The Catcher in the Rye (hereafter Catcher), J. D. Salinger’s first novel, was published in 1951 and today it is widely referred to as a classic among works of post-war literature,. It is a first person narrative told in retrospect by a sixteen year-old youth, Holden Caulfield. The story told in Catcher covers four days of Holden’s life, during which he makes a solitary journey from Pennsylvania to New York after he has been expelled from his boarding school. During the trip he encounters a number of people of various ages, but his scepticism about the sincerity of people and his fear of ‘phoniness’ makes it practically impossible for him to establish genuine contacts with most of them. In Miller’s words (1965:9): “The journey becomes a combination of nightmare and burlesque where horror and comedy mix in inexplicable fashion.” In this, and in putting Holden’s overall ‘message’ across, i.e. his rebellion against the phoniness of the adult world, the use of language in the novel is of crucial significance. Holden’s speech is, at one and the same time, typical and unique. Salinger created the double effect in a masterly fashion by making it a mixture of features typical of teenage vernacular spoken in New York in the 1950s, and of strong personal idiosyncrasies (Costello 1990:45). The overall tone of the novel is highly colloquial and the vocal quality of the narrator’s sentence structure has led some critics to conclude that Salinger thought of the novel more in terms of spoken than of written speech (e.g. Costello 1990:51).

The Finnish translation of the novel, Sieppari ruispellossa (hereafter Sieppari), was published ten years later in 1961. Reproducing Holden’s distinctive idiom in Finnish turned out to be so difficult for the young translator (Saarikoski was 22 at the time) that at some point he was, in his own words, driven to near despair (Saarikoski 1960b:322). The main problem was related to Salinger’s use of highly informal language in Catcher, as in Finnish literature the use of slang was practically unknown at the time. In an attempt to remain faithful to the original novel and to make the Finnish Holden sound like his American counterpart, Saarikoski created a vernacular to correspond with the tone of the ST. This required not only linguistic and cultural competence from the translator, but also the courage to juggle with the norms that regulated the use of language in the Finnish literature of the time.

3. The concept of norms in translation studies

The concept of norms is generally considered to have been introduced to translation studies through the work of Gideon Toury in the late 1970s. Toury himself, however, has refused to claim credit for having associated norms with translation, regarding Jiri Levý and James S. Holmes as the originators of a norm-based approach to translation studies (Toury 1999:10).

Norms can be considered to function between subjects as models for behaviour, and as such to produce expectations and assumptions about correctness and/or appropriateness (Schäffner 1999:1, Hermans 1999:58). Norms are developed in the process of socialisation during which they become shared knowledge in a community (Schäffner 1999:1). Norms regulate all kinds of behaviour between members of a community. They are binding in that their violation usually arouses disapproval among members of a community. The overall authoritative power of norms is based on a network of relationships between norm authorities, norm enforcers, norm codifiers and norm subjects (Schäffner 1999:2).

The view of translating as a norm-governed activity presupposes that translators at work are subject to expectations prevailing in a certain community at a certain time. Norms influence not only the production, but also the selection and reception of translations (Schäffner 1999:6). However, as mediators between cultures in which different norms prevail, translators are also in a position to introduce and change norms. As Ben-Shahar notes (1994:200), reader responses are highly time-dependent, and textual qualities introduced by a norm-violating translation may eventually be domesticated and come to be regarded as natural elements of the target literary system. In that process of change, a translator whose work may first have been disapproved of as norm-breaking may, in the course of time, come to be highly appreciated as a norm-initiator.

Toury (1995:54) makes a distinction between three basic types of norms: preliminary, initial and operational, of which the second is of particular interest in this paper. While preliminary norms determine the overall translation policy regulating the choice of text types or individual texts that are to be introduced to the target literary system through translations, initial norms determine the translator’s basic orientation – either towards the ST and the source language (SL) norms manifested through it, or towards the norms prevailing in the target literary system. The former defines the translation’s adequacy as compared with the ST, whereas the latter defines its acceptability in the target literary system. Operational norms then determine the actual decisions the translator makes during the translation process, reflecting the translator’s basic orientation either towards the ST and the SC norms or, alternatively, towards the TC norms.

Preliminary, initial and operational norms are characterised by two common features: socio-cultural specificity and instability (Toury 1995:62). The first characteristic relates to the fact that a particular norm does not necessarily apply to all spheres of a culture, let alone across cultures. Thus, an adequate translation conforming to SC norms is likely to be incompatible with TC norms (Toury 1980:116). But due to the unstable nature of norms, incompatibility may be only temporary. In theory, an adequate translation, by adopting the role of an interferer, is in a position to cause changes in the TC and in the norms prevailing in it.

Through Toury’s concept of initial norms, we can see that, positioned between the SC and the TC as he was, Saarikoski could either choose to conform to the ST and the norms realised through it, or make his translation conform to the norms of the TC.

4. Saarikoski as a norm-breaker

Sieppari was published in 1961, at the beginning of a decade of great cultural turmoil in Finland (e.g. Niemi 1999a:158). On the literary scene, modernism had had its breakthrough in the previous decade, but the struggle for the dominant position in the centre of the literary system was still very much in process, with modernist and realist forms of expression in opposition to each other (e.g. Hökkä 1999:68, Niemi 1999a:164-165). In the overall context, the multiplicity and versatility of literary forms of expression in the 1960s can be seen to have contributed to the development of what has since come to be known as postmodernism (Niemi 1999a:61).

The field of translated literature also witnessed a process of modernisation. After the Second World War, a policy of ‘global integration’ was adopted in Finland, as a result of which literary translation expanded and grew in volume (Jalonen 1999:151). Since the 1960s the majority of Finnish translations has originated in the United States, but the post-war era has also witnessed a growth of translated literature from more remote countries, such as Japan, Africa, South America and a number of small European countries.

Saarikoski accepted the task of translating Catcher in October 1959 (Tarkka 1996:316) and finished it in December 1960. According to the original agreement, Saarikoski was supposed to have finished the translation task by June 1960, but due to unforeseen difficulties the work was delayed by approximately six months. These difficulties arose mainly from Salinger’s use of highly informal language in Catcher, which seemed very difficult to fit into the Finnish literary context. Historically, one of the tasks of translated literature in Finland had been to enhance the development of literary Finnish, and until then the majority of Finnish national literature had conformed to that norm. However, exactly what ‘literary Finnish’ should be like had been a matter of dispute for a very long time: disagreements on whether it should be based on western or eastern dialects had culminated in ‘the battle of dialects’ (murteiden taistelu) in the first half of the 19th century (Pulkkinen 1968:27).

In more recent times, disagreements on the nature of literary Finnish have concerned not so much the employment of dialectal features as the features of spoken discourse (Pulkkinen 1968:52). Saarikoski was of the opinion that the language used in Finnish literature was dated and agrarian in tone and, as such, totally unsuitable for the translation of modern urban literature such as Salinger’s Catcher. During and after the process of translating Catcher, Saarikoski wrote a series of articles for the journal Parnasso under the title “Finnish language and literature”, in which he elaborated on the problem:

And here lies the central problem of a Finnish translator: Our literary language is dated, totally different from the language spoken in urban areas, formal and unnatural. [ …] . The Finnish language has been developed for descriptions of country life solely. It is very common, yet insane, to argue that the Finnish spoken in the countryside is “better” than the Finnish spoken in the city. What is the yardstick? The language of literature bears closer resemblance to the language spoken in the countryside than to that spoken in the city. Why does our literature not make use of urban vernaculars? Literature has moved from the countryside to the city and therefore modern literature should make use of modern language. (Saarikoski1960a: 226; this and the other extracts below are my translations.)

To Saarikoski, some of American post-war literature represented the kind of language use that the Finnish literary system should incorporate into its repertoire. Although Saarikoski “despised” (Tarkka 1996:317) American society, he was, nevertheless, a great admirer of modern American literature and considered that the use of language in the fiction of Salinger, Kerouac and Ginsberg, among others, was eloquent and expressive in its employment of features of spoken discourse. According to Saarikoski, these authors had, in fact, created a new literary language based on the language spoken in the street (Saarikoski 1960a:226).

Saarikoski’s opinions raised considerable interest in the Finnish literary circles of the time. To give the discussion the form of a debate, Parnasso invited some authors, critics, translators and scholars of linguistics to respond to Saarikoski in its pages. The responses were fairly controversial. Some respondents who represented ‘linguistic purism’ were appalled by Saarikoski’s ideas of modernisation. Pulkkinen (1961:65-66) for instance, wrote:

Saarikoski’s claim that our literary language is old-fashioned and inexpressive is quite unusual. According to him one should, in fact, forget the existence of our literary language as an established norm and replace it with the “more evolved” language varieties urban vernaculars represent. […]. Saarikoski’s attack on the idea of linguistic purism leaves quite a bit to be desired as far as his comprehension of the nature of things is concerned.

Kivimies (1961a:64) agreed with Pulkkinen in claiming that

[o]ne wishes that [Saarikoski’s] irritation would never lead to such misconceptions as those expressed by Saarikoski, whose misfortune is to think that language is evolving when it is, in fact, deteriorating. Holden Caulfield’s “urban slang” is fit for uneducated people to express their simple thoughts in. [ …] However, it surely cannot be seen to contribute to the enrichment of the cultural heritage of the United States. To take Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as an example of the development of English is seriously misleading [ …] .

Other respondents, nevertheless, were of the opinion that Saarikoski had raised an important issue which merited serious consideration rather than direct condemnation. Ronimus (1961:67-68), for instance, wrote:

My line of reasoning bears close resemblance to that of Saarikoski – though it is equally fragmented. In my opinion there is nothing to oppose in Saarikoski’s willingness to “question the belief in the faultlessness of the Finnish language”. That is, in fact, only one of the many beliefs that deserve to be questioned.

Sadeniemi (1961:68-69) also supported Saarikoski’s views, at least to a certain extent:

There is a grain of truth in Pentti Saarikoski’s views concerning the nature of the Finnish language. As he says, literary Finnish originates, for historical reasons, in the language spoken in the countryside. When Finnish became the language of the educated in the 19th century, there was hardly any kind of urban culture among the Finnish-speaking people. But with the migration from the countryside to the cities, the Finnish language has, naturally, evolved.

The articles Saarikoski wrote for Parnasso were, in fact, a prelude to the way he then proceeded in his translation of Catcher: he simply decided to reject the use of ‘literary Finnish’ altogether, and to create an artificial vernacular based on urban colloquial language. The vernacular came to reflect features from different language varieties. For the most part it was based on the teenage slang spoken in Helsinki at the time, but it also included dialectal features of the Finnish spoken in Vironlahti, a country district where Saarikoski had spent his childhood, as well as a number of anglicisms (Tarkka 1996:339). The task of creating this vernacular involved a lot of ‘field-work’: Saarikoski visited cafés frequented by young people and attended their parties to listen to their language (Tarkka 1996:318).

Sieppari thus came to symbolise the first step towards the modernisation of literary Finnish. The articles Saarikoski wrote for Parnasso (5, 7, 8/1960) and the strategy he then adopted in his translation of Catcher show that, in an attempt to render the slangy tone that Salinger had employed in Catcher, Saarikoski made a conscious decision to violate the norms governing the use of literary language in Finnish literature at the time. As a result of the fact that Saarikoski subjected himself to the ST and the norms realised through it, Sieppari came to be, in Toury’s (1995) terminology, an adequate translation which contradicted the norms prevailing in the target literary system of the time.

5. The role of Sieppari in the evolution of Finnish literature

The responses to the eventual publication of Sieppari were controversial. In its employment of an informal, colloquial language variety it was bound to cause a commotion because it struck readers as something quite unexpected. In 1968, seven years after the publication of Sieppari, Matti Salo summed up the comments Saarikoski’s translation had received:

It is probable that in 1961 no other person could have produced the Finnish version of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as skilfully as Saarikoski. The translation was widely appreciated at the time although, as far as I remember correctly, there were some remarks that the tone of the translation was rougher than that of the original novel. (Salo 1968:6)

Salo did indeed remember correctly. Some critics had been quite harsh on Saarikoski. Yrjö Kivimies, for instance, condemned the novel fiercely. He went so far as to head his review of Sieppari in Suomalainen Suomi (3/1961) “The original and the fraud”, claiming that

Pentti Saarikoski has written his own version of Salinger’s novel. One cannot speak of a translation here because, even if one admits that Saarikoski’s language is Finnish (this is a matter of taste), in the end it is a fraud. It has been pointed out earlier [in this review] that the real Holden is a well educated school-boy who likes to read classics – not the bad-mannered jerk who can only swear, as Saarikoski has presented him. Salinger has paid careful attention to every word Holden utters (as well as every other character’s words) and made him speak according to what the situation requires. Saarikoski, by contrast, has not been able to make a distinction between the different situations, and thus the Finnish Holden speaks in the same tone throughout the novel. It is all very unappealing. (Kivimies 1961b:173)

Kauko Kare’s review of Sieppari in Veikkaaja (28 April 1961) was equally critical. However, the fact that Kare also considered the translation to be a fraud seems unjustified, as he himself admitted that he had not read the ST. He considered it appropriate to rely on the verdict given by Kivimies, whom he believed to be “the best Finnish expert in matters of translation” (Kare 1961:2). In general, Kare was of the opinion that the language the Finnish Holden used was simply incompatible with his character, i.e. that it did not reflect his personality in any way. Furthermore, he stated that Saarikoski had badly failed in his effort to make use of Helsinki slang in Sieppari, as according to him the translation was full of stylistic blunders. Kare’s concluding remark of Saarikoski’s translation was that “the Finnish Catcher is an irresponsible work of literature” (Kare 1961:2).

Not all of the reviews of Sieppari were disapproving, though. Some critics did, in fact, think that Saarikoski had succeeded in his task remarkably well, and considered the use of Helsinki slang in Sieppari perfectly appropriate. Erkki Savolainen, for instance, wrote in Savon Sanomat (79/61) that

Pentti Saarikoski has probably been the best translator one could think of for this novel. With no sign of hesitation, he has translated it into fluent and eloquent Helsinki slang which, to my understanding, by now is widely understood (and spoken). (Savolainen 1961:5)

Also the review published in Kirkko ja kaupunki (17 May 1961) was very approving:

For us who live in Helsinki and who are familiar with the slang spoken in its streets, it is a great pleasure to read Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, and especially its Finnish translation. The novel is written in our very own language and it includes all the peculiar features and words that are used despite the effort we make to speak correctly. The translation conveys the tone and the rhythm of the language spoken by today’s school children. Sieppari has captured the spirit of the city, the spirit of our city, although the story itself takes place in a city across the world. (T. S-la 1961:1)

In general, the controversial responses to Sieppari can be seen to reflect the tensions that prevailed between modernist and traditional views of literature in the 1960s. Kare, for instance, is said to have disapproved of the modernist generation in general, claiming that they focused exclusively on questions of form (Turunen 1999:47).

In the overall context, we can see that one critical point raised by a number of respondents was related to the ‘flatness’ of Saarikoski’s translation as far as character- and situation-specific linguistic variation is concerned. Many respondents seemed to think that, at least to a certain extent, Saarikoski had failed to convey the linguistic variation Salinger had so skilfully expressed in Catcher. In retrospect, Tarkka (1996:339), for instance, has pointed out that the translation fails to convey the subtle variation expressed in Holden’s use of language, especially where his tendency to imitate and parody is concerned. Laitinen (1961:210) was of the same opinion in his review of Sieppari published in Parnasso in 1961; he claimed that the overall tone of the translation seemed to be more informal than that of the original. In his opinion, the narrator seemed to have lost his sensitivity and undergone a transformation into a “tough guy”. In his own defence, Saarikoski argued that the Finnish literary repertoire was too restricted to allow for variation between a number of registers (Tarkka 1996:340).

The loss of tones, however, is only one aspect of the translation – albeit an important one. In the light of what has been said above about the context in which Sieppari was produced, it should not be overemphasised. In retrospect, what seems to have been a more important aspect is the role Sieppari played in the evolution of the Finnish literary system as a translation which introduced a new, alternative use of language to the Finnish literary repertoire. As such, Sieppari can be regarded as an initiator of norms. The definition implies that the step Saarikoski took towards a more liberal definition of literary Finnish was, in fact, followed by others. Had Saarikoski’s ideas been completely rejected and his translation of Catcher doomed and buried soon after its publication, it would not be appropriate to talk about it in relation to a change of norms. But in the light of the later development of Finnish literature in the 1960s, Saarikoski’s translation can be regarded as a literary model that influenced the work of Finnish authors of the time. All in all, it could be argued that the publication of Sieppari contributed to a new trend of representing features of spoken Finnish in a variety of literary genres. Niemi (1999b:170) links this trend, which he sees as having started in the 1950s, to an overall change of paradigm in the aesthetics of prose literature. Especially novels describing urban life employed features of spoken language (Niemi1999c:179). In literature for young adults, the influence of Sieppari has been recognised in the works of a number of authors, such as Asko Martinheimo, Uolevi Nojonen and Hellevi Salminen, who all made their debuts in the 1960s (Heikkilä-Halttunen 1999:146).

In line with prose, also poetry enlarged its scale of registers in the 1960s. Niemi (1999c:176) states that although the most significant works of poetry of that decade form a rather heterogeneous group, they do have one common characteristic: the use of spoken language. One of these works is, in fact, Saarikoski’s Mitä tapahtuu todella? (1962), in which Saarikoski seems to have abandoned the highly descriptive and multilayered poetic language of the previous decade and replaced it with a more straightforward form of expression which draws on the language used in newspapers and everyday conversation (Niemi 1999b:176). Here, it does not seem too far-fetched to think that, as far as the use of language was concerned, Mitä tapahtuu todella? was written in accordance with the views Saarikoski had presented in Parnasso two years earlier and which, in turn, had been at least partly inspired by Salinger’s Catcher. Thus, one could claim that the change of norms Saarikoski the translator had initiated was, in fact, followed by Saarikoski the author.

6. Conclusion

On the basis of the above, it can be concluded that in Saarikoski’s case the translator’s two requirements, i.e. faithfulness to the ST and loyalty to the norms prevailing in the TC turned out to be incompatible in practice. Although modernism had from the 1950s on contributed to the growth of new forms of expression in Finnish literature, the idea of literary Finnish as a defined language variety, implying a norm of correctness, still prevailed in the Finnish literary system in the 1960s. In that context, the task of finding ways to render the highly informal tone Salinger had employed in his novel in the Finnish translation can be considered to have been extremely difficult.

Saarikoski’s decision in that situation was to subject himself to the ST and the source norms at the expense of violating the target norms. In the light of the critical opinions Saarikoski expressed in Parnasso, his decision to employ a highly informal language variety in Sieppari could, actually, be regarded as a statement against ‘literary Finnish’, which he considered utterly dated and agrarian in tone.

In retrospect, one of the most important aspects of Saarikoski’s Sieppari translation seems to have been its norm-initiating role in the evolution of the Finnish literary system. In his pursuit of rendering the stylistic qualities of Catcher in his translation, Saarikoski introduced ‘a new language’ to the Finnish literary repertoire – one drawing on the use of features of informal spoken language. Although at first Saarikoski’s step towards a more liberal concept of literary Finnish was condemned by a number of people as norm-breaking, in the course of time there seems to have been a change of attitude. This change of attitude can, in turn, be explained by a change of norms: today the use of slang in Finnish literature seems to be a fairly common and generally accepted phenomenon.



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