31 May 12 | Chad W. Post

Jill Timbers is a translator from Finnish to English who recently posted on the ALTA listserve about a very curious situation going on in Finland w/r/t the new J.K. Rowling book. I asked her to expand on this a bit, since it’s a situation that raises all sorts of questions about translation quality, profit versus art, and how all of this plays out in a country where people can read English “good enough.”

Are quality translations at risk?

A new book by J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame is due for release in English on September 27, 2012. You’ve surely seen the hype.

I wrote about its translation into Finnish for Lisa Carter’s blog, Intralingo.

In brief: Otava, the Finnish publisher that won the bidding rights to this new book, wants to capitalize on the moment. Although translators are not permitted to see the Rowling book before it is actually published, Otava wants the Finnish translation ready for the Christmas sales period—and is requiring the translator to turn in the fully polished and completed Finnish translation by October 18. That’s exactly three weeks from receipt of text to completion. The book is supposed to have 480 pages. Do the math: 23 pages of polished final text every day for 21 days in a row—without even allowing for time to read the book.

Jaana Kapari, who translated the Harry Potter series, declined. Another translator has agreed to the terms.

Here are some of the issues this raises. You’ll find more.

What kind of translation can one produce at that pace? Where is there time to search for nuance and recreate word play?

Finnish is not an Indo-European language. Even if such a frenetic pace were conceivable in French or German, say, how can one transfer 480 pages of English into true, uncorrupted Finnish in that period? Finns often lament how English is seeping into their language. People even use a literal version of “in the long run” nowadays, which makes purists cringe. In contrast, readers comment on the brilliant language Kapari employs in her beautiful Finnish translations of Harry Potter. What will happen now?

Will Rowling care?

No one has yet to see Rowling’s newest novel. We can wonder: what is important in her text? Is conveying the storyline enough, or do her language and style deserve painstaking transferral?

As in so many countries, nowadays most Finns can read English. Pretty well. Well enough? Will a fast Finnish translation offer the same experience or perhaps a better experience than a sort-of comprehension of the source text? Both situations could involve missing out on . . . lots.

Then again, if translations do not recapture the original in all its depth and color, will the Finnish readers settle for an adequate grasp by reading only the English, and will best sellers ultimately not be translated into Finnish at all?

UPDATE: Just got a new message from Jill about how the German translator was able to read a copy of the book before starting the translation. There’s speculation about whether the German publisher paid extra for this right, and whether the Finnish publisher decided to forgo that possibility. Interesting.

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