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.
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .