Tuesday, April 29, 2008

European Fantasy in Paperback

In 2005 I translated an extensive anthology of Finnish fantasy literature, edited by Johanna Sinisalo, one of the the foremost SF writers in Finland. Some time later I was approached by Sinisalo to translate another of her short stories for an American anthology, the SFWA European Hall of Fame (2007), which features "sixteen contemporary masterpieces of science fiction from the continent". Edited by James and Kathryn Morrow, the anthology gives an overview of contemporary European fantasy writing, presenting it as both similar and distinct from the North American tradition of SF writing (Gaiman et al.) James Morrow's opening essay, 'Extrapolations of Things Past: A Barbarously Brief Account of European Science from Micromégas to Microchips', is informed and insightful, and serves as an excellent introduction to the collection.

The SFWA European Hall of Fame has recently been released in paperback, and in honour of this a video has been posted on YouTube (link below), featuring an interview with the editors about the process of putting the book together and with one of the authors on his feelings about having his work translated.

It's always fascinating listening to people – authors, translators, editors – talk about how they view the translation process. It's clear that most authors welcome the opportunity to have their works translated by professional native speakers (a certain Finnish playwright notwithstanding). However, working with editors, who are outside the initial creative process due to not speaking the source language, can be problematic, as their priority is the translation, while the role of the original is often seen as secondary. Not so with this collection.

As they point out in the interview, rather than normativise the text for an American readership, the Morrows actively encouraged all translators to retain as much of the feel of the original as possible. That being said, adherence to the original versus normativisation is always subject to the context and topos of the text; it is impossible to suggest that a given solution is necessarily desirable in every instance (as a certain Finnish playwright seems incapable of understanding). In the case of Sinisalo's 'Baby Doll' (the text featured in this collection), we all agreed that the language needed to be as accessible to an American readership as possible. After all, the subject matter – the over-sexualisation of pre-teenagers – is by no means a specifically Finnish problem.

This translation process differed considerably from previous ones in that, for the first time, I was working for an American publisher. I speak and translate into British English, so the Morrows agreed to Americanise my initial translation. This was an eye-opening experience; I realised that, though I have no difficulty understanding American English, the differences between our two variants of the language run far deeper than that we say "tomahto", they say "tomayto".

Thankfully, there was no need to call the whole thing off – I had to get that in somehow! It was like going through an additional level of editing. The Morrows sent me a revised version of the text, I then went through it and said whether they had strayed too far from the Finnish, or whether a certain phrase might better suit the feel of the original, until we reached a version all parties were happy with. There was much to think about: apart from vocabulary, word order and syntax is often markedly different; verb declension differs; people swear differently...

Actually having to engage with this on a textual level made me understand the full extent of the chasm between our modes of expression. Just as non-natives cannot translate into a target language that is not their native language, I will never be able to translate into American English, as I'll always need a native speaker to go through the text for me, and vice versa. Of course, real translators, being humble people, will be the first to acknowledge this; we have the conviction to know when we are right, but we also know where our expertise comes to an end. It is depressing that, in my experience, non-native translators have such an aggrandised image of their own abilities that they lack a default setting that says, "Sorry, I'm not qualified to translate that". What a shame that a certain Finnish playwright also falls into that category...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What's in a name?

Karita Mattila's new home workout DVD – now available from stores across the country! Weight loss on Mattila's four-point plan guaranteed – or your money back!

Joking aside, though I haven't listened to it, I'm sure this is an excellent disc. Kaija Saariaho's Quatre instants were written for Mattila and she has championed them ever since (unlike many performers who commission works, perform them once or twice, then conveniently forget about them). Given her acclaimed performances in the operas of Leoš Janáček, I imagine her voice is well suited to the music of Dvořák and Rachmaninov. Silly cover art for what is probably an excellent release.

Coming up with suitable cover art presents a wealth of challenges. The choir I sing with is about to release a CD of contemporary choral music, but what to put on the cover is an sensitive issue and can have a very real effect on what people buy and what they don't. Like, I imagine, the majority of people, I'm a sucker for judging a book / bottle of wine / CD by its cover. How can we make this disc different from all the thousands of other discs of contemporary choral music? The cover art serves as a calling card for the product as a whole. What to name one's disc is another minefield. A friend is currently recording a disc of kannel music (what's a kannel, I hear you ask!) That, of course, is part of the problem. This is an instrument with few exponents, so the title of the disc must both enhance the mystique of the instrument, while making it seem accessible to a wider audience. Tricky.

Oh! My recording of Britten's Billy Budd has just arrived from Amazon! Odd cover art: a man (presumably Billy) tied to the helm of a ship, the whole image airbrushed into something that could be from a collection by Pierre & Gilles. Hmmm... a bit homoerotic. Great cast, though. I'll have to sign off now and listen to it immediately. Review to follow – watch this space!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Keep it down!

There was an interesting piece in the New York Times this morning about noise levels in symphony orchestras. Having spent almost ten years playing with the university orchestra in Helsinki and rehearsing in the far too small music hall at the student building, I'm only too well acquainted with the problems of overly loud, potentially damaging rehearsal situations.

It's a complicated problem; for me, wearing earplugs is absolutely not the solution, as it means you can hardly hear yourself, thus making it far more difficult to play in tune. There seems to be something of an obsession in Scandinavia with earplugs – incredible as it sounds, I've even heard of people who wear them in string quartet rehearsals or while practicing! I've always thought that if the music is meant to be loud, there's no point in trying to counter the effect by damping it out. Why try and regulate your experience of the music? Having said that, I do often feel sorry for bassoonists who have to sit right i front of enormous brass sections day after day.

The danger with the EU directive mentioned in the article is that it could start affecting the way people play, the way people compose and conduct. Though undeniably good news for the hearing of our orchestral musicians, this surely can't be good for the long-term development of classical music. The mere thought of a conductor asking players to keep the noise down at, say, the very end of Mahler 1 or 2 makes me shudder...

This is largely a question of acoustics. The music hall in which I regularly rehearse may be fine for smaller ensembles and choirs, but was not designed to house an entire symphony orchestra, and rehearsing loud music in there (e.g. Shostakovich 5 all last spring) can be painful. Finlandia-talo has the opposite effect. Last week I went to listen to Messiaen's gargantuan, 90-minute oratorio La Transfiguration de nôtre Seigneur, which featured a huge orchestra, four choirs and soloists, yet the performance never sounded too loud because the acoustics at Finlandia-talo swallow up the sound, making it sound as though the players are in a different room.

As for the Great Hall of the university, where the university orchestra often performs... I hate playing there because you can't hear other people and all you can hear is your own playing, but people assure me that when you're in the audience it sounds great. This, after all, is the same hall in which many of Sibelius' (often very loud) orchestral works were first performed. Let's hope the people designing the new Musiikkitalo will get it right, so that loud pieces can still be enjoyed, performed and compsoed so that neither audiences nor performers end up losing their hearing.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The April Fools

It's finally happened! Weeks after it would have happened anywhere else in the world, admittedly, but it's happened all the same: our sleazy foreign minister Ilkka Kanerva has been fired - I mean, erm, relieved of his duties - minutes before the magazine publishing some of the 200-odd dirty text messages he sent to an erotic dancer using his work phone funded out of taxpayers' money arrived on shop shelves this morning. The best April Fool's surprise I could have wished for.

His replacement, toothy, gung-ho NATO boy Alexander Stubb, is hardly any better, though I suppose we'll have to give him the benefit of the doubt for five minutes or so. I first heard of Kanerva's demise upon arriving at my office shortly before midday this morning. On the underground, I'd read a column in today's Metro (which went to print before the "shock" announcement and Jyrki Katainen's Hillary-esque tears at the press conference) by Timo Harakka, who, along with Jukka Relander, is fast becoming one of my favourite columnists in Finland. I wonder what the column would have read had he written it a day or so later. No doubt we'll find out soon.

Though I'd initially thought I wouldn't bother posting on the subject of Kanerva and his dubious behaviour (partly, also, because I've been working, travelling and my computer has died on me), I now feel justified in doing so, not least out of an unashamed sense of Schadenfreude. Of course, prominent Kokoomus politicians are careful to tow the party lie (I mean, "line", though noticed I had mispelled it in a Freudian slip of the fingers) about how Kanerva should have shown more restraint and should have known better, but that "your personal life is your personal life", blah blah blah.

Most revealing, I feel, is the comment by Ben Zyskowicz, another Kokoomus crony, to the effect that Kanerva was not dismissed because of the text messaging itself, but because of the resulting media furore and because more details of the messages' contents had come to light. So, how are we to understand this? That he is not being dismissed because of what he did (which was morally questionable and, at the very least, amounts to harassment), but only because he was found out! Don't people realise how disgracefully see-through these people are? We can only hope that this is the first step towards voting out the whole, rotten bunch of them.

Here is the final paragraph of Harakka's column:
Suomessa on paljastunut pyramidihuijaus, jossa on jymäytetty useita kymmeniä tuhansia ihmisiä. Petkutetuille on lupailtu rikkauksia ja menetystä, mutta viime kädessä heidän tehtävänsä on ollut värvätä ystäviä ja perheenjäseniä. Pahimmillaan kokonaiset suvut ja kyläkunnat ovat haksahtaneet huijaukseen.

Pyramidin sisäpiiri saavuttaa suuret voitot. Myös seuraavat mukaantulijat menestyvät näkyvästi, mikä juuri houkuttaa suuret ihmisjoukot ansaan.

Ahneus lamauttaa viileän harkinnan. Muutaman vuoden välein huijaus paljastuu, mutta heti pelurit lähtevät keräämään uusia kannattajia. Aina löytyy laumoittain hyväuskoisia, jotka lankeavat katteettomiin lupauksiin.

Mikseivät he koskaan opi? Varokaa nyt, hyvät ihmiset, jo kokoomusta.
Metro, 1.4.2008

(Quick translation: "In Finland, a pyramid scheme had been uncovered which has swindled tens of thousands of people. Those cheated were promised riches and success, but their function was merely to recruit their friends and family. At worse, entire families and villages have fallen for this confidence trick.
The pyramid's inner circle makes huge gains. The next group of converts also has some visible success, which in turn lures more people into the trap.
Greed paralyses our common sense. Every few years the scheme is uncovered, but those involved immediately start looking for new supporters. And there are always herds of people gullible enough to fall for their false promises.
Why will they never learn? Good people, beware of the Kokoomus.")