by Doug Robinson

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Last fall I published a novel in Finnish translation on the life of Pentti Saarikoski (1937-1983), the Finnish poet and translator. Since I’m a translator myself and a translation scholar, I made the novel more about his work as a translator than about his work as a poet, which irritated not a few Finnish reviewers. Another thing that irritated several Finnish reviewers: I didn’t add anything to Saarikoski’s life. I just retold it, with no literary value added. (One reviewer who accused me of that also took me to task for inventing a character and not sticking to the original story.) Here, for the critics who missed them, are some remarks on translation that I invented for the novel:

Adages for translators

The translator on the trail of the right phrase is like a bloodhound following a scent, happy as long as his nose has plenty to work with. When he smells nothing, the world disappears.

Translating is child’s play: the translator plays mommy and daddy, doctor, lawyer, engineer, heavy with the weight of the grown-up world.

Like anything else worth doing, translating’s a monkey on your back. The only people who can stop any time they want are the ones who shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

The translator’s a starving smuggler: he crosses borders with his pockets full of contraband that he could never afford for himself.

Every translation while you’re doing it is a dream in which people speak foreign languages that are your own, and make no sense to you. Your job is to make their words sound as boring and bland and ordinary as possible. When you’re done they will despise you for it.

A translation is a house you live in for a while and then move out of, leaving pieces of yourself behind, old letters, broken furniture, cracked coffee cups. The wise translator leaves no forwarding address.

In the end translations are just words, and words are wind, blowing through mouths as through two old spruces on a hillside. All literary beauty, all of the wonders and miracles of which literary words are capable, everything that we seek to clutch to our breasts and keep safe forever, all that we work so hard to pass on to new generations in new lands—like a handful of dry leaves blown down a dirt road on a crisp windy day in September.

Heraclitus on translation

In the darkness, unable to see, we burn tapers. Living, we burn the dead; waking, the sleepers; speaking, the barbarians.

Mutations of earth: first, speech; half of speech is air, half the choking on dirt. Speech dissipates like smoke and returns to air.
We both do and do not step into the same rivers.
We never hear or speak the same words twice C and yet all words are always the same.
We read every familiar word and phrase for the first time, in a Greek that is forever foreign.
We are all translators out of our native tongues, in which we are deaf and dumb, into barbarous tongues that tumble effortlessly off our lips in our dreams, but that we forget when we wake.
We exist, and we are nothing.
If the Ephesians could learn to babble like the brook, they would become wise; if the brook could learn Greek, it would lose its way.
As the soul in the body, so the truth on the Sibyl's tongue: changing, it rests.
It is all the same, living and dead, awake and asleep, young and old, Greek and barbarian: for the latter change and become the former, and the former change and become the latter.
All speakers are barbarians, born of the earth; they open their mouths and exchange meaning for fire.
The Sibyl's inspired raving is without mirth; the Ephesian's smiling chatter is without truth. We cannot interpret the former until we have ceased to understand the latter.
All pleasure and pain, all laughter and tears are one, and lie beyond the reach of Greek.

(The novel is Pentinpeijaiset, published by Avain, 2007. Check it out at In Finnish, karhunpeijaiset is a wake for a felled bear (karhu) that is supposed to usher the bear’s spirit to the afterlife, so the woods will continue to produce bears for future hunting. In the wake for Pentti or pentinpeijaiset, a raven and a bear work throughout his life to usher him into the afterlife.)