From Translating Words to Translating Worlds

Sarianna Silvonen

I have been a great fan of science fiction and fantasy literature since my childhood, when I was a voracious reader and tended to be increasingly drawn to the fantastical end of my broad reading spectrum. I have also worked part- or full-time as a translator between English and Finnish for almost 20 years. It is therefore not surprising that I ended up translating works in my beloved genre – the surprising thing is that it took me so long to end up doing what I now love.

Thinking back, the long, not-always-as-boring-as-it-may-sound years of translating technical manuals and business documents were not in vain. I got good practice in structuring complex texts in fluent, approachable language and delving through the Internet and other resources in search of sometimes esoteric terms. These skills have been valuable also in translating fiction. In addition, I have a master’s degree in archaeology, a multidisciplinary field in which any level of knowledge in almost any other related subject in the humanities or sciences might end up being useful. The knowledge gleaned during my studies and work in archaeology has also stood me in good stead in translating.

My career in fiction translation started with my increasing involvement in the Finnish science fiction fandom scene – coincidentally, this is where I also met my husband. Two birds with one stone! I started by volunteering to translate short stories for a major magazine in the genre, Tähtivaeltaja. Then I was asked by the publishing company Gummerus to translate Catherynne M. Valente’s wonderful children’s fantasy novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and its sequel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, into Finnish. I had already read the books and loved them, so I was more than happy to accept.

tytto_joka_putosi_satumaan_alle92451 tytto_joka_purjehti_satumaan91188The actual process of translation may vary between translators. My method is to first read the book through in English and make note of any particular descriptive names, puns, jokes, and so on that occur throughout the text in specific contexts that may limit how they can be translated. Then I set out to do a first, fast round of raw translation into Finnish. This is where I often achieve the delightful state known as flow, where I could keep on writing forever, limited only by my hands and eyes tiring out.

While translating, I keep a reference list of names and terms that I add to whenever a new term comes up – and in Valente’s case, there were a lot of them. Since the protagonist, September, is twelve years old, the book is clearly aimed at a fairly young audience. This had to be reflected in the translation choices starting from her name, which was translated into Syyskuu, the Finnish name for the month; for an adult novel, I would have kept the English name. There were also plenty of other descriptive names and invented creatures, places, and phenomena, all of which had to be reflected in the Finnish version. For this I took inspiration from the Finnish translations of the Harry Potter books by Jaana Kapari-Jatta, whose work has been widely praised.

When the raw translation of the whole book is finished, I leave it to rest for a week or two and do something completely different. Then I return to read through my translation again and rewrite it in better, more imaginative and idiomatic Finnish, reworking any obvious Anglicisms and clumsy constructions. At this stage, I am no longer translating the author’s English text, but editing my own Finnish text. I also take time to look up any especially difficult terms or ideas that I had left waiting in the raw translation phase. If time allows, I like to read through the translation a third time and make further adjustments before sending it to the publisher’s editor.

Technical translation, what I started out with, is largely about translating words – even though the finished text should optimally strive for fluency and elegance, finding the context-correct equivalent for a particular technical, legal, or business-specific term or phrase ranks highest in importance. In contrast, translating fiction, especially fantastical fiction, is about translating whole worlds and the feelings they evoke. My task was to make Valente’s Fairyland come alive in Finnish, to make it as magical and enthralling to Finnish readers, children and adults alike, as the original is to English-speaking readers. I hope that readers will enjoy their journey through Fairyland – Satumaa – as much as I enjoyed mine.

Sarianna Silvonen is an award-winning translator. Her translation of Catherynne M. Valente’s novel, Tyttö joka putosi satumaan alle ja juhli varjojen valtakunnassa (Gummerus 2014, orig. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, 2012), was nominated for the IBBY Honour List in 2016.


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