The first time Ulysses appeared in Finnish (Odysseus, 1964) the translator of that novel, Pentti Saarikoski, consulted an instruction manual that today would be considered quite flawed, or at least out of date. Can you describe how your own translation of Ulysses (2012) and the one that came before it have been influenced by two different notions of contemporary literature?
Leevi Lehto I’ve said somewhere, half-jokingly, that Saarikoski’s Odysseus may come close to what Joyce’s Ulysses might have turned into should Ezra Pound have had his editorial way with it. As it happens, I have lately, as part of a (nowadays) rare literary assignment (I’m preparing for print a Finnish translation of Pound’s Pisan Cantos by Kari Aronpuro – a great translation by a great poet), come to do some reading in and around Pound’s translations of the Chinese classics, especially Confucius – and am struck by how similar Pound’s and Joyce’s initial approaches to the questions of language are, and how diametrically opposed they turn once the question of “good government” (more like Pound’s term this, in Ulysses, see especially Chapters 7, “Aielos” and 12, “Cyclops”) gets raised. Both authors are acutely aware of problems caused by errors, misstatements and -understandings, etc, but where one opts for an attempt to rectify them, the other’s choice is to tolerate, accept, rejoice, even celebrate them, both aesthetically, and politically, I’d say. And yes, here, in my view, lies also the fundamental difference between our two translations. Of course the case in point here is Chapter 16, my favorite, where, practically speaking, none of the hundreds if not thousands of Joyce’s intentional blunders made their way into Saarikoski’s translation. This was perhaps partly due to his lack of skills in English, which simply prevented him from seeing the blunders as what they are – but then, unlike me, he didn’t have the benefit of getting them readily listed and categorized by preceding native scholar-readers. Yet in the end it is the difference pointed out by the joke in my essay title – between an attempt to “purify the language of the tribe” (and that of the scribe, I should add), and an urge at “plurifying the languages of the trite” (and, yes, of the scribe, too).
If one’s mission is to make visible the misunderstandings in literature and in culture at large—to make us more tolerable of those ‘mistakes’—could more instructions (rules, guidelines, boundaries, etc.) be helpful in this pursuit? In theory, would this provide more chances to translate, interpret, and misread each other?
LL Your question reminds me of the numerous sets on instructions I came to translate during my days as (also) a business translator (of course, for the translator, the text of the original is always a set of instructions as such, but let’s not go there now). One job in special stays fondly in memory. I was assigned by Oy Veikkaus Ab—the Finnish Lottery Company – to translate the Instruction Manual (a rather bulky volume) for the first ever computerized lottery sales terminal, provided by a big American company. This was one of the rare cases where, as a translator, I’ve had a chance to intimately share the reading experience as well – together with the staff members of the sales headquarters, and the Americans standing by, we spent a whole afternoon trying, with the help of my draft translation, to print out the first lottery ticket with the first prototype of the terminal (it might have been the only one in the country yet). I can tell it wasn’t easy. And when we finally succeeded, my translation wasn’t what it had been before the experiment. This was an instructive (pun unintended) reminder of how error-prone perhaps all written instructions are compared to, let’s say, manual (unintended again) guidance. But does this answer your question? Yes, I think so, in the affirmative. – Another time I was a candidate to translate the 1500 (or was it 3000) page manual for the Hornet fighters the Finnish army was about to acquire, only to be disqualified – not because of lack of translation skills or flying experience, but because of my Communist past. The instructiveness of this eludes me though.
Assignments and instructions are both defined by a narrow set of restrictions but the former seems to come charged with a sense of urgency (in your case spawning a number of completed essays). What makes the assignment more productive than the instruction?
LL I think the answer lies in the type of restrictions / constraints. With writing assignments, these often include the time and place of publication, as well as – in case of magazines and like – a more than usually fixed sense of the readership. With these come certain implied expectations as to the “impact” of the finished text – those of “newness” or “freshness”, “relevance”, “surprise” etc. Add to this the readily given theme, if not exact title, of your essay – almost everything is set and done, except for the writing itself, and the (sometimes minimal) change in the “point-of-view”, or “angle” that will make it possible. It is, indeed, very much about “finding a problem for the solution”. The urgency comes from having to do by yourself something that’s already been done for you.
If exile from a particular place is the only way to understand / misunderstand it, does your rule apply to disciplines as well? Is it the case, that the more one distances themselves from the traditions of literature (film, design, etc.), the more those traditions become a part of the work?
LL It does. It is. And I should add that all this is built and written in the very concept of tradition. You can only join it by distancing yourself, by acknowledging it as a thing of, yes, distant past.