Owen F. Witesman and Professor Ralph V. Larson, Continuing Education
My first-draft translation of Finnish dramatist Minna Canth’s Papin Perhe [The Parson’s Family] is currently twenty pages (of one hundred thirty) from completion. This draft will be further proofed and refined by a number of character readings using individuals experienced in editing and dramatic interpretation. This final version will be submitted as my honors thesis in April of 2001. I will then publish the text online and seek print publication. The project as a whole has progressed somewhat more slowly than I had anticipated, owing mostly to an overestimation on my part as to how much text I would effectively be able to translate at a time.
I encountered two main challenges in the course of translation. The first was the shear difficulty of maintaining a daily pace. The act of translation, especially literary translation, requires a great deal of creative effort. However, it is also repetitive in the extreme. These two factors combine to make the whole proposition of translating a substantial text markedly arduous. Which brings me to the second difficulty: Since translation is a creative activity, it is just as susceptible to the caprice of the translator’s artistic temperament, his Muse if you will, as any art. Not only must I get my mind into Finnish-mode although immersed in an English environment, not only must I work to understand the idiom of a century ago, but I must also court that capricious state of mind in which my understanding of the Finnish flows lucidly into English. Whenever I attempt to force the art, the result is sterile and must eventually be reworked.
My underlying methodological objective has been to avoid sacrificing the Finnish text in favor of an easy English rendering. Most cognoscenti of a second language have had the experience of reading a translated text and realizing that the translation is simply not correct. The general sense is there, but the actual meaning has been overshadowed by the translator’s desire to get on with his work. No translation can truly preserve the original idiom, but I’ve found that with a little extra work a great deal more respect can be paid the text.
Not more than two weeks ago I happened upon an allusion in Canth’s text. One of the main characters refers to Henrik Ibsen’s character Rosmer from Rosmersholm as an example of a person who has ideals so high-minded that they are not fit for this world. As he leaves Rosmer, he adds offhand the phrase ukko paha, literally “evil old man.” The most natural English translation of this phrase would be “dirty old man,” the most common English idiom that expresses the idea of an evil old man. But “dirty old man” carries other idiomatic connotations-do these added meanings fit Rosmer? What is Canth’s character really telling us about Rosmer? Does Rosmer tend towards perversion, or should he be left as simply “evil?” Further, neither would seem to fit the idealism attributed to Rosmer otherwise by the allusion. I had to read Rosmersholm to find out which rendering would most closely mirror the author’s intent. After seventy pages, “dirty old man” seems an appropriate description of Rosmer’s character. But by page ninety, he hasn’t a lecherous bone in his body, but most definitely could be thought of as an evil manBthe translation I selected. Ninety pages to understand two words.
I offer in the following lines a small sample of the text completed so far.
From Act II
[In the preceding lines we discover that the Pastor has taken on the editorship of a local
Christian journal and has decided his son John should give up his affiliation with the liberal
publication Young Finland and join him.]
Pastor: Well, I didn’t mean that. I just want to say that you’ve been under others’ influence, like as a
young person most are. But besides that B what does your opinion really have to do with this? It isn’t
being asked. You’ll undersign a sketch or something playful about the day’s happenings on the last
page or some such. This or that, whatever happens. Just light, easily digested snippets. You needn’t
say a single thing about more serious matters. You can hold your own opinions unmolested about these
things if you so wish.
John: You wouldn’t take part in the publication of a liberal newspaper on the same conditions, Pappa.
Pastor: That’s completely different. Another matter altogether. How can you even compare the two?
I have firm beliefs which are founded on the revealed word. And as a priest I’m obliged to fight on
behalf of the Church and the Christian faith. B But let’s not bother to argue about that now. As I
already said, no more is required of you than what you can give. Nor do you need to get mixed up in
these questions at all. As a rule it’s completely pointless for the young to talk about things that they
don’t understand anyway. Better for them to reserve their judgement until they’ve matured and are
able to judge things properly.
John: You’re dead wrong in that, Pappa. That’s just the criticism that is the best weapon of the young
nowadays. The criticism that tears down the authoritarian religions and prejudices in all spheres B not
to mention the idle ravings from which the wretched mass is set free in a stroke.
Pastor: I should say so! Just childish tongue wagging, nothing more. But that will have to be done
away too, before it turns the people wild. B Well then, it’s decided then! You’ll stay home next year?
John: No, Pappa, forget the whole idea. I can’t write for that paper.
Pastor: Quiet! You can, and you will. I promise that there won’t be any problems. And besides, you
can leave if you see fit. We’ll take someone else in your place, and that’s that. But now in the
beginning we’ll try it together, father and son.
Elizabeth (enters from the dining room): Are you coming to eat? Breakfast is on the table.
Pastor (checks his watch): I can’t. I’ve got to leave for the press. Strange that they haven’t brought
the proofs over. B So, Johnny, think the matter over, then you’ll realize yourself that it’s good in all
respects. B In about an hour I’ll be back. Then I hope it will all be clear to you. (Exit.)
John:I won’t have anything to do with that paper, nothing!