Letter from Finland

Context N°17

by Juhana Rossi

Go to Germany.” That’s what John F. Kennedy promised to scribble on a note, a note he would read at a time of discouragement; or so he told the crowd that gathered to bid him farewell when he left West Berlin on June 26, 1963.

What does this have to do with the export prospects of Finnish literature? Not much—or then again, a lot. I will get back to this.

I am the editor of Parnasso, a literary magazine in Finland. Parnasso was established in 1951. Its audited circulation in 2003 was 4,145—a small magazine. I am the only paid employee. We publish seven issues per annum original writing of all kinds (poetry, short fiction, essays), literary journalism, and plenty of reviews. We review both belles-lettres and nonfiction.

I have a journalist’s background. Before I came to Parnasso, I was a business reporter at the largest daily paper in Finland. My background is relevant because of the following caveat: this text doesn’t pretend to give a comprehensive or balanced view of Finnish literature. There are people with advanced degrees in Finnish literature, and they’ve read a whole lot more than I have. They could give an authoritative introduction to the subject. I just offer my various thoughts, which undoubtedly reflect my own tastes and prejudices.

Before I get to the question of translating Finnish literature, a few words about Finland: Finland is slightly smaller than Montana (130,000 square miles) with roughly the same population as Maryland (5.2 million people). In simplistic terms Finland is the geographical and cultural borderland between Western Europe—more specifically Scandinavia—and Russia. Herein lies a catch. Finland is often lumped together with other Scandinavian  countries such as Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. In many ways this is accurate and justified, but not linguistically. Scandinavians speak Scandinavian languages, which belong to the Germanic family, like German or English, but Finns speak Finnish, which belongs to the Finno-Ugrian. Without making any value judgements about different languages, suffice it to say that for a native English speaker who encounters Finnish at an adult age, it’s a  difficult language to learn.

Raymond Chandler had this to say when he received copies of his books translated into Finnish: “They do a nice job on [the  translated books], but Jesus what a language!  Everything is backwards. I once hoped to be a comparative philologist . . . and dabbled in  such strange lingoes as Modern Greek . . . but Finnish, hell it’s worse than Turkish.”

In other words, there is a fairly high language barrier between Finland and the rest  of Scandinavia and Western Europe. Other factors raise the barrier further.

Finland is on the periphery if you stand in the European heartland. Thus, not many people develop a connection or affinity with Finland unless they really have to. Finland is also a small country, and when countries and cultures interact, the smaller tend to be at the receiving end.

If one takes all this into account, it’s no wonder then that Finnish literature doesn’t get published in the U.S. I can name three more reasons right off the bat:

1. There are very few people who can translate Finnish into English. 2. There are very few direct cultural ties between the U.S. (a big country) and Finland (a small country). 3. There are very few Americans who are interested in translated literature.

But even if Americans don’t care about translated literature in general and Finnish literature in particular, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t any quality literature in Finland. Nor does it mean that translated Finnish literature cannot possibly succeed abroad. It can, even in America.

When one starts discussing Finnish literature, one needs a sense of proportion. As I’ve already noted, Finland is a country of only five million people. Consequently, it cannot produce very many world-class authors if counted in absolute numbers, and so far hasn’t produced a genuine literary giant of Tolstoyan or Flaubertian or Faulknerian caliber.

The smallness of the country shows in the literary scene. The Union of Finnish Writers has about 500 members. About 400 new titles of Finnish prose and poetry are published every year. For translated prose and poetry titles the number is around 300. The annual sales of prose and poetry (both  Finnish and translated) are worth about 50 million USD. (This figure is somewhat misleading due to the current weakness of the dollar in the currency markets.)

There are only four large publishers in Finland, and they pretty much divide the market between themselves. Then there is the usual plethora of niche presses, ranging from  outright vanity endeavours to highly respectable small publishers. Some of the small publishers are profitable. Most of them aren’t. The gross sales of a moderately successful book come in the low five figures. The print run for this kind of book comes in the  high four figures. If a book sells more than  ten thousand copies, it is a success, if not  a bestseller. A book with sales of twenty  thousand is a bona fide bestseller, and the best of the bestsellers (e.g. some popular Finnish authors or Harry Potter) sell about a hundred thousand copies in hardcover. This rarely happens.

There are no agents. Authors deal with the publishers directly. Needless to say, only a handful of writers live solely on the sales of their books. Finnish authors live on grants, both publicly and privately funded.

Are these authors any good? Some of them are bad, most of them are mediocre, and the best ones are very good—so good, they even make it in America.

Take Mr. Mika Waltari (1908–1979). His novel The Egyptian was translated into English and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1949. It topped the Publishers Weekly annual bestseller list that year and was turned into a Hollywood potboiler (starring Jean Simmons and Victor Mature) in 1954. Admittedly, Waltari’s novel hardly fits the academic definition of great literature. It’s the kind of book Michael Korda would love. But be that as it may, it is a damned good story and damned well told. Chicago Review Press republished it in  2002, so happily this book is in print.

At the other end of the literary spectrum there is Mr. Paavo Haavikko (b. 1931), arguably the greatest Finnish author alive. Haavikko has written everything from prose to opera librettos, but he is best known as a poet and was awarded the Neustadt Prize in 1984.

Some of his works are beautiful in their lucid lyricism. Some of them are so abstruse as to be acquired tastes, requiring serious study to be appreciated. What permeates most of Haavikko’s writing is his multilayered and bitingly ironic humor that doesn’t always translate well. Here’s a sample, an extract from Haavikko’s memoirs. Haavikko tells about his visit to Oklahoma to receive his Neustadt. Don’t ask me why, but throughout his  memoirs he refers to himself in third person, like Richard Nixon.

On the day of the ceremonies Paavo Haavikko caught a sight that reminded him of the Soviet-style enthusiasm for sports: a group of adolescent girls practicing an incitement dance. Haavikko was puzzled by the Americans’ selfimportant and formal behavior, for  Ivar Ivask, the driving force behind the Neustadt Prize, was repeatedly compelled to make certain that Haavikko understood the meaning of “Black Tie”: that no other dark suit except a tuxedo would do.

A third writer who needs to be mentioned is Ms. Johanna Sinisalo (b. 1958). Grove Press published her novel Troll: A Love Story a year ago. I don’t know about the sales. The critical reception was mixed, but that’s what happens when a book is published. What matters is that the Ms. Sinisalo crossed the Atlantic on the merits of her book.

Are these writers exceptions? Flukes? They don’t have to be. They can be precursors of Finnish books getting published in the United States more often and in greater numbers.

In some ways the situation in the United States resembles the situation in Europe some ten or twenty years ago. Finnish literature was practically unheard of in Europe outside of the Scandinavian countries.

This is not the case any more. Finnish books are regularly  published in France and in Germany. Finnish literature has been a small but genuine success story, particularly in Germany. Some twenty to thirty translations from the Finnish have been published annually in Germany in recent years. Not because they are Finnish, and not because the translators  receive subsidies, but because they are good books in their own right. People read them.

Some Finnish authors, such as Mr. Arto Paasilinna, are steady sellers. Walk into a decent bookstore in Germany and you’ll find several of his titles in paperback standing tall right next to E. Annie Proulx. (OK, if you ask B. R. Myers, this isn’t necessarily a compliment, but you get my point.) Paasilinna has also been a much-acclaimed success in large markets like Italy and France.

Commercial success is often a poor measure of the true value and significance of a book. That is self-evident. But if I had to introduce Finnish literature to Americans, Paasilinna would probably be my starting point because of his proven track record outside Finland.

I haven’t done justice to Finnish literature by singling out just one author, Paasilinna. There are others, women and men, young and old, middlebrow writers and writer’s writers: take your pick. For further information, please contact the Finnish Literature Information Centre  (FILI). It raises the awareness of Finnish literature abroad and provides financial support for translations from Finnish into other languages. For more information, see  http://www.finlit.fi/fili.

Before I finish, let me say that writing this letter has been an honor. I appreciate the great job Dalkey Archive and the Center for Book Culture do for the promotion of literature that matters. An example: I recently purchased and read Dubravka Ugresic’s incisive essay collection Thank You for Not Reading, published by Dalkey. I now plan to have a couple of the essays translated from the original Croatian into Finnish and to publish them in Parnasso. Without Dalkey’s book this wouldn’t have happened.

I will finish with a plea. It sounds more like a rant, but allow a poor boy to make a fool of himself and vent his patriotic frustrations a bit. Here goes: If you are in a position to do something about it, let the nonexistence of Finnish literature in the United States end. I know that there is a lot of good will about this matter. It would be even greater if the good will turned into good deeds.

It is true that translating quality Finnish literature wouldn’t be profitable, at least not in the beginning. It is true that producing a quality translation from Finnish into English would take some extra time and effort. But it is equally true that Finnish literature has much to offer, simply as good literature. People without any particular knowledge about or interest in Finland can enjoy it. If you don’t believe me, go to Germany for  some encouragement.

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