For Women in Translation Month, I’d like to remember a woman translator I missed by a whisker, and share her thoughts on writing.
Tarja Roinila was a prolific, much-loved, and much-awarded translator into Finnish. She died in 2020, aged just 56. She’d been translating prose, poetry and philosophy, from French, German and Spanish, for half her life. And teaching others to do the same. I loved her translations of Bernardo Atxaga and wish I’d met her – friends and colleagues still miss her deeply. One of them, Mika Kukkonen, has edited her collected essays, unpublished pieces, and translator’s notes. The book, Samat Sanat (Teos 2022) is so popular, I could only get it from the library on a short loan. Now I’ve read it, I’ve bought it, because I’ll want to come back to it.
Samat sanat means “the same words,” but it also is what you say when you wish someone the same – “you too” – or share their experience – “same here.” Those overlapping meanings fit this book. Roinila shows that translation is writing the same text again, here, in your language, for you too, where you are. It’s different and also the same, like pain and Brot taste different, look different, belong in their culture a bit differently, but are both bread. In French you’d think of a wheat baguette first, and in German, a slice of dark bread, like rye – but both make good sandwiches.
Still, even if you write exactly the same text again, it resonates in a different time and place (see Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, which Roinila discusses at length). Translators write across that gap in time and place – and language. Here and there are not the same. But there are ways to bridge the gap.
Roinila could go through eleven revisions before she let her text go. She relaxed into her work only when she had a first draft and could start writing in Finnish, guided by its grammar and syntax, sounds and creativity. Her 2018 translation diary reminded me a lot of Daniel Hahn’s 2022 one, Catching Fire. But what I enjoyed most was her conversation with Coral Bracho, the Mexican poet who Roinila had translated 17 years before and then came back to. She pestered Bracho with questions about what this word means or how that phrase resonates, until Bracho despaired:
“Write it like it is!”
I agree that’s the aim. And I can feel that frustration. You too? Of course it is not easy, but it is possible. Roinila shows you how. She emphasizes the affective and embodied way of writing it like it is, rather than the cognitive. She’s not trying to transfer a Platonic abstract idea, but like Sappho, to show how a text feels, sounds, works. I loved her hat-tip to Kristiina Drews’ translation of Ali Smith’s There but for the.
Roinila not so interested in the writer’s process or past or public profile, but in getting inside what they write. For her it’s playful, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also collegial – she talks about finding solutions together. If I was brave enough, I’d translate Samat Sanat into English. But I’ve given you a taste. Teos, can we write Roinila like she is in English, too?