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The Missing Link in a Monoglot Nation
Thread poster: Marcela Robaina Boyd
Marcela Robaina Boyd  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:51
English to Spanish
+ ...
Nov 11, 2003

The following article appeared in The New York Times. Thought it was an interesting read, and wanted to share it. Guess, who is the missing link?

Marcela Robaina Boyd

The Fortress of Monoglot Nation

Published: October 26, 2003

here is no Frigate like a book / To take us Lands away,'' wrote Emily Dickinson. But the ship most American readers sail remains strictly within national borders. According to a recent Publishers Weekly article, of all the books translated worldwide, only 6 percent (maybe less) are translated from other languages into English. By contrast, almost 50 percent are translated from English into those other languages. We all know that events of global importance take place outside our linguistic borders every day. And since our educational system is famous for how poorly it teaches foreign languages, it might try to compensate by offering students a lot more books in translation.

What sets off one's desire to read a foreign writer? Some odd personal urge: a country that has always intrigued you; a piece of history that starts to. Intense political change can have a trickle-down effect on our reading, though it doesn't always. A Greek journalist friend still recalls his shock at coming to New York the year Germany decided to reunite. He went through several large bookstores in search of books on German history and was nonplused to find just one. Had he wished to write about Richard M. Nixon, he would have had his pick of 20.

In a 1957 essay, Doris Lessing wrote: ''We are all of us made kin with each other and with everything in the world because of the kinship of possible destruction.'' Now, thanks to technology, we have the visual kinship of watching wars break out all over the world. How do these places become more than masses of facts and photographs, nations that are designated allies or threats, objects of our pity or disdain? Reading the literature of these countries is a good way to start.

Last spring I spent eight days in Russia and Finland. I prepared by doing some reading. I've done even more since I came back.

''Not Before Sundown'' (translated by Herbert Lomas) is a wily thriller-fantasy by a Finnish novelist and comic strip artist, Johanna Sinisalo. Her narrators are young Helsinki residents, chief among them Angel, an insouciant gay photographer, and Palomita, a frightened mail order bride from the Philippines. When eros and violence threaten to erupt, the chief suspect is a troll Angel found in his alley and took in. Trolls do exist outside of ''Peer Gynt.'' According to the book, anyway, biologists declared them a species in 1907. Not long after, several Finnish ''Satan sects'' declared them demons come back to earth. Sinisalo frames her tale with Angel's frantic Web researches into troll lore. Each discovery sounds like the voice of a storyteller reminding us of how the gods play with our fates.

Russia led me to the much-admired Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis. His brilliance (and that of his translator, Duska Mikic-Mitchell) did the rest. I'd been meaning to read Kis for years; he first came to the attention of American critics and scholars in the 1970's along with Milan Kundera and other Eastern Europeans. (He is published by Dalkey Archive, one of the small independent presses foreign writers depend on.)

''A Tomb for Boris Davidovich'' is a novel -- or a group of linked stories -- stitching fiction to history with uncanny precision. Kis's people are students, journalists, doctors, gangsters, peasants, poets, revolutionaries and political functionaries, traveling the ''dark continent'' of Europe in the early 20th century. (The phrase is the historian Mark Mazower's.) There are czarist rebellions, world wars, Communism and Fascism; every kind of ideal and betrayal. Kis uses facts and documents, both real and invented. Fictional characters live through real events set in motion by historical figures. The brutalities of a Stalinist prison interrogator, Kis writes, were ''not the whim of a neurotic or a cocaine addict, as some believe, but a struggle for his convictions which, like his victims', he considered to be altruistic, inviolable and sacred. . . . To sign a confession for the sake of duty was not only a logical but also a moral act, and therefore worthy of respect.'' What is more chilling than that intimate chronicler's voice?

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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:51
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
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Troll Angel indeed Nov 12, 2003

Yes, I agree that anglo-saxons do get to read too little about the world nowadays. But the cited text also showed, how difficult it often is to depict foreign cultures through translation.
The Finnish language has scores of words for "troll", and Finnish folklore is full of them from the beginning of its existence far before christianity. So an english reader can not fully understand the book by Sinisalo. The story is set in Tampere, not Helsinki, but because this is not mentioned in the text, a foreign reader automatically thinks of Helsinki, while Finns automatically understand, that the place of action is Tampere.
The title of the book in Finnish refers to a very popular song, this reference is lost too automatically in translation.

[Edited at 2003-11-12 06:51]

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