Finnished!

Posted on 19th April 2016 at 16:53 by SELTA Web Editor

SELTA member Annie Prime is, among many others things, the English translator of Finland-Swedish writer Maria Turtschaninoff. In this blog, Annie reflects on the 2016 FILI translators-in-residence and getting to know your author. 

“Last year I helped triple the sales of Finnish books to foreign publishers. Next year I’m going to increase it ten-fold.” Literary agent Elina Ahlbäck’s Helsinki office is decorated with pink tulips that match her flawless nails and signature magenta jacket. She offers me fresh melon and dates as we discuss the future of Maria Turtschaninoff’s Red Abbey Chronicles in the UK, USA and beyond. Elina is impressive to the point of formidable and I do not doubt her one bit when she tells me of her ambitions. It is a good time to be involved in Finnish literature.

My stay in Helsinki was generously funded by FILI, the Finnish Literature Exchange, who are also ablaze with plans to encourage the translation and propagation of Finnish literature. So much so, in fact, that they are trying to encourage me to learn Finnish – of which I know exactly three words, if you don’t count sauna.

I was lucky enough to spend time with two of the bastions of Finnish to English literary translation, Owen Witesman and David Hackston. Lunch with them gave me an invaluable insight into the small world of Finnish literary translation. Their numbers do not go into double figures, and they seem to be flooded with work. This starts me thinking that perhaps I should make efforts to study Finnish, though there is very little that looks welcoming about the language, beautiful though its bobbing melody is.

But back to where my strengths lie, namely translation from Swedish, it is a fortuitous coincidence that I am here to witness the birth of brand new publishing house Förlaget, which I suspect is destined for great things. It is partially funded by Tove Jansson’s family and the Moomin characters brand who are on a mission to promote Finland-Swedish literature specifically. The director, Fredrik Rahka, is just as impressive and trustworthy as you hope a Moomin representative would be. It is a good time to be involved in Finland-Swedish literature.

During my residency I was housed on the six-island sea fortress of Suomenlinna. Built in 1748 as a Swedish maritime fortress, Suomenlinna was later occupied by the Russians then used as a Finnish naval base before becoming a world heritage site in the 20th century. It is currently a residential community and global tourist attraction. Suomenlinna has been the ideal environment to get lost in Maria Turtschaninoff’s far-off, pre-industrial fantasy world. It is an island like no other, covered in centuries-old ruins, stone-walled chambers, dark passages, rocky shores and ancient cannons. Store rooms with low doors under mounds of earth like Hobbit homes. Footbridges over partially frozen inlets. The otherworldly sense of living history is incredible. It is a place for stories to come to life.

This has been especially fitting for working on Naondel, the second novel in the Red Abbey Chronicles. It is a story of castle-building and sea-faring in a forgotten age, where sacred sites offer profound magical powers. The first novel Maresi is actually set on an island fortress, the eponymous Red Abbey, a refuge for girls and women fleeing lives of cruelty and servitude, and a powerhouse for knowledge and female community. I would not be surprised if Suomenlinna was Maria’s inspiration for this island world, at least on an unconscious level.

Naondel is the prequel and follows the lives of the First Sisters, the founders of the Red Abbey, before they come to the island. It is the story of the lives of women: their ordeals and suffering; the often tragic consequences of the injustice they have to endure; and the strength it takes to overcome and fight back. The characters of this book are an incredible example of the Finnish notion of sisu (grit, guts, hardiness) with which I have recently become acquainted.

Though the women in the story come from disparate cultures, all of which belong exclusively to the fantasy reality in which they live, their stories are representative and reflective of the tragic lives lived by many women past and present. Often difficult to read, the book makes no attempt to sugarcoat harsh realities, and yet offers such a profoundly empathetic vision of struggle, and such a realistic reality of natural magic, that the reader cannot help but be uplifted. It is a real privilege to be trusted with the English words that will go some way to recreating Maria’s magical world and reanimating the characters she has made so real.

When I haven’t been translating Naondel and appreciating the profound peace and silence of a snow-quilted island, I have had a chance to meet some wonderful people in Helsinki, including several publishers and agents from Finland and abroad at FILI’s publishing event on my first week.

But best of all, I had a chance to spend time with ‘my’ author, Maria Turtschaninoff, and turn our business relationship into a genuine and enduring friendship. I have gone from studying her work at university, to becoming her official English translator, to playing Lego with her son on their living room floor. What could be better.