Tuesday, 30 September 2014

international translation day

The 30th of September is International Translation Day. It's also the feast day of St Jerome, who translated the Bible and is the patron saint of translators. I thought I would honour this by reading a translated book, which also happens to be one that has been sitting on my TBR pile for quite some time. I've chosen The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal in 1974. The original title was Sommerboken.

Thomas Teal has translated at least four of Jansson's works into English, and has even won awards for doing so (2009, Best Translated Book Award; 2011, Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from the Swedish). So it shouldn't really be surprising that his work is described in the Acknowledgements as a 'flawless translation'. I just thought it was odd that they went out of their way to add the 'flawless', as I've never seen that before. It's usually just a standard 'Translated by ...' or sometimes, 'Translated by ... and ...'

Publishing digressions aside - and without intending to disparage the work of Teal -  can any translation be described as 'flawless'? Surely something is always lost when words are picked apart, analysed and set down again in a foreign tongue. Perhaps you could argue that something is gained too - the perspective of a different culture, or the clarity that comes with hindsight, when a work is translated many years after being written. Whatever comes of this give and take, the words are not the same as those set down by the author. This is why we have Definitive Editions, either where the author can approve the translation as as accurate as possible, or where a panel of subject experts (in the case of classic works of fiction) can agree that the meaning has been  conveyed accurately.

Returning to the book I've chosen, my copy is a modern paperback, published by Sort Of Books in 2003. It's a slim book, not even two hundred pages long. The front cover has a colour photograph of an island, which is the actual island in the book: flat, rocky and covered with pine trees. Prior to the text there is a black and white photograph of the 'real' Sophia and Grandmother - looking at each other, oblivious to (or ignoring) the photographer, absorbed in their own world.

And there you have the main characters of the novel. Others may come and go - the father is always napping, or appears as Sophia is on the edge of sleep to add more wood to the stove. The mother is dead, and this is why Sophia and her father have returned to the island for the summer. This is a book about many things, but to me this is a book about being a child, and about seeing the world the way a child does. It's as if someone has cut a window into the past and through it I can feel the wind from the sea whipping onto my face. And because this is Tove Jansson, each word has an isolated beauty to it - a feeling of realness that makes you feel that, yes, this is how it is.

The rain during the summer nights that dries up in the morning, swimming in icy cold water on a hot day, the way the seaweed looks when it's floating, the ground under pine trees being 'shiny with brown needles'...these are all things that make me think of childhood holidays Up North (always Up North, even when sometimes it really should have been Out West or Away East) with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents - a sort of organised chaos that is quite different to the world inhabited by Sophia and Grandmother (but not so different from the world of the Moomins).

I can't write about Tove Jansson without mentioning the Moomins, and I don't need to - bits of them are scattered throughout The Summer Book, which is Jansson's first book for adults. There is a bit where Sophia imagines that 'all their luggage floated out in the river of moonlight' that brings to mind The Moomins and The Great Flood (written in 1945 and only translated into English in 2005) or the flood in Moominsummer Madness. Driftwood and bones and bits of ship are found along the shore, just as in Finn Family Moomintroll when the Moomins and friends are shipwrecked on the Island of the Hattifatteners. Grandmother even makes bark boats while sitting on the veranda, just like Moominmamma does.

There is no plot. Nothing much happens, apart from the sort of ordinary things that make up each day. Grandmother loses her false teeth, Sophia is still scared of swimming in deep water, Berenice is scared of everything. There is moss that mustn't be walked upon, the magic forest, and visitors to hide from. Grandmother and Sophia talk about Hell, and Venice sinking, and the Latin names of plants. It's about love, for people and places, and about seeing the beauty in sea-weathered tree roots and blades of grass. It's the story of a summer spent on an island by the sea - a window cut into a different world.

Bibliography: The Summer Book, Tove Jansson; Sort Of Books, 2003
Thomas Teal -  http://www.nybooks.com/books/authors/thomas-teal
International Translation Day -  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Translation_Day


  1. Wow, this sounds like a seriously interesting book. Not sure if I'd cope with no plot though (because I have a short attention span sometimes...my bad) but it does sound absolutely magical with the topic and writing!
    I don't read nearly enough translated books, but I DO love The Shamer's Daughter series by Lene Kaaberbol...I'm pretty sure she's Dutch. And Inkheart! Can't forget that!

    1. You're right, Cait, it is magical. It's actually a nice book to dip in and out of, because the chapters are only a few pages long, and each one is sort of self-contained, so you might be OK with a short attention span.
      Never forget Inkheart! I love that book, and actually the film wasn't toooo bad either. (I really wanted Helen Mirren's house/books!)

  2. It sounds very much as if it has a similar atmosphere to the Moomins, which always seemed to me to be entirely different from other children's books anyway. I hadn't realised she wrote adult books until I saw a Scandi friend reading one. Your post has reminded me to put her on my reading list.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jenny. I really want to read The Sculptor's Daughter, another of her adult, autobiographical-inspired books.