Following our previous PEN Atlas piece by Diego Marani, his English translator Judith Landry talks us through the strange music of Finnish and translation as walking a tight-rope

Diego Marani, the author of ‘New Finnish Grammar’ which I have recently translated, adopts a blessedly laissez-faire attitude towards his translators: they know best. Such modesty and trust are surely unusual; many translators have their work criticized by authors who clearly do not know their language as well as they do. I had always dreamt of translating a living author whom I could consult if difficulties arose. But in this case none did (or so I am blithe enough to believe). It felt like an opportunity missed. When asked what it felt like to be ‘collaborating’ with Marani, I would reply that there was no collaboration. He wrote and I translated. But it was strange, and exciting, to set eyes on ‘my’ author; I only wished that I had some questions to ask him … At one point he and I had our photograph taken by a photographer specializing in ‘authors and their translators’. Now there’s a subject for you. The photographer asked us to sit nearer to one another on the sofa; I said we didn’t know each other very well.

On first reading this novel, I was not at all sure that I could do it justice, but as I proceeded things just seemed to fall into place (or so I am blithe enough …) There is a lot in it about sound, about breathing, about the way words are formed in Finnish, that strangest of languages – it often seems to me that writing in French and Italian, the two languages from which I translate, has more in it about sound than writing in English does; words about sounds are inevitably abstract, and I have sometime found this to be a problem; I’m not sure sound interests me all that much, though the loss is certainly mine.

The title itself is bewitching, if in a sense meaningless. New Finnish Grammar? Not many novels have the word ‘grammar’ in the title, and no doubt it was as off-putting to some as it was intriguing to others, though I gather that the words ‘grammar’ and ‘glamour’ are somehow related, odd though this may seem. In any translation, there are always particularly appealing phrases or sentences in the original to which the translator simply cannot do justice, and all that he or she can hope for is to improve on the original at some other point, thereby evening things out after a fashion.

There is much talk nowadays about the most apposite metaphor for translation. I go along with the tight-rope walker metaphor myself; it’s not quite like walking between the Twin Towers, but it does feel dangerous, you’re never sure quite how much of a safety-net you have or which phrase might cause you to lose your balance. In a way, perhaps, that long pole that tightrope walkers hold is your knowledge of your own language, and the safety-net is your knowledge of the other. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.

About the Author

Judith Landry was educated at Somerville College, Oxford where she obtained a first class honours degree in French and Italian. She combines a career as a translator of works of fiction, art and architecture with part-time teaching.

Her translations are: The House by the Medlar Tree by Giovanni Verga, New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, The Devil in Love by Jacques Cazotte, Prague Noir: The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague by Sylvie Germain and Smarra & Trilby by Charles Nodier.

Her latest translation is The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani, published in May 2012 by Dedalus.
She won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize for New Finnish Grammar in June 2012.  Find out more.