English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Judith Landry, whose translation of Diego Marani’s The Last of the Vostyachs received an award in 2012
Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry
“’Now look what you’ve done, you animal!’ shrieked the Laplander, beside himself as he lunged around the room, trying to locate the Vostyach in the pitch-darkness and pushing pointlessly against the bed, which was now jammed between the wall and the bedside table. Fumbling around on the floor in the sodden chaos, Ivan picked up his sack and his drum. He sat there, squatting in the shadows, muscles tensed, then flung himself upon the figure he could dimly see coming towards him…”
Interview by Polly Roberts
How does it feel to have translated two books about the Finnish language, both New Finnish Grammar and now The Last of the Vostyachs, when your languages are English, Italian and French?
These two novels aren’t really about the Finnish language as such, or only very tangentially. But they certainly set me thinking about it (not to very much avail). Suddenly Finland did rear up out of the distance and I found myself asking any of my friends and acquaintances who’d been there what it was like, and noting down the titles of books about it (including The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Finns, which I haven’t yet laid hands on). A friend of mine who’d worked there in the Sixties told me that the Finns washed their carpets in the sea. Shortly after New Finnish Grammar came out I was wandering around in Regent’s Park and met a Finnish girl who said: ‘I wish Helsinki had such lovely parks’, and I flew to Helsinki’s defence. But, as you see, these are not very ‘linguistic’ thoughts. The only strictly ‘linguistic’ thought aroused in me by New Finnish Grammar was the loveliness of the idea of an abessive mood, which suggests the concept of a lack of something.
And how does it feel to have translated two books by the same author?
Yes, it is nice to translate a book by an author another of whose books you have already translated. Just as, when you’re working through a book, you gradually become familiar with the author’s style, and gain confidence accordingly, so when you work on a subsequent book you already know something about how that author works, and you have (or think you have) a certain insight into his or her way of writing. And that is comforting.
The Last of the Vostyachs is a fictional story of the last surviving speaker of a minority language being discovered by a linguist; two of the principal characters, a linguist and a professor, have different views on how we might treat these languages in modern times. As a translator, what is your opinion of minority languages? Should we continue to expose and translate them into English?
Here too I emerge as something of a flippertigibbet. Professor Aurtova, in New Finnish Grammar, who would happily see all minority languages clubbed out of existence, is an odious character, but that’s not the only reason I am instinctively in favour of them and would devoutly wish for their continued existence. When his antagonist, the fat unlovely Olga, mourns the idea of the vanishing of a word meaning ‘something glimpsed vaguely running through the snow’, a word which would disappear should that language become extinct, who could not sympathize? Elsewhere in this book one of the characters says that all languages are needed to express the totality of what there is to say, and that sounds right to me. The more the merrier, though I can’t say I’m crazy about having to be able to speak very good Welsh if you want to get a job in Wales. So I suppose I’ve just contradicted myself. As to translating works into minority languages into English, that’s got to be good, too, since it gives them a dignity and visibility they would not otherwise have.
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 translation into English of New Finnish Grammar, also by Diego Marani has been shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize.