Translating The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg

Launch of The Brothers, The Finnish Institute in London, February 2012; Kreeta-Julia Heikkilä plays violin
Launch of The Brothers, The Finnish Institute in London, February 2012; Kreeta-Julia Heikkilä plays violin

When I first came upon Asko Sahlberg’s novel The Brothers (He, 2009), I was impressed by its taut, poetic style, its savage, unexpected humour, its originality, and its drama. I passed the book on to my mother, Fleur Jeremiah – my co-translator – for a second opinion. She shared my view of the work’s quality and together we successfully pitched it to the innovative and risk-taking Peirene Press.

The Brothers is a short novel with multiple narrators, each of whom steps forward in turn and relays their version of events as they unfold. It is set on a wintry farm in Finland in the early nineteenth century and tells of two brothers, Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposing sides of the Finnish war.

At the heart of the book is an almost archetypal struggle between two brothers, but the work feels very rooted in time and place, very earthy and evocative. It vividly evokes a bleak, harsh, but lovely Finnish landscape. We see wolves’ footprints, we hear owls crying in the night, we witness smoke curling out from a chimney to be crushed by the weight of falling snow…. The book offers ‘an intense illumination of time and place’, as the British novelist Helen Dunmore, an early reader of The Brothers, puts it.

The style of the work is rich and poetic; the language is inventive and authoritative.

Translating The Brothers was a challenge for me and my mother. How did we go about it? My mother, a native speaker of Finnish, produced a draft translation, a more-or-less literal version of the original, which I went through alongside the Finnish text, to check for any omissions or slips; and then, with the input of Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press as editor, I developed the text further into an English-language literary work.

A key issue was the period. I was keen to avoid an antiquated feel, one that could seem quaint or twee. The original does not create such an impression, after all, and the story told is raw and powerful. On the other hand, I did not want to include words that would stand out as anachronistic and that would jolt the reader out of the fictional dream.

I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary often and with pleasure. I was glad, for example, that I could keep Erik’s ‘I suppose we must be grateful that we do not have to leave in our birthday suits’, as the OED gives an 1809 example of this usage of ‘birthday suit’.

I could also use ‘kick the bucket’ for ‘to die’; there is an 1889 usage recorded in the OED (close enough, I felt). Henrik muses: ‘If it is true that after his death, a man is remembered by his achievements, I might as well refrain from kicking the bucket, because any memory of me will just spill out and trickle away’. I was pleased with the introduction of this pun because it captures well Henrik’s mordant humour. Henrik elsewhere uses a pun that I couldn’t translate (oma lehmä ojassa, one’s own cow in the ditch), so I was making up for that earlier omission.

In this way, you constantly come up against limitations as a translator – you confront what is ‘lost in translation’ – but you also encounter riches. I felt that English was a treasure trove, and that the original text, with its own depth and multivalence, was offering me a set of prompts to go and hunt through this store of gems. Translation is not just a matter of loss, then, for it also involves discovery, delight, and invention.

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