Literary Translation Under Threat

Literary Translation Under Threat

Literary Translation Under Threat
A guest post by Jill Timbers 

J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame has a new book coming out. It is scheduled for release in English on September 27, 2012.

In Finland, the Harry Potter series was translated by Jaana Kapari and published by Tammi Publishers. For the new book a different publisher, Otava, won the bid.

The upcoming book is due to have 480 pages. Translators may not see it before it is published. (Usually translators can prepare by reading preliminary texts in advance.) The translator has to agree, sight unseen, to turn in the finished copy in three weeks, by October 18, in time for release for Christmas sales. That’s 23 pages of polished final text every day for 21 days – without time to read the book beforehand! Otava did offer to let three translators work on the book simultaneously.

Jaana declined. Another translator agreed to the terms. He claims that he will do it himself.

Discussion is swirling among Finnish literary translators about quality of translation, quality of (a translator’s) life, preserving true Finnish language versus slipping inadvertently into anglicisms under such time pressure, precedents being set (will the public now expect all books to be translated that quickly), etc. Some doubt that one person can really translate the whole book in three weeks, and think more will be helping in the shadows behind the one named translator.

Part of the rush is that the publisher wants people to buy the book in Finnish instead of buying the English original. Evidently impatient readers did try to read the Harry Potter books in English as best they could until the Finnish translations came out, and then devoured those. (Why wouldn’t that still happen?)

Apparently, Kapari created truly beautiful literature with ingenuity and brilliant language. She found suggestive Finnish names rather than just Fennicising Hogwarts and such. Comments by literary Finns make me think the translator wrote better than Rowling did.

Some translators argue that it’s good best sellers are translated into Finnish even if time pressure means the level of the Finnish isn’t top quality. Others predict that soon “entertainment literature” will not be translated into Finnish at all.

There’s a derogatory nickname in Finnish for translations that “straighten all the curves”, convey the storyline but skim past finer bits and nuances. Perhaps that wouldn’t so diminish Rowling’s new book? Who can say, since no one’s seen it. The speedy translator who will be doing the new book has translated lots of Stephen King. One might wonder whether a Rowling novel could indeed be handled more in line with King than Carroll.

Non-literary, commercial translators everywhere have watched prices drop and timetables compress as CAT tools spread, information becomes ever more a commodity and style takes last priority. Is this business model invading literary translation? In Finland today, a way of life where literary translators could produce 100 pages a month of high quality text and take time to track allusions and re-create nuance is perceived as under threat.

Addendum: Should you wonder why translators do not turn to Rowling to help defend taking the time to produce a quality translation, read background about the challenges of dealing with “the Harry Potter machine – the wall of lawyers surrounding J.K.Rowling, her agents and Warner Bros. – who [went] out of their way to disenfranchise translators of their intellectual and moral rights” in the post Harry Potter and the 800 lb Gorilla by Gili Bar-Hillel, the Hebrew translator of those books.

Jill Timbers is an independent translator who translates from Finnish into English. Her literary translations have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She currently lives in Illinois. She is ATA-certified from Finnish and French into English. Contact: jill[at]


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  1. Exciting! Google Translate might help, it,works like magic, too – that’s something J. K. Rowling might appreciate :)

  2. I had heard about the problems surrounding the Hebrew translation, so I’m not surprised this is how they dealt with translations into other languages. Still, how sad that a writer could so easily disenfranchise a whole sub-set of the literary profession! I wonder, does she know this is how her translators are being treated? How on earth are there still translators willing to acquiesce to such ridiculous demands!? What a nightmare.

  3. That is seriously jaw-dropping, and I thought I’d heard it all re Rowling/Harry Potter and translation!

  4. I am seriously surprised that anyone could agree to those terms. It looks like publishing industry is more interested in profit than quality of the works they sell and that’ no news to anyone, but I’m shocked that some translator’s apparently embraced this way of thinking. I’ve seen similar cases in Serbia, where translators who offer quality translations with reasonable deadline and price are loosing their jobs in favor of amateurs who agree to work for ridiculously small rates producing work that has at least (to use politically correct term) suspicious quality.

    I admire Jaana for taking a stand and staying loyal to her believes and work ethics. Expectations of Rowling’s new book are huge and that overconfident translator should have thought about that before he agreed to translate 480 pages before insanely short deadline. I wouldn’t want to be in that translator’s shoes when he faces group of disgruntled Rowling’s fans (unfortunately, I believe that is inevitable).

    • I admire Jaana Kapari too, but this is appalling: it proves once again that no good deed (here an excellent translation by Kapari according to Finnish reviews) ever goes unpunished…sad and infuriating.

  5. After hearing about this, a friend suggested that in the future we could start releasing translations only in digital form. The first version would be released quite quickly, but because it would be full of errors, there would be subsequent updates to “fix the bugs”. For extra fee of course. This system seems to work for software developers… 😛

    • Brilliant! Love this suggestion.

      • Indeed!!!

        As we say in French, “Il vaut mieux en rire qu’en pleurer”… Like the Google Translate solution too 😉

  6. Otava, it seems, are bent on not only cheapening literature in general, but cheapening the translation profession as a whole, and not just the work of literary translators. I wonder what “penalty clauses” this over-confident translator has agreed to? Thank you, Jill and Lisa for bringing this to the attention of a wider audience. I do so wish I were Finnnish-enabled!



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