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Lapland Pike a la Polonaise: Spondeo interviews Sebastian Musielak

Sebastian Musielak is a Polish translator of Finnish literature. He has recently translated Juhani Karila’s debut novel “Fishing for the Little Pike” (2019, published by Marpress). Readers in Finland and abroad quickly fell in love with “The Pike”, which won two important Finnish literary prizes and was nominated for a handful more – including some abroad. In the interview conducted by Tuomas Asunmaa, CEO of Spondeo, Sebastian describes challenges with translating the book and creative ways in which he managed to overcome them.

Sebastian Musielak fishing for “Fishing for the Little Pike”, Source: Sebastian Musielak

Tuomas Asunmaa: “Fishing for the Little Pike” is written in the East Lapland dialect with very lively vocabulary. How did you manage to translate it?

Sebastian Musielak: The problem with this book is not whether its translation is manageable, but how to go about the whole translation thing. You can always go the easiest way (“jump over the fence where it is lowest”, as you say in Finland) and make this very vivid and rich text, jumping around wildly between different registers, into something just boringly “standard”: dull and easy to read – so as to not disturb readers in their comfort zone. But you can also go and try to make it, at least to some extent, just as funny, wild and rich in Polish. I decided to do just that, and then of course I had some management issues to solve, that is for sure! The language of the original, of which maybe a quarter is written in one of the Finnish dialects of Lapland, presents a huge problem to a translator wanting to find some working equivalent of it. This is why this book by Juhani Karila was the greatest challenge in my career as a translator, and I have been translating literature for more than twenty-five years now.

Did you know the dialect beforehand or did you have to study it?

No, I did not know it, but it is not that difficult, at least to read – as long as you have some knowledge of the most common deviations from “common Finnish” in different dialects.

I was familiar with them, as dialects have been in vogue in literature for some time now, so I keep encountering them in Finnish novels I read. I also have Finnish friends who speak with some kind of dialectal accent, so no – Karila’s language was not a stumbling block to me, but of course it did require more dictionary and internet research than usual.

Did you use some Polish dialect to give the same feeling for Polish readers?

I did, yes. Generally we do not do that in translation, we do not substitute a dialect from the original with one of our Polish ones; in fact, it is not really acceptable in other countries, either. It has been done and tried, to some extent, but it just does not feel right. It disturbs the reader too much when a character from Finland (or any other foreign country) suddenly starts to speak in the heavy accent of Silesia, in the Greater Poland dialect, or like a highlander from Podhale. So we are afraid of dialects in books that we translate, as there is not much you can do about it. When you have one or two sentences spoken by someone who is not very important to the story, you can just suggest the oddness of the character’s language by dropping one or two words generally considered “redneck” or substandard – and that would be it.

But when you have a book in which a quarter of the text is written in a spoken dialect and virtually all the characters but one speak it, you have to do something special. What I did was to compile an “artificial dialect” of sorts, a mix of a few strong dialectal features from various parts of Poland that make up a language which – at least to my knowledge – is not spoken anywhere, so it cannot be pinned down to one specific place in this country. It does sound a lot like a Polish dialect, so it does give the reader a feeling of being somewhere in a God-forsaken province, but it cannot be localized. In this sense, it fits perfectly into the book, which presents Lapland as a mythical land full of monsters and ghosts living side by side, with the local people who speak their own lingo, vastly different from the language of the rest of “normal” Finland.

Sebastian Musielak in Helsinki Shipyard, Author: Kuba Koniecki

How did you translate the main character “Peijooni” into Polish?

I decided to use the word “chyłek”, which I invented years ago when I was translating Johanna Sinisalo’s Finlandia-winning novel “Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi” (“Not Before Sundown”, “Nie przed zachodem słońca”). I did so, because the book was the source of early inspiration for Juhani Karila, and Sinisalo’s troll Pessi is very much like Karila’s “peijooni”. I also wanted to link those two great novels on our Polish literary playground.

Did you work together with the author while translating, i.e. did he help you in some places?

Yes, Juhani was of great help, as well as the translators who had done the work before me, or were doing it at the same time, especially the Dane Rene Semberlund Jensen, the French Claire Saint Germain, the Dutch Annemarie Raas and the Russian Ivan Prilezhayev.

All the ideas and changes (like killing the allusion to the computer game The Witcher, which evolved from the story by the Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski) were consulted with and agreed to by Juhani.

How was the book received in Poland? Did you receive any feedback?

I have had lots of feedback and I can say that the book was mostly very well received, including among my fellow translators, whose opinions I value very much. I even heard that one group of readers from Gdańsk was very upset when the translation was not nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize, but well – I treat that as a nice anecdote.

What book are you currently working on?

My next big project is Miki Liukkonen’s gigantic 860-page-long “O”, which is supposed to be “a treatise on why things are as they are.” This is a magnificent book that I have been working on since February. I should be ready with the translation by next autumn.

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