I was 23 years old when I agreed to translate The Lord of the Rings.
I had been attending a course on literary translation held by writer and translator Eila Pennanen. We became friends and one day she was complaining that she had been commissioned to translate a book, which she really could not find time to do. She was in the middle of writing a trilogy of her mother and family and felt this was far more important. She described the book as something like a children’s adventure for adults. I do not think the word fantasy was used.
This was in 1972. I had never heard of the book. I do not think either of us had any idea how popular and ground-breaking the book was going to be also in Finland. I blurted out: «I’ll do it!». So far, my only published translations were joint ventures with Eila Pennanen’s students. Either she was desperate or she really trusted me, so the agreement was that I would translate and she would read my efforts and make corrections. Somehow she managed to sell this to the publishers.
I was overjoyed and very keen. I had already realised that literary translation was my dream occupation and had added English to my subjects at Helsinki University. That is where it began to dawn on me what I had taken on. In a tutorial group we read The Lord of the Rings and heard that it had become a cult book in California. I had to tell the amazed group of fellow students that I was in the middle of translating it.
Those were the days before computers and the Internet. I had a mechanical typewriter, so I rolled a paper into it and started from the first chapter: A long expected party, ‘Odotettu Juhla’.
Every now and then I would stop and start editing. I hated and still hate typing, so I used a pencil and corrected what I had written, practically on every line, and then took these sheets to my mentor and editor to read. She did the same, corrections after corrections, and then we met to discuss them.
We collaborated thus for the first two volumes, after which both Eila Pennanen and the publisher were confident enough to let me loose. So it came to pass that The Return of the King was the first translation of my own.
Neither Eila Pennanen nor I felt confident to translate the poems. Our publisher WSOY had an editor who had the skill and experience to take on the task, so Panu Pekkanen translated all the poetry on both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Overall he did a good job but one dreadful mistake crept into the translation of the poem about Aragorn. He translated «All that is gold does not glitter» as «All that glitters is not gold», and it went into print without anybody noticing. The error has been corrected in later editions.
Finnish is not a Germanic language, it is not even an Indo-European language, and so we express things very differently from most Europeans. Finnish is highly inflected – we have sixteen cases for nouns and adjectives. In his acclaimed novel Nuova grammatica Finlandese Diego Marani gets very excited about the abessive – to be without something.
Another interesting feature is that the word order is not as often subject-verb-object (SVO) as it is in most European languages. Following the original closely is never an option. This is a curse and a blessing. We do not have false friends to fool us. On the other hand, we do have to work harder to create idiomatic Finnish sentences. Typically translating into Finnish takes longer than translating between more similar languages.
As Finland is a European country, actual cultural differences are less insurmountable. Even if Middle-earth is an imagined world, it is possible to recognise England, its values, its landscapes, its past. Some of these things we share and some we do not. Rural hobbits are very easy to fit into a Finnish mindscape, noble kings and knights less so. Luckily we have had enough translated literature to supply us with the needed vocabulary and style.
One thing I found strange from the beginning was the fact that open landscape is the norm in Northern Middle-earth where the story takes place, and forests have all names and boundaries. The climate seems to be quite mild and include an ample amount of rain. Only an Englishman would have this kind of an idea of what is natural (woodland cover in England is ¼ of what it is in other European countries, and Finland is right at the other end of the scale).
As a result of some lucky events I have a copy of fifty pages of the manuscript of The Fellowship of the Ring, comprising of the end of Chapter IX, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony, the whole of Chapter X, Strider, and the beginning of Chapter XI, A Knife in the Dark, and I can now see what kind of corrections each made. I decided to take a closer look out of interest. What kind of things did I correct myself? What kind of expressions did Eila Pennanen find necessary to change? And where did my original draft pass muster?
To figure out which corrections I made and which Eila Pennanen added, I had to compare our handwriting. In most cases they are easily distinguishable for me.
In this picture my corrections to the draft are marked with green and my mentors’ with yellow. The ratio varies from page onto page, as does the number of alterations.
Interestingly, both my own and Eila Pennanen’s corrections fall into similar categories. Mainly we have been making the expressions more idiomatic, more Finnish, moving further away from the original structures. Also, I seem to have corrected my original draft about as much as my mentor corrected mine.
I can be proud of my dialogue and elevated style, but when it came to descriptions, there was a lot to correct. It seems I was not able to imagine a place, the surroundings, the landscape, the sounds and then describe them with my own words. I wrote word after word mechanically without thinking and produced sentences that were very hard for a Finnish reader to decipher.
I was also very careless, there were a lot of misreadings and words were left untranslated here and there. Eila Pennanen corrected these patiently, but sometimes she did not notice my mistake, and it so happened that three paragraphs in Many Meetings did not make it to the printed first edition.
As always, there has been more interest in the Finnish versions of the names than any other aspect of the translation. This used to annoy me, as names are a special case, and it is the mundane task of producing idiomatic Finnish sentence by sentence that makes the difference between a good and a bad translation. As if that wasn’t enough, there is also the question of style. Descriptions must have some poetry in them, they must convey how the writer feels about what he is describing. Then there are the different levels of English used. The hobbits’ language is quite colloquial but noble men and particularly elves speak in a solemn and archaic idiom. I particularly enjoyed conveying all this into Finnish. I tried to make my hobbits sound like country folk. My inspirations for elevated language were some older Finnish classics novels and the old translation of the Bible with its rolling rhythms.
But I must admit that I enjoyed translating the names enormously. There was an opportunity to use one’s imagination. After the first few translations Tolkien had written instructions how to deal with the names. The rule was simple: English substitutes common speech and should be translated, everything else is retained, possibly adapting the name into the phonetics and orthography of the target language. We followed these instructions on the whole, but did not feel completely bound by them. Place and personal names of hobbits and the Shire were most fun, as we felt there is a humorous element in them. I invented most, but Eila Pennanen did come up with some brilliant solutions, the most important being Kontu for Shire and Säkinheimo-Reppuli for Sackville-Baggins. Kontu can be translated as ‘homestead’, but it can mean a larger unit as well. The first part of the double-barrelled name has a pompous air to it. Of my own inventions I am particularly proud of Konkari for Strider, in spite of the fact that it falls short once, when the text refers to the literal meaning ’someone who strides’. Konkari means ’an old hand at something’ but the feel of the word is quite masculine and authoritative, probably because it resembles the Finnish word for hero, sankari. I’m also pleased with Reppuli for Baggins – reppu is a ‘backpack’ and –li is meaningless.
There was an added problem with the names. We heard through the grapevine that another publisher had commissioned another translation to produce The Hobbit in Finnish. I contacted the publisher and presented a list of names that the books shared with our inventions. We had Tolkien’s instructions, the other translator did not. He saw The Hobbit as a children’s book, and rightly so, and translated accordingly. So all names were rendered into Finnish, and what is more, in a rather childish style. We could not use them in The Lord of the Rings but neither would he budge. So in the end there was a book called Lohikäärmevuori (The Dragon Mountain) and Tary Sormusten herrasta (The Tale of the Lord of the Rings) with a different set of names. It is not surprising that the readers decided our names were the “right” names, not because they were necessarily better, but because The Lord of the Rings just took preference. Ten years later I was commissioned to translate The Hobbit as well, with “our” names.
The translation of The Lord of the Rings came out in three consecutive years, from 1973 to 1975. It was the ninth of the translations to different languages to be published, which makes it relatively early, and has been reprinted thirty eight times since. Twice the book was edited and mistakes corrected, in 1985 and in 2007. I was busy with other work in the ‘80s and our publisher’s editor Alice Martin did a very good job correcting obvious mistakes and clumsy expressions. For the 2007 edition I had enormous help from the fan community and their web pages Kontuwiki (‘Shirewiki’). For several decades the fans have known the text far better than I.
The Lord of the Rings was made into a c-cassette audiobook in 1992-1993 and into two CDs in 2002-2003. It was brilliantly read by actor Heikki Määttänen. Digital versions were made in 2005 and an e-book is in the pipeline as we speak.
Sadly, it is customary in Finland, as it is in many other countries, that the contract with the publishers does not include any further payments after the initial fee, with the happy exception of digital books.
The covers of the first edition are a story of its own.
They were made by a very well known artist and illustrator of the time, Matti Louhi, but his brief was not very good and he did not have time to read the book. I was shown the first cover and expressed some amazement, but nobody paid any attention. Some of this was my own fault as the translation was not finished in time and did not meet the initial deadline, and the publishers were keen to get it out before Christmas 1973. But there really was no need to let Louhi do the covers for Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales in the same vein. Later editions have more suitable covers.
After the Lord of the Rings, I was commissioned by the same publisher Werner Söderstöm Osakeyhtiö to translate The Silmarillion in 1979, The Unfinished Tales in 1986, and The Hobbit in 1985, The Children of Húrin in 2001, The Story of Kullervo in 2016 (only prose). I have also translated Roverandom and Letters to Father Christmas.
Going back to The Lord of the Rings, the word hobbit was actually difficult to translate. Tolkien tells us that the sentence «In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit» just came to him one day, and that is how The Hobbit started. He instructs to retain the word. One cannot help noticing, however, that it looks very much like rabbit. I am now well aware that Tolkien has vehemently denied this, but at the time we were more free to speculate. So should we use the Finnish kaniini and say honiini? Particularly as the sound b is not included in original Finnish phonetics, it only appears in loanwords like banaani. Honiini just did not sound right. According to another rule, Finnish tends to add an –i to loanwords that end with a consonant. Thus, bank becomes pankki. Risto Pitkänen had used hoppeli in his translation of The Hobbit. That sounded terribly childish. Logically we should have translated hobbit as hopitti. It is very difficult to explain why that did not sound right either. So we ended up with hobitti.
The word orc should logically have been orkki. I had the idea of changing the first vowel to Finnish ö [ø] which makes the word sound a lot more unpleasant. This proved to be a good idea, the word has now entered Finnish vocabulary meaning a ‘nasty and ugly being’. I did later learn that the word occurs in some place names but the meaning is obscure.
The most interesting story relates to my translation of elf, ‘haltia’. I had no clue that according to authorised Finnish grammar the word should have been spelled haltija. It is a creature in Finnish mythology that guards, helps, or protects something or somebody. In modern Finnish the word can also mean ‘a holder’, ‘an owner’. I was under the impression that the former is haltia and the later is haltija, and are two different words, and obviously Eila Pennanen thought so, too, as she did not correct it. Nobody paid any attention to this, until I brought it up in a blog in 2013 and said I had made a mistake, as Finnish dictionaries only seemed to have one word for both. Social media was soon awash with comments and then the press took it on. Readers of Tolkien’s books were appalled at the idea that elves could be the same as a person who holds a certificate or is in the possession of a vehicle. The Committee for Finnish Language met three months later and decided that the rule was too strict and that two words with two meanings were acceptable. I did later find out the earlier ruling had been the result of a long debate. Some people had been of the opinion that the word should always be spelled haltia and others that there were two meanings that deserved two different words. The difference in pronunciation is minimal, if it exists at all.
Here are some of the headlines: «Kersti Juva did not make a mistake», «Translator admits: Tolkien’s haltia was a mistake», «Tolkien’s haltia should be haltija», «Translator: Why do we have haltiat and not haltijat in Lord of the Rings?», «Finnish Language board changes its rule 23.10. 2013», «Translator absolved».
The reception of Tolkien in Finnish has been overwhelming.
To start with, I was granted a prestigious translation prize for my translation of The Return of the King and Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which was my next commission. Ten years later I got the same award for The Hobbit and some other books. In 2014 I received The European Science Fiction Society’s Award for translators.
I have been a full time literary translator since 1973 and still I am mainly remembered from my translations of Tolkien’s work. Finland has a very active community of Tolkien fans and they have always been aware of my role in bringing the book to them, and have been exceptionally positive about my work. Their enthusiasm has carried me over he years and made me believe that my work matters. Most of the time translators are forgotten, and their work goes unnoticed – unless the reader finds a mistake, which they triumphantly point out. It is often said that a translation can never give the reader the experience the writer intended. Not so with readers of Tolkien. I have heard them say that the translation is better than the original – which of course is nonsense. They brag on international forums that they have the best translation of them all – which they cannot possibly know. Anybody with any sense can see that the quality of the original is the main reason for all this.