Sophie Kuiper: The translator as literary agent?
  • Suomalainen kirjallisuus kukoistaa hollanninkielisellä alueella. Keskimäärin reilut kuusi uutta teosta tavoittaa vuosittain alankomaalaiset ja belgialaiset lukijansa. Monet Suomen Benelux-instituutin käännösmentorointiohjelman osallistujista ovat sittemmin käynnistäneet uransa kaunokirjallisuuden kääntäjinä. Kääntäjä on enemmän kuin pelkkä sananikkari. Hän on erinomainen kytkös kahden kielen ja kulttuurin välillä. Onko kääntäjälle olemassa kirjallisuusagentin roolia?
6 March 2017

Photo: Alix Helfer

Finnish literature is flourishing in the Dutch language area. In the past years, on average more than six new titles per year found their way to Dutch and Belgian readers, and several translators from the mentoring program of the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux have made their debut as a literary translator. But the translator is more than a wordsmith: he is the pre-eminent link between two languages and cultures. Is there a role for the translator as literary agent?

“Do you want to be a literary translator?” With that question, the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux invited aspiring translators of Finnish to Dutch to participate in a translation competition in 2013. Dutch and Belgian publishers were interested in Finnish literature, but a lack of translators often stood in the way of publication deals. No less than 34 contestants participated, and seven of them got the chance to learn the trade of literary translation. The translations that soon started to appear prove the success of this mentoring program.

Also the statistics give reason to cheer. In the years before the mentoring program, from 2005 to 2012, a total number of 32 translations from Finnish were published, which comes down to an average of 4 per year. In the years from 2013 to 2016, that number had risen to 26, on average more than 6 translations per year. On top of that, since 2011, three Finnish novels were nominated for the Europese Literatuurprijs, a literary prize for the best novel written in the language of a country within the Council of Europe – and for the Dutch translation of that novel.


From crime to fairytales

More Finnish literature appears in Dutch translation, but what do the Dutch and Belgians read?

At first glance it may seem like Finland has not been able to fully benefit from the popularity of Scandinavian crime novels. Although works of authors such as Leena Lehtolainen, Kati Hiekkapelto and Antti Tuomainen, to name a few, have been translated, Finnish crime novels have not achieved the uncontested popularity of Scandic noir. On the other hand: the available translations so far show an interest far more diverse than crime novels, and I would call that good news for both readers and translators.

As big a name as Sofi Oksanen unquestionably has its place in the Dutch literary field. Sofi Oksanen’s books have given Dutch readers the chance to learn about the history of Estonia, a topic that is rather unknown in the Dutch language area. And even if Oksanen’s latest novel Norma can be classified as a crime novel, it does in fact deal with the same themes as her other books: criticism of uncurbed capitalism, the exploitation of women and the dilemma of saving yourself at the cost of the greater good.

But also Salla Simukka’s modern fairytales, the stylistic gems of Katja Kettu and Rosa Liksom, Leena Lander’s historical novels and Tuomas Kyrö’s diary of a grumpy old man have all caught the eye of Dutch publishers. Publishers no longer look for the traditional and often also rather clichéd image of what is Finnish. Instead, literary quality is what matters. The latest batch of translated Finnish literature ranges from Finnish family histories (Where four roads meet, Tommi Kinnunen) to novels with an international vibe (Roots, Miika Nousiainen; They know not what they do, Jussi Valtonen).

What all of these translations have in common is the value they add to the literary scene, which needs new voices in order to continue to thrive. Some big names and some new discoveries, and a wide variety of genres: so far, Finnish literature does rather well in Dutch. The broad interest in Finnish literature on the one hand, and the obstacle that the Finnish language poses to publishers on the other hand lead to the question: could the translator, with his invaluable knowledge of Finnish literature and culture, fulfill a larger role as a link between Finnish and Dutch publishers?


The not-so-secluded translator

The translator – formerly known as that hard-working but practically invisible hermit – is becoming more and more visible. The aforementioned Europese Literatuurprijs organizes a “Happy Translator Tour”, that lets translators visit bookstores to talk about the translation of “their” nominated novel. The prestigious Dutch bookshop Athenaeum publishes an online column in which translators write about their work. In the Netherlands, the popular annual translation event “Nederland Vertaalt” attracts a large audience of both translators and curious readers. Translators are invited to literary festivals such as Crossing Border, and several literary magazines are dedicated to translated literature. When Finland was Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, FILI – Finnish Literature Exchange organized a special program for translators, convinced of the value translators have for the internationalization of Finnish literature. A similar program was organized at the Helsinki book fair of 2016, and hopefully FILI will carry on in the same vein.

Can the translator, with all of the above in mind, be successful as a literary agent? This question was asked at a masterclass organized by the University of Utrecht in 2016. To start with the bad news: there is no golden formula for success. But reading, networking and some initiative will get the translator quite far.

First of all, translators need to know what’s happening in the literary field of their source language. That means reading and more reading, but also networking at book fairs and literary events. Translators of Finnish are blessed with FILI, who not only organizes translators’ programs at book fairs, but also offers grants for sample translations. In addition, FILI organizes an Editors’ Week, during which foreign publishers are introduced to the latest books from Finland. The translator can count on Finnish support in his efforts to bring new books to the Netherlands and Belgium.

But how do these literary discoveries reach Dutch readers? Translators who turn directly to Dutch publishers are often unsuccessful. But it never hurts to show expertise and initiative. Publishers often ask translators for advice on Finnish books, and such conversations can be a good starting point for suggesting other works as well. Translators who have the time and energy can also aim their efforts at literary festivals and magazines, that usually only need a chapter or so from a book, and might therefore be easier to convince.

Every translator will agree that it is frustrating to try and sell a book to a publisher. It’s perfectly understandable that the small chance of success and the eternal lack of time (or, in other words, working for free) make translators hesitate. Still, especially translators of Finnish have a chance of success. Finnish is not read by Dutch publishers, and therefore easily overlooked. Translations of the past years show that Dutch readers are adventurous when it comes to the Finnish books they choose. More translations of novels are on their way, but at festivals and in literary magazines Finnish literature still receives little attention. It would be a nice start if a Finnish author and his or her translator could meet readers at one of the many literary festivals in Belgium and the Netherlands. But let’s not forget literary journals either: they are often happy to receive good suggestions and sample translations of undiscovered or forgotten gems. We may never be true literary agents, but let’s continue to use our skills and knowledge to let Dutch readers see what Finnish literature has to offer.

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Sophie Kuiper

Sophie Kuiper (1981) studied Finnish language and culture at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and Stockholm University. She was one of the translators to participate in the mentoring program of the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux. Since then, she has attended several other translation workshops and translated approximately twenty books from Finnish and Swedish, amongst which works by Sofi Oksanen, Tommi Kinnunen and Maria Turtschaninoff. In 2016, she received the Amy van Marken prize for her translation of Philip Teir’s Vinterkriget.

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