The View from Here – Books from Finland
Welcome to the world of books. In the last feature in this series we were enjoying the sunshine of the Caribbean. Now we’re heading to a country more associated with snow than sand. We travel to Finland to hear from Soila Lehtonen, Editor in Chief of Books from Finland, an online journal of writing from and about Finland.
What is your journal about?
Books from Finland is a modest but persistent attempt to make Finnish literature more known abroad…. an English-language literary journal, founded in 1967, now published by FILI/Finnish Literature Society. It was a printed journal until the end of 2008, then went online. Our (free) online version is very accessible – and in many ways easier to make, too. Me and my colleague in London, Hildi Hawkins, do the actual work. It is financed (modestly) by the Finnish Ministry of Education, but an independent editorial board and the editors choose what to publish.
In short: ‘The journal is aimed at professionals in the field of books and literature, publishers, editors, translators, researchers, students, universities, Finns living abroad and audiences generally interested in Finland and Finnish literature.’
The idea is to serve anyone interested about Finnish literature, by publishing articles, reviews of books, sample translations of both fiction (both contemporary and classic) and non-fiction. We’re not trying to constantly emphasise the ‘Finnishness’ of it all, even though we feature Finnish literary life and books published in Finland. We try to introduce good literature, well-written and original – and books with little chances of becoming huge international bestsellers: contemporary and classic poetry and non-fiction, for example.
The quality of translation is of course vital: our translators are professionals and native speakers of English (and their number has always been limited…). As Finland is a bilingual country, they translate from Finnish or Swedish, some of them from both.
Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Finland? For example, books from other parts of the world, or indigenous authors?
Contemporary Finnish fiction has become popular during the past two decades: lots of new authors, new readers. This applies to prose as well as to poetry. (Social media certainly has further helped to make reading, and talking abot reading, more popular, and the media like authors, too.) In the 1980s and early 1990s, for example, translated foreign fiction was flourishing, whereas nowadays much less gets published.
Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of literature by Finnish authors?
So many decades have passed since I was at school that I don’t remember that much…! But definitely Aleksis Kivi (d. 1872) was a compulsory author.
As Finland is a young culture and Finnish slowly developed into a literary language, Kivi was the first Finnish-language fiction author of lasting artistic quality – he had to create a literary style of his own, in which he excelled: his poetry contains the most beautiful verses ever written in Finnish. Kivi died insane in poverty, as there were pompous didactics and academics who disapproved of his perceptive realism in his best novel, Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers). I think at school we were mainly amused by his ‘funny’ language.
Q. Who are some of the major writers from Finland that you think deserve more attention? Why don’t we hear more of these writers given the huge popularity of Scandinavian literature in recent years?
As I’m not an author or a publisher, ‘huge popularity’ is not something I personally greatly value per se…. particularly if it relates to crime literature, for which Sweden in particular is now internationally known. Crime literature sells well, in Finland, too. I don’t think ‘sellability’ is among the most important qualities of literature, or any other art form either, for that matter. Filmmaker David Cronenberg has said about the difference between entertainment and art: ‘Entertainment wants to give you what you want. Art wants to give you what you don’t know you want.’ Personally, I want to read fiction which delights me with its language, perception, philosophy, originality, humour, intelligence, and I dont’t seem to find interesting combinations of these in contemporary crime literature.
I was writing this just before the Frankfurt Book Fair, the commercial literary mega event: 180 books by Finnish authors have been published in German this year, and as the Fair is an international event, and Finland is Guest of Honour there, the following years will undoubtedly draw more attention to Finnish literature.
There are some amazing examples of internationally successful Finnish fiction authors: Sofi Oksanen, Arto Paasilinna, Tove Jansson (of the Moomin fame, died in 2001), Rosa Liksom…. their works have been translated at least into 20 languages (Jansson’s, 44), including English. Works by Kristina Carlson, Tuomas Kyrö, Kari Hotakainen and Johanna Sinisalo have all been published in English recently.
Q. Tell us about some of the themes and traditions of literature in your country?
Realism, realism. There was a carpenter in the 1970s who began to write fiction, i.e. novels based on his own life as a carpenter in the countryside. He published c. 30 thick autobiographical, naturalistic novels about his life as a carpenter in the countryside, and they sold very well.
This has changed of course a lot during the past few decades: new authors, new writing, new readers.
Q. Is there a noticeable difference between literature from Finland and that from your near neighbours Sweden, Denmark?
Our neighbours are Russia, Sweden and Estonia: three different cultures and languages (even though Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language and resembles Finnish — but not enough to be understood unless you’ve studied it). As Finland is a bilingual country, a large number of those who speak Finnish as their mother tongue are able to read literature also in Swedish (compulsory language in schools and universities). Finnish authors with Swedish as their mother tongue are of course read in Sweden (even though it must be noted that Swedes in general know a lot less about Finnish literature than one might expect…) Contemporary Swedish, Russian and Estonian fiction books get translated to some extent, but unfortunately I myself have spent the last decades reading Finnish books so intensely that I’m not able to characterise them..
Q. Should the big book publishers and book chains do more to make literature in translation available?
I think the situation in Europe has changed remarkably during the past 20 years, at least from the viewpoint of a small culture and language: recently Finnish publishers have begun to be more active in marketing their authors abroad, and there now are literary agents in Finland (previously there were hardly any). There are more competent literary translators as well: FILI has been organising training seminars for translators for years. All this reflects the fact that interest in translation from smaller languages in large countries has grown: it’s not so long ago when the percentage of translated fiction published in England was not more than two, it now has grown to four I think. Small steps, but definitely there, so yes, publishers too have done more.
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