The View from Here – Books from Finland

imageWelcome 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?

viewfromhereContemporary 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.

 Want to Discover More Countries?

The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page 

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About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on November 17, 2014, in Finnish authors, world literature and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. This a great idea for a theme, and a fascinating post!

    It’s really sad that the funding for Books from Finland stopped which meant it was the end for the journal. Luckily the site is still up, so people can go and read the older articles. Aleksis Kivi is definitely one that every Finnish pupil must have studied in school along with The Kalevala; another one being the antiwar classic Unknown Soldiers by Väinö Linna (recently published in the Penguin Classics series). The literary tradition in Finland is definitely leaning to realism, but I think most of the contemporary authors – like Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen – are slowly breaking out of that and bringing out new and interesting pieces of literature.

    Aside from the authors mentioned in this post and in the comments, I can only think of Hannu Rajaniemi, who writes the Jean le Flambeur science fiction series (although he does write them in English and not in Finnish), and Leena Krohn, who writes mostly speculative fiction and whose Collected Fiction tome also came out recently (eds. Ann & Jeff VanderMeer). This year I began making a list of Finnish titles that have been translated into English, but the list quickly grew so long that I transformed it into a blog that I’ll try to update every now and again. I’ll link it here for anyone interested in exploring Finnish literature:

    Thanks again for letting me know about this post! I look forward to reading also the rest of them and learning more about literature from around the world! x

  2. This is a great theme BookerTalk; really interesting, thank you. I clicked on Finland because coincidentally I’ve fairly recently read 2 excellent books by Finnish authors – Emmi Itaranta’s Memory of Water and Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen’s (wonderful name!!) The Rabbit Back Literature Society. Both are reviewed on my blog, and I enthused!

    • Glad to find its of interest. The people who write the guest posts do a wonderful job and put such a lot of effort into thinking about the answers. I’ll add those names to the list I keep of writers from around the world

  3. I really enjoy these posts about books in other countries as it is great to have an insight into how their culture and proximity to other countries makes its way into the writing. It is a shame we don’t have more translations of Finnish books into English but this article seems to suggest this is changing – I hope so.

    • Every time I ask someone to do one of these guest posts I realise how little I know about literature from their part of the world and how many good writers we’re missing out on because publishers don’t see the value of making them available in translation.

  4. I got directed here from my blog post about Finnish authors, and this was an interesting read. I remember reading Aleksis Kivi at school as well, so I know the feeling. I also think realism has always been our strong point, and the majority of Finnish literature I’ve read has been realistic fiction. Still, as times change, I’m expecting to see more fantasy/sci-fi/not-realism stories.

    In my opinion it’s a shame so few Finnish authors get translated into English and properly marketed abroad. Even some big names haven’t had all their works translated. It’s certainly something that needs work, and I’m glad to see even the slightest improvements on it.

    • i would have thought the success story of the Menkell books would have prompted publishers to think there could be some interesting authors from other parts of Scandinavia.

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