Creativity in Translation

International conference
Napoli (Italy), 5-6 May 2016

Programma (pdf)


Abstract in inglese del mio intervento al 4th T & R (Theories & Realities in Translation & wRiting) Forum.
Capturing the “distance”: creativity as a translation strategy

Minna Lindgren’s Mistero a Villa del Lieto Tramonto (2013) is the first volume of the Twilight Grove Trilogy also known as the Helsinki Trilogy (published in English as Death in Sunset Grove). Lindgren (b. 1963) is a freelance journalist and columnist, who mixes journalism and literature, writing about social issues and fearlessly facing the dark sides of Finnish welfare. Her whimsical writing style has become her recognized trademark. At the book launch, Kimmo Oksanen, a reviewer for Helsingin Sanomat, the most important Finnish newspaper, wrote: ‘Her [characters] are believable and full-blooded, as literary characters should be – not paper dolls. Lindgren’s humour easily brings to mind Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo series […] and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.’ (Helsingin Sanomat 2013).

Siiri, Irma and Anna-Liisa are the main characters of the trilogy. They’re all in their nineties or thereabouts and discover that their home, a retirement community called Twilight Grove (Villa del Lieto Tramonto) on the outskirts of Helsinki, is the backdrop for both small-time and larger criminal activities. So this place turns out to be anything but reassuring. It becomes the stage for a chain of intrigue and a string of ambiguous events that push the three old ladies to become kind of detectives. So they play canasta, speak about death and incontinence pants, and meanwhile investigate.

Lindgren’s Finnish humour has strong cultural undercurrents and stems from her original use of language. This is rich in neologisms, puns, assonance, language transfer, lexical polysemy, idioms and proverbs, which are suited to the narrative context. This way of writing forced me as the translator to cope with a narration style and not just the story. Anyway, I didn’t set out to move the reader or the author (Schleiermacher 1993:153), rather I wanted to capture the distance from the original, so it could be felt, and to build an effective translation which this gap could be a part of (Apel 1997: 39).

Italian and Finnish are two very distant languages. Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language which is not part of the Indo-European family. Moreover, in terms of cultural perception, Finland could be classed as a peripheral area owing to its: geographical location, small linguistic population, political weight and lack of central cultural influence (Lehtonen 2004:188).

As a conceptual approach I referred to Friedmar Apel’s idea of translation focused on the continuous movement of language in time and space. Language is a living material and translation participates in this movement. Translation lives on hermeneutics; it obliges us to look at what is foreign, different, enabling us to only produce correlations (Apel 1997: 31-34). By taking its moves from this constant motion, translation always opens new possibilities, creates something else, and forms spaces that were not there before. It works in the language and for the language, serving as a ‘catalyst’ in language formation (Apel 1997: 97-100).

So, following this viewpoint, I focused mainly on Lindgren’s language to re-create her raillery and in particular some key features. For instance, in the case of neologisms I conceived some corresponding homologies: tramtram for skratiofaunu (tram, raitiovaunu in Finnish), moccocacca for pkäpkälä (fly, kärpänen in Finnish). I made up expressions such as Cavalier Gastone for the walking stick (Keppen-Kalle in Finnish) and I formed the word dispensattrezzariospedaliero following the model invented by Lindgren based on Finnish agglutination. In this case I pushed Italian a step forward, forcing its lexicology and morphological rules. I made it first follow the path laid by the author, and second resolve the otherwise untranslatable elements of that narrative passage.

Many of my decisions were taken by bearing the reader’s role in mind. The whole trilogy is characterized by the Swedish mantra Döden Döden Döden. Irma repeats this with her typical bitterness in any crucial moments when characters talk about death. Lots of other translations – e.g. into French and Spanish – have left it unchanged, but I’ve always thought this solution would hamper readability and dwindle the magic of the storytelling. When readers come across it, they’ll probably stumble. This mantra was intended to make the reading fun and not to stop the readers in their tracks. Moreover, Döden Döden Döden is a kind of brand for the trilogy.

I translated it with the jingle Tic Tac, Tic Tac, Tic Tac. This choice was motivated by four factors: its syllabic structure, catchiness, onomatopoeia, and suitability for the context. Döden and Tic Tac both remind of time running out and the approach of death.
Irma is a very easy-going character, almost like a cartoon and a series of curious associations of ideas made me think about Captain Hook. The crocodile ate the alarm clock and its ticking scares the pirate when he remembers how he lost his hand. Death is as frightening as Captain Hook’s crocodile. Anyway, it was a bold decision so I decided to ask the author if this translation could fit. Her answer was: ‘yes, definitely!’

In working on this translation I was relating to otherness. I used creativity as my translation strategy by virtue of the difference – i.e. distance – between the original and the translation. I didn’t want to have the two rated differently and I aimed to avoid what Berman calls la déperdition, loss of the essence, (Berman 2003: 59). My end goal was to achieve two texts that would be correlated to each other, distinct but equal, at least in terms of dignity.


F. APEL, Il movimento del linguaggio, Una ricerca sul problema del tradurre, trans. R. Novello, eds E. Mattioli and R. Novello, Milan, Marcos y Marcos ed., 1997.

A. BERMAN, La traduzione e la lettera o l’albergo nella lontananza, eds G. Giometti, Macerata, Quodlibet ed., 2003.

M. LEHTONEN, Suomi rajamaana in Suomi toisin sanoen, eds Lehtonen M., Löytty O., Ruuska P., Tampere, Vastapaino ed., 2004 (pp. 173-201).

K. OSKANEN, Tervetuloa tänne kuolemaan in ‘Helsingin Sanomat’, 30 Apr. 2013 (url:

F. SCHLEIERMACHER, Sui diversi metodi del tradurre, trans. G. Moretto in La teoria della traduzione nella storia eds. S. Nergaard, Milano, Bompiani ed., 1993, (pp.143-179).