Last week, I went to an event at the Southbank Centre called ‘Dangerous Desires’, featuring Norwegian writer Hanne Ørstavik and Finnish writers Kati Hiekkapelto and Jussi Valtonen. Part of the Nordic Matters series of events that has been taking place all year, and part of the annual Southbank London Literature Festival too, this particular panel discussed the ways in which desire can fire the imagination and lead us into unknown futures.
Although in some ways it was a shame there were three panellists, as they didn’t get to talk for very long in answer to each question, the hour-long event was thought-provoking, leading me to consider my own desires regarding languages and cultures. When I was thirteen years old, I went on tour to Salzburg for a week with the South West Surrey Youth Orchestra, where we played in concerts across the city and stayed in a gorgeously traditional little hotel in the city centre (I believe it was called the Hotel Post, but I’m not sure if it still exists today). It was my first experience of being in a German-speaking country, and I remember the effect it had on me as though it were yesterday. I came back absolutely determined to learn German and to return to Austria as soon as possible in the future. Without a German course on offer at school, and being before the days of Duolingo and other language-learning apps, I got a book and started trying to teach myself. When I came to choose my A-levels I tried to find a sixth form college that offered German to students without a GCSE in the subject, but the closest I got was an evening class in the next town. I signed up, and soon found myself thrown together with a slightly random collection of people who were learning for business, or for a holiday or, in the case of one man, because his daughter was about to marry an Austrian and he wanted to be able to talk to his new family members at the wedding. Again, I felt an instant connection with the language and I really looked forward to those classes. But still I kept trying to find a way to learn the language ‘properly’. The next step being university, I looked around for ab initio degree courses, eventually settling for French and ab initio German at Royal Holloway (recently voted the UK’s most beautiful university – and it really is! They also seem to be introducing undergraduate degrees in translation next year, which is exciting!). Finally, I was about to realise my dream of really learning the language I had fallen in love with five years earlier.
Learning a new language at university is actually easier than it sounds. My teacher was a native German speaker, and she spoke almost no English in the lessons, which meant we had to pick it up pretty quickly! We had intensive classes, and the small group setting and constant exposure to German were more effective than eight years of French lessons at school. Although I was still quite shy speaking German when I moved there in 2010 for my year abroad, I had a fantastic time – and made some incredible friends – and by the time I came back for my final year at uni, my German had overtaken my French. Which was definitely a good thing, given that the beginners and advanced learners were no longer separated in the final year, so I was together with everyone who had been learning German since school. We even got to do a bit of translation, which was my first taste of it, and it was so much fun. I remember working on one literary text and really enjoying the creative process, though it has stuck in my mind in particular because I changed the text for a British audience without really thinking it through, moving the driver’s door from the left to the right-hand side of the car. After reading my text out to the class, I can still remember my teacher just looking at me and asking, ‘Why are they driving a British car through the Austrian mountains?’ An excellent question.
Following university, I was fortunate enough to land a job at a translation agency, proofreading and translating marketing texts from German into English. Later, deciding that I wanted to work with fiction, I did an MA in Literary Translation (you can read all about my experiences at UEA here: My first year as an ‘emerging translator’) and then got a job at Oneworld Publications, where I am now Assistant Editor for fiction, working with both translated and English-language fiction. The publishing world comes with its own set of challenges and there have been some tough days, but I get to spend my time reading, writing, talking to authors, translators, editors and literary agents around the world and generally discussing books, so it can’t get much better than that! Plus, I still get to translate on the side at home, working on samples or writing reports for German books, so it’s kind of the best of both worlds.
Throughout all of this, my love of German has stayed with me. My stomach actually flips if I hear people speaking in German on the Tube, and my ears prick up instantly. I try and go to Germany as often as I can (I’ve been back to Austria a couple of times too, and it never ceases to put a smile on my face) and speaking German gives me a big thrill. And yet, lately I’ve been experiencing something new, and something a bit surprising – a strange desire to learn more about Scandinavia, and to get to know more about Scandinavian fiction, culture and people. I recently went to Finland to stay with some very good friends of mine, and felt so at home in their beautiful country. I am currently teaching myself Swedish, and am determined to find an affordable evening class or a Swedish person in London who might want to give me the odd lesson. I feel desperate to be able to read Scandinavian fiction in the original languages, and have started imagining myself translating from German, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish one day, and even perhaps tackling the excruciatingly hard language that is Finnish. But where has this come from? Do I just have an innate desire to learn languages? I do love getting my head around new and difficult grammar rules (I know, I’m weird) so is it more about that than the specific languages themselves? Why do I feel so drawn to these places? Even stranger is that Swedish is the one I want to master first, and I’ve never even been to Sweden! (Though I hope that will change soon.) During my weekend in Finland I found myself in Helsinki with two hours to spare – I spent one and a half of those hours browsing a huge multilingual bookshop, coming out with two novels in Swedish to read. One of them is a book called Den stora verklighetsflykten (The Great Reality Escape) by Swedish author Lars Vasa Johansson, and the other is the Swedish translation of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I’m hoping will be easier to read because I already know the story. I haven’t attempted them yet, but I’m working up to it!
I think a lot of these feelings stem from a simple desire – as a translator and as an editor of translated fiction – to learn more about other European cultures and languages, to build bridges between countries and get to know as many new people as possible. I do often say that my ideal job would be to spend time living in various countries just learning languages, though sadly I haven’t found anyone who will pay me to do that yet! That desire doesn’t feel too unusual in and of itself (though I have met many people who can’t understand why I would want to bother, especially with regard to German, which I’m often assured does not actually sound hauntingly beautiful to most ‘normal’ people…), but I do wonder why I was so drawn to German, and now to Swedish, and how I can feel that yearning when I barely know the country or culture. I don’t know if I will ever find the answer to that question, but with German my instinct certainly paid off. And so I intend to follow this desire and keep discovering new languages and cultures for as long as I can, and just see where it takes me.
They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen, translated from the Finnish by Kristian London, is out in the UK on 2 November 2017, published by Oneworld Publications.