Preface to Leevi Lehto: Alussa oli kääntäminen. 2000-luvun poetiikkaa (In the Beginning Was Translation. A 21st Century Poetics. 258 pages, Savukeidas 2008) – a quick translation by Make Copies
I once read that in the frenzied efforts to make pugs more and more purebred, a moment was reached, sometime somewhere, when the eyeballs of new individuals started to fall off of their sockets. Tragic as that may sound, a later discovery of the real reason for what happened adds a comic dimension: the translator of the ”foreign” breeding instructions had made a blunder – instead of ”bulging”, he/she should have had something else (”beautiful”, perhaps?).
For those who believe in the Story of Creation, the anecdote may offer a way to interpret my title: indeed, you don’t have to look around for very long to start suspecting that the instruction manual consulted by the hero of that story must have been flawed as well. Yet my interpretation is more radical: emphasizing the primacy of translation, both in literature and in culture at large, for me, equals claiming full rights for the ”errors” always inherent in all ”understanding”. We get close to the fundamentals of my own belief when saying that, in our present world, there is rather too much of ”communication”, of ”understanding each others”, and pretended communality – between persons as well as between classes and cultures. This is the reason for our contradictions; to attain harmony and concord, we need more misunderstandings and more power to bear up with them.
This book collects 18 essays and such, written in years 2001-2007 (and I wish my subtitle to be understood in this very laconic sense). The original contexts of the texts hopefully reflect my main theme: they have all been available at my website; four (1, 2, 4, and 9) have appeared previously in books or anthologies; nine (3, 6, 7, 8, 12, 15, 16, 17, and 18) were originally written in English (and except for the text 3, this is their first publication in Finnish); five (3, 8, 12, 16, 17, 18) have, before their publication now in Finnish, been translated into other languages (such as Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Portuguese, and Chinese); and looking at the texts now, I realize that almost all of them originated as assignments; if this at times (as with 7, 8, 11) was by myself, then for urgent reasons.
More generally, the context of the writer of these essays is a kind of inner exile – a state in which I’ve been lucky to live for the latest 15 to 20 years. As I say in an interview by Annelie Axén (16), I’ve at times thought of myself as an American poet only writing in Finnish, at others as a Finnish one, yet whose medium is more or less ”barbaric” English. Today, I understand better than before that exile is (the only) way to understand (misunderstand) the ”homeland”. Sharpening a bit the slogan of Stephen of Ulysses, I’m willing to say that the more I don’t belong to Finland, the more Finland belongs to me.
I want to mention two discussions / contexts that, retrospectively, seem to me to be attached to what I put forward here. Kalevi Wiik in his book Eurooppalaisten juuret (The Roots of the Europeans, Atena 2002) presents a theory of lingua franca that in an acute way lays ground for much of what I have to say on the impurity of languages (and if the linguists’ ”facts” fail to support it, the worse for them). Jukka Mallinen’s Varastettua ilmaa (Stolen Air, 2008), in this same Savukeidas series, for me the most important book of the Millenium so far, goes further than I am able to do here in opening the eyes for the fatal context in which the questions of colonialism and periphery must be put in the Case Finland – that of Russia.
The fact of these texts having been assignments means that the context of each individual text was consciously limited, specific, and unique (cf. my slogan, ”Nothing That Is Initially Interesting To More Than Seven People Can Ever Change The Consciousness Of the Masses”). Should they ”work” collected this way, so for that same reason only. I wish they still serve their only common purpose – that of making the eyes bulge in heads, if not to fall out.
Helsinki, June 4, 2008