Culture - Tuesday 10.6.2003

Finland decorates veteran translator Richard Impola

 Third part of epic trilogy Under the North Star published in English

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By Jyri Raivio in Washington

"I'm Finnish ujo." This is how a slightly awestruck but very happy Richard Impola, a retired professor of English language and literature, expressed his feelings as Jukka Valtasaari, the Finnish Ambassador to the United States, presented him with a medal of the Knight First Class of the Order of the Lion of Finland at the Finnish Embassy in Washington.
The words - and the language - were to the point (ujo is Finnish for "shy"). Impola certainly seems shy. In addition, this US-born US citizen is linguistically at least one third Finnish.
The medal came for Impola's achievements as a translator of Finnish literature. A climax of sorts for his career was the publication of the third part of the Väinö Linna trilogy Under the North Star, which took place on the same day that Ambassador Valtasaari - a confessed fan of both Linna and Impola - had arranged the ceremony at the Embassy.

Impola has translated several key works
of Finnish literature, both poetry and prose. His own life also has the makings of a good story.
At the turn of the century Impola's parents moved from the Ostrobothnian community of Siikajoki to the northern part of the US state of Michigan; "copper country", as Impola describes it. He was the ninth of ten children in the family, and as a child he heard plenty of Finnish being spoken. However, he never made an effort to learn the language.
In the Second World War Impola was one of the youngest American soldiers. His war ended with an injury shortly before the fighting stopped "when the towers of Cologne Cathedral were already visible".
Impola entered Columbia University in New York, where he studied English language and literature. At that time New York had an active Finnish community, and it is at a Finnish community hall that he met his future wife Helvi, a Bronx girl who spoke Finnish much better than her future husband.
Impola graduated, wrote a doctoral thesis, and stayed at Columbia to teach for three decades - until 1983. His new career opened up soon after retirement, when he found the first part of Linna's North Star trilogy on his mother-in-law's bookshelf.
"At that time I was actively trying to learn two things: the Finnish language and typing. Translating that book helped with both."

At about that time he got to know
the Finnish-American publisher Reino Hannula, who asked Impola to translate Kalle Päätalo's Koillismaa. It came out in English in 1990 under the name Our Daily Bread. Impola has since translated several other Päätalo books.
His next translation was The Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi. Impola says that it is his best-selling translation; nearly 4,000 copies have been sold.
Impola's present publisher is Aspasiabooks, which was set up four years ago. The company is run by Börje Vähämäki, a Professor of Finnish in Toronto. "This has been a labour of love, at least so far. We have not made any money", Vähämäki says.
He says that the editions of books translated from Finnish usually have print runs of less than 1500 copies. Expectations are somewhat greater for Under the North Star. A full 5,000 copies of the first volume were printed, and 2,800 copies of each of the subsequent parts.

Large retail chains
will not stock translations of Finnish books, but they will take orders for them. Vähämäki says that there could be more demand if the books had more publicity, but this has not succeeded so far.
Impola himself does not feel that a breakthrough of Finnish literature in America is very likely. Less than three percent of all books sold in the United States are translations, and the books of a small language-area are easily left in obscurity.
"If you send a manuscript to a publisher it will almost certainly end up in the waste basket", Impola says.
However, success is not completely impossible. Impola has read Juoksuhaudantie by Kari Hotakainen, and he has even experimentally translated about 50 pages with the publisher's permission.
"It is a very promising book. Hotakainen's themes and humour could easily interest American readers."
Impola's newest translation in the making is The Winter War by Antti Tuuri. "It is an interesting book and it has some powerful passages", Impola says, adding that Tuuri's book will not stand up to Väinö Linna's The Unknown Soldier.
Linna's book, widely considered to be the Finnish national war novel, has been translated into English, but the translation was not a very good one, and Linna himself never approved it. Vähämäki has encouraged Impola to do a new translation, but he is very hesitant. The Unknown Soldier has characters and language which are very difficult to translate well.

Professor Impola is still translating
at an average rate of 10 to 15 pages a day. After all, Impola will turn only 80 in July.
He still exercises actively, although it has been about ten years since he last ran a full marathon. Nevertheless, his steps are agile both on the jogging trail and at senior citizens' dances, where he and his wife are both active as teachers.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 5.6.2003

Previously in HS International Edition:
 First part of Finnish epic novel finally translated into English (30.10.2001)

JYRI RAIVIO / Helsingin Sanomat

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