Culture - Tuesday 10.6.2003
JYRI RAIVIO / Helsingin Sanomat
Finland decorates veteran translator Richard Impola
Third part of epic trilogy Under the North Star published in English
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
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
- 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
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)
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