Translation Notes · 12/13/2013

Mr Darwin's Gardener

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book of fiction into English. In this installment, Emily Jeremiah writes about co-translating Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson (Peirene Press).

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Kristina Carlson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener is a daring, witty, and profound novel about reason and faith, science and religion, love, loss, and change. The book is set in the late 1870s in the village of Downe in Kent. When I read it in Finnish, I was dazzled. The novel is multiperspectival — we hop in and out of various villagers’ heads — and its language is sharp and strange. The use of imagery, in particular, is striking. One character ponders, ‘you cannot reverse time as if it were a horse’; the old verger was ‘as thin as a skinned squirrel and half deaf’.

The novel conjures up the spirit of the age through the concerns and doings of its characters. Stuart Wilkes, for example, is an amateur inventor, excited by electricity. Thomas Davies, the fictional gardener of the title who is employed by the notorious naturalist Charles Darwin, is himself interested in the use of electricity in plant cultivation. Medical advances are also hinted at — as well, of course, as the revolutionary ideas of Darwin.

These concerns point to the book’s philosophical content, which, leavened with humour and lit up by sparkling imagery, never becomes weary or heavy — on the contrary, it is exciting and compelling. The conflict between faith and more secular concerns is beautifully handled. Conflicting and competing ideas are also exemplified, crucially, in the story of Thomas Davies, who has no faith, and who is in despair after the loss of his wife. Why should he live? The villagers, with their bustling and intrusive attempts to help, are of no use, and religion rings hollow. But Thomas does find ‘answers’ — in his love for his children, in his interest in plants and the natural world, and in his mysterious encounter with a god-figure. The novel’s characters are poignantly and subtly drawn, then. This is a world in which, as the narrative puts it, ‘sickness poverty madness and death’ are never far away. The book is full of such tender, touching, sometimes heartrending insights.

I co-translated the book with my mother, Fleur Jeremiah, who is a native speaker of Finnish. She first of all produced a rough, literal draft translation, which I went through alongside the original Finnish, to compare and check, and discuss with her. Following these debates, and with the input of Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press as editor, I then worked the MS up into an English-language literary work.

Period was a key concern. This is a historical novel, but not, perhaps, in a conventional sense. Carlson has said that she emphatically did not want to produce a sort of literary costume drama, with an emphasis on external details, but rather to evoke the interior life of her characters. Her language is not at all musty or old-fashioned; rather, it is fresh and vivid. As a translator, I was concerned not to produce an antiquated or quaint feel. At the same time, I did not want the reader to be jolted out of the fictional dream by anachronisms that would feel out of place, and fail to ring true (I made an exception for the word ‘do-gooder’, too new actually to have been used in the late nineteenth century — but just right to describe the ostentatiously charitable village women). I also enjoyed using language of the period where appropriate, for example: ‘Mr Darwin is a famous personage who receives visitors from London and all over the world’, where ‘personage’ (the Finnish word, henkilö, means simply ‘person’) conjures up the age and its celebration of ‘great men’. Elsewhere, I opted for ‘swells’ to denote rich folk, again triggering associations with the period in question.

We had also to do some factual research on plants — there are a lot of plant names in the text — as well as on English coinage of the period, advertising slogans, and Biblical language and imagery. For this is a dense, allusive text; it features quotations from Bacon, Darwin, and Burns, for example.

In addition, punctuation and syntax were key conscious concerns. We often reduced the length of sentences, as in this example from early on in the narrative: ‘A thrush, wings folded, lies on the ground there. Thomas bends down and lifts the bird on to his palm but he feels only his own pulse. The speckled head hangs, beak ajar, on bloodied fibres. The bird is dead, though the feathered head is still warm.’ Four sentences, where the Finnish has one, held together with commas. In the Finnish, that works — it sounds fluent yet authoritative. In English, the comma often feels weak and sloppy (to me — perhaps because of its widespread abuse). Also, Finnish grammar, with its fifteen cases, allows for lengthy yet coherent sentences, and wide variations in word order.

There are other changes one makes, of course. There are things that are simply untranslatable, like puns. In this novel, there is a pun, for example, on penkki — ‘pew’ or ‘flowerbed’. I had to choose one meaning and go with that. So a kind of loss. But elsewhere, you gain, as the examples of ‘personage’ and ‘swell’ suggest, I hope.

Rhythm and flow are important, too; Carlson’s is a lyrical and musical text. Take this passage:

‘Oh, oh Advent. Waiting makes for a rush. There is hardly a moment to draw breath and one has to sweep snow off the steps, heat the house, do the laundry, starch, iron, darn, sweep, wax, polish, dust, air, boil, crush, whisk, knead, roll, roast, ice, sew, go out for sugar, salt, flour, currants, cinnamon, almonds, soda, buttons, ribbons, candles…’

I chose to omit a verb from this passage, because it simply did not fit the rhythm and would have disrupted the flow of the paragraph. The word in Finnish was syltyä, ‘make brawn’, which I just couldn’t wedge in between the monosyllabic ‘starch, iron, dust, sweep’ and so on. In that sense, translating prose is not dissimilar to translating poetry. Musicality is important. In this passage, the whole point, if you like, is the flow, which evokes the haste with which all the activities are being hectically undertaken.

To demonstrate further how translation inevitably transforms, compare this literal rendering of a (more or less randomly chosen) passage in the novel:

‘From the window are seen Davies’s orchard’s apple trees and cherry trees, to the tips of the black branches gather drops of water, around the trunks Thomas has strung nets to keep hares away, in spring he limes the trunks on the morning sun’s side so the sap does not rise too early, and to the branches of the young trees he ties weights of string and stones so that the branches grow into the right position and in their time manage to carry the fruits’ weight, but spring is far away now, to the turn of the year one climbs the old uphill slope.’

with how it actually appeared in the translation:

‘You can see the apple trees and cherry trees in Davies’s orchard from the window. Drops of water gather on the tips of their black branches. Thomas has rigged nets around the trunks to keep hares at bay. Come spring, he will lime the trunks on the side where the morning sun shines, so the sap will not rise too early. He will tie weights made of string and stones to the branches of the young trees, so the branches grow correctly and are strong enough, in time, to bear the weight of fruit. But spring is far away. The old uphill climb to the turn of the year.’

The punctuation, the rhythm, the flow: these are all in evidence as issues here. There are also questions of idiom and register on show (‘Come spring’, for example). Any sentence plucked from the book would raise similar questions. (Producing a ‘literal’ translation is a tricky, if not impossible, task; for example, ‘are seen’ in the first version above is an imperfect way of conveying the Finnish verb näkyä, ‘to be seen’, for which English does not have an equivalent.) In any case, I hope the above passages grant some insight, at least, into the myriad constraints and choices the translator faces. This text, set in the target culture, illustrates well the complex and controversial issue of ‘domestication’, as I explain elsewhere, and so is particularly interesting as a case study.

In sum, what I hope to have done, along with my mother and the team at Peirene, is through translation convey the bedazzlement and exhilaration I felt upon reading this book, with its philosophical and emotional richness, psychological acuity, linguistic inventiveness, humour, and profundity.

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Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah unite as a multi-lingual mother and daughter translation team. Emily has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in German Studies. Fleur, her mother, is Finnish and has translated both fiction and non-fiction for many years. Emily and Fleur have co-operated on translating the poetry of Helvi Juvonen and Sirkka Turkka and are the translators of The Brothers, also available from Peirene.

Kristina Carlson, born in 1949, has published 16 books in her native Finland. She is a highly popular children’s author and her three novels have assured her a wide adult readership and huge critical acclaim. She has won The Finlandia Prize and Finland’s State Prize for Literature.