On Translating Boel Westin’s Biography of Tove Jansson – Silvester Mazzarella

Written by Silvester Mazzarella

Tove Jansson by Boel WestinI am ashamed to admit that I lived in Helsinki (in Swedish Helsingfors), for more than twenty years during Tove Jansson’s lifetime without ever meeting her or learning very much about her writing, drawing and painting. My first link with her came in the 1970s when my son, still too young to read, learnt to say by heart Tove’s original Swedish verses for the picture book now known in English as The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My. I was also aware that two of my colleagues in the Helsinki University English Department knew Tove well: Kingsley Hart who had translated several of her books, and Tim Andrews who owned a typical log-cabin on a small island in the Pellinge archipelago in southern Finland where he spent weekends whenever possible. Helped by Kingsley Hart, Tim would host a party on the island each autumn for colleagues and their partners, giving me my first experience of Tove’s beloved world of sea, islands storms and gulls. Her own island was close by, though sadly she never joined us.

I had no ambitions as a translator in those days. It was only after I came back to live in  England that Nat Jansz of ‘Sort of Books’ asked me to make new literal translations  of Tove’s picture books as the basis for new rhymed verses by Sophie Hannah (Kingsley Hart having died). I then translated a number of Tove’s post-Moomin adult stories before Nat Jansz asked me to translate Boel Westin’s authorised biography. There were reservations. Would the book prove too analytical and academic for an Anglo-American readership used to more scurrilous popular biographies? Or would it assume a familiarity with the Nordic world in general that most English-speaking readers  were unlikely to have? By happy coincidence, any delay has resulted in the English edition  coming out exactly a hundred years after Tove Jansson’s birth.

Finland became independent from Russia in 1917, but until at least the 1970s, as I remember, a pre-1917 street name survived in three languages and three scripts (Finnish in Gothic, Swedish in Latin, and Russian in Cyrillic) on the wall of a department store in central Helsinki: this was the world Tove was born into. Her father, though a proud Finnish national, spoke Swedish as his first language, while her mother was from Sweden and never mastered the unrelated Finnish language. Tove’s life continued to touch the social and political as well as artistic and linguistic history of Finland at many points, not least during the distressing years of the Second World War, when Finland at different times found herself fighting either Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany. A critic and painter who always took a close interest in Tove’s artistic career was Sigrid Schauman (1877-1979), sister of the loner who in 1904 had assassinated  the hated Czarist Russian governor-general of Finland, Bobrikov, thus anticipating a similar event in Sarajevo ten years later. One of Tove’s childhood friends, Erik Tawaststjerna, later became the biographer of Sibelius, whose stirring ‘Finlandia’ had been a symbol of Finnish resistance to Russian oppression at about the same time.

The dwindling but influential close-knit Swedish-speaking community in Helsinki has always reminded me very much of the similarly introverted and privileged world of Nicholas Jenkins in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time – in fact Powell got to know Helsinki in the 1920s when his father was a diplomatic attaché there.

Some mention a few practical translation problems. Should street-names be given in Finnish or Swedish or both? Tove always used Swedish, but today the Finnish versions  are more generally familiar. Always to give both languages seemed unnecessarily cumbersome, so it was decided to stick to Swedish. The English names of Moomin characters have already been established for better or worse by earlier translators.

More difficult was what to do about parents who wrote to the press when Tove’s Moomin play Moomintroll and the Comet was produced late in 1949 to complain about supposed expletives and other expressions they judged unsuitable for children in Tove’s script. Tove kept such letters carefully and even sometimes defended herself in witty answers, untranslatable because of the Swedish puns involved. The only way to keep the tone of Tove’s answers in English seemed to be to quote the disputed Swedish words. See p.235 of the English translation of Westin’s book, where Tove defends her inventions in a letter to a ‘bewildered father’:

‘hell’s growl-jumps’ [helvetes morrhoppar] as an expression, seems to me only mildly vulgar. If you are really determined to, you can read an ugly meaning in any word you like. If ‘begrowled’ is a terrible [förfärligt] expression, then the very word ‘terrible’ must also be a damned [förbannat] expression. The prophet in the play drinks wine mixed with mace; as his creator, I am utterly bewildered to learn that this makes him a boozer.

Occasionally a word Tove used could be even more baffling. In her late teens Tove spent three years lodging with an uncle and aunt in Stockholm while studying there. In a letter  home in autumn 1930 (Westin p.73) Tove wrote: “I bought a jazzophone and sang through it but Uncle Einar didn’t like it.” I myself have an interest in early jazz, but what on earth could a ‘jazzophone’ be (Tove’s exact word)? Perhaps she had been singing to a gramophone record. Then I discovered the ‘jazzophone’ really had been an instrument, described and illustrated on the internet. But it took an email to Boel Westin to discover that Tove had actually drawn a picture of the mysterious ‘jazzophone’ on her letter – unfortunately excluded from the present book!

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Silvester Mazzarella translated Boel Westin’s recent biography of Tove Jansson.

Read Simon’s review of this book here

Boel Westin, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, translated by Silvester Mazzarella (Sort Of Books: London, 2014) 978-1908745453, 576 pp., hardback

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