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This item is taken from PN Review 76, Volume 17 Number 2, November - December 1990.

BOOKS FROM FINLAND, the estimable quarterly published by Helsinki University Library, reminds readers issue by issue of the accelerating crisis for the literatures of 'minority languages' in an increasingly homogenous Europe. Not only the propagation of literature, but its creation and reception, are affected. The problems for Finnish are in many respects unique, but they are relevant to other languages without colonial progeny, and to the dialects and suppressed 'national languages' that survive in Europe.

Pekka Tarkka asks in a recent issue (XXIV, 2) whether Finnish writers 'should forego their royaties so that their books can continue to be published in eastern Europe', a strategy adopted by some well-known writers as a temporary expedient while the publishing industries adjust to new market realities there. Tarkka's answer begins with a simple statement: 'If they want to stay in print, they will have to write better.' But there is a corollary: they will have to be translated better, and translators from Finnish into Polish, or Hungarian, are not numerous. Indeed, there are very few first-class translators from Finnish into English, the primary 'target language' for European publishers with international aspirations for their writers. (Books from Finland is generally published in English only.) A Finnish writer is at a disadvantage from the outset, unless he writes in Swedish, which marginally improves his stock on the international literary bourse, though it does not necessarily improve it at home. For most Finns, a choice between the languages hardly exists: it is a matter of birth and education.

The changes in the economic and social order of Europe pose problems for the 'majority language' literatures, but

Literature from small countries may find itself in a more difficult position. These cultures, born of 19th-century nationalism, may soon be members of Europe, but this does not help important works to find world markets. 'What luck, that Joyce wrote in English and not in Irish,' said Antonin Liehm, and added ...'What if the great works of Czech literature had, in fact, been written originally in German?'

'There is a Finnish Joyce,' cried his listeners. 'Every country has its Joyce,' Liehm commented drily.

Tarkka adduces the 1000 page novel Alastalon salissa by Volter Kilpi (1933). It's a work whose value can only be taken on trust by those of us who cannot approach the Finnish original. Even the Swedish translation remains incomplete. 'It lives and dies with Finnish culture.' This suggests not only that Kilpi's novel is inextricably a part of his complex language culture, but - inadvertently perhaps - that that language culture itself is mortal. The harmony in literary Finland between the Finnish and Swedish language groups in recent years, after decades of hostility and separatism, demonstrates not so much an enlightened suspension of hostilities as the sense of a far greater rival - the commercially propelled and apparently irresistable power of English, and to a lesser extent of German and French. In Holland, it is reported that English will replace Dutch in all university disciplines as the teaching, writing and assessment language.

Today Finns and Swedes translate each other: new Finnish works often appear simultaneously in Finnish and Swedish. Not that the Swedish readership is significantly greater than the Finnish but, as Tarkka points out, 'Swedish translation can act as a bridge to Europe ... In the big publishing houses of the world, there is still generally someone who can read Swedish, but no one who understands Finnish.'

Unless you're a Finn, the fate of Finnish literature may seem remote. But a similar problem faces all the 'minority languages', both national and regional. The greater the pressure of the 'majority languages' and the influence of their publishing interests, the more conditioned and weakened the 'minority languages' will become. Finnish writers will be read abroad - where the money is - only if they fulfil certain criteria in translation; and writers like Kilpi, mired in the particularity of an informing culture and extending and perfecting an expressive instrument, will remain terra incognita and become less and less important to Finnish writers themselves, at least for those who accept an 'internationalized' canon, who will feed from and feed into the translation branch of the publishing industry that, for the 'minority languages', has already outgrown the primary branch, we might say (with regret) inevitably.

Some minority writers regard these developments as a new aspect of colonialism, a fruit of the old. The colonial success of English, in particular, has given our language a huge progeny. We may ourselves, in years to come, see English displaced by Spanish as the primary language, again as a result of an old colonialism with a slower fuse.

An integrated Europe with relatively stable and consistent modes of cultural dissemination and increasingly well-funded, well-intentioned official initiatives for 'cultural exchange' will bring a sense of European intercourse, but at the same time may efface, in this and later generations of writers and readers, the necessary cultural and linguistic particularity that informs radical creativity, response and judgement. There is an inevitable reductiveness in the great free market ideology, a need to create large and coherent markets and to provide suitable product for them. And translation is inescapably reductive, too. As publishing becomes increasingly 'international' in its structures and more narrowly based in its patterns of ownership, the 'minority languages' are further marginalized; and it is not a foregone conclusion that the 'majority languages' benefit.

It may be argued that some minority languages like Welsh and Catalan are thriving: there is a wealth of literature in both languages, and no lack of contemporary practitioners. In the long term the survival of such languages depends, ironically, on the failure of the very political programme, the nationalism, that currently keeps them so hectically alive, but that, if achieved, would discover other, more urgent priorities. As Tarkka says, 'Finnish timber seems to be an easier commodity to sell than the existential consciousness of its transporters.' And yet if Finland were still struggling under the Russian yoke, the vigour - and the marketability - of its literary product might be greater.

This item is taken from PN Review 76, Volume 17 Number 2, November - December 1990.

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