Tuesday, 15 November 2016

On (Re) creating Anna Fekete

Today as part of the Finnish Invasion blog tour, David Hackston the translator of Kati Hiekkapelto’s Anna Fekete series talks about his relationship with Anna Fekete.

I have a very special relationship with Anna Fekete. Our friendship started in the spring of 2014, when we were introduced to one another by a common acquaintance. The late, great Gary Pulsifer, with whom I’d worked on several Finnish crime novels, contacted me and told me about an exciting new Finnish woman he thought I should get to know. And that is how I first met Anna.

Anna and I have met three times now. Each occasion has been different, yet each subsequent encounter is richer, more satisfying than the previous. I enjoy watching her grow and develop; I can empathise with her disappointments, her heartache. With each new sentence I understand her more.

One of the challenges – and responsibilities – of being a literary translator is the opportunity to (re) create characters in our own languages. Not only are we (re) telling a story to a new audience, introducing them to a culture with which they might be unfamiliar, we are also bringing characters to life, making them real, turning them to flesh and blood. What makes my relationship with Anna Fekete – and all the other characters in Kati Hiekkapelto’s trilogy – so special is that Anna has developed over the course of the three novels in English every bit as much as she has in the original. While she has grown as a character in Kati’s hands, so the English-speaking Anna becomes more rounded, more whole, with each new adventure. Of course, this is one of the benefits of working with a writer and her characters over an extended period of time.  

Key to Anna’s character is the fact that she lives between a multitude of cultures: she is a Hungarian-speaker from a town in northern Serbia. In Finland, she is a refugee – a well adjusted one but, to many Finns, a refugee nonetheless – and it is this dual sense of being an outsider (both in Serbia and Finland) that is essential to who she is. From a translator’s perspective, the crossover between different cultures adds another layer of complexity to our job. Translation, by definition, is the interaction of two cultures – in this case, a northern-Finnish culture and an English-speaking readership – and the translator is a conduit between them. In shaping the character of Anna in English, I often feel as though I have to “translate” Hungarian and Balkan culture as well, something that Finnish readers too find strange and exotic.

Anna’s sense of detachment from the Finnish culture, in which she lives and has grown up, often pops up in the small details of her everyday life. In The Hummingbird, the first book in the trilogy, there is a touching scene in which Anna and her obnoxious partner Esko share a moment of friendship, as Anna is about to lose hope of solving the case. Esko quotes an old Finnish nursery rhyme to her, and she doesn’t understand one of the words. The crucial word is ‘huttu’, an old word for porridge. In English, it’s inconceivable that a highly educated woman like Anna wouldn’t understand this word, so I had to think more about how to translate the entirety of the situation to English-speaking readers, a complex set of circumstances that transcends the words themselves. In English, Esko now quotes the nursery rhyme “Pease pudding, hot and cold”, and Anna becomes confused at the idea of making a pudding from peas. Now, even though the words have changed, the English presents a situation in which two cultures try but fail to understand each other.

Hungarian culture is present throughout the trilogy, and to me it makes perfect sense that The Exiled, the third book in the series, plays out entirely in Kanizsa, the town of Anna’s childhood. The book is much more slowly paced than the previous two, which gives Kati the time and space to really create the world of the town in a way that hits all the senses – the sounds, the smells, the language, the food, the pálinka. The Exiled is a beautiful and at times claustrophobic evocation of life in a small Balkan town.

An interesting facet of the Hungarian world of the books is that Anna and her family obviously speak to one another in Hungarian, their native language. In all three books this is represented by the occasional line of Hungarian dialogue – deliberately left un-translated for Finnish readers. These lines sometimes amount to nothing more than saying hello and are often a litany Hungarian swear words, as Anna curses to herself, but the fact that they are not translated for the reader is interesting given the idea of existing between cultures. Having lived in countries where I don’t speak the language very well, it can be both a blessing and a curse to sit in a café unable to understand much of the hum of conversation. For refugees, of course, not understanding what is happening around you must surely be an intimidating experience. The lines of un-translated dialogue in all of Kati’s books are a very subtle way of making this point. For an English translator it is easy to leave them un-translated, and they will have the same effect. How will Kati’s Hungarian translator deal with this cultural clash? That could be the subject of a whole new blog post.

Murder. Corruption. Dark secrets. A titanic wave of refugees. Can Anna solve a terrifying case that’s become personal.  Anna Fekete returns to the Balkan village of her birth for a relaxing summer holiday. But when her purse is stolen and the thief is found dead on the banks of the river, Anna is pulled into a murder case. Her investigation leads straight to her own family, to closely guarded secrets concealing a horrendous travesty of justice that threatens them all. As layer after layer of corruption, deceit and guilt are revealed, Anna is caught up in the refugee crisis spreading like wildfire across Europe. How long will it take before everything explodes?

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