Unknown Soldiers

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When I was in Finland in July of this year I made it a point to pick up Unknown Soldiers by Väinö Linna. This is a new translation from 2015 by Liesl Yamaguchi. In fact, I had seen this book when I was in Finland last year but paid no attention to it. I just thought it was a new edition of the 1957 translation, although I did wonder–yet never pursued it–why the English title had been changed. The title in Finnish is Tuntematon sotilas, which translates literally to Unknown Soldier, yet because the Finnish language has no definite or indefinite articles, is translated as The Unknown Soldier. Shortly before I left for Finland I finally got around to reading this novel, which I had bought during the summer of 2000 when I lived in Helsinki. The first English translation took great liberties with the original text. While I praised that translation in and of itself as a five-star work, I was nevertheless surprised by how much that was inexplicably altered or intentionally left out when I read it alongside the original. I grew frustrated as I read Finnish passages that were nowhere to be found in the translation. As I was reading reviews of The Unknown Soldier, which I only do after I read the book in question so as not to influence me in any way as I form my opinion when I write my own review, I discovered that the version of the novel entitled Unknown Soldiers, that I had seen in Finland last year, was in fact a brand-new translation from two years ago. The 2015 translation claimed to be faithful to the original text. The translator or perhaps the publisher believed it was prudent to distinguish the two translations–which are indeed completely different–by giving the new one a slightly different title. I made the assertion that I would read both translations–as close together as possible–so that my memory of the first translation would still be fresh.

Indeed, Unknown Soldiers is a different novel. It is longer, for the 1957 translation is 310 pages long while the 2015 version has 466 pages. The pages have similar font sizes and margins. Yamaguchi made the novel feel more brutal, translating the horrors of war in terms of injuries and brutality, versus the unnamed translator or translation firm from 1957 which made the war seem more abstract and distant. The 1957 version was more chitchatty (inasmuch as a war can be) and I felt as if I was eavesdropping on a war rather than taking part in it. I felt trapped in the trenches in the 2015 version, afraid to raise my head for fear of sniper fire. A greater sense of danger permeates the Yamaguchi translation, where the characters are always looking over their backs. The characters were also more fleshed out as developed personalities, each one a specific character type. It was easy to tell all the soldiers apart from what they said or did and I did not need to be told who they were. In fact, I wrote that remark before I read the final Note on the Translation, so Yamaguchi can be proud of her translation objective in that she did not need to constantly state who the speaker was each time someone said something (and there were lots of talkative soldiers). The soldiers’ euphemism for the Soviet enemy in the 1957 novel was Ivan. I quite liked the translator’s use of synecdoche in this context, yet this was artistic licence. In the more recent translation, however, Yamaguchi was faithful to the Finnish. Comparisons with the original text showed that she used the term the enemy, a literal translation of Linna’s vihollinen. Sometimes though she used the euphemism the neighbors to refer to the Soviets, although I did find this confusing when the soldiers sometimes referred to their own side as the neighbors, or used the accompanying adjective neighboring, which obligated me to reread the passage to see who they were talking about.

I would recommend Yamaguchi’s translation, Unknown Soldiers, over the earlier translation. It is indeed more faithful to Väinö Linna’s original work. Her own notes about the translation proved to be an insightful read. She shared her reasons for using certain English speech patterns when faced with translating Finnish regional dialogue, as well as other processes that always pop up when translating while trying to be faithful to the original text.

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