Removing Barriers and Giving Literature Wings

Mika Laaksonen is another resident in Banská Štiavnica.

Beginning translator from Slovak into Finnish, Mika Laaksonen is putting together a thematic edition of the Finnish magazine Särö during his Trojica AIR residency in Banská Štiavnica. Its goal is to introduce Finnish readers to Slovak literature and culture, and to study the meeting of the two small languages. The magazine will feature articles by Anna Kyppö, longterm head of the Slavic Studies in Finland, and Zuzana Drábeková, founder of the Finnish Language Department in Slovakia, to name a few, as well as translated excerpts of Slovak prose and poetry, prepared by Alexandra Salmela, Eero Balk, Jari Aula and Mika Laaksonen. We are pleased to to have interviewed the latter about how Slovak literature can be interesting for Finnish readers and about the biggest challenges he faces as a translator. 

Readers will have the opportunity to meet Mika Laaksonen live together with Vanda Rozenbergová in Banská Štiavnica, as part of our discussion-series that presents the residency program Trojica AIR and its residents to the public. The event takes place in Art Cafe Banská Štiavnica, 19 July at 6PM, and Alexandra Salmela will be the host of the evening. You can find more information about the event on Facebook


What do Finns know about Slovakia and what is the purpose of promoting Slovak literature in Finland?

For the broader Finnish public, Slovakia and its literature present a yet unchartered territory. Even the well-informed Finns view the land between the Danube and the Tatras largely as a country of hockey players. Bratislava, once a fairly popular destination for Finnish tourists, stuck in the minds of a large part of the nation thanks to the fact that Finland won its second gold in history there at the Ice Hockey World Championship in 2011. The university in Jyväskylä has had the only Lectorate of Slovak language and literature in all of the Nordic countries, which, thanks to the years-long persistent work of Anna Kyppö yielded numerous purely Finnish translators of Slovak, with a vivid interest in Slovak literature and culture. It is unfortunate that the lectorate might be cancelled soon, despite the ongoing interest for the language – it could have even functioned as a springboard to studies of other Slavic languages. Slovakia can be proud of Bratislava-born bilingual author Alexandra Salmela, whom the cultural public remembers thanks to her winning the arguably most prestigious literary prize, Finlandia in 2010, as the first foreigner ever. There is still much to discover. 

Back to culture. Bosnian-Croatian writer Predrag Matvejević wrote in one of his books that it is typical for Slavic people to throw themselves even into seemingly lost battles with an unprecedented enthusiasm. Perhaps this definition encompasses numerous Slovak historic figures and writers who decided to go and break through against all odds – the culture and society still profit from their actions. I think that not many smaller-size countries can boast such multi-faceted literature that would be, at the same time, so little known in the world. I believe there is unused cultural potential in Slovak literature. Its rise does, however, require self-knowledge, self-appreciation and the courage to grow wings.   


How can the excerpts that you are preparing spark interest in Finnish readers?

I am working on a wide range of excerpts by authors who differ in genres and styles. The excerpts come from the books: Slon na Zemplíne (An Elephant in Zemplín) by Andrej Bán, Čepiec (Bonnett) by Katarína Kucbelová, Muž z jamy a deti z lásky (Man in Depression, Children in Love) by Vanda Rozenbergová, and Mengeleho dievča (Mengele's Girl) by Viola Stern Fischerová and Veronika Homolová Tóthová. I believe that these excerpts can speak to the readers precisely because there is something exotic about them, unknown and unusual. They have a certain atmosphere which stylistically represents the colorfulness and variety of the mosaic called Slovakia. These samples unveil life's drama, history both small and big, and they also offer laughter through tears. I think that if the translator gets it right, the reader will be rewarded with newness, freshness and readability. 


What poses the biggest challenge for you, working on these specific translations and putting together this particular edition of the magazine?

In collaboration with the Finnish literary and cultural magazine Särö (Rupture), we will publish a monothematic edition dedicated to Slovak literature and culture. It's an ambitious project, since our goal is to introduce Slovak literature to the Finns. The main topics of the magazine will be literary bridges between smaller languages like Slovak and Finnish, and the impact of such a literary exchange in the times of globalization. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge when translating is how to capture and express the imagery of a certain text. How should one interpret the Slovak historical memory, events or local traditions to the Finnish reader, whose reality is, after all, slightly different? 


Do you communicate with the authors of the texts you are translating?

Admittedly, I have only been communicating with authors through their texts up until now. Recently, however – by means of the residency and LIC's help, too – I have struck up many new and interesting contacts with Slovak writers, and I hope that our upcomming encounters will not only be mutually enriching, but also helpful to our project. When I translate, I rely heavily on the opinions of several established Finnish translators, e.g. Eero Balk, Jari Aula or the already mentioned Alexandra Salmela.

Does the residency suit your work? Are you able to concentrate better?

Banská Štiavnica has really charmed me. What a creative place. It breathes history and literature at every corner. Multiple Slovak authors that I like come from here. I am thankful not only for the opportunity to work here, but also to getting to know the town closer. As I am permanently employed, I used my summer vacation to go on the residency. It allowed me to disconnect from the everyday stress and to dedicate myself to literature, translation and planning.  

What else are you working on these days – any other translations, authorial texts, etc.?

I translate in my spare time, and I love and follow Slovak literature and its activities. I am interested in literature for its inner values – for the chance to discover new worlds and cultures, to get a deeper sense of them. I will be very happy if I can help in sparking people's interest in Slovak literature in Finland.

Not long ago and thanks to the support of LIC, I have translated my first sample into Finnish, an excerpt from Peter Pišťanek's novella Neva. I was pleasantly surprised when the editor-in-chief of the probably most prestigious Finnish literary magazine Parnasso confirmed that the text will be published by the end of this year.

The Literary Information Center really won me over for this work and this project. They are raising and supporting next generations of translators and promoters of Slovak literature, which deserves to be known in the world. The people at LIC have my sincere gratitude and respect for their work.  


On December 16 2020, we have announced on our website the residents for the literary residency program in Banská Štiavnica. TROJICA artist in residence was created as part of Almázia Štiavnica: Mesto kultúry 2019, in collaboration with the town of Banská Štiavnica and the project BANSKÁ ST A NICA, and with the support of the Arts Council (FPU). In 2021, the project us support by FPU and also by LITA - authors' association. LIC is the organizer of these residencies and of accompanying activities. Katarína Balcarová Kucbelová is the coordinator of the project. 
Kristína Kubáňová is the author of the graphic-design concept for the events, while Palo and Janka Bálik designed the Trojica Air logo. 
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