The Union of Synchronised Swimmers, published today, is a small book with global dimensions. In an unnamed Soviet state, six girls meet each day to swim. First for pleasure, then with purpose. They train and train, and when they find themselves representing their country as synchronised swimmers in the Olympics, they seize the chance to escape and begin new, albeit unsynchronised, lives. Scattered around the globe, six women live in freedom. Yet they are to find that freedom is not all that it is made out to be …
Today I’m “chatting” to author Cristina Sandu about her novel/novella/collection of short stories (it’s all in the structure) and her decision to translate it from Finnish to English herself.
What was your starting point?
First, slowly over several years, I wrote stories about women who had moved to a new country. Some of these stories were inspired by my relatives who had left Romania and migrated to the US. Then I heard an anecdote about a Soviet team of swimmers that disappeared during the Olympics, and that gave all the stories a kind of backbone.
How did you arrive at the final structure, and what is its significance?
It was the use of italics that solved the problem of structure for me. This came at the very end. I felt like something in the manuscript was missing. Then a friend suggested I use a similar structure as Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities: the dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are in italics, whereas the description of the cities in standard type face. The different characters signal to the reader that they are dealing with two different timelines, two different atmospheres; this distinction felt important for my manuscript as well.
6 girls escape to 6 different countries and a multiplicity of experience, captured in just 106 pages. How many drafts did it take to achieve such conciseness?
I can’t remember exactly, I just know the stories kept getting shorter and shorter. I had dozens of drafts in both Finnish and English.
Why did you choose not to name the Soviet State?
I didn’t want to anchor the story into any specific place or time, in order to bring forth experiences of immigration instead of a particular political context. Also, I felt I shouldn’t appropriate the perspective of somebody living in a particular Soviet State, as that is not my story.
There’s an element of “the grass isn’t always greener” in what happens to the girls following their escape. Why is that?
This is something that has always touched me when I talk with somebody who has migrated to a new country: the distance between expectations and reality. And how, despite sometimes having a lot of reasons to leave, the country of departure becomes a place of nostalgia and happiness.
As a linguist, I particularly enjoyed Nina’s pride on becoming fluent in Italian. How many languages do you speak but more importantly which language(s) do you dream in?
I speak six languages, four fluently. I always dream in Finnish but when I spend time in Romania, I almost immediately start dreaming in Romanian. In English very rarely; it’s as if only languages of childhood had access to dreams.
When did you decide to translate The Union of Synchronised Swimmers yourself?
My closest writer friends don’t speak Finnish, so when I needed readers, already while writing the Finnish draft, I started working on the manuscript in two languages. It was more writing in two languages than translating, really.
How did the Finnish title Vesileikit (Water Games) become The Union of Synchronised Swimmers?
This was the idea of the UK editors. A direct translation of the Finnish title didn’t work, as the Finnish word “leikit” sounds much more playful than “games”. My suggestion was Treading Water.
Translators frequently mention the challenge of capturing the nuance of the original text. I assume you had no difficulties with that. But there will still have been some linguistic challenges in translating from Finnish to English. Can you give an example?
In Finnish there are no genders, nor articles or prepositions (Finnish has cases). I sometimes feel that these details make the English version less dynamic and clear. This is probably because I still approach English from the outside, and translating/writing happens slowly, with the help of dictionaries. For example, “Paulina seisoo laivankannella” becomes “Paulina stands on the deck of the boat”. Then again, English verbs are much more specific, and capture some action better than the Finnish word: for example “saunter” and “savour”.
Would you self-translate again?
I think I’ll have to, unless my friends learn fluent Finnish soon.
The “leikit” bit survives from the Viking era in some English dialects. I can remember kids in Leeds talking about “laikin’ out” when they went out to play.
This sounds glorious (I’m an absolute sucker for swimming stories).
How fascinating! I work with Finnish translators and also people writing in English whose first language is Finnish, and they produce the best English out of any nation, I have to say. But what an achievement to write the book in both languages at the same time!