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Elina Suomela-Härmä

Born 30 November 1946  Helsinki

Master of Arts, 1970, Licentiate of Philosophy, 1973 and Doctor of Philosophy, 1981 (University of Helsinki)

Acting Lecturer and acting Assistant in Romance Philology, 1972–81, University of Helsinki
Assistant, 1981–86, Docent, 1984–98; lecturer, 1987–92, Professor of Italian Philology, 1998–2014, University of Helsinki
Junior Researcher, Academy of Finland, 1985–87 and Researcher, 2006–07
Associate Professor and Professor of French, 1992–98, University of Tampere
Visiting Associate Professor of Finnish Language and Culture, 1988–91, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris III
Associate Professor of Medieval French Literature and Language, 1994–96, Université Paris Diderot

Publications, research projects and other academic activities

Research interests: Medieval French literature, contemporary Italian pragmatics and literature, Italian-French translation, esp. sixteenth century.

Awards and special achievements:
Chevalier des Palmes Académiques (‘French knight of the order of academic palms’)
Cavaliere dell’Ordine “Stella della Solidarietà italiana”  (‘knight of the order of the star of Italian solidarity’)
Chair, Suomen italianopettajien yhdistys (’Finnish association of Italian teachers’),1980–85
Chair, Helsinki Dante Alighieri Society, 1992–2008
Member, Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, 2002-
Board Member, 2006–12 and Chair, 2011–12, Società Internazionale di Linguistica e Filologia italiana
Board Member, 2009-, Société des Anciens Textes français ('French medieval text society')

Written by Elina Suomela-Härmä
Translated by John Calton

A translator ahead of his time

When researching and publishing manuscripts from early centuries you get to know the author of the text, whether this be a giant of world literature or a long-since forgotten scribe. In a category of their own are the translators, especially if we think of those from the remote past, who can so easily remain unappreciated. We know of course when the first French or German translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron was made, but who remembers, still less cares, who translated the original, especially if we’re talking about ‘intellectual property’ which is more than 500 years old? However, we have a lot to be grateful for: the translators served as cultural mediators, enabling their French readership to familiarise themselves with the neighbouring state’s writing from as early as the fifteenth century.

One such mediator was the translator and author Simon Bourgouin (d. ?1530), whose translations professor Elina Suomela-Härmä has studied for a number of years. Bourgouin is a fine example of a person who is well-versed in the trends in the book trade of his day and whose choice of texts to be translated reflected - or even anticipated - the taste of his readers. He started out his career translating from a third language (Latin) several of the well-known biographies of Plutarch. Then he began work on a verse translation of the Italian poems in Francesco Petrarch’s (1304–74) I Trionfi, which had already been translated three times in prose. Bourgouin’s more ambitious aim was to produce a translation that preserved the poetic meter and steer the project to a safe conclusion. Five manuscript copies of his translation survive, one of which Suomela-Härmä edited with her Italian colleague Gabriella Parussa. It is right and proper that one of the earliest and most extensive French language translation of poetry has been made available to a contemporary readership, and especially to linguists, not least because it both linguistically and artistically of quite a high standard.

Bourgouin was particular about his readership. He did not translate whatever came his way, nor did he translate for just anybody. He supervised the transcribing of the text and the accompanying illustration. If his translation required a new manuscript, he went carefully through the text and where necessary emended the style. He was particularly considerate of the manuscript’s future owner in that if he was known to read Italian, an Italian gloss was provided alongside the French translation.

Towards the end of his life Bourgouin took on the satirist Lucian of Samosato’s travel memoirs Ἀληθῆ διηγήματα (‘A true story’), translating it into French, quite possibly in part from the original Greek. If this supposition is correct, Bourgouin’s proficiency in languages –French, Latin, Italian, Greek– was clearly very advanced for the age he lived in: in the early sixteenth century only a select few could read Greek in France.

"Ajan triumfi", Picture: BnF, Gallica.​
"Ajan triumfi", Picture: BnF, Gallica.​


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