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Riina Vuokko

Born September 5, 1975

Bachelor of Arts 2001 (East Asian Studies), University of Helsinki

Translator of Chinese Literature

Winner of the 2014 State literary translation prize for her Finnish translation of Mo Yan’s novel Life and Death are Wearing Me Out
Winner of the 2015 Jarl Hellemann prize for translation for her Finnish translation of Mo Yan’s novel The Republic of Wine

Photo: Nelli Vuokko
Written by Riina Vuokko (Kaija Hartikainen, ed.)
Translated by Matthew Billington

Translator of Nobel prize winners

When I began to study Chinese at the University of Helsinki in the autumn of 1994, I could little imagine that I would one day become a translator of Chinese literature. I had indeed dreamed of becoming a translator and had successfully applied to study English translation. However, in my dreams of those study years I saw myself translating the likes of Virginia Woolf or Thomas Hardy.

Nevertheless, in the end I decided to choose Central and Northern Asian studies as my major. I was particularly interested in Central Asian nomadic culture; Chinese, as the currently dominant language in the region, should have been simply been an aid to me in this. As a matter of fact, China left me slightly cold; its classical literature and traditional culture was certainly attractive, but in modern China all I saw was the poor human rights situation and horrible political propaganda.

After a few years of study and a student exchange year at Peking University, I began to read Chinese literature in the original. In China people read and write a lot, but the Western conception of Chinese literature is based almost solely on classical poetry. Until the very last few years, 20th century Chinese writers were not comprehensively translated at all.

Through more modern literature, my appreciation of China and Chinese culture began to change. Those things which before had seemed black and white suddenly became more nuanced. In many of the works of modern Chinese writers, notions of traditional aesthetics and China’s rich folklore and traumatic recent history are combined in a fascinating way. Despite strict censorship, China has an abundance of original writers.

As a result of Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, publishers and readers are interested in modern Chinese literature, and it was my luck that I happened to have good timing. Gao Xingjian’s novel One Man's Bible was my first Finnish translation, just because I had happened to call the Otava Publishing Company to ask about translation work a few months before the Nobel Prize was announced. I had also suggested the other of ‘my Noble winners’ to the publisher years before he was awarded the Nobel.

From a year of student exchange in China. Photo: Janne Tynkkynen.


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