Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia by Volter Kilpi / transcreated by Douglas Robinson

About Volter Kilpi: Born in 1874, Kilpi spent his childhood in Kustavi, later studying at the University of Helsinki. At that university’s library and others, he worked for two decades as a librarian. Kilpi’s precocity is demonstrated by the fact that he wrote his first novel while still in school, titled Bathseba: Daavidin puheluja itsensä kanssa (Bathseba: David’s Conversations with Himself, 1900), which won the Finnish State Prize for Literature. After several more works, he stopped publishing for 20 years, then worked on two political books around the time of Finland’s Civil War. Later, he published the first of his Archipelago trilogy, Alastalon salissa (In the Alastalo Parlor, 1933), a 900-page two-volume Proustian epic that takes place in 1866 and details a mere 6 hours on a Thursday in October. The trilogy is greatly influenced by his childhood, growing up in Finland’s western archipelago with a father whose ancestral legacy was related to ships and sailing. His final novel, Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle (Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia), was started in 1938 but remained unfinished by the time he died of a stroke in 1939, later published posthumously in 1944. Kilpi’s oeuvre was largely forgotten after his death until about the 1980s, and in 1992, Alastalon salissa surprisingly beat the beloved Finnish classic of 1870, Seitsemän veljestä (The Brothers Seven) in a poll which determined the ‘greatest Finnish novel of all time.’ In his homeland, Kilpi is now recognized as a forerunner of the modern experimental novel.

About Douglas Robinson: Robinson has been translating Finnish literature since 1975, when his Finnish girlfriend dragged him to a summer theater performance by this dead guy named Aleksis Kivi (1834-1872). Turned out he was the founder of Finnish-language literature and is still considered the greatest Finnish writer, or one of the two greatest, including Volter Kilpi. Kivi’s Finnish, Doug’s girlfriend warned him, is pretty difficult, so he might want to read the play (Nummisuutarit > “Heath Cobblers”) before they went. He did, and fell head over heels with Kivi’s writing. The performance was even more wonderful, and gave the words on the page brilliant comic body. When they returned from the play, Doug began rereading the play, and by some magic rereading turned into translating. Having translated all of Kivi’s greatest works—his three best plays and his exuberantly iconoclastic 1870 novel The Brothers Seven-—Doug turned to Finland’s other great novelist, Volter Kilpi, with a transcreation of Kilpi’s unfinished posthumously published novel Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia now and In the Alastalo Parlor in the hopefully not-too-distant future. Robinson is also considered one of the world’s leading translation scholars; his books include Aleksis Kivi and/as World Literature (Brill 2017), and he’s hard at work on another book tentatively titled Translating the Monster: Volter Kilpi in Orbit Beyond (Un)translatability.

I interviewed Douglas Robinson here.

“The Earth is e’er whisking us off on erratickall Emprizes.”

The publickation of Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia is the lit’rary Event that practickally no One is cognizant of. It’s momentous not only because it’s the first full English Translation of Volter Kilpi’s Work to be publish’d, but it’s so much more than a simple Translation you might find from, say, a University Press. Hence the Subtitle: “A Transcreation by Douglas Robinson”.

In his Native Land of Finland, Volter Kilpi is consider’d a Master of modernist Fixion. His most highly-regard’d Work is the 2-Volume Alastalon salissa, which has been compar’d to Ulysses in terms of Difficullty & Experimentation, & was writt’n about in the amazing Blog The Untranslat’d: “900 pages of dense experimental writing narrate just six hours from the life of well-off dwellers of an island parish who have gathered in Alastalo’s parlour of the title to negotiate the building of a barque. The paucity of action is overcompensated by detailed overlong descriptions, the disjointed interior monologues of the characters, the use of dialect and linguistic innovations.”

Perchance if English-speak’rs are lucky, Robinson will turn his Talents toward Alastalon salissa next. Until then, we have Gulliver’s Voyage. While it’s not Kilpi’s grand Master-Piece, it’s an intriguing Fixion of mix’d Genres, the first Part being a philosophickall nautickall Ad-venture, the second a Section of light Science Fixion in the speckulative & Time-traversing Vein, & the third Part is the Swiftian Satyre one might expect from a Book that adopts Gulliver as its Protagonist. The Transcreation begins where Kilpi end’d & then some, for this Manuscript was left unfinish’d when Kilpi died in 1939. Howev’r, Kilpi had communickat’d to his Son the Notion of how he had plann’d to end the Book. With this in Mind, Robinson not only translat’d the unfinish’d Finnish but also finish’d It. Rath’r than ceasing the Madness there, Robinson takes Kilpi’s Idea of a Found Manuscript to a new Meta-Level, writing an Editor’s for’word about finding the Manuscript amid Pynchonian Paranoia, along with a Translator’s Preface, a cleverly self-critickall Read’r’s Report, &c. The Comparison to Charles Kinbote, Editor of John Shade’s Poesy Projeckt “Pale Fire”, is not lost on Robinson. Although, in the Guise of Editor, Robinson’s Annotations are No-Where near as Paranoid or Indulg’nt as Kinbote’s;—rath’r, they highlight partickular & prackticall Poynts relating to Translation & ostensible Anackronisms while continuing to propagate & skeptickate the Meta-Myth in Question.

In Book 1, an aging Gulliver goes on a new Journey in an Attempt satiate his Travel Itches, ackompanied by his comrade Cartwright & Cartwright’s son Ethel, among other season’d Seamen. They eventually get pull’d into a veritable Vortex near the North Pole. Rath’r than the Ship simply being flush’d down an oceanick Toilet, we are given a detail’d Description & prolong’d Meditation on the wat’ry Vortex & its psychologickall Effeckt on Gulliver & his Crew, a kind of Charybdis Stasis, a slow-pull Purgatory: “I imagine, that a Creature, being maul’d in a Predator’s Claws, no longer knows Aught of its Bodie; that the Moment, during which a Man fall 1000 Feet off a Mountain Cliff, toward the Chasm far below, is for the Faller a Time-lessness, outside of Time; that when a drowning Man is struggling against the Waves with his last Strength, only his Hand moves, no longer his Mind or Understanding. […] The 20 of us poor Souls on the Deck of the Swallow Bird;—Power-less to change our Fate on this Helm-less vessel, as ‘twas toss’d Defence-less round the Earth’s Polar Vortex:—Whither would we have star’d, into what Hideousness had a shelt’ring Insentience not begun to wrap our Wits with its Wisps?”

With scientifick Ingenuity, howev’r ackurate or not, Cartwright is able to extricate the Ship from the sucktion of the Vortex, but their Journey is not over yet. Book 2 is their Voyage to the ambiguous Phantomimia, which is some futuristick Version of 1939 London, not necessarily all that different from the historickall Reality but, still, we get to experience this City through the Eyes of our anackronistic Crew. Like most dott’ring Men stuck in their Ways, they are horrified by what they see, such as traffick Jams & tall Buildings: “Has Man no Fear for the madcap Things he does? & how does a Man feel in a Room, that is but a Box in a Pile of 40 Boxes high? […] As a Lad I climb’d ladders;—tho’ ‘twas strictly forbidden;—& imagin’d My-Self grown up, a Man grown to be at least twice mine own Height;—since I look’d out o’er the World from the rarefied Altitude of the 3rd Rung!—but then my Slipper slippp’d, & presently this Baby Blatherskite lay a-bawling on the bole.”

Gulliver & his Gang continue to witness the egregious Behaviors & generall Life-style of People in the early 20th century. At 1 Poynt, during a Banquet, People stuff their Face Holes while listening to News of Violence & Death, giving us this Transformation courtesy of Robinson’s wonder-full Word-Play: ‘“An Order of Ham in a Leek Sauce!” the neighbouring Table calls out to the Serving Lad, who dashes off to fill it. Leek Sauce, then—& “20 Generals LEEK-uidated in Stalinovsky.”

Ethel in his open-mind’d Youth is more adapt-able to his Surroundings & finds this Future more awesome than awfull. An adapt-abilitie that later saves them & returns them Home. But befor’ that, we are treat’d to the End of Book 2, finish’d by Douglas Robinson, as with ev’ry-thing after. (Perhaps it’s the Notion of Death & unexpect’d Endings that add an odd Aura to the last Sentence written by Kilpi: “Ev’ry-one was in a Hurrie, apparently with some Destination.” Such is life;—& the finall Destination is the same for All.) This is where the Swiftian Satyre is swift & shining, featuring a Trumpian Scoundr’l nam’d King Dick the Stiff.  While trying to return Home, Gulliver & Friends find them-Selves stuck inside a Portion of the King James Bible, which is the Focus of Book 3. The religious Satyre, while always an easy Targ’t, is no less entertaining & also relevant as King Dick’s real-life Counterpart enjoys Photo-Ops in which he holds aloft Bibles upside-down.

If you haven’t already notic’d in the above Quotes, you, dear Read’r, will on Ockasion spy a healthfull Litter of Alliteration: Exhibit A: ‘“Haply harried you there with a Harpoon’s Harrow, & hox’d the Harpoon in the Hoar as a Heigh-Ho?” La, la, the Humiliation: The Hoodman’s heavy-handed Hyperbole had his Henchmen howling with Hilaritie.’ Exhibit B: “…but he kept mum; misdoubting from his moonish Mop, he meted this Mome’s mellsome Miching Meed-less.”

In addition to the Swiftian English, complet’d with archaick Spellings, capitaliz’d Nouns, Apostrophes in place of silent Es, &c, we also get archaick & rar’ Words, including caitiff, certes, skrike, liefer, salmagundi, esker, chiffer, festucine, pight, pasquinade, titubant, manducate, edacious, feaze, moil, gallimaufrie, tohu-bohu, brannigan, & tintamarre. Delight-full!

Howev’r, fear not, dear Read’r, for the fun of Alliteration & archaick Words doesn’t mean this is a highly difficullt Read;—rath’r, the Experience is more straight-forward than you might imagine.

This Book as artistic Achiev’ment, with all of its Frankenstein Stichings & Splicings & its baroque Frame Tale, is the perfect Example of a Translator going beyond the literall & safe English rend’rings;—but rath’r transcreating a Work that can be enjoy’d by All Word-hungry Read’rs, because without Robinson’s creative Enthusiasm & Inspiration, we would have been left with a relatively bland & unfinish’d Manuscript that would be of Interest only to English-speaking Kilpi Skolars. As a season’d Translator, Robinson puts Art above so-call’d ‘faithfull Translations’ which are arguably unfaithfull if they’re execut’d sans Passion, like consummating a Marriage through a Hole in a Sheet. With this Transcreation, Robinson’s passionate Virtuosity is admirable. Indeed, I look forward to what he translates/transcreates next, & in the Mean-Time I’ll read his Translation of Aleksis Kivi’s 1870 Master-Piece The Brothers Seven (publish’d by Zeta Books in the year 2017). As Robinson relates, “I was so excited about that translation coming out—it was a labor of love that took me 18 months to complete. I translated every single line like an exquisite poem. I giggled like a fiend at my renderings of Kivi’s jokes. And then it was published, and … silence. No reviews. Hardly any orders. Big disappointment. I admit that my reading and writing styles are an acquired taste. I love Kivi’s boisterous humor, and I probably stepped it up a few notches. That doesn’t work with everybody!”

Hearken to these Words: If you actively read mine column on invisible Books, then Robinson’s Work on Finnish Works will probably work for you;—& so I highly encourage All to get a Copy of One or both & see for your-Selves. Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa!

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, Instagram (@george.salis), and at

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