Simo and Sonia, a Finnish children’s book that brings the worlds of Finland and Kerala together, gets its Malayalam version.

Little Sonia is a Malayali girl in Kerala whose single mother sells trousers for a living. Her mind, though, travels through the snowy land of Finland where Simo, a boy she sees skiing on television, lives. Simo stays in Kerava, a small town near Helsinki, with his single father who manages train timetables. He loves chicken coconut curry and wins a trip for two to Kerala.

What happens when Simo and Sonia, their single parents, and their respective cultures meet? "That’s the story of Finnish illustrated children’s book Simo and Sonia written by sisters Sinikka and Tiina Nopola in 2009, published by WSOY in Finland." The book has now reached India through Sampark Publishers and been translated into English, Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and, most recently, Malayalam.

The Nopola sisters have written over 40 books for children, plays, musicals and film scripts, but never visited India. How then did Kerala sneak into their Finnish work? “We wanted to set a book in Kerava, and then we heard about Kerala. That’s how we had the crazy idea to write about these two places, which nearly have the same name but are opposites!” The book opens with Sonia wondering aloud what life in a seemingly-colourless, white Kerava must be like. In the parallel chapter, Simo dreams of living in a land free of schedules. Through such subtle references to the cultural palette of both India and Finland, the writers introduce children to worlds outside their own.

It was the cross-cultural nature of the book that led Sunandan Roy Chowdhury, publisher of Sampark, in Kolkata to pick up the book. “The story is for children from ages 11 to 14. That’s a time when their imagination grows fast. If their imagination is encouraged young, they will be able to innovate better as adults. And here was this book that beautifully imagined both India and Finland,” says Sunandan.

Simo and Sonia is illustrated by Linda Bondestam with artistic traditions from the two countries occasionally tucked in. Since the book also kept with Sampark’s desire to incorporate Indian art into children’s books, it launched its Young Sampark imprint with Simo and Sonia.

Illustrated tale

Linda’s detailed illustrations are informed by her trips to Kerala. The Nopola sisters’ writing is backed by their research as well as inputs from their friends Mikko Zenger, a Finnish journalist specialising in India, and Kiki Molander, a dancer who has visited India many times. In Mikko’s travels to India, he often used the Finnish text to tell the story to Indian children. Thus inspired, Kiki began an English translation of the book, and hers has been the template for the Indian language translations that followed. “The Nopola sisters write in close contact with their illustrator; the pictures carry the story as much as the text. So they keep the text simple. I’ve done the same,” says Kiki.

The Indian translations have attempted a “smart”, contemporary telling of the story, says Sunandan. “Instead of using Bengali or Hindi in entirety, we’ve used some English words written here and there because that’s how we speak in the real world too.” The translations also retain a Finish touch. Chapter names continue to be in Finnish, with the Indian version below, as do certain phrases, labels and names. “That’s because children like to play with words and their sounds. Hearing foreign words can loosen up their imagination,” says Sunandan. For Kiki, leaving Finish words in the translated text was “to show children how long, hard to spell and pronounce Finnish words can be”, just as how Indian languages for foreigners often are.

The translations hence tie in with the Nopola sisters’ primary aim: “We want our reader to be interested in cultures they didn’t know before. Our book is full of humour and through that, we can talk about difficult and serious themes too.” Simo and Sonia doesn’t shy away from addressing single parenthood, and upturning misconceptions about foreign cultures, all the while telling a touching tale of two children curious about the unknown. And that is its biggest achievement in bridging countries.

TRANSLATOR TALK

“The translation of Simo and Sonia from English to Malayalam was my first. There were certain Finnish words which were problematic to translate, so I’ve written them in the Malayalam script. Cross cultural stories like these teach children that human emotions and the complexities of existence remain the same all over the world. They get their basic lessons in transcending geographic and cultural differences. It was an enriching experience translating the details of Finnish culture. I expect that Malayalam readers will find them amusing and enlightening.”

- Minu Varghese, Malayalam translator