The Finnish Chocky and the art of localising the untranslatable

As you know, we’ve been busy on a number of fronts – including going on holiday and holding a wedding party. So apologies if we haven’t done quite as much blogging as usual.

As a consequence of the wedding party, however, we got some Amazon vouchers from one of our oldest friends – and one of us, apropos of nothing, said: ’Let’s use it to buy various things including Chocky the book.’

Which is exactly what we did. This haunting novel, published by renowned English science-fiction writer John Wyndham a year before his death in 1969, tells the tale of a pre-teen boy, Matthew Gore, who is singled out by an alien scout of indistinct gender and no obvious physical dimensions.

The alien, named Chocky, somehow resides within Matthew’s consciousness and seeks to both learn from him and educate him – the key remit of the book being that whilst Chocky is far from completely benevolent and has come on a mission that, in its initial premise at least, would thoroughly unnerve humankind, he/she can physically and mentally guide Matthew and facilitate deeds both cerebral and selfless in an intriguing mutual arrangement. This is no ordinary alien ’invasion’.

Worldly Scandifriend first encountered Chocky when the series was adapted for Thames Television in the United Kingdom and broadcast in 1984. Given that it went out as part of scheduled children’s television at the time, it is a truly remarkable offering in that it manages to fuse high-brow intellectual and moral considerations (not least humankind’s own potential delusions about the concepts of progress and civilisation) with genuinely accessible dialogue and gripping drama that both youngsters and adults can (we hope) relate to even now, nearly thirty years on.

Iconic opening titles for those of a certain age

Iconic opening titles for those of a certain age

We’d go as far as to say that at some points the TV adaptation, presided over by Anthony Read, manages to transcend the book – a huge feat given Wyndham’s redoubtable status as a writer. There are nice little amusing and poignant touches specific to the TV version (Chocky helping Matthew to win a cricket match for his school, Matthew’s new-found maths skills initially provoking praise from his maths teacher rather than worried bemusement) and the prevalance of 1980s brands (Rubik’s Cubes, videogames) hasn’t dated the programme badly at all (if anything the adaptation shows how Chocky and Matthew manage to briefly defy earthly generational conceits).

At its most triumphant, the show doesn’t shirk from actually showing a key moment – Chocky/Matthew saving Matthew’s sister from drowning – that is only described in the book after it has happened (although the actual rescue sequence appears as a ‘flashback’ following a fantastically taut end to the previous episode). It’s electrifying, eerie and empathetic all at the same time. Whilst all child and adult actors are unusually excellent throughout the six episodes, no small amount of praise can be directed the way of Andrew Ellams and the late British actor James Hazeldine for realising the respective roles of Matthew and his adoptive father so credibly. They’re both believable and endearing as human beings and make their own faith in Chocky’s real existence believable and endearing at the same time (arguably in rather less staid fashion than Wyndham managed first time round).

James Hazeldine and Andrew Ellams - earnest but not condescending

James Hazeldine and Andrew Ellams – earnest but not condescending

But this idea of authenticity brings us to the problem of what is fashionably referred to as ’localisation’ – trying to capture the essence of words when you translate them for the purpose of foreign markets. The word Chocky itself is a convincing neologism or invented word that succinctly captures the very alien-ness of said alien. It’s a great child-like but disconcerting word for a child-centred but disconcerting literary creation.

As such, we were a little amused but rather perplexed that, according to IMDB, this show went out in Finland as Ystävä avaruudesta (which we would translate as Friend From Space). Chocky’s relationship with Matthew does prompt heroism and kinship involving the two, but it’s also a pretty problematic and complex relationship (the scene where Matthew is reduced to tearful fury after Chocky insistently harries him about the inadequacies of automotive technology on Earth is brilliantly faithful to Wyndham’s vision but certainly not easy viewing).

We can’t help feeling that the 1980s translators were missing out on a big trick here (or performing the wrong trick). If localisation isn’t really possible in this instance, is it really necessary? After all, one could go for ’Sometime Friend From Space Who Presents Challenging Concepts To A Sensitive But Dignified Earth Child And Sometimes Upsets The Child But Then Redeems Her/His/Itself Through Valorous Deeds And Makes Pertinent Points About The Thoughtless Damage Done to Planet Earth By Earthlings Themselves Before Leaving But Possibly Returning’ in the Finnish if it’s about comprehensive accuracy.

Or you could just retain ’Chocky’ as it was in the first place…

PS Chocky gave us a lot of pleasure first time round in 1984 so it seems only fair to point out that the original series, and the two sequels inspired by Wyndham’s book, have been available on DVD for a couple of years. We wonder whether Chocky him/her/itself would still deem this technology primitive

PPS Having seen the final episode of the first series, we would say that in all fairness to the Finnish translators, the TV adaptation boldly strives to be more compassionate in tone than the novel at numerous points (and not without success). In this respect, James Hazeldine offers surely the most underrated performance of his sadly curtailed career – it seems only right that in this adaptation, Matthew’s father gets to see a manifestation of Chocky (which doesn’t happen in the novel). The ‘Friend from Space’ title is not as evocative as ‘Chocky’ per se, but it’s done in good faith (rather like the television adaptation itself) 






3 thoughts on “The Finnish Chocky and the art of localising the untranslatable

  1. What a great article… very interesting, on lots of different levels and for many reasons! I just posted about John Wyndham, recently, of all his books that I have read, I think Chocky is the one missing for me.

  2. ooh, I never saw the TV series! But I’ve always loved ‘Chocky’ and – as a one-time pony-mad child myself – the jokes about Matthew’s little sister’s boring pony fantasies. My Little Pony? Wyndham really could see the future.

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