Matson, Alex

Matson, Alex
© Salon Strindberg, um 1920, Museiverket

Alexander Matson was a Finnish novelist, essayist, critic, artist, and bilingual translator. He was born in Koivisto in 1888, the son of Matias Matson, a seaman and merchant, and Judit Torckel. The Matsons moved soon to England. At the age of 14, Matson finished his school and started to help his father, who had bought a tailor’s shop in Hull. After contracting tuberculosis, he spent some time in Germany in a sanatorium, and returned then to Finland. From 1905 to 1909 Matson worked at an export firm. In Viipuri Matson planned a career as a writer or an artist, during this period he began to draw, and went to study art in Hull. Matson had his first exhibition in Helsinki and subsequently participated to several joint exhibitions. From 1914 he worked as an artist. During the Finnish Civil war (1917-18) he was an art teacher. In 1922 Matson married the writer and playwright Kersti Bergroth, who began writing in Swedish but changed to Finnish. After spending some time in London, where Matson was employed at the Embassy of Finland in London, they bought a house in Tyrisevä in the Karelian Isthmus.

In the 1930s Matson was asked to translate James Joyce’s Ulysses, but refused, saying that it was an impossible task. The poet Pentti Saarikoski took up the challenge in the 1960s and made a superb translation. Matson’s first translation from Finnish into English was Aino Kallas’ collection of Estonian tales, The White Ship, foreword by John Galsworthy. Matson knew Aino Kallas personally. After the war Matson translated into Finnish such authors as John Steinbeck, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, and into English works by Aleksis Kivi and F. E. Sillanpää. Matson’s translation of Kivi’s Seven Brothers and of Sillanpää, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1939, has been severely criticized. Matson lived long periods of his life in Tampere, where he became the central figure of a literature group, which had Lauri Viita, Väinö Linna and Mirkka Rekola as members. Throughout his life, he retained a certain British formality in social interactions and spoke Finnish with a slightly foreign accent. He died on November 29, 1972.