On not translating a tragedy

Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Authors

In February 1860, the Finnish Literature Society, under the chairmanship of Elias Lönnrot, met to hear the judges’ reports on the entries for a drama competition: the Society was offering a substantial prize for a dramatic work written in the Finnish language. The announcement had been made two years earlier, but since no entries were received before the closing elate, the offer had been extended for a further year. This time three plays had been submitted: First Love, an adaptation from the French; The Glib Talker, another adaptation; and Kullervo, an original tragedy in five acts.

August Ahlqvist, the chairman of the judging committee, was only 34 years old but already a formidable scholar and much respected in the literary and academic world: he was soon to succeed Lönnrot as Professor of Finnish in the University of Helsinki (or Helsingfors, as most people still called it). The report on Kullervo, as read out to the Society, begins with starchy criticism, continues with enthusiastic praise, and ends with grudging approval – a typical committee production, revealing between the lines sharp differences of opinion.

The opening sentences are clearly Ahlqvist’s: ‘based on material in the Kalevala… follows this fairly closely in its main plot… But this material is not tragic in the true sense, since it does not deal with the collision of two moral forces which crush the individual who finds himself between them… and so we consider the author has not been justified in calling his work a tragedy…’

‘Nevertheless,’ the report continues, ‘and apart from the faults listed above… this work constitutes an important event in the fields of Finnish language and literature. Taking into consideration the lack of models, the clumsiness of our language, and the absence of any conventional ways of representing it in dramatic compositions, the author must be regarded as a brave man who in spite of the abundance of problems and difficulties has boldly trusted himself to the wings of his desire to further the cause of the language and literature of his Fatherland. His choice of a theme which is such a noble and admirable product of the Finnish spirit, and the undoubted skill with which he has treated it, give us reason to believe that this author will have an important part to play in Finnish literature. The committee has therefore decided – more in the hope of encouraging him to further efforts than reward him for his achievements to date – to award the above-mentioned prize to the author of Kullervo.’

And so it came about that the sum of 150 roubles (just about enough to pay off his arrears of rent) was paid to a young writer called Alexis Stenvall – better known to us as Aleksis Kivi – who was then 26 years old; along with a half-promise of publication should he be prepared to revise his work and rectify the many faults of composition and diction which had been pointed out by the committee.

What those faults were will never be known, for this first version of the play has not survived. He did revise the work, however, and it was actually published in 1864. For a performance it had to wait until 1885, thirteen years after Kivi’s death.

The story of Kullervo, in the Kalevala, was largely the creation of Lönnrot, who put together a number of folk-epic fragments, collected in various localities and originally quite unconnected. Kullervo (even the name is Lönnrot’s own invention) emerges as the composite embodiment of at least three traditional mythological figures: the wonder child of super­human strength, the wicked magician with control over the wild beasts of the forest, the tragic hero who unknowingly commits incest (Heracles, Dionysus, Oedipus). He can also be seen as the orphan seeking revenge on his parents’s killers; as the slave who refuses to be a slave; and as the victim helpless against a curse brought upon his family by the sins of his fathers. It is not surprising that some people (including Lönnrot himself) saw in all this the stuff of tragedy; and one of Kivi’s most eminent teachers at the University, Fredrik Cygnaeus, had made a great point of this, notably in a long article On the Tragic Element in the Kalevala, and also, no doubt, in his lectures.

Tragedy, at that time, was regarded as the pinnacle of literature, only to be attempted by those who felt they could compete with Shakespeare, Racine, Corneille, and above all with the ancient Greek tragedians. The young Kivi, still hardly out of the student stage and still quite unknown, had taken on the audacious task not only of composing a five­act tragedy, but of doing this in a language in which no dramatic literature (and precious little literature of any kind) existed at all. Where was he to go for his models? Shakespeare he knew (in translation, Swedish of course) almost by heart, and the five-act form had to be taken for granted; and there are episodes in Kullervo that reflect Shakespearean techniques, particularly in the use of comic relief: for example the character of Nyyrikki, the boastful and cowardly tale-bearer, must owe something to Parolles in All’s Well. But Shakespeare did not, on the whole, deal with mythological themes, and it was to the Ancient Greeks, and to Sophocles in particular, that he had to turn for the kind of tragic technique that he needed.

In Kivi’s Kullervo the influence of Sophocles is all-pervasive, though not always easy to pin down. One can point, of course, to the obvious parallels – the slaughter of the cattle by Ajax, the incest motif in Oedipus the King , the thunder from heaven at the end of Oedipus at Colonus . Technically, too, Kivi has clearly learnt a great deal from the Greeks: the whole structure of the recognition scene between Kullervo and his parents is carefully modelled on scenes of this type in Greek drama. But above all it is in the mood and atmosphere of the whole play that we realise how close Kivi had come to the true essence of tragedy – whatever Ahlqvist may have prefened to think.

In the estimation of Finnish critics and literary historians, Kivi’s Kullervo has always taken a rather modest third place after his genial comedy The Heath Cobblers and the monumental Seven Brothers. Of these, only Seven Brothers has ever been translated into English, and that was probably an unwise undertaking, since Alex Matson’s version (1929) has probably put off more readers than it has inspired with enthusiasm for Finnish literature. The trouble is that Kivi’s vivid, rhythmical, alliterative prose simply cannot be reproduced in English. For one thing, Kivi was writing in a language which did not yet have any clichés: every phrase had to be new-minted possibly on the basis of some phrase in another language, but new-minted none the less, so far as Finnish was concerned.

In Kullervo, he had to model his style, to some extent, on that of tragedy as it was then known, that is to say on 19th­century Swedish translations of ancient drama. At the same time he instinctively drew on the natural vocabulary and idiom of everyday Finnish speech as he knew it. He had to express emotion on the true tragic scale, in other words without understatement but with complete simplicity. How can the effect of all this be reproduced in any other language, let alone in English, where the cliché reigns supreme, and the expression of deep and sincere emotion is regarded as either naïve or comical?

At a conference on ‘Finnish Literature Through Foreign Eyes’, held at Jyväskylä in 1988, I was incautious enough to suggest that Kullervo, if suitably translated, might succeed where Seven Brothers had failed, in bringing Kivi’s genius to the notice of the English-speaking world. As I might have foreseen, I have now been asked to have a go at translating an extract from the play. Oh dear!

The task might have been easier had the work been written in verse. In a verse translation one can cheat like mad and get away with it. Retain a few of the images, to hell with rhythm or metre, sprinkle in a modicum of assonance and alliteration, cut the whole thing up into short lines, and hey presto! – exactly the kind of play our modem theatre directors are looking for. Not Kivi’s play, of course, but who cares about that?

I have preferred to attempt a fairly literal rendering of the meaning of Kivi’s prose, and to hope that, despite the loss of its beauty, some of its power will still be felt. There is still much that a perceptive reader can pick up, and much that I myself had never noticed before: the pervasive symbolism of the long Northern night and the hoped-for dawn; the numinous presence of Nature, cold and unfeeling yet all-seeing, in the trees and rocks of the endless forest; the sardonic humour of the tortured hero, as he remarks ‘They say you can get used to anything, in time’, or gives his account of the murder of Pohjola’s Daughter in the cool, detached manner of a police report.

I have chosen this ‘recognition scene’ from the second act as a good example of Kivi’s dramatic technique, and because most of ‘the story so far’ becomes clear as the scene proceeds. Some twenty years before the action of the play, Kalervo’s homestead has been sacked by his wicked brother Unto. Kalervo’s infant son Kullervo, along with a retainer of Kalervo’s called Kimmo, are carried off as slaves by Unto. Kalervo and his wife are believed to have been killed, but have in fact escaped to Lapland, where they live in seclusion under the assumed name of Tyrjönen. They themselves believe Kullervo to have been killed by Unto’s men. In fact, however, he and Kimmo have survived, but Kullervo has by now become so ungovernable that Unto sells him to the mighty smith Ilmarinen, whose wife is the famous Daughter of Pohjola (= the North). Kimmo receives news that Kalervo and his wife are still alive: he escapes from Unto and goes to rejoin his old master. Foolishly, he says nothing about Kullervo, because he plans to rescue him from Ilmarinen, bring him back to his parents, and give everyone a happy surprise.

‘Now read on.’

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