Plain sailing

Issue 1/1996 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Alastalon salissa (‘In Alastalo’s parlour’, 1933). Introduction by Kai Laitinen

A letter from the translator:

Dear Editors,

Reluctantly (I really have tried) I have been driven to conclude that Alastalon salissa is untranslatable, except perhaps by a fanatical Volter Kilpi enthusiast who is prepared to devote a lifetime to it. To mention only one of the difficulties, there is no English equivalent to the style of the Finnish ‘proverbs’ (real or imaginary) with which the main character Alastalo’s thoughts are so thickly larded. Add to this the richness and, yes, eccen­tricity, of Kilpi’s vocabulary, and the unfamiliarity of much of the subject-matter, centred as it is on the interests of a sea­ going community that hardly exists any longer, even on the islands, and you have a text that is full of pitfalls for the translator. As for the humour, I’m sorry to say that it depends so much on the idiom and presentation that it doesn’t come over at all. If I did any more, I’m afraid it would just have to be a laborious paraphrase, and I don’t think I’m capable of making it effective, or even readable, in English.

Apart from that, although I’m very grateful for your explanations of the many unfamiliar words and phrases, I’m very unwilling to commit myself to the translation of any of them on the basis of a mere ‘gloss’ (technical word): I need to know the associations, and possible sound-echoes, of every one of them before I can be sure of getting it right. And getting it right affects the rhythm of every sentence: it’s not just a matter of filling in blanks with ‘equivalents’ provided by someone else.

I’ve no objection to your using my version of the opening pages. If you decide to follow it with some kind of comment, do borrow, if you need to, from my remarks above, giving the translator’s point of view. Sorry to have failed you so badly.

Yours, David Barrett

Unhurriedly, by twos and threes, they mounted the slope from the shore; occasionally in larger groups, when some had come ashore and waited while others lowered their sails and put their vessels into trim for leaving. Alastalo stood in the porchway to receive his guests, shaking each by the hand, grunting a good-humoured word or two, guiding and propelling them through the porch to the lobby and thence into the big reception room. ‘Go along in and sit yourselves down! What’s this, then, Mikkelsson, are you trying to warm yourself, or what? Stuck right here by the doorway, up against the stove? There’s not been much heat coming out of that for many a long day! May Day, the last time we had it lit, and now it’s past Michaelmas, if the calendar’s to be trusted. Get along in with you, there’s plenty of seats inside, there are even rocking-chairs if you’d like one: we can’t leave the great squire of Krookla stranded over here by the door!’ These exhortations were addressed to an aged, lantern-jawed individual who paid no heed to them, but obstinately remained seated on the chair that he had chosen. ‘Come along, everybody, move further inside, there are chairs along the wall at the back too,’ Alastalo urged his guests, steering them into the room, while footsteps in the porch told of fresh arrivals.

This was the big day at Alastalo’s. During the past winter the scheme had come up for more or less serious discussion whenever the men of the parish had met each other, as they did, for instance, on Catechism days; in fact the topic dated back much further, there had been some talk of it for many years. But it was only during the present summer that the idea had begun to shape itself more precisely in Alastalo’s mind. Meeting the townspeople in the ports, it had been galling to hear them discussing their big winter cargoes, while the brigmasters had to sit by in silence, unable to join in the conversation. In talk with the Åland sea captains, too, it was more and more often agreed that a brig, let alone a schooner, was too small a vessel. Apart from that, it was becoming clear to Alastalo that in Janne Pihlman he had a first mate with the mettle to serve on a bigger ship. He had watched the young man’s performance with increasing approval: the skipper had little more to do than sit in his cabin and smoke his pipe – the lad would do the rest! Besides, there was undoubtedly something going on between Janne and Siviä: Eevastiina had spoken of it, and he himself had had the same thought on more than one occasion. Well, he had nothing against that: if the family had to be invaded by a son-in-law, he could think of worse choices than Janne. Sooner or later that lad will need a proper ship to handle, he had thought recurrently during the summer voyages: give him a chance to show what he’s really capable of. And before a man finally gives up and settles for a life ashore, leaving younger men to sail in foreign waters, it would be good at last to know what it feels like to stand at the wheel and count three masts in front of him, with the bowsprit sniffing the Atlantic air and straining eagerly to reach the shores of Spain! So when Siviä had had her coming-home party, three weeks ago now, Alastalo had brought the plan a little bit closer to the surface, making soundings here and there, testing the ground and dropping in a seed wherever the soil seemed suitable. And during these three weeks Siviä’s sloop had not spent many days idling at the waterside: goodness knows how many times he had sailed her back and forth across Kivivesi, with Janne and sometimes with Härkäniemi as well, to call at every house of any importance in the parish, for a chinwag over a tot of grog in parlour or smoking-room. On the last couple of Sundays, too, there had been plenty of talk outside the church, both before and after the service, so that the rest of the congregation had had to cool their heels by the shore for hours on end, waiting for the menfolk to arrive, so that the church boat could set off for home. Alastalo’s first call had been at Langholma’s: on that occasion he had taken only Härkäniemi with him, Langholma being the sort of man with whom it was best to get down to brass tacks right away, which might prove a little awkward with Janne sitting by. After a few more calls had been paid, and the project had begun to look as if it might come to something, they visited Langholma again, all three of them this time, and it was agreed that the best thing would be to convene a meeting at Alastalo’s, and see which way the wind was blowing. Langholma, puffing at his pipe and with an occasional covert glance at Janne, sizing him up as it were, opined that it was worth a try, and said that for his part he would rig up his boat and sail over to Alastalo’s, and then they would see how things went.

From then on the affair seemed almost as good as settled: once Langholma was in on it, the others would follow suit! And now the stage had been reached when Alastalo was standing with outstretched hand outside his porch, ushering one man after another into his reception room, urging them to sit, directing them to the pipe-rack, shepherding them in with a ceaseless flow of exhortations and jocular remarks. ‘Come along now, Nordberg, forge ahead, forge ahead! I warrant you don’t hold back when you spy a good mooring place at the fish quay in Stockholm! Ha, ha, no, no, a skipper needs a good nose to smell out the best berth – the one where the biggest swarms of customers are going to be! So get along in with you, it’s just the same on land, you have to make a bee-line for the best chair, and that’s the one that’s nearest to the drinks table!’ He had a word, or perhaps two, for everybody present, high or low. It takes persuasion to get a grazing horse into the shafts, the spuds won’t jump into the basket of their own accord, you have to use your own two hands to lift them! ‘Move on, it’s a good solid floor, not sticky clay like your ploughed strips at home,’ he bantered, gently propelling a slow-footed guest from behind, and steering him across the floor to a huge leather sofa against the back wall. ‘A man of substance needs a substantial seat, eh, Karjamaa? Another dozen bullocks sold to Sweden this autumn, so I’m told: milking the Swedes of all their silver guineas, they won’t have any left soon!’ he quipped, manoeuvring his visitor gently but firmly into a sitting position in a corner of the sofa. Karjamaa was good for something like a one-sixteenth share in the barque, so he had to be kept in a good mood. ‘And as for you, Lahdenperä,’ he laughingly chided the grizzled juryman who occupied the middle of the sofa, ‘you’re not getting shy in your old age, surely? You should have helped yourself to a pipe by now.’ But a fresh guest had arrived, and Alastalo hurried over to the door to greet him, his hand outstretched.

Like a plump seal in water, Alastalo wove to and fro among his guests, supple of hand, glib of tongue, eel-like in thought. When cooking for a party, one must dip the ladle into every pan, find a spice for every soup!

Translated by David Barrett

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