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Plain sailing

31 March 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 More…

‘Joy and peace prevail…’

25 December 2010 | Fiction, Prose

Dear readers,

to celebrate the change of the year we publish an extract from Aleksis Kivi’s 1870 classic novel, Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers), translated by David Barrett, and a bit of a classic of our own too: it’s a nostalgic glimpse of a Finnish Christmas spent in a humble cottage inhabited, in addition to the eponymous seven brothers, a horse, cat, cockerel and two dogs (at least). Enjoy!

Soila Lehtonen & Hildi Hawkins & Leena Lahti

On a festive night

It is Christmas Eve. The weather has been mild, grey clouds fill the sky, hills and valleys are covered with the snow that has only recently begun to fall. The forest gives out a gentle murmur, the grouse goes to roost in the catkined birch, a flock of waxwings descends on the reddening rowan, while the magpie, daughter of the pine-wood, carries twigs for her future nest. More…

Encounters with a language

12 December 2014 | Articles, Non-fiction

Mistranslation: illustration by Sminthopsis84/Wikimedia

Mother tongue: not Finnish. How do people become interested enough in the Finnish language in order to become translators? In the olden days some might have been greatly inspired by the music Sibelius (as were the eminent British translators of Finnish, David Barrett or Herbert Lomas, for example, back in the 1950s and 1960s). We asked contemporary translators to reminisce on how they in turn have become infatuated enough with Finnish to start studying and translating this small, somewhat eccentric northern language. Three translators into English, one into French, German and Latvian tell us why

More…

New from the archive

26 March 2015 | This 'n' that

Kullervo's curse

Kullervo’s curse. Painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1899)

Finland’s national epic adapted for the stage by Finland’s national writer: best known as the author of the first significant novel in Finnish, Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers, 1870), Aleksis Kivi (1834-1972) also turned one of the Kalevala’s grimmest stories, that of Kullervo – a tale of incest, revenge and death– into a five-act tragedy.

The translation is by one of Books from Finland’s most long-standing collaborators, David Barrett (1914-1998), a true linguistic genius with a speciality in Georgian as well as Finnish in addition to classical Greek; as well as his work with texts in Finnish and Georgian, he made extensive translations of Aristophanes for Penguin Classics. Barrett felt, as he argues here in his introduction, ‘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’.

Was he right? It is up to you, dear readers, to judge.

For a very different, demythologized, view of the Kullervo story, we also publish a manuscript by the modernist poet Paavo Haavikko (1931-2008) from his television adaptation Rauta-aika (‘Age of iron’, 1982).

The Kalevala is in development as a film by the Finnish entertainment company Rovio, of Angry Birds game, and the Finnish-born video game company Supercell. It remains to be seen how the Kalevala take to the big screen.

*

The digitisation of Books from Finland continues, with a total of 372 articles and book extracts made available online so far. Each week, we bring a newly digitised text to your attention.

Poems

30 June 1984 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Interview by Philip Binham

Birdmount

I hear a happy tale, it makes me sad:
no-one will remember me for long.
I will send a letter with nothing inside, the emptiness will reek
as the pines do, of fruit-peel and of smoke,
a scent only.
Here I have stayed a week, seven riverside days.
The river treads the mill, ah, treads the mill,
the river’s wide, this is a placid reach, the sky is near:
smoke, like the shadow of a birdflock passing, nothing else.

And now it is September:
there are more pine trees here, and more darkness too. More…

A spot of transmigration

13 January 2011 | Fiction, Prose

A short story, ‘Sielunvaellusta’, from the collection Rasvamaksa (‘Fatty liver’, WSOY, 1973)

‘Where will you be spending Eternity?’ a roadside poster demanded as Leevi Sytky sped by in his car.

‘Hadn’t really thought about it,’ Leevi muttered , as if in reply, and lit a cigarette.

But at the next level crossing, a kilometre or so further on, he was run down by a train, whose approach he had failed to notice. His attention had been distracted by the sight of a young woman who was picking black currants by the side of the track, and who happened to be bending forward in his direction. Intent on obtaining a better view of her ample bosom by peering over the top of her blouse, Leevi neglected to look both ways, and death ensued. Damned annoying, to say the least.

In due course he secured an interview with God, who turned out to be a biggish chap, about a hundred metres tall, wearing thigh-boots and sitting behind a large desk.

‘Well, and how’s Leevi Sytky getting along?’ God asked, lighting his pipe.

‘Mustn’t grumble,’ said Leevi politely.

‘And how are you thinking of spending Eternity?’ God inquired, sucking at his pipe and puffing out his cheeks. More…

The lake

30 June 1988 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Järvi (‘The lake’), a short story, 1915. Introductions by Kai Laitinen and Pekka Tarkka

I travel the world, not out of any desire for adventure, but because that is the way things have happened. The best of my wanderings are in obscure, tucked-away regions, where life is humdrum and pitched in a low key. There I have no need to stave off nostalgia for the past by leading a hectic life: my days go by in stolid succession from season to season, I am an ordinary unimportant individual among all the rest. For long stretches of time my life does not strike me as being either dull or bright; I derive a certain satisfaction from its very emptiness. It is as though I were, by degrees and to the best of my ability, paying off a kind of debt. More…

The power game

30 June 1984 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Puhua, vastata, opettaa (‘Speak, answer, teach’, 1972) could be called a collection of aphorisms or poems; the pieces resemble prose in having a connected plot, but they certainly are not narrative prose. Ikuisen rauhan aika (‘A time of eternal peace’, 1981) continues this approach. The title alludes ironically to Kant’s Zum Ewigen Frieden, mentioned in the text; ‘eternal peace’ is funereal for Haavikko.

In his ‘aphorisms’ Haavikko is discovering new methods of discourse for his abiding preoccupation: the power game. All organizations, he thinks, observe the rules of this sport – states, armies, businesses, churches. Any powerful institution wages war in its own way, applying the ruthless military code to autonomous survival, control, aggrandizement, and still more power. No morality – the question is: who wins? ‘I often entertain myself by translating historical events into the jargon of business management, or business promotion into war.’

‘What is a goal for the organization is a crime for the individual.’ Is Haavikko an abysmal pessimist, a cynic? He would himself consider that cynicism is something else: a would-be credulous idealism, plucking out its own eyes, promoting evil through ignorance. As for reality, ‘the world – the world’s a chair that’s pulled from under you. No floor’, says Mr Östanskog in the eponymous play. Reading out the rules of a mindless and cruel sport, without frills, softening qualifications, or groundless hopes, Haavikko is in the tradition of those moralists of the Middle Ages, who wrote tracts denouncing the perversity and madness of ‘the world’ – which is ‘full of work-of-art-resembling works of art, in various colours, book-resembling texts, people-resembling people’.

Kai Laitinen

Speak, answer, teach

When people begin to desire equal rights, fair shares, the right to decide for them­selves, to choose

one cannot tell them: You are asking for goods that cannot be made.

One cannot say that when they are manufactured they vanish, and when they are increased they decrease all the time. More…

Human Freedom

30 June 1986 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Mika Waltari. Photo: SKS Archives

Mika Waltari. Photo: SKS Archives

Extract from lhmisen vapaus (‘Human Freedom’, 1950)

‘Where are we?’ Yvonne asked. ‘This isn’t the right street either. Somewhere between Alma and Georges V, they said. But there’s no sign of an aquarium.’

‘Talking of aquariums’, I suggested, ‘there’s a dog shop near here where they wash dogs in the back room. If you like, I’ll take you to see how they wash a dog. It’s a very soothing experience.’

‘You’re crazy’, said Yvonne.

My feelings were hurt. ‘I may sleep badly’, I admitted, ‘but I love you. I walk up and down the embankments all night. My heart aches, my brain is on fire. Then comes blissful intoxication, and for a little while I can be happy. And all you can do is to keep nagging, Gertrude.’

She wrinkled her brow, but I went on impatiently, ‘Look, Rose dear, just at present I have the whole world throbbing in my temples and in my finger-tips. Age-old poems are bubbling up within me. I am grieving for lost youth. I am boggling at the future. For just this one moment it is given to me to see life with the living eyes of a real human being. Why won’t you let me be happy?’

‘I have walked two hundred kilometres’, said a low, timid voice at my elbow. I stopped. Yvonne had stuck her arm through mine. She, too, stopped. We both looked down and saw a little man. He doffed a ragged cap and bowed. Flushed scars glowed through a grey stubble of beard. He was wearing a much-patched battle-dress from which the badges had long since disappeared. His face was wrinkled, but the little eyes were animated and sorrowful. More…

Aphorisms

31 December 1986 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Aphorisms from Pahojen henkien historia (‘A history of evil spirits’, 1986). Markku Envall’s essay on aphorism

Do not set out in the wrong mood, at the wrong moment, for the wrong place.

Learn to distinguish these from one another, for it is an impossible task.

Do not admit to changes in yourself, say rather that your associates vary.

And that your relationships are changeable. But do not say this of yourself.

Not knowing a person should not be regarded as sufficient reason for not making his acquaintance. More…

Sensitivity session

30 June 1978 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Ja pesäpuu itki (‘And the nesting-tree wept’). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

Taito Suutarinen knew quite a bit about Freud. Where Mannerheim’s statue now stands, Taito felt that there ought instead to be an equestrian statue of Sigmund Freud. It would be like truth revealed.

Freud, urging on his trusty stallion Libido, would be clad from head to foot in sexual symbols – hat, trousers, shoes: one hand thrust deep into his pocket, the other grasping a walking-stick. The stick would point eloquently in the direction of the railway tracks, where the red trains slid into the arching womb of the station.

Taito had also attended a couple of seven-day sensitivity training courses, where people expressed their feelings openly, directly and spontaneously. By the end of the first course Taito was so direct and spontaneous that he couldn’t get on with anybody. By the end of the second he was so open that everyone was embarrassed. Every member of the group had cried at least once, except the group leader. Never before had Taito witnessed such power. He could not wait to found a group of his own. Taito’s group met in a basement room, where they reclined on mattresses to assist the liberation process. Everyone was free to have problems, quite openly. You were not regarded as ill: on the contrary, if you realized your problem you were more healthy than a person who still thought he mattered. Moreover, as Taito, fixing you with his piercing gaze, was always careful to emphasize, every problem was ultimately a sexual problem. Taito would spontaneously scratch his crotch as he spoke, making it clear that he himself had virtually no problems left. More…

The Onlookers

30 September 1978 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Naisten vuonna (‘In women’s year’, 1975). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

The two elks came out on to the road through a gap between timber sheds. They began to cross the road, and the larger one was very nearly run into by a car. Cars stopped and horns tooted, till the elks turned and made off towards the harbour. Several cars swung round and drove along the cinder track in pursuit of the animals.

The elks headed across the rubble towards the power station; after circling some stacks of railway sleepers, they ended up on the flank of a coal­heap sixty feet high. The cars pulled up and their occupants poured out, shouting that the elks wouldn’t go that way, it was a dead end. The elder of the two elks had indeed sensed this, and they moved off to the right, skirting the coal-heap and emerging among the timber-stacks. By this time the first cyclists and pedestrians had arrived on the scene.

“They’ll break their legs,” said a pedestrian to a motorist. “There’s all kinds of junk lying about.” More…

Front-Line Tourists

30 September 1976 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Nahka­peitturien linjalla (‘On the tanners’ line’, 1976)

Paavo Rintala (born 1930) published his first novel in 1954 and since then has brought out a new book almost every year. A merciless critic of the myths surrounding certain national figures and events, he has written about Marshal Mannerheim, against attempts to glorify war, and the ‘inevitability’ of Finland’s involvment in the German Barbarossa plan. He has made considerable use of reportage technique to produce anti-war documentaries and in more recent years worked with international subjects.

His books have been widely translated and are popular in East and West Europe. Paavo Rintala’s novel Sissiluutnantti (‘Commando Lieuenant’, Otava 1963) and its reception were the subject of a book by the ltterary critic Pekka Tarkka (Paavo Rintalan saarna ja seurakunta. ‘Paavo Rintala’s sermon and congregation’, Otava 1966). Paavo Rintala is chairman of the Finnish Peace Committee. The passage below is taken from Nahkapeitturien linjalla (‘On the tanners’ line’, Otava 1976) in which he again turns his attention to the war years. Rintala looks at the events of the years leading up to the war and the course of the war itself through the eyes of many different people – from the leading politicians of the day to the ordinary soldier.

The novel has already been acclaimed as the monument to the ‘unknown soldier’ of the Winter War.

 

Hessu duly presented himself at the Viipuri office of the Army Information Department (Visitors’ Escort Section), where it was implied that the expected visitors were Very Important People and that a singular privilege was being conferred upon Hessu and such front-line troops that the party might visit. Although His Excellency Field-Marshal Mannerheim made it a rule never to allow front-line visits by ordinary journalists or even by special correspondents, these gentlemen were, it seemed, such influential people that H.E. had agreed to their visit without demur. “You understand, Padre, what a great responsibility this will be for you? These are very high-up people.” More…

Poems

30 September 1984 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

The poems of Aleksis Kivi were long considered no more than a peripheral aspect of his work. They were, as Kivi’s friend Kaarlo Bergbom wrote in a review, ‘gold that can’t be minted into coins’. The reason appears to have been Kivi’s poetic technique, which made a clear break with tradition. He did away almost completely with rhyme and instead emphasised the rhythm and musical sound qualities of words. He shortened words in a way that did not find favour with any subsequent Finnish poets. He avoided emotional expressions of patriotism and romantic love poetry; instead, he composed poems that were extended, narrative and fresco-like. Lauri Viljanen, whose 1953 study brought about a re-evaluation of Kivi’s poetry, has given them the apt soubriquet ‘epic idyll’.

The first of Kivi’s poems appeared in the Kirjallinen Kuukauslehti (‘Literary monthly magazine’) in 1866; a collection of his poetry entitled Kanervala was published the same year. Other poems appear in his novels and plays, and some have appeared in a collection after his death. Karhunpyynti (‘The bear hunt’) is from Kanervala. Its descriptive nature is typical of Kivi. The verse structure is tightly controlled but unrhyming. The winter landscape of the third verse, repeated at the end of the poem, is a ceremonious point of rest among the otherwise busy activity.

– Kai Laitinen

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The Bear Hunt

The men on skis set out for the forest, a brave company
With guns and bright spears
And clamouring dogs on the leash,
With blazing eyes,
As the dawn chases gloomy Night
From the sky’s brow,
And the sun raises his head. More…

Veikko Huovinen (1927–2009) in memoriam

23 October 2009 | Authors, In the news

Veikko Huovinen 1927–2009

Veikko Huovinen (1927–2009). – Photo: Irmeli Jung /WSOY

Author Veikko Huovinen died on 4 October at his home in Sotkamo, in northern Finland, at the age of 82.

Huovinen was a graduate of the forest research programme at Helsinki University and worked for a period as a forest ranger. In the 1950s he began working as a full-time writer after his first novel, Havukka-ahon ajattelija (‘The thinker of Havukka-aho’, 1952), achieved great success.

Havukka-ahon ajattelija is the story of a stubbornly ruminative backwoods philosopher who ponders natural phenomena and the great political turning points that he hears about on the radio. The novel has been translated into six languages.

The soil that Huovinen’s works spring from is his northern community surrounded by deep forest, and his characters are modelled on its inhabitants: a self-sufficient business owner, a vagrant rascal, an ill-tempered hermit. They withdraw into the shelter of their homes, where the arctic winds and the evil of the world can’t reach them. Such humoresques might bring to mind Mark Twain or the early works of Nikolai Gogol. More…