Epic labours

Issue 3/2000 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews

Kai Nieminen has translated the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, from its ancient poetic Finnish into modern language. Anselm Hollo has in turn translated an extract of Nieminen’s version into English for Books from Finland; here the two poets and translators discuss the process by e-mail between Pemaja, on the south coast of Finland, and Colorado

Anselm Hollo: Why translate Finnish into Finnish?

Kai Nieminen: It may seem like an odd idea to translate from a language into the very same language, but as you, Anselm, may recall: a few years ago, I taught a workshop at a summer session of the department where you teach, the Writing and Poetics Program of Naropa University in Boulder, with the theme ‘Poetry as Translation of One’s Thoughts’. I started out with the notion that writing poetry – perhaps writing literary works in general really consists of translating personal recognitions into more generally recognizable utterance, recognizable even to oneself. Writing poetry, one translates one’s thoughts for oneself. In that workshop I had the students translate English into English, and they thought it was a good idea, an enlightening exercise, a way to learn to read texts in a new way. As a poet-cum-translator I have probably always done something like this when writing my own poems – and also while reading poems by others. Translation is a two-way process. Secondly: As a translator from Japa­nese, I have grown accustomed to the Japanese practice of equipping modern editions of classical literature with a translation into modern Japanese. The modern version is not meant to replace the original, it is a way of helping the reader to appreciate the original all the more – which is what I, too, aim at doing.

What is the original like?

The original, let’s call it Lönnrot’s Kalevala, is interesting in many ways – have you ever thought of it as a translation, as well? As you know, Lönnrot, the 19th-century doctor who compiled the Kalevala wrote not one or two but altogether five or six versions, and he composed his Kalevala from material collected by himself and other folklorists. The original, oral runa (‘poem’) songs by diverse singers are not uniform in style or language, they don’t cohere into a lengthy epic on their own. Besides, they were performed in different dialects, and Lönnrot synthesized his Kalevala-language out of these. So that was quite a translation job in itself. And so, I was doing what Lönnrot did 150 years ago: trying to make the ‘soul’ of the runa singers available to contemporary readers.

How did you get the idea to do this?

I realized from the very beginning that this was quite a demanding task. When the Finnish Literature Society asked me would I give it a try, they didn’t just say ‘Could you do a Kalevala for contemporary readers? And this is your deadline’. No, they made me write samples which were then scrutinized by the learned Board of the Society. Only after their approval was I given the green light. I felt like exegetes must feel when delving into the depths of Scripture.

For me, the original author was Lönnrot, not the singers from whom he gathered his material. My object was Lönnrot’s Kalevala, no more, no less, and only that, and in the process of working on his text I learned to love and respect him as an adroit fellow poet.

The Kalevala is perhaps the most scrutinized literary work in Finland, so there was a lot of research material available to me. I didn’t try to construct any theories of my own about puzzles like, say, what was the Sampo, or where was Pohjola, or were Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen really brothers. I read the text as poetry is read, not as scholars read history or geography. As can be expected, researchers disagree on interpretations of difficult words and passages sometimes I wondered if even Lönnrot, born in south-western Finland, really knew the exact meaning of all the eastern dialect words and concepts he was recording. Then again, this is Lönnrot’s poetry, not his doctoral dissertation.

For my part, the delight overrode the difficulties: when I recognized the enthusiasm and joy with which Lönnrot immersed himself in his poetry, I became positively obsessed.

But you decided not to retain the Lönnrot Kalevala’s trochaic tetrameter, which I remember had a way of putting me and my classmates to sleep when we studied parts of the poem in school.

I feel ashamed to confess that, before this process, it had never occurred to me how naturally basic the Kalevala rhythm is for the Finnish language – like many others, I had considered the Kalevala meter a fossilized remnant. Now I started to hear the meter on many occasions of contemporary everyday language ­and I decided on my strategy: I would disguise it, inject it into what looked like prose sentences. My translation has long passages of plain narrative prose, as well, but ever so often I smuggle a bit of Kalevala meter, sometimes slightly modified, right into what look like prose passages. I also quote the original, often in verse lines, and mostly in italics – cautiously in the beginning, more boldly towards the end, in order to make the readers familiar with it and to have them experience the same revelation as I had: it is not an obsolete form but the very spine of natural Finnish speech.

In the excerpt I translated from your work – could we call it the Kailevala?I used Francis Peabody Magoun’s Englishings for those quotes. He manages to avoid imitating the trochaic tetrameter, which is so much less flexible, so much clunkier in English.

But my aim really wasn’t to replace Lönnrot in any sense. As he himself says, he is a guide leading us to the runo songs. What I want to do is to guide my readers to his songs, then leave them to his further guidance. According to feedback I’ve received, at least in some cases my plan has worked: quite a few readers have told me they started to read the ‘real’ Kalevala now that they have a clearer understanding of what goes on in it. Needless to say, I didn’t understand it until I started to translate it.

It is a common notion that things change in translation. It gives translators a constant headache to try and explain the nature of their trade. Things change, even without translating. That is the nature of things. And what is it that changes when translated? Language, yes, words, yes; understanding, hopefully not, not even in the case where ideas have changed.

Reading your translation of my translation of Lönnrot’s translation of the runo singers’ translations of their predecessors’ versions of the songs, I enjoy it immensely, because you have caught the mood so perfectly (thus proving I managed to make my point at least to one reader).

Thank you. I truly had fun doing it. The liveliness of your translation is inspiring, it makes those old tales sparkle again.

And this, I feel, is the way to be true to Lönnrot: to honour his long-forgotten sense of humor and his robust sense of drama, both of which for a reader of the original may be seriously dimmed by changes in language, culture, times: tempora, mores. What, as a matter of fact, changes? The world – and the translator only tries to find and present the unchanging. Doesn’t language have a wonderful power: in its myriad guises, it enables people of different times and places to share their joys and sorrows.

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