Sounds familiar

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, wrote in Swedish, but modelled his work on the Finnish-language folk tradition. The poet Risto Ahti describes the oddly easy experience of rendering Runeberg’s work back into Finnish

In the Swedish literary canon, Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804–1877) is one of the most important writers, in fact the most important after August Strindberg.

In the Finnish literary world, Runeberg is a stranger. He is known as a writer of hymns, and of the words of a few songs, but his importance is recognised essentially as a patriotic figure, not a writer. At one stage, Finnishness and Runebergness were spoken of almost in the same breath. Until the 1930s, his collection of poetry Fänrik Ståls sägner (Tales of Ensign Stål, I-II, 1848, 1860) was learned by heart like the Ten Commandments – not for its literary merits, but for its patriotic spirit.

Now, in fact for a long time, ever since the 1960s, Runeberg’s birthday, 5 February, is a national flag-day, when Runeberg tarts are eaten (baked to a recipe by Mrs Runeberg), and in some circles a glass of punch is taken. The writer Runeberg is almost unknown to a contemporary Finn. His statue stands in Helsinki’s Esplanade park, as strange as for example another man of the past, Tsar Alexander II, in front of the cathedral.

Runeberg is a Finn; it is for this reason only that he is not Sweden’s national poet. Runeberg is a Finn, but he wrote all his work in Swedish, because in the 1830s Finland there were hardly anyone who published fiction in Finnish. Even by the 1860s the best Finnish-born writers were still writing in Swedish. It is said that the founder of Finnish literary writing, Aleksis Kivi (1834–1872), would have liked to write in Swedish, for the simple reason that there were not many Finnish-language readers.

Because there were no Finnish-language writers, there was also not a working, written Finnish. The Finnish language was very generally considered unsuitable for poetry, literature, with the exception of the poetic epic, gathered and canonised from folk poetry by Elias Lönnrot, who had published his first version of the Kalevala in 1835–6. Finnish was not Runeberg’s language, but he wrote Finnish poetry in Swedish. When his contemporaries translated his work into the demotic, they produced Finnish that resembled Swedish. Runeberg’s poetry was in fact, according to Lönnrot, the best touchstone for the taming and development of the Finnish language. I can believe that in Lauantaiseura, the Saturday Society, which was these great men’s club, the development of the Finnish language was discussed from precisely this standpoint.

Runeberg’s poetry marked a great change in Swedish-language poetry. As a true romantic, he took his model from folk poetry, and used ordinary, simple language. It is somehow amusing, as well as tragic from the point of view of Finnish literature, that this brilliant poet was translated into Finnish according to diametrically opposite principles. Such incomprehensible expressions as Lönnrot used to make the Finnish language obey the simple structures of Swedish are difficult to imagine. King Oscar I of Sweden knew verses by Runeberg by heart. What could be a better proof of the value of the Finnish language than its capacity to obey the same metre, the same form and the same formal regularities, rhymes, verse lengths and tones as Swedish? But the result, Finnish in Swedish, was poetry that ordinary people could not understand. Runeberg became two degrees stranger, and the concept of poetry itself became frightening and tricky.

In the 20th century, Finnish-language literature developed quickly to reflect the way people spoke. But the translations of Runeberg’s poetry were already highly canonised. Finnish-language poets did not apply themselves very extensively to the correction of past mistakes, in fact I think they did not even realise how the translations of a modern 19th-century poet had sidetracked readers and even Finnish poetry itself.

When the poetic language in Finland modernised and began to be ready for the translation of Runeberg’s poetry, Runeberg was not only canonised but buried in his sarcophagus. The Sixties generation, primarily, and those that followed, could not even imagine finding anything new or good in Runeberg.

Even for myself, who have preferred to wander through the forests and sing the poems of Runeberg to the music of Sibelius rather than following the vanguard or the footsoldiers of social change, Runeberg brought a surprise. When I began to translate his poems in the late 1990s, in a completely experimental sense, I realised that they had stayed alive, and that, moreover, they were just as emotionally unschooled and naïve as Finnishness itself, particularly the Finnish man. Unashamed emotion and open listening to nature and the capacity to see the world with sincere admiration made such an impression on me that I decided to make translation of Runeberg’s poetry a serious project, although I was afraid that Runeberg was dead. It became possible for me to think that Runeberg could be lifted back alongside Eino Leino and Aleksis Kivi – perhaps even a little above them.

Translation was easy. Runeberg’s language has not aged at all. I translated Runeberg into everyday Finnish. And when I looked at the translation, I thought: if Runeberg had written in Finnish, he would have written just like this. As simple, open and Finnish as the light of the forest.

New translations of Runeberg’s poems by Risto Ahti: Idyllejä ja epigrammeja (‘Idylls and epigrams’, WSOY, 2003)

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