Bombast and the sublime

17 January 2013 | Reviews

Torsten Pettersson
Skapa den sol som inte finns. Hundra år av finsk lyrik i tolkning av Torsten Pettersson
[Create the sun that is not there. A hundred years of Finnish poetry in Swedish translations by Torsten Pettersson]
Helsinki: Schildts & Söderströms, 2012. 299 p.
ISBN 978-951-52-3034-8
€25, paperback

In the 1960s my mother sometimes used to amuse herself and us children by reciting, in Finnish, in our bilingual family, selected lines of verse from the half-forgotten poetry canon of her school years.

Eino Leino (died 1926) and the great tubercular geniuses Saima Harmaja, Uuno Kailas, Katri Vala and Kaarlo Sarkia (all dead by 1945) were familiar names to me as a child. Early on, I realised that their poetry was both profoundly serious and also slightly silly, just because of its high-flown seriousness.

Torsten Pettersson, a Finland-Swedish author who is also active as a literature professor in Uppsala, Sweden, has now taken upon himself a task at which few would have been able to succeed: the revivification of this largely dead, or at least convincingly dead-looking, Finnish poetic tradition in Swedish, Finland’s second official language [spoken by some five per cent of the country’s population as their mother tongue]. Pettersson’s extremely idiosyncratic selection Skapa den sol som inte finns presents a hundred and forty-four poems published between 1866 and 1969, written by eighteen poets born between 1834 and 1913.

With regard to the source language – i.e. that he understands what he is translating – I trust Pettersson completely. With regard to the target language, I often wish that he would let go a bit more and venture into even more reworking of details in order to render the whole thing more convincing, and above all make it resonate, seduce or entice, like real poetry.

In some of the poems, however, this would have required almost supernatural translation skills – what’s dead is dead, and vague bombast remains vague bombast. For how are we to relate to lines like these in Juhani Siljo’s ‘Excelsior’ (first stanza, from Runoja, ‘Poems’, 1910):

Min vilja är som en hårt spänd båge.
Av solen fick jag mitt bud och mitt mål
att bestiga livets strålande kullar
och sky falska vägar och offerbål.

Kuin jännitetty jousi on tahtoni mun.
Sain auringolta käskyn ja määrän
ma kukkuloille nousta elon kirkastetun
ja käydä ohi tien monen väärän.

My will is like a hard-tensed bow.
The sun gave me my order and my aim
to ascend the radiant hills of life
and shun false paths and sacrificial flame.

It doesn’t sound any better in Finnish – but at the time its resonance was surely muted by the knowledge that the poet had been killed at the age of 30 in the Civil War of 1918.

On the other hand there are fine, memorable poems and lines here which don’t need the historical pathos of the moment to be enjoyed, but instead evoke an existential response of a more timeless sort. Aleksis Kivi’s superb interpretation of depressive motherly love (‘Sydämeni laulu’, ‘Song of my heart’, 1870) merits being served up for new readers who are ready to shiver and be moved:

Dödens dungar, nattens dungar!
Mullens varma vagga gungar.
Dit ska jag bära mitt barn.
– – –
Dödens lund är en lund av frid.
Fjärran lämnas hat och strid,
fjärran den svekfulla världen.

Tuonen lehto, öinen lehto,
siell’on hieno hietakehto,
sinnepä lapseni saatan.
– – –
Tuonen viita, rauhan viita!
Kaukana on vaino, riita,
kaukana kavala maailma.

Grove of Death, grove of night’s land!
There’s a cradle of fine sand,
There I will bring my baby.
– – –
Thicket of Death, place of peace!
There pursuit and quarrel cease
Far from the world’s betrayals.

[English translation by Keith Bosley, published in Aleksis Kivi. Odes, Finnish Literature Society, 1994]

There are some fine poems by the incomparable Saima Harmaja (1913–1937), who combined a love of life with an awareness of death, an elevated style with a colloquial one, pure girls’ romance with a knack for sharp observation in a way that even today makes her accessible to new readers and wakens their close sympathy. I wish Pettersson had included more translations of her poetry.

I do, however, have strong reservations about Pettersson’s method of arranging the poems by theme rather than by author. The excellent author presentations he has written could each have introduced the respective sample of poems in a quite traditional way, providing some help for the reader.

I also wish that the final essay, entitled ‘Romance, drama, stylistics’, was much longer, as it is very good. In it Pettersson explains why the tone of desperate exaltation and symbol-laden poetic gangrene which seems to weigh down some of the poems in the book may still have a living importance. If the Finnish tradition doesn’t feel ‘right’ and doesn’t display ‘our modern allergy to grand emotions’, there are good reasons for that. During the period 1899–1945 ‘Finland’s population was exposed at regular intervals to threats and hope, joy and tragedy at a level that can scarcely be imagined by those who grew up in Finland after the end of the war in 1945 – or in Sweden after 1809 [when Finland separated from Sweden and became a Russian Grand Duchy] ‘, says Pettersson, making me go back through the book again slightly shamefacedly, to read it with a little more historical empathy.

Pettersson’s quirky selection gives a unique insight into the special nature of Finnish poetry – it is a fascinating testimony to how writing interacted with life during a specific period of the country’s history. I am not aware of any similar selection of translations into Finnish of the pre-modernist Swedish-language poetry that was written in Finland during the same period. The modernist Swedish-language vanguard, of the first two decades after the turn of the 19th century – mainly Edith Södergran, Elmer Diktonius and Gunnar Björling – have been translated extensively.

The detailed account in the ‘Afterword’ of how the translator set about solving some tricky problems of rhyme and emphasis is fascinating. I would like to read the originals and the translations side by side in this book, and believe that many other prospective readers would, too. Instead, because of the jumbled nature of Pettersson’s selection, I found myself looking up the original texts in a rather sweaty search through the classic Finnish anthology Runon vuosikymmenet (‘Poetry through the decades’, 1967), a book which I inherited from my mother, and which was the source of her poetic outbursts.

Translated by David McDuff

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