Author: David Barrett

On not translating a tragedy

Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Authors

In February 1860, the Finnish Literature Society, under the chairmanship of Elias Lönnrot, met to hear the judges’ reports on the entries for a drama competition: the Society was offering a substantial prize for a dramatic work written in the Finnish language. The announcement had been made two years earlier, but since no entries were received before the closing elate, the offer had been extended for a further year. This time three plays had been submitted: First Love, an adaptation from the French; The Glib Talker, another adaptation; and Kullervo, an original tragedy in five acts.

August Ahlqvist, the chairman of the judging committee, was only 34 years old but already a formidable scholar and much respected in the literary and academic world: he was soon to succeed Lönnrot as Professor of Finnish in the University of Helsinki (or Helsingfors, as most people still called it). The report on Kullervo, as read out to the Society, begins with starchy criticism, continues with enthusiastic praise, and ends with grudging approval – a typical committee production, revealing between the lines sharp differences of opinion. More…