Thursday, November 30, 2006

Too Many Anniversaries!!!

I've just started reading the Kalevala (sometimes known as The Land of Heroes), the Finnish national epic based on ancient folk tales and collected and composed by Elias Lönnrot, a district health officer (!) in another life. (In English, I'm afraid - my Finnish simply isn't up to the task.) The translation I've selected is that of Keith Bosley, who has also translated works from French, Russian, and Portuguese, as well as collaborating to produce a book of poetry, in English with originals, of source material Lönnrot used to compose his epic, together with poems from other languages in the Uralic group. In short, the man has apparently done so much to bring Finnish literature to the wider world that he's gone and got himself a First Class Knighthood of the Order of the White Rose of Finland.

Good for him.

As fans of Tolkien will know, the Kalevala was one of the sources the latter took as inspiration for Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Bosley takes the apparently unusual step (for translations of the Kalevala) of inventing his own metre in translating the poem, whereas the more usual modus operandi is to imitate the metre of the original, which gives a sort of drumbeat rhythm. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also took on this metre for his original composition The Song of Hiawatha.)

Bosley's translation is unusual in other respects, too. Where, for example, other translators into English use euphemisms, Bosley uses the direct (in content and as a translation) "Who did you get laid by" when the mother of the story's heroine asks her how she got pregnant. This fits in well with the source material; as Bosley says, whereas Western folk traditions - at least nowadays - tend to form as a result of taking elements of (formal) literature, known as "seepage", Finnish literature OTOH grows "from the ground up", which one wit known to Bosley described as "rising damp". (Wonder how Miss Jones would feel about that one.)

By odd coincidence, today also marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Winter War (Finnish Talvisota), as a result of which (by the Peace of Moscow), the country was forced to cede to Soviet Russia much of the area, called Karjala, or "Karelia" in English, in which Lönnrot studied the oral folk poetry of the ancient Finns, and which by that time was one of the country's most heavily industrialised areas, including the town of Vyborg, known also as Finnish Viipuri, Swedish Viborg and Russian Вы́борг, Viborg. The group Värttinä also take much of their material from the remaining portions (now known simply as North and South Karelia) of the region belonging to Finland - with the opening up of Russia to the West, it is also of course possible that some of their material comes from Russian Karelia, around Lake Ladoga and so on. The Karelian origin of both is shown in many features of the language used in the Kalevala, on the one hand, and Värttinä's songs, on the other, such as the use of the verb ending -evi, corresponding to the third person singular -s in English, and to -ee in Standard Finnish. As one would expect, this gives the work a "homely" feel, well suited to the subject matter of the material, whilst also (to this reader/listener, at least) managing to sound majestic and tuneful.

The effect is no doubt intensified for the native reader, since although (mercifully, and unlike English) written Finnish is almost totally phonetic - with no "exceptions" or ridiculous sets of words, like "tough/cough/bough/thought/through/borough/hiccough/turlough" and the words "hough" (also spelt "hock") and the Irish and Scots-Gaelic words "lough" (or loch) and "sough", in which one combination of four letters "ough" is pronounced a total of 9 different ways - the gap between the "styles" in written and spoken Finnish is rather wide: Rather as if, for example, we always wrote "verdure" but always said "grass". The reason for the somewhat artificial standard is that, like English, (and despite, or perhaps because of, the small and scattered population of the vast country) the range of dialects in Finnish very wide. If we were to come up with a regular spelling system for English, for example, we would find ourselves having to decide which of various national standards to adhere to in doing it - and these days that standard would probably be American. English, in the end, still represents reasonably well and unambigously in writing the standard speech of the British "Establishment" - the "educated, formal" English of politics and trade in the South East of England proper.

The Kalevala is available from Project Gutenberg in an edition translated by John Martin Crawford (unfortunately from the German translation, not the Finnish original), or from Amazon and Abebooks in translations by the aforementioned Keith Bosley; and an older edition, formerly considered authoritative, by William Forsell Kirby. Other editions also exist. For those who can read Finnish, there are plenty of Finnish works available at PG, and several Finnish bookshops online, some with websites in English as well. The companion volume (supposedly more representative of the folk originals) the Kanteletar (The kantele maiden) is also available from Project Gutenberg (in Finnish) and Amazon (in English). (The kantele is also a favoured instrument of Värttinä!) For those who can read German, in his bibliography, Bosley also states that the authoritative German edition has the most comprehensive introduction and commentary of the Kalevala not written in Finnish. Finally, for fans of the even more exotic, Amazon also has limited-availability copies of the Kalevala-inspired Estonian Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald and Christa Kaetsch (trans.).


Mickey said...

Thanks so much for this entry about the Kalevala! It's something that I've often wondered about attempting to read, and I had no clue about the different translations. I found the bits of information here very informative and valuable.

I like reading your blog; keep it up!

Jeff said...


Thanks very much!