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Kneeling down to the Kalevala, women left to right Hilkka Ten-kanen-Sondergaard, Ursula Ojanen, Mercedeh Mohseni, and Bui Viet Hoa; men left to right Eino Kiuru, Vishnu Khare, and Mahmoud Amir Yari.

    The Kalevala over and over again

    Maija Myllykangas


Perhaps this story will still be told a hundred years from now Š and since it is about Viena Karelia, it might well have been transformed into a fairy tale by then. But what better destiny, if not honour, for a Kalevala translator but to have an afterlife in a Russian-Karelian fairy tale?

There was a fairy-tale atmosphere indeed, when translators and researchers of this famouswork travelled from all over the world to the country where Elias Lönnrot collected most of the epic or narrative traditional poems that formed the basis of his Kalevala.

Shortly before the New Kalevala was published (1849), Lönnrot himself said that "the recently collected poems could well make seven different Kalevalas".

If only our good doctor had known that in 150 years“ time his Kalevala would be translated into more than fifty languages; that there would be 150 different translations and adaptations, in total more than 250 printings! The Kalevala over and over again.

One of the main events of the Kalevala Jubilee Year was the symposium arranged in Helsinki on June 18 and 19, which gathered together some twenty Kalevala translators from around the world. And this was not all: after the symposium the participants found themselves seated in the conference carriage of a train headed for Kajaani, from where they continued by coach across the border...

...and suddenly found themselves in the famous village of Vuokkiniemi, listening to traditional rune-singer Santra Remsu“s fairy tales and songs while sunbeams played with a kitten on the floor.


Kalevala in Danish

Marjatta“s song! The translator“s trial, beloved and almost cursed. Ms Danish“s breath stops short: here it is now, sung by Santra."I wish Bent were here to listen", Ms Danish, Hilkka Tenkanen-Sondergaard, thinks. Together with her professor-poet husband she translated the Kalevala into Danish five years ago. But her husband is not here to listen: he passed away last summer.

"We were often asked to recite the Kalevala at various parties, and the old Danish translation seemed so dusty. Bent said that it should be re-translated, and I just laughed." But the time was to come that would wipe the smile off her face: he wouldn“t give up. He would tell her to translate some test poems, keep an eye on the lady working her Sundays away at the kitchen table, and snatch the translated pages out of her hand.

That“s how the work began. She moved into the bedroom to translate. A secondary school teacher, she could only translate during weekends and holidays.

I will always remember those blue twilight times in winter when the scant light fell through the bedroom window onto the Kalevala. A good day“s harvest would be four pages, but sometimes I would go to the library for one couplet. I only translated during the day, never at night."

" My husband and close friends, the Nuutinen family from Suolahti, were always ready to help. Old dictionaries became handy, as did my own fingers when I had to count the rhythm."

Sometimes her friends would send her a cassette on which they had recorded the swan“s sounds. Once she had to take her husband to the woods to see what beard lichen was. "We decided not to translate proper names, but they are explained in the commentary. The Danes find it quite amusing that Finnish cows have names - in Denmark cattle sizes are large, and the cows just have numbers on their backsides."

Museum Tusculanums Forslag became the publisher, and Heli Hyytiä was delighted to be the illustrator. Illustration fees were paid from "Mother Tyyne“s fund" which in part tells something about Hilkka and Bent“s enthusiasm. But they were rewarded. "All the foremost critics wrote about it in the quality papers, and later we received a translator“s prize."


Kalevala in Russian

Ingrian-Finnish Eino Kiuru , now living in Petrozavodsk, knows his Karelia. For him the trip is not very exotic, yet the songlands always play a tune in his soul.

Leaving Santra, Mr Russian pays a visit to the house opposite. Kiuru has a present for Ljudmila Vatanen, the librarian of the Vuokkiniemi library: the new Russian translation of the Kalevala, which he translated together with poet Armas Mishin.

"The printings of the Kalevala translated by Belskij in 1888 had gone out of date. Besides, Belskij had misunderstood some parts. For example, when Lemminkäinen left for Pohjola (the North), he "took the reservations", stopped by the door and under the beam to receive the home“s blessing. In Belskij“s translation he sneaked out."

It also annoyed Kiuru that the Russians usually understand the bow as an ordinary hand-held weapon, whereas in the Kalevala they use arbalests. Here the old translation went all wrong. "I did the raw translations and Armas edited them. Then we would fight over them until we agreed. We negotiated on both sides Š it was like the Kosovo negotiations. As the researcher I guarded the correctness of the contents, while Armas, the poet, created artistically fluent text. In other words, one of us was able to read and the other to write..."

"We wanted to show the Russians how beautiful the Kalevala is and what important topics it discusses."


Kalevala in Persian

Ms Persian is very happy about one thing. "I didn“t make any mistakes!" Graphic arts designer Mercedeh Mohseni smiles as she walks round the village of Venehjärvi with her drawing pad. The epic in Persian appeared in print a few months ago. The trip to Viena Karelia is the culmination of the translation job for Mercedeh and her architect husband Mahmoud Amir Yari.

The couple came from Iran to Finland to study in 1984. Ms Persian took a course in art history where she saw the Kalevala paintings by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. "That was the first click! I didn“t know Finnish very well back then, so I just looked at the strange verses of the Kalevala. I entered the epic through the illustrations."

Mercedeh immediately found similarities between the Kalevala and the Iranian Book of Kings, whose early stages and significance to local people a thousand years ago were the same as the Kalevala“s. "My husband suggested that it would be nice to be a cultural mediator and at the same time teach our children that one should always be doing something good: sometimes it takes time and is tiresome, but everyone will succeed it they have the will."

That is how Mr and Ms Persian“s forging in the spirit of the Kalevala began. Day and night, 14 to 16 hours a day, for three years. "We slept little and wrote a lot. The flat was filled with papers and books. The children were looked after as an afterthought, oh, they were so good about it all!" Persian says in her beautiful Finnish.


Kalevala in Hindi

When we listen to Mr Hindi“s speech, the Kalevala starts to seem like an old relative, left forgotten in the corner at a party, until suddenly it becomes the focus of everybody“s attention. Goodness, what a lot our Granny still remembers!

Poet Vishnu Khare compares the Kalevala to the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. "We have poets who still write epic poetry. And we have traditional singers who sit singing under a tree in a village, just as the Kalevala people once did.

Having translated a lot of poetry from Hungarian into Hindi, Khare studied the Kalevala through Hungarian. He translated it from English, though. The epic was published in Hindi in 1990. "The Kalevala has been well received in India. It reminds us of our own epics. It is a classic epic about the struggle between good and evil. What makes it unique is the fact that the Kalevala is not about kings and heroes; Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen fight only when it is absolutely necessary. They are ordinary people who live by the work of their hands."

Khare has been moved by the Kalevala relationship with trees. He was fascinated to be able to visit an ancient birch in the village of Ponkalahti, the same birch to which soothsayer Tshinkki-Riiko came to draw strength. "You Finns hug trees but we worship them. Spirits reside in trees, and trees themselves are spirits. We touch the feet of the trees, we bow to worship them. Nothing dirty is ever done under trees.

The significance of family in the Kalevala is also close to the Indian culture. "We have a saying that a house is unhappy unless both children and the elderly live in it. A family of 30 can inhabit the same house. We give the same kind of advice to brides and grooms as they do in the Kalevala." Brotherhood and friendship are close to each other. The children of one“s brothers or friends are like one“s own. "India lives by its villages, and epic poetry lives in the villages. Therefore the Indians don“t read the Kalevala as a foreign book but as an Indian book that has returned..."

Since Mr Hindi does not speak Finnish, he records Viena Karelia with his other senses. "Europe has become so modernised that its houses only smell of soap. Russian-Karelian houses smell of cooking, clothes, sometimes animals. The smell indicates that there are living people in the house who also use the house for purposes other than mere sleeping."


Kalevala in Spanish

Ms Spanish, Ursula Ojanen, is captivated by Santra“s fairy tales and the songs of little Muarie whom she met in the bathing spot by the lake. "The landscape is fascinating, but the people are what matter most. In the characters of the Kalevala, too, there is something good, something humorous, something touching in every one of them."

Ms Spanish ended up a Kalevala translator by chance after she took a job as a Finnish lecturer in Madrid in 1980. "I would be glad to! I answered the invitation and certainly didn“t know what I had let myself in for...The Finnish ambassador at the time was very energetic and had already found a poet for me: Joaquin Fern‡ndez was to become my working partner."

The Spanish Kalevala was published for the Jubilee Year of the Old Kalevala 1985. "Four eyes always see more than two. Of course the one who translates into his native language always has the last say. I was the Finnish voice of the late poet."

Every translator has had to choose the most suitable metre for the epic in his or her own language. The translation work also takes the translator - regardless of the language - on ethnology courses and to museums. The city girl Ursula had to learn about spindles and ploughs. "After all, crops grow the same way everywhere, there are not so many differences. The shape of the plough may vary, but Finland too has several types of plough."

"The Spanish recognise the ancient, shared myths in the Kalevala. They are fascinated by nature and deities. In Spain there is excellent classical radio where you can hear extracts from the Kalevala during the interval of a Sibelius concert."


Kalevala in Vietnamese

The other translators envy Ms Vietnamese. She is the only one who had already visited Viena Karelia before beginning her translation work, in 1989. She has been such a frequent guest that the local old ladies greet her affectionately in their own language: "Hoa, sie armahaisein, pikkaraisein!" (Hello there you dear little one!) The Vietnamese translator of the Kalevala, Bui Viet Hoa, is well-known and the locals gently joke about her minute size.

But to reach this position, the other translators would have, like Ms Hoa, had to study Hungarian in Budapest, fly from there to Moscow one summer, meet the Karelian people“s author Ortjo Stepanov on a train to Helsinki, get in contact through him with the Finnish writer Markku Nieminen who lives in Kuhmo, and.."I“d grown used to the rice fields of my native country, the cities and urban landscapes in Hungary and Finland - and the streams of people. Suddenly I found myself in the birthplace of the Kalevala, inside primeval forests, on open lakes, in the surge of the rapids, between the forest and the lake, heaven and earth."

Hoa has had the opportunity to visit the graves of Arhippa and Miihkali Perttunen on the cemetery island, Kalmosaari, the previously closed village of Latvajärvi. "Surrounded by the smell of incense I prayed that the spirit of the rune-singers would come and help me with my difficult task." The spirit came. Hoa“s Kalevala was published five years ago, and now she is translating contemporary Finnish writers. Later on a society, the Vietnamese Friends of the Kalevala, was established in Hanoi, and they are celebrating the Kalevala this year by publishing an illustrated children“s epic edited by Hoa. "We“ll give it for free to the children of the minority tribes in the mountains - as a model, to show them that it is possible to make an epic of traditional poems; so that they too can start collecting the poetry of their people."

Everybody wants souvenirs. Mr and Ms Persian collect lichens to paint them at home. Hoa takes cones for her daughters. Ms Danish and Ms Spanish buy chip baskets from Sulo.

After bathing the party gathers in Rotjo`s house. How do they amuse themselves? Of course by comparing how the cock crows in different parts of the world. "Gu gu li gu gu", says Ms Persian. "Quiqueriqui", yells Ms Spanish. "Cuc cu cu cuu", rejoices Ms Vietnamese. "Kykeliky", continues Ms Danish. What is it in Hindi, Mr Hindi? Mr Hindi...? Oh, he has gone down to the bathing spot by the lake to talk to the trees.


Translated from an article published in the newspaper Keskipohjanmaa