The poet Lars Huldén on his new Swedish version
  of the Kalevala

I have done translations before, Shakespeare, Molière, and seem to be able to manage different metres. I have even translated opera texts, and usually say that opera translation is the worst there is. It makes the translator sweat blood. But now I have learned something else: namely that the Kalevala is worse.
     A few years ago I wrote a tall tale about how in Värmland, Sweden, during the last Kalevala Jubilee in 1985, I was forced, quite without preparation, to give a lecture on the Kalevala, which I had not read since my schooldays. I had gone to Värmland to read my own poems, I thought, but suddenly I stood before a dressed-up audience with their majesties the King and Queen of Sweden at the head and was introduced as an expert on the Kalevala. An incomprehensible error had occurred. I shall not say what happened next, for it is all lies and hoaxes. Almost.
     In the autumn of 1996 I was asked if I would like to translate the Kalevala. I asked to be allowed to think about the matter, for I could see that it was a huge task for a 70-year -old man to be offered. It was huge both in size and because it was so extremely Finnish: I doubted that I would be able to complete it in the two years that I was offered, so I suggested that my son Mats Huldén should join me. This the contractors agreed to, and Mats promised to do his bit, even though he had a lot of other things to do.
     The Kalevala has been translated into Swedish several times before, in toto or in part. So why do it again? The only complete translation of the almost 23,000 lines of verse was made by Karl Collan and was published in 1864 and 1868. The classic among translations is the one by Björn Collinder from the end of the 1940s, but it lacks a tenth of the text.
     130 years have passed since Collan made his translation, and fifty since Collinder's translation appeared. An amazing amount has changed in the Swedish language in the last half century. In the 1950s, for example, the plural forms of the verb disappeared in writing. Now there was a desire for a new, modern translation for the 150th Jubilee. I was persuaded to make it. The thought would never have occurred to me on my own.
     The division of labour was quite simply that I translated 35 cantos and Mats 15. I sent my cantos to Mats one by one, which meant that he was able to use the same solutions as I to various problems, if he wanted to. I also read Mats's translations, and we discussed some details, but surprisingly little really. I quite soon realised that the translator himself is part of the context of a translation. One cannot compromise with someone else's feeling for language without it being noticed. It's like forgetting sharps and flats when playing the piano.
     But I don't think that the difference between our stylistic aspirations will be noticeable. We have helped each other before, for example with Shakespeare's Othello. I did three acts and Mats two. The only thing we agreed on was that Othello should be black. I have seen two different performances built on that text and not noticed any difference, and I don't think anyone else has either. And come to think of it, if one is to believe the introductory canto of the Kalevala, two people often sat on a bench and held hands. That is how the Kalevala's singers also ought to be depicted, I believe. I imagine one of them singing a line with eight syllables and the other continuing and saying the same thing but with other words in his eight syllables. This is called parallelism and is one of the most prominent features of rune singing.
     This parallelism gave me the idea for a new kind of arrangement of the verse lines. I really have not seen this system used before, with even-numbered lines being indented slightly in relation to lines with odd numbers. Like this:

          Xx xx xx xx
               Xx xx xx.
          Yy yy yy yy
               Yy yy yy yy.

I think it looks attractive, airy and logical, and easy to read. I don't like certain publishers' economy with paper which has made them push the lines two by two into long lines that are almost impossible to read and do not form any kind of natural whole.
     If in my earlier life I had neglected to enter the world of the Kalevala, now I had an opportunity to do so properly. I am no Kalevala scholar, but the work as such impresses me directly with its deep popular wisdom, its dizzyingly concrete fantasy, its poetry, its humour.
     It was hard, for example, to decide how the consistent personal epithets ought to sound: Vaka vanha Väinämöinen, lieto Lemminkäinen and others. There are more variations in the translation than in the original, I think. But that is perhaps not such a bad thing. More debatable, probably, is our reworking of the often recurring inserted clauses, i.e. clauses that merely say that someone is going to say something. There the Kalevala often has an enormous number of words with the same meaning in a line: Gamle gode Väinämöinen yttrade sig, utlät sig och sade (Vaka vanha Väinämöinen sanan virkkoi, noin nimesi; Väinämöinen, old and steadfast, / Answered in the words which follow; the W. F. Kirby translation, 1907) Liderlige Lemminkäinen sade, svarade med orden (Answered lively Lemminkäinen, said the handsome Kaukomieli). That is more or less how it ought to read translated directly, and the Kalevala can pile up even more words with the meaning 'say'. When the Kalevala is sung these parts may perhaps serve as resting pauses for both singer and listener.
     But the new translation will probably not be sung. It is made to be read, and we have consciously chosen a language that is our own, of today. We often say mamma and pappa (mummy and daddy) more often than mor and far (mum and dad). The old-fashioned moder and fader (mother and father) are not used at all. Lemminkäinen's mamma has to rake up the parts of her son's body from the river of the realm of death.
     How freely should one translate? As far as possible everything must be taken along, but the semantic structure is necessary and must not be borrowed from the source language. One must work in terms of the target language, and this also true of the rhyme, the alliterative rhyme that characterises the Kalevala: Mieleni minun tekevi...; several words in the same line begin with the same sound. The example if the first line of the Kalevala. It is possible to maintain the same system in Swedish, but the rhymes are not so dense and they often fall on unimportant words like den, jag, till, när (the, I, to, when).
     The beginning of the work, those two first lines, cost me more work than any canto, if I count up all the hours I spent trying to find a striking and yet correct beginning. And I cannot yet judge if it has succeeded:

               Vet du vad vi borde göra,
          vad som leker mig I hågen?
               Börja sjunga gamla sånger,
          låna röst åt våra runor!

               Mieleni minun tekevi, aivoni ajattelevi
               lähteäni laulamahan, saa'ani sanelemahan,
               sukuvirttä suoltamahan, lajivirttä laulamahan.

               I am driven by longing,
               And my understanding urges
               That I should commence my singing,
               And begin my recitation.

               (W.F. Kirby, 1907)

Instead of an assertion I begin with a question to a person who is present but is named only several lines later, when the singer asks his childhood friend to sit down and sing together with him. The original speaks only of I, and is not in the form of a question. I use both you and we in a question. Should one do this? Why not?
     It is perhaps against the rules of translation theory, but I do not usually read through the text before I begin. That way I keep myself in tension all the time. I start with the first line and go on to the second, and so on, and see what happens. Possible misunderstandings can be corrected later, when the whole context is clear.
     According to some of Lönnrot's critics, the great wedding in Pohjola takes up too much room in the work. I don't agree with this. The songs around the wedding are so full of wisdom and timeless experience that they stay better in the memory than many of the more dramatic ones. But of course Lemminkäinen is an exciting figure, with whom one can feel sympathy, in spite of everything. And Kullervo's fate probably leaves no one untouched. In some ways the male figures are more transparent than the female ones. Someone has looked at them with knowledgeable eyes. One feels compassion for them, they often fall by their own hand.
     This has led me to an imaginary, personal theory about the origin of the Kalevala. Yes, I know of course that it is Lönnrot whom we have to thank for the whole work we now possess. It was he who selected and compiled, spliced and improved. But in some ways it feels as though behind the dramatic sequences there may have stood a great poet, somewhere, at some time, though tradition has taken over the material, forgotten and stored away a great deal during the passage of the centuries.
     What if it were a woman?

Moarie, Venehjärvi, Russian Karelia, 1894
Photo: I. K. Inha

     Translated by David McDuff

The new Swedish-language translation of the Kalevala by Lars and Mats Huldén appeared in the autumn 1999 by Söderströms/Atlantis (Helsinki/Stockholm)

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