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:
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,
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:
du vad vi borde göra,
som leker mig I hågen?
sjunga gamla sånger,
röst åt våra runor!
minun tekevi, aivoni ajattelevi
laulamahan, saa'ani sanelemahan,
suoltamahan, lajivirttä laulamahan.
am driven by longing,
my understanding urges
I should commence my singing,
begin my recitation.
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
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
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