“Minä elän” Finnish literature

This is an article published in the last issue of the Ovi magazineOvi lehtiTheOviMagazine

To write an article about Finnish literature, especially about Alexis Kivi, is something I found very difficult. I think the main reason was not that there is a lack of rich Finnish literature, on the contrary, but mainly because there is so little Finnish literature translated into other languages and even less translated well into English.

I use the English translation because, except for one book that I read in Greek, the majority of Finnish literature I’ve read it is from English translations and I have to say that, aside from some bright exceptions, most of them were very badly translated. This gets worse when you feel how poorly some books are translated, which not only fails the reputation of the Finnish original but also the English translation.

Language has been the main barrier for Finnish literature to expand worldwide and I would have agreed until I read a fantastic book by Väinö Linna called Under the North Star, translated into English by Richard Impola. I have said it often before, but the work Mr. Impola did for that work is simply excellent.

What made the main difference between Mr. Impola’s translation and the others? I think it was his excellent knowledge in both languages and English-thinking countries. There is again a difference between English-speaking and English-thinking, Singapore is an English-speaking country, but you would never say that it is an English-thinking country. The same applies to many countries, especially due to British colonization.

Coming back to Finnish literature, often the translators are Finns who competently speak the language they translate, but they have grown-up in a country where her own people believe that there are certain words that you cannot translate and you must be a Finn to understand them. Therefore, reading some of these translations you find them full of un-translated Finnish words which are very important for the plot, but without knowing them spoils the whole thing.

For example, I have often found in Finnish books the word ‘sisu’ as it is. No, there is not an exact word to translate it, since it is more of a feeling and state of physique and mind. However, how do you translate the English phrase, ‘I feel blue’ or the Americanism, ‘I got the blues’? ‘I feel blue’ and ‘I got the blues’, even though in the same language, they have a whole ocean of experiences and semantics to separate them. Oddly enough, there is a word in Greek that means exactly the same thing: ‘sisu’ – and I have often read articles from translators complaining on how difficult it was to translate words using the very same word as an example.

As I mentioned before, Mr. Impola obviously performed a miracle and translated Linna’s trilogy giving shape and meaning to all these impossible to translate Finnish words. I know that I have gone on for a long time talking about translations and translators, but that mainly explains why there aren’t many Finnish books translated well into other languages.

A second issue with Finnish literature is its very unique style. Finns, in general, think that everybody is born in the forest, next to a lake, used to temperatures of -20 Celsius and are people of silence, few words and a very practical life and this becomes an important part of their literature. You find yourself while reading a novel often not understanding that the winter is not a case of a few hours, but more like a few months. You find out that in a land where forest covers over 70% of the land, humans have built special ties with the trees. These very ideas and thoughts expressed in dry words must be able to transport you from a noisy Mediterranean seaside to the quiet Finnish lakeside.

For centuries there was no Finnish literature other than some religious books, but in the mid-19th century one book was published that marks the real beginning of Finnish literature. The book was Alexis Kivi’s The Seven Brothers. In other articles I have often written about the rich Finnish literature, but Alexis Kivi is a very special chapter in this story. Even he was a character; a unique individual whose life could easily become a dramatic novel.

Alexis Kivi (1834-1872), originally Alexis Stenvall, is the Finnish national writer, poet, playwright, novelist and the creator of modern Finnish literature. He was the first Finn to become a professional writer and published all his works in Finnish. According to everybody who has read his work, his masterpiece is the aforementioned novel Seitsemän Verjestä (Seven Brothers) published two years before his death in 1870.

Alexis Kivi came from a very poor family – his father was a tailor – and was educated, which means he spoke and wrote in Swedish, the language of the intellectuals at that time in Finland. The Finnish awakening found Alexis Stenvall early and he changed his name from the Swedish ‘Stenvall’, meaning ‘stone bar’, into the Finnish ‘Kivi’, meaning ‘stone’. I’m not planning to go through his life, since it is easy to that information elsewhere online.

Seven Brothers, in its English translation, is a difficult book to read; actually, it is a dull and boring book that you often feel like ignoring pages, if not whole chapters. That was my reaction the first time I read it and that was the first year I arrived in Finland. Four years later, I read it again. Actually, I read it twice in the same year and, in the end, I found Alexis Kivi. I found a book with very clever dark humor.

Seven orphan brothers, before their confirmation into the Finnish Lutheran Church where they will have to learn reading and writing, escape into the wilderness and experience all sorts of disasters. Kivi, in his book, challenges the very inner of the Finnish psyche. He challenges ideas and taboos. He even challenges the ideas that Finns have for themselves and are idealized with words like ‘sisu’. The seven brothers show the face of brutality, laziness, ignorance and sometime stupidity, but the same seven brothers find the power to overcome the difficulties and return to society stronger than they were before they left.

After the third reading I had come to love the book. Here came another issue: when I showed my enthusiasm to my Finnish friends I had to deal with their skepticism and often sarcasm. You see, the Finnish school system managed to do exactly the same as most schools around the world and made the book a must-read and a daily lesson, thereby turning it into a most hateful book and never read by Finns after leaving school.

Later, after becoming more aware of the Finnish psyche and environment, I read Kivi’s plays. I just loved them. There is one where Kivi describes civil servants. I think I was laughing all the through his cynical way of describing lazy bureaucrats and the barriers they put for their comfort, including their effort to avoid responsibilities, which places them within a labyrinth of obligations and stupidity.

Last were Kivi’s poems: Sydämeni laulu (Grove of Tuoni, grove of night / Song of my Heart), a poem that inspired Sibelius to compose a song (Op 18 No 6):

Tell me, my child,
My summer bright, tell me:
wouldst thou not sail away from here to a haven of everlasting peace
while the white pennant of childhood still flies clean?
On the shore of a misty, tideless lake stands the dark manor of Tuoni;
there in the heart of a shadowy grove,
in the bosom of a dewy thicket a cradle is prepared for thee
with snowy linen and wrappings.
Hear therefore my song; it wafts thee to the land of the Prince of Tuoni.

Grove of Tuoni could be translated as the ‘Grove of death’. Kivi is Edgar Alan Poe in Finnish. This was the first Kivi poem I ever read and it was the one that made me love his poetry. Kivi’s dark humour is here as well.

During the last years of his life, Alexis Kivi suffered from health and financial problems ending in a hospital for schizophrenia treatment, where psychiatry was still in embryonic condition and experimental treatment in the early second half of the 19th century. In the spring of 1872, his brother brought him to Tuusula, where he lived in a small cottage, to be precise, inside the sauna of the small cottage. He died on December 31st, 1872, and, as the legend has it, his last words were: “Minä elän! (I am alive!)

Now dig my grave
Beneath the bay willows’ boughs
And with blackness cover it over again,
The for evermore
Go from my domain:
I wish to slumber in peace.

– From the poem Weariness

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