International Translation Day: Hannu Salakka

 

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Today, September 30, is International Translation Day.

I celebrated International Translation Day in 2016 by sending a virtual love letter to the great Finnish poet and writer Eeva Kilpi, who published two new books this year at the ripe young age of ninety-one.

It was a chance encounter with Kilpi’s poems that inspired me to take the rash step of translating from Finnish to English in the first place. And, although I am often distracted by my real job (translating from Russian to English) and my dangerously job-like hobby (translating articles about Russian grassroots politics and culture), I have found the time, since I first happened upon Kilpi’s poems (in a hut by the side of a road to a paradise-like place in the countryside, where, as I learned last year, Kilpi’s father once had a summer cottage) to translate many more poems by her and let other chance encounters lead me to other great Finnish poets.

Aside from Kilpi, the Finnish poet who has made himself most at home in my life has been Hannu Salakka (1955–2003). While Kilpi is known to a good number of readers outside of Finland through translations of her novels, memoirs, stories, and poems, and was, apparently, nominated for a Nobel Prize, Salakka (whose collected poems, published in 1990, is two hundred pages longer than Kilpi’s collected poems, published in 2000) is now, sixteen years after his death, nearly as obscure in his homeland as he is abroad.

Although both poets share a certain aesthetic sensibility and a deceptively simple approach to writing poems, Salakka’s work has never been translated into English either at all or in any noticeable quantities. This is a shame because his poems are every bit as wry, profound, humane, and therapeutic as Kilpi’s are, although they are probably a good deal bleaker.

Or, perhaps, they seem that way to me because Salakka died at the age of forty-eight, four years younger than I am now, and because his obscurity seems irrefutable, a sad fact brought home to me by the number of times I have found his books abandoned and offered for a pittance in secondhand stores and piled up, so I imagine, in the backrooms of the booksellers from whom I have bought the books of his I did not find at random in Finland’s ubiquitous secondhand stores.

As I did three years ago on this day, I have chosen a poem from Salakka’s collected poems using a random number generator. I could not have chosen a better poem to illustrate his gifts as a poet. The poem also revolves around a beautifully apt metaphor for what it is poets and translators do when they are at their best: they set words free to soar and sing.

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Laululintu

Löysin maasta linnun,
elävän, harmaan pienen linnun,
aran kuin vain lintu voi olla arka.
Silitin sitä ja puhuin sille,
vaikka näin sen sitä pelkäävän.
Halusin sen laulavan,
mutta se vapisi ja pysyi mykkänä.
Mutta kun avasin käteni,
se lensi,
lensi yhä kauemmas ja korkeammalle.

Ja vielä vuosienkin jälkeen
kuulen lintujen yhä laulavan.

* * * * *

Songbird

I found a bird on the ground.
A little gray bird, it was alive,
and bashful as only a bird could be.
I stroked it and spoke to it,
though I saw this made it afraid.
I wanted it to sing,
but it shivered and kept mum.
When I opened my hand, however,
it flew,
it flew ever farther and higher.

And even years later
I can still hear the birds singing.

Source: Hannu Salakka, Kuin unessa viiypen (Helsinki: Otava, 1990), p. 122. Photo and translation by Living in FIN. This translation is dedicated to V., my comrade in life, translating, and Finnish. It also happens to be her name day today.

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