International Translation Day: Hannu Salakka



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.



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.

* * * * *


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.

Risto Rasa: Three Poems

Yö oli himmeä, nyt linnut
alkavat laulunsa, crescendo,
on posteljoonin aika.

* * * * *

The night was dull. Now the birds
have struck up their song crescendo.
It’s time for the postman.


Sade kohahtaa kuin katsomo.

* * * * *

The rain murmurs like an audience.


Kohon vierestä
kala nappaa hyttysen.
Voi rannan hiljaisuutta
ja aamuauringon pehmeyttä
etten kyllästy kun
saalista ei tule.

* * * * *

The fish nabs a mosquito
alongside the float.
Oh, the silence of the shore,
the morning sun’s softness.
I won’t be fed up when
I don’t catch a thing.

Source: Risto Rasa, Hiljaa, nyt se laulaa (Helsinki: Otava, 1976), pp. 19–21. Photos and translation by Living in FIN

Hannu Salakka, “Unsmiling”



Ilma on äänetön,
ovat vain askelten kaiut.

Huulet eivät muodosta ainoatakaan sanaa,
vetäytyvät vain
ja paljastavat hampaat.

niinkuin lintu juoksee
alkaakseen kohta lentää.
Minua ei vain haudata haluamaani paikkaan.


The air is voiceless.
There are only the echoes of footsteps.

The lips do not form a single, solitary word.
They merely retract,
exposing the teeth.

I run
as the bird runs
when it is on the verge of flying
lest I be buried in place.

Source: Hannu Salakka, Kuin unessa viipyen (Otava, 1990), p. 331. Translation and photo by Living in FIN

Arto Lappi: Three Tanka and Two Haiku

peacock butterfly (neitoperhonen)

Tiedän tulleeni
kotiin – näen sammakon
se vain pullistelee kun
pidän veräjää auki.

I know when I come
home I’ll catch sight of a frog
on the gate’s jamb stone.
Its bubble bulges only
when I hold open the gate.

Linnun vappaus:
nälän lennättämänä
leijana kantaa
poikasilleen matoja,
kirvoja, kärpäsiä.

A bird’s freedom is
delivering to its chicks
worms, aphids, and bugs.
Flown through the air like a kite,
it is driven by hunger.

Kesäinen päivä:
neitoperhonen istahti
levitteli siipiään
ja paistatteli päivää.

A summery day.
A peacock butterfly sits
on my chest for a moment.
It unfurls and spreads its wings,
bathing in the daytime sun.

toivossa perhoset
ylittävät meren.

In hopes of finding
a place to rest, butterflies
are crossing the sea.

Vaikka kivi on
pohjassa, me seuraamme
yhä renkaita.

Even though the stone
is resting on the bottom,
we still track the rings.

Source: Arto Lappi, Kukko puusa (Turku: Sammakko, 2002), pp. 14–17, 45. Thanks to Mischa Gabowitsch for inducing me to look at page forty-five. Translated by Living in FIN. Photo of peacock butterfly courtesy of LuontoPortti

Eeva Kilpi, “The Dying Feed the Birds”


Kuolevat syöttävät lintuja.
Siksi sanotaan että linnut tietävät kuolemaa.
Eläimet ymmärretään aina väärin.
Ajat ovat sellaiset että olisi sanottava joka hetki
jotain lopullista.
Olla niin lähellä maata
että kuulee mitä se sanoo,
tulla osaksi sen ääntä,
olla sen tahtoa ja tajuntaa,
palata siihen mitä on aina tiennyt.
Se on itsestään selvää
mutta ei yksinkertaista.
Moninaisuuden voi tajuta vain
koko olemuksellaan
eikä sen tajuamisesta enää halua pois.

The dying feed the birds.
So it is said birds presage death.
Animals are always misunderstood.
The times are such one should say something final
every instant.
Be so close to the earth
one hears what it says,
become a part of its voice,
be its will and consciousness,
go back to what has always been known.
That is self-evident
but not simple.
The manifold can be grasped only
by its entire essence
not by wanting to avoid grasping it anymore.

—Eeva Kilpi, Animalia (WSOY, 1987)


Translation and photos by Living in FIN