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.

Hannu Salakka, “Airs and Orations”

margin walkers

Puheet, ilmeet
eivät synnytä minussa mitään
nyt, kun kaikkien on ollut pakko
osoittaa kyvyttömyytensä.
Kuollessani haluan kasvaa metsiin.

Airs and orations
leave me untouched
now when it is compulsory for all and sundry
to flaunt their incompetence.
When I die I want to grow into forests.

Source: Hannu Salakka, Kuin unessa viipyen (Otava, 1990), p. 208. Translation and photo by Living in FIN

Hannu Salakka, “It’s Snowing”

fullsizeoutput_d7b“Bigger than February.” Billboard for the Finnish grocery store chain Prisma, Obvodny Canal Embankment, St. Petersburg, 4 February 2018. Photo by Living in FIN

Sataa lunta
mutta puista tippuvat raskaat pisarat,
samaa silmänlumetta
tämä maailman päivä,
koko ajan olemassa
jossakin.

It’s snowing,
but heavy drops are dribbling from the trees.
It’s the same window dressing
all the time
somewhere
on this the world’s day.

Source: Hannu Salakka, Kuin unessa viipyen (Otava, 1990), p. 527. Translated by Living in FIN

Hannu Salakka, “Unsmiling”

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Hymytön

Ilma on äänetön,
ovat vain askelten kaiut.

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

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

Unsmiling

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

Hannu Salakka, “Land, Frost, Ice, Drifts, Air”

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Maa, routa, jää, hanki, ilma
joka liimaa sieraimet ja pusertaa
ihmisestä huurua,
kun maasta noustaan näin kerros kerrokselta
on vaikea uskoa,
että sisus on tulta, tai edes lämmin.
Talot kuin kivettynyttä laavaa,
näyttävät asutuilta
vain aivan pilkko pimeällä,
kun ikkunoissa on valo.
Talojen ihmiset
ovat oppineet jälleen tulemaan toimeen
ilman tuulta.
Jos heidän tulee ikävä,
he voivat juhannuksena matkustaa
sitä katsomaan.

Land, frost, ice, drifts, air,
plugging up the nostrils and squeezing
vapor from a person’s lungs.
When you clamber over the ground so, from floor to floor,
it’s hard to believe
there’s a fire inside, much less that it’s warm.
Petrified lava, the houses
appear inhabited,
just entirely pitch black
when there’s light in the windows.
The people of the houses
have once again learned to get along
without wind.
If they get bored
they can journey on Midsummer Day
wherever their hearts desire.

Source: Hannu Salakka, Kuin unessa viipyen (Otava, 1990), p. 427. Translation and photo by Living in FIN

Hannu Salakka, “In the Midst of Fear”

kuutostiensiltaFinnish Highway 6 bridge over the Vuoksi River in Imatra, South Karelia

Yön unet ovat sanomattoman hiljaisia,
maailma
josta ei muista muuta kuin
eläneensä.

Haaveilija nukahtaa aurinkoon
ja sulattaa siipensä,
vajoaa yöhön
ja sen metsään,
jossa minulla on rautaiset kynnet
ja terävät siivet
eikä yö ole hiljainen,
hammas puree hammasta vasten,
huohotus katkeaa,
kädet puristavat jokaisen tukahdetun äänen
kaikua joka parahtaa.

Ja joka aamu on herättävä keskelle kaikkea,
niin monen on käytävä peloissaan makuulle
ja moni herätetään kesken uniaan.

Joka aamu on herättävä keskelle
kaikkea pelkoaan,
laskettava käsi veljellisesti sen olkapäälle
ja sitten,
tunteettomasti ja uupumatta,
pakotettava se takaisin
päivänvaloon.

Night dreams are unspeakably quiet,
a world
of which nothing is remembered than
it lived its own life.

The dreamer falls asleep in the sun
and melts its wings,
subsiding into the night
and the forest
where I have iron claws
and sharpened wings,
and the night is not quiet.
Tooth grinds against tooth,
the panting breaks off,
hands stifle the echo of every pent-up voice
crying out.

Each morning waking up in the midst of everything.
So many must go to sleep in fear,
and many are woken in the middle of their dreams.

Having each morning to wake up in the midst
of all the fear,
Laying a brotherly hand on its shoulder
and then,
callously and tirelessly,
forcing it back
into the light of day.

Source: Hannu Salakka, Kuin unessa viipyen (Otava, 1990), p. 281. Translation and photo by Living in FIN

Hannu Salakka, “It Cools Slowly”

kaupungintalo.jpgImatra City Hall, Summer 2018

Viilenee hitaasti,
miedot tuoksut kohoavat aaltoina.
Valvoa myöhään, herätä varhain,
olla jouten koko pitkän päivän.
Mutta jokin huolestuttaa.
Ehkä kadonnut taito päästä irti asioista,
jotka eivät tapahdu täällä.

It cools slowly,
the mild smells rising in waves.
Staying up late, waking up early,
being idle all the livelong day.
But there is something troubling.
Perhaps the lost skill of breaking free of things
that did not happen here.

Source: Hannu Salakka, Kuin unessa viipyen (Otava, 1990), p. 156. Photo and translation by Living in FIN