Saturday, 14 March 2009

Why Finland-Swedish literature?

Indirectly, my own interest in Finland-Swedish literature started with the Eurovision Song Contest in 1968. I had never even heard of Finland before, but Kristiina Hautala sang "Kun kello käy". (After more than 40 years, I've just now found the performance on YouTube.) The song only received one point, but the weird "äi" and "yö" sounds of Finnish entranced me. I wanted to study Finnish at university. There was no degree course. So I did Swedish instead.

However, when choosing my year abroad to improve my beginner's Swedish, I obtained the chance to spend a year at Åbo Akademi. I'd never heard of that institution, but I got a place for a year. I believe I was the first of several to do their year abroad from the University of East Anglia, at Åbo Akademi.

As I rode on the bus from the harbour into Åbo centre for the first time, I saw that the street names were in two languages: Finnish and Swedish. This triggered an enormously naïve thought, for which I have been doing penance for several decades. The thought was: "how nice of the Finns to add the street names in Swedish for the tourists". No one at my English university, UEA, had sufficiently explained the historical complexities of the Finnish and Swedish languages in Finland.

Decades later, I know a lot more, not only about the language situation in Finland, but the fact that Swedish has been, for a long time, the language in which important works of literature have been written, in the south of Finland including the capital, in Ostrobothnia, in and around Åbo, and on the Åland archipelago.

So I sincerely believe that the literature written in Finland in the Swedish language is as varied and interesting as that written in Sweden. The history of these two countries overlaps a lot - but so does that of Russia and Finland. Finland really is one of those paradoxical, complex and contradictory border states where East meets West. And the literature of the country, whether written in Finnish or Swedish, is proof of this. No names of authors here - there are so many.

For me, and for several other British and American translators of Finland-Swedish literature, this literature lives. The more Finland-Swedish literature that is introduced or translated on the "Nordic Voices in Translation" blog and elsewhere, the better.


David McDuff said...

Thanks, Eric. I too was fascinated by Finland-Swedish literature early on. I discovered Edith Södergran’s poetry in Copenhagen in the summer of 1966, when the Danish poet Laus Strandby Nielsen showed me her Samlade dikter, and I read some German translations of her work in Hans Magnus Enzensberger's then quite recently published Museum der modernen Poesie. My girlfriend and I were staying with Laus and his girlfriend on our way to the Soviet Union, where we spent some six weeks driving a Morris Minor convertible through European Russia and Ukraine, camping in official campsites en route. That was my first visit to Russia. I'll always remember the stop in Helsinki - we'd taken the car on the Baltic ferry from Tilbury to Leningrad, and it couldn't be unloaded, so we just walked around the city, which on an evening in mid-July seemed to be almost totally deserted.

For me, Finland-Swedish literature is in a category of its own, and I don't really connect it much with Swedish literature. It somehow seems more modern and European in spirit and form than most Swedish writing, with the exception of Strindberg. As soon as I saw Södergran’s poems I knew that I wanted to translate them. I think Södergran really belongs to the world of the Central and East European culture of the period just before, during and after World War I. Gunnar Björling is another Finland-Swedish poet who belongs there, and so, with all his imperfections, does Elmer Diktonius.

Eric Dickens said...

I too have plied the seas from Tilbury on a vessel called the "Baltika", which had, I remember, a small library of books in the restaurant, including a volume by the Estonian author Juhan Smuul. As this trip was about 30 years ago, I remember little more than the fact that the vessel was nicely panelled in old-fashioned style, and that the Russians served solid meals at tables draped with white tablecloths. I disembarked at Helsinki.

Södergran, Björling, Diktonius. I do believe that these poets helped Sweden discover Modernism. I used a story by Diktonius last March at the Nordic Translation Conference, to demonstrate the macaronic use of Yiddish, of all languages, in prewar Helsinki. The article has now been published in the volume "Northern Lights", edited by B.J. Epstein, as mentioned elsewhere on this blog. A collection of Björling's poetry has been published in English translation recently by Action Books in the United States. And Jörn Donner wrote a recent biography of Diktonius, which was reviewed in the SBR (2008:1).