Week of The Festival: European Poet of Freedom, Poland

Where The Streets Have Two Names

Bilingual Finnish Literature

/ by Sebastian Musielak

For many years I have translated books and short stories from Finnish to Polish as if Swedish speaking Finns never existed. And yet – just as sometimes the strange movements of a star can suggest the presence of its yet undiscovered twin – while reading and translating Finnish prose, I could always feel the subtle influences of its hidden twin brother: strange words, some obviously not born out of Finno-Ugric soil and others simply unrecognized by my Finnish language dictionaries. When puzzled by them, I would consult my Finnish informers, and these strange words turned out to be loans from Swedish – more or less forced into a Finnish phonological mould, usually with one initial consonant cut off, and one or two middle vowels doubled or “dipthongized”.


However, you don’t need to be a philologist to notice these subtle influences. In some stories translated into Polish from Finnish, a sophisticated reader would spot characters bearing Swedish surnames, Swedish place names, or even Swedish words and entire sentences. And while the Swedish language is now much more rarely heard in the streets, shops and public transport of Helsinki, Turku or Porvoo (which, incidentally, Swedo-Finns would call Helsingfors, Åbo and Borgå, respectively), in the south-western countryside you can still find yourself in places where the only language of communication with the native folk is Swedish. It’s a very refreshing and, at the same time, unnerving experience.


Yet, strangely enough, for many years I had not felt any temptation to venture into this “foreign” territory. It was thin as air, subtle as ether, and, it would seem, totally irrelevant to that part of Finnish literary territory – a “literritory” of sorts – that interested me most. And when some time ago it dawned on me that without a knowledge of Swedish as it was spoken in Finland and of Swedo-Finnish culture, I had been rather limping – if not merely skipping on one leg – through Finnish culture, I started to dwell upon how I could have missed the forest for the trees. It is true that there are no longer so many Swedish trees in this Finnish forest, but they are old, strong and mighty, and overlooking them distorts the picture of the vegetation overall.


My attitude was in no way exceptional. The progressive disappearance of Swedish-speaking authors from the Polish concept of “Finnish literature” can be seen in three anthologies of Finnish short prose and poetry that appeared in Poland in the 20th century. The first, published in 1901, comprises a large portion of short fiction written by Swedish-speaking Finnish authors. At that time, Finland was still part of the Russian Empire, and language divisions were not so important, as the intelligentsia of both Swedish and Finnish origin considered themselves Finns as opposed to Russians. Also, the emancipation of the Finnish-speaking literary elite was still to come. The second Polish anthology of Finnish short stories, published in 1971, has three Swedo-Finns among a total of 16 authors. The third anthology, a collection of Finnish poetry published in 1999, does not containcarry a single poem translated from Swedish.


The Swedo-Finns are disappearing for their Finnish-speaking compatriots as well. Even if the percentage of writers amongst Swedo-Finns is relatively higher than amongst the Finnish-speaking majority, only around 20 percent of Swedo-Finnish novels get translated into the language of the majority in their country, and even in Sweden, where there is no language barrier, the path to the market is steep and rocky: only some five percent of overall sales generated by Swedo-Finnish publishing houses come from Sweden. Moreover, Swedo-Finnish writers receive critical appraisal in the Swedish press only very rarely. Basically, they are read only in Finland by a small number of Finnish Swedes and Finnish-speaking intelligentsia, who can usually read Swedish fluently. Still, the publication figures are much lower than those of their colleagues who write in Finnish.


Swedo-Finnish writing is scarce, but loaded with quality. In Finland, Swedish-speaking writers win literary prizes – not only the “Finlandia” but also the similarly prestigious “Runeberg” – relatively more often than their Finnish-speaking colleagues. Since the theory of a Swedish conspiracy in Finnish literature might be a bit difficult to defend, this must have to do, at least partially, with the quality of the output. And yet, for years, Swedo-Finns have been almost absent on the Polish radars scanning foreign literary fields – “„literritories” – between Sweden and Finland. Why?


Perhaps it has something to do with our simplified notion of a “national literature”. We live in a country cursed with a heavy nationalistic bias, so we tend to think that in every other country in Europe – and in the world at large – people speak in one native language. They produce films where characters speak in this one language, and they write books in this same one language. We see the rest of the world through our nationalistic glasses, so Finnish literature will be, of course, written in Finnish, and the literature of Sweden – in Swedish. No wonder we cannot register the Swedo-Finnish literritory, if Swedo-Finns writers themselves subscribe neither to a Finnish nor  Swedish one. Some of them, like Merete Mazzarella, who is very popular in Sweden, don’t even know Finnish very well, but most, like Claes Andersson and Jörn Donner, two versatile and prolific writers of an older generation, or the younger literary stars Kjell Westö and Monika Fagerholm, are perfectly bilingual. Even so, the Swedish spoken in Finland is not exactly the same as the Swedish spoken in Sweden, and Swedo-Finns have their own, very strong identity. Even if they see their literature as an outgrowth of Swedish culture, they do not see themselves as Swedish novelists or poets. We might be notoriously overlooking them because we cadon’t even imagine that in Finland there could be some literature written in a language other than Finnish.


Maybe this explains why we did recognize the Aland Islands – the autonomous, Swedish-speaking archipelago that is not only culturally, but also physically much closer to Sweden that any other part of Finland, to which it belongs: perhaps its Swedish-like literritory seemed to us more consistent with its Swedish-off-shore geography. Whatever the answer, Sally Salminen managed to write her home archipelago into the literary map of Scandinavia with her novel Katrina, which was an international bestseller in the 1930s. The book was translated into more than twenty languages. In Polish it appeared in 1939, and had two more editions after the Second World War, in 1948 and 1950. Still, not surprisingly, it is not listed in major recent bibliographies of Finnish literature translated into Polish.


By contrast, the Swedish-speaking Finns spread over mainland Finland have proved much more elusive for our crude detectors. From 1853, when a poem by Johan Ludvig Runeberg appeared as the first Polish translation of Finnish literature written in Swedish, until now, only a handful of Swedo-Finnish adult-fiction novels have been translated: we have just Göran Stenius, Märta Tikkanen, Henrik Tikkanen and Kjell Westö, with one novel each. Quite recently, there appeared a few shorter, non-Moomin works by Tove Jansson as well as her biography and a collection of her letters. The picture of non-children’s Swedo-Finnish literature in Poland is rounded out by the memoirs of Carl Gustav Mannerheim, a Finnish Marshal, former President of Finland, and undisputed national hero. His rather stiff and immaculate Minnen (“Memoirs”) were published in Finland soon after Mannerheim’s death in 1951, but in Poland the book appeared 45 years later. Compared with such grim publication figures, Finnish literature – which itself possesses an aura of the exotic and is seen as barely marketable in Poland – looks like a treasure trove of bestsellers.


If you are overlooked in your physical territory, you are apparently consigned to live in the land of dreams, as almost all that Poles have taken from Swedish-Finnish prose are folk tales, children books and fantasies. The tales of the 21st-century poet, writer and journalist Zacharias Topelius were first published in Poland back in the 1920s, and new ones appeared in the 1950s and as late as the 1970s. Quite a handful of Bo Carpelan’s children’s books were published in Poland from the 1960s through the 1980s, making him the second most translated Swedo-Finnish writer in Poland. Lilius Irmelin Sandman is known – at least in library catalogues – for two of her books for children: one appeared in 1977 and the other in 1984. Swedish-speaking Finns have also traditionally excelled in poetry: the Romantic Johan Ludvig Runeberg; Edith Södergran, the first modernist in the Swedish language, and her followers, Gunnar Björling and Elmer Diktonius; or the post-war continuers of the modernist tradition, Solveig von Schoultz and Bo Carpelan, – to name just a few – are known far and wide. Is this Swedo-Finnish identity possible to imagine only in an imagined reality?


Apparently so, as all things Swedo-Finnish seem to pale in comparison to Tove Jansson, definitely the most popular Swedish-speaking writer in Poland, with whom only Mika Waltari – the author of The Egyptian, a Finnish world-wide all-time bestseller could compete. Her first Moomin book was published in Poland in 1964, and all her Moomin books were subsequently published and continue to be reprinted. Interestingly, Sweden has not claimed “„the mother of Moomins” as her own; instead, for Swedish readers, Moominvalley is the perfect allegory of Swedo-Finnishness, its language pleasant, unhurried and bit old fashioned, in a nice way.


And yet, Swedish-speaking people have lived in Finland for more than we might think, if we happened to consider the twisted histories of our over-Baltic neighbours. The forefathers of today’s Swedo-Finns came to Finland via earlier Viking routes along the coast of the Baltic Sea and started to settle there, first in Åbo (Turku), then in Borgå (Porvoo), and later in Viborg (Viipuri), pushing the inhabitants, different Finno-Ugric tribes – who I will call here simply “Finns” – deeper into the interior. For them, the Finns were mere pagans, so around the mid-17th century, the Swedish king Erik sent Henry there to establish a new province of the Swedish church. No wonder Henry was not welcomed by the grim locals, and one of them, called Lalli, achieved legendary immortality by killing the Christian envoy on a frozen lake. All of this might as well be a legend, as there is no historical evidence even of the existence of the dramatis personae, but since then, Henry the Bishop and Lalli the Finn have come to represent the basic roles that Swedes and Finns have played in this theatre for many generations: lords and peasants, “better people” and “the commoners”. And even if sometimes the reverse was also true, this didn’t change the overall picture.


So Finland became part of Sweden, and along with Christianization came other influences as well. When in the first half of the 16th century Sweden broke the Kalmar Union and introduced Protestantism, breaking free from the bad influences of Denmark and the Vatican, the position of the Swedish nobility and its language rose dramatically and Swedish literature began to flourish. Protestantism, with its stress on reading the Bible in one’s own language, also emancipated the languages of the commoners, including the Finns, who were subjects of the Swedish king. Random Finnish words and common names appeared in Swedish and Latin texts already in the 18th century, but it was the technical revolution of Johannes Gutenberg and the religious revolt of Martin Luther that really opened the gate for Finnish literary language in this kingdom free from the chains of the Catholic church’s Latin and the fetters of Danish form. In 1543, the bilingual bishop of Turku, Mikael Agricola, published his Finnish language catechism, one year later – a prayer book, and by 1548, he completed his opus magnum – the Finnish translation of the New Testament. It’s no wonder Agricola is called now “„the father of literary Finnish”.


In 1809, things changed a whole lot for the Swedes in Finland. In the wake of the Napoleonic wars, Sweden lost its territories in Finland, which became part of the Russian Empire. All of a sudden, its Swedish-speaking citizens – the aristocracy, intelligentsia and commoners, as contrary to some beliefs, Swedish-Finnishness is by no means a matter of blue blood only – found themselves a minority amongst Finns under Russian rule. The link between them and mother Sweden – a link that had remained unbroken for more than five centuries – had now been severed. The great ship Finlandia changed its flag, left its safe Swedish harbour, and began sailing its own course. The skipppers were Swedish, the crew Finnish, and the ship-owner the mighty Russian tsar. And even if the tsar left the skippers alone and guaranteed their rights and language, his Swedish-speaking subjects in Finland were now – at least technically – no longer Swedish.


This is when the history of Finland starts to get really interesting, as it is precisely this Swedish-speaking minority of the Russian Autonomous Duchy of Finland that decided the fate of the Finns for the next few generations, following the famous saying of Johan Vilhelm Snellman, a Swede who moved to Finland to become the father of the Finnish nationalistic movement: “Swedish we are no longer, Russian we cannot become, so Finnish we shall be”. One of the greatest poets of the Swedish language, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, who wrote the famous The Tales of Ensign Stål, was also Swedo-Finnish. One fragment of this great epic tale of the Finnish national spirit, Vårt land (“Our Land”), later became the text of the Finnish national anthem. The previously mentioned Zacharias Topelius was the first proponent of the Finnish flag as a blue cross on white. Elias Lönnrot, the great Finnish philologist and folklorist, who in the first half of the 19th century gathered traditional oral poetry to compose the Finnish national epic Kalevala out of it, was indeed a Finnish-speaking Finn, but he would have done much without the Swedish-language intelligentsia who decided to make Finland a nation based on the foundation of the Finnish language. Had the Swedo-Finns not decided to merge with the Finnish-speaking population of the Great Duchy to form one nation, the Finns probably would not have managed to slip through the unguarded door to independence in 1917, when the time was ripe.


Independence, won hard under the command of the former Tsarist Guard Officer, Swedo-Finnish baron Gustav Emil Mannerheim, who commanded the Whites in the civil war of 1917-18 against the Reds, turned the tables for the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. Influential in all higher echelons of society, it could not withstand the pressure of the rising Finnish element. They are still there, still alive, but kicking less than in the past. One of the last holdouts and reminiscences of their previous cultural and civilisational supremacy in Finland are obligatory Swedish classes in primary and secondary schools, Swedish being one of the official languages of the Republic of Finland. Naturally, while some Finns feel obligatory Swedish in schools should be retained, part of the nation considers it an unwanted relic of the past, as nowadays, the Swedish-speaking citizens of mainland Finland represent a mere 4.8% of the population. When in the end of November 2017 Finnish writer Juha Hurme accepted the prestigious Finlandia prize for the best book of 2017, he caused an earthquake in his normally aseismic country. He ended his thank you speech with the now notorious “Learn Swedish, ye boors. Your world view will strangely widen”. In consequence, a large portion of the nation split into two camps: some applauded, while some were ready for all hell to break out. The Minister of Culture demanded apologies. Hurme obliged – with a twinkle in his eye.


In his speech, Hurme spoke not only about the importance of education and sophistication, but also about the importance of Swedish-speaking and bilingual writers and poets for Finland. He said that Elmer Diktonius, Edith Södergran, Gunnar Björling, Runar Schildt and Lars Huldén – all of them Swedish-speaking Finns – taught him all the skills he needed to win the “Finlandia” prize in literature. Some might have also felt offended by his earlier statement that the better part of the best Finnish literature had been written in Swedish, or by his reminding everyone that the most outstanding figures in the Finnish language – Mikael Agricola and Aleksis Stenvall (who adopted a Finnish surname: Kivi) – were perfectly bilingual. But these were the facts, and maybe it’s high time we also learn them, and discover Swedo-Finnish authorsliterature for our own sake. They might have something important to say about living in undeserved oblivion.

Sebastian Musielak

born 1970, Polish literary translator from Finnish and English.