Kalevala (2): Name Translations in Runos 1 & 2

As the second post in this series about Elias Lönnrot’s famous Kalevala, I would like to discuss a topic that never occurred to me until I began comparing different translations of this work…  How does an author or translator decide how to represent names in his or her works?  I’ll be examining the phenomenon of names and titles in the preface and first two poems of the Kalevala in this post, and maybe touching on some other topics at the end as well.

To give an idea of the sort of poems we’re discussing here, the first two runos in the modern format of the Kalevala have two main themes, both based on origins (a topic that recurs constantly in Finnish myths, I’ve found).  Specifically, the origin of the world (the creation myth) and the origin of a central figure in Finnish folklore and myth: Väinämöinen, the ancient wizard and singer.  The two are not really separate, necessarily, I’ve merely created a distinction that makes sense to me.  In truth, the birth of Väinämöinen is an integral part of the creation sequence.  This, I suppose, is why thereafter one rarely sees his name mentioned without an epithet like “the ancient Väinämöinen” or “the aged Väinämöinen” or just “old Väinämöinen.”  He is as old as the hills – literally!

Now, to begin discussing names and their translations/transcriptions.  How does an author decide how to represent a name from another land, language and culture, when writing a translated work?  This issue is interesting enough, I think, to examine in some detail, with the side-by-side comparison of three different translations.  Those I’ve decided to include are Crawford 1888, Magoun 1963, and Friberg 1988.  These each have very distinctive qualities to them, and thus offer lots of fascinating material for comparison and discussion.

Before the creation myth of Runo 1 begins, there is a prelude, in which many important names are mentioned.  I want to focus briefly on two rather inconsequential names, because they brought my attention to this whole subject: Murikki and Kimmo.  These are the names of two horses, which appear to be generic stand-in names, the way you or I would speak of a dog named Fido or Spot.  Still, these names, which I found in Crawford’s translation, have a magical ring to them, like so many Finnish names.  To my ears, unfamiliar with the Finnish language, they also give an impression of otherness, foreignness, perhaps one could even say “Finnishness.”

Contrast this with the scholarly prose translation of Magoun, 75 years later, who translates many names to their English equivalents through their meaning.  Where Crawford has “sable-haired Murikki” and “many-colored Kimmo,” Magoun writes “dusky Blackie” and “spotted Frisky.”  It makes a big difference, doesn’t it?  Suddenly the names that were so magical are commonplace and unimpressive.  I wonder if a Finnish reader would see Murikki the same way that I see the name Blackie!  Sadly, this is likely to remain a mystery to me, but I think at least the example demonstrates what an enormous difference a simple name translation can make.  Interestingly, Friberg mixes and matches, giving us “spotted frisky” and “Muurikki, the black one.”  Again, the decision affects the poem’s tone for English readers.

In the interest of keeping this post below novel-length, let’s move on to the Kalevala‘s creation poem.  The first character is a virgin goddess or spirit, who resides in the air before the existence of the world.  She is the catalyst of the world’s creation – although she does not seem to be an intentional creator figure – as well as the mother of Väinämöinen, who is conceived when she is impregnated by the sea (vaguely reminiscent of the relationship of Uranus and Gaia).

She seems to have various titles and names, but we will begin with the simplest.  Magoun consistently uses a rather lengthy epithet to refer to her: “mother of the water, virgin of the air.”  Clearly accurate and descriptive of the character’s origin and role, but a little bit clumsy.  Magoun can only get away with repeated use of this phrase because his translation is prose, not intended to fit into poetic meter.

Crawford, whose work sticks strictly to the trochaic tetrameter characteristic of Finnish folk poetry, employs the rather different epithet “Ether’s daughter,” as well as the untranslated “Luonnotar.”  This last comes from the Finnish word “luonto” meaning nature, and the ending, as far as I can tell, indicates a female spirit or goddess.  Very logical, but Crawford’s decision to leave it in its Finnish form certainly has an impact, whether it had to do merely with keeping the meter or whether he preferred the Finnish names to their translations.  Also interesting is the fact that Luonnotar is in fact only used in Runo 2, when Väinämöinen calls upon his mother for help.  It would seem Crawford makes a distinction between his third-person references and direct address to the goddess in the context of the story.  Is this so that characters’ speech carries more authenticity and Finnish identity, while the voice of the narrator takes on a more familiar, English tone for the reader’s comfort?  It’s uncertain.

Eino Friberg, the only Finnish translator, has his own terms to refer to this being, one of which is reminiscent of Magoun – “the virgin of the air” – and one of which, like Crawford’s Luonnotar, is an untranslated Finnish name.  Significantly, however, Friberg’s Finnish “Ilmatar”* is the first name we hear for her, when we are introduced to the character.  This says a lot about the way that this author chooses to represent the Kalevala as a whole.  While it must still be clear and intelligible to the English reader, he wants to accentuate its Finnish qualities as much as possible, and so gives Finnish names priority in his version.


And the second being to make an appearance in the Kalevala is… a duck.  How inelegant.  Only Crawford uses this exact term, however.  Usually the most romantic of the three translators, Crawford seems out-of-character using the word “duck,” and, almost in an attempt to soften the contrast, he modifies it with “beauteous.”   Here each translator comes up with a different way of expressing himself, Magoun with the much more aesthetically pleasing “goldeneye,” and Friberg with “scaup.”  These describe specific types of sea ducks, which are found in Scandinavia among other areas.  Because of the generality of Crawford’s term, his version focuses the reader on the function of the creature in the story, whereas both Friberg and Magoun encourage clear, vivid imagery of the natural world, placing less emphasis on plot.  While in many cases I prefer Crawford’s approach to the Kalevala, here I feel that Magoun and Friberg do the poem more justice with the clarity of their diction (it is only fair to point out, however, that most readers, as in my case, have no clue what a goldeneye or a scaup looks like – another possible argument for Crawford’s translation).

When Väinämöinen is finally born, he is already old, having been in his mother’s womb “for seven hundred years, for nine ages of man” according to Magoun.  He then floats helplessly in the sea for another eight years, before coming to the land, which Ilmatar (or Luonnotar, etc.) has created by her motions, swimming in the great ocean.

To briefly make note of Väinämöinen’s name, we shall consider its origin and the forms it takes in translation.  The etymology of the name appears to trace it to the Finnish word “väinä,” which refers to a broad, slow river.  No translation that I am aware of has ever attempted to literally translate the hero’s name into English.  However, there are two variants of the printed name, the one I have been using, which is also found in Friberg and Magoun, and the spelling “Wainamoinen,” chosen by Crawford.  Crawford’s is an anglicized form, but notice that the initial sound seems to be different.  In fact, the V and the W represent the same sound in Finnish, but it is not exactly equivalent to either of our English sounds.  As I understand, it is a “labiodental approximant,” that is, a sound made with the lower lip and upper teeth – labiodental – in which the lip does not quite touch the teeth, giving something that sounds similar to both V and W.**


The last name I want to mention is one that appears in the same form in all translations I have come across:  Ukko.  Ukko is the sky God in Finnish mythology, yet he never appears in a concrete form in any poem or story (as far as I am aware).  However, he is often called upon (usually for help in times of trouble) by titles such as “God on high” (Magoun), “Lord of all” (Friberg’s title, reminiscent of pagan names like ‘allfather’ for Odin), and “thou O God” (Crawford, in his characteristic English archaic style, recalling traditional Christian phrases).  Most of the important gods in the Kalevala have some direct relevance to the story, usually manipulating their respective natural phenomena for some purpose.  Ukko, on the other hand, in spite of his apparent supremacy among gods, has no very evident role in the story, or even in creation.  This is striking and difficult to explain, especially given the frequency with which his name is mentioned throughout the work.

Since this post has already run on longer than I was expecting it to, I will leave it at that.  I hope it was interesting and thought-provoking, and perhaps made you curious about the Kalevala, Finland, and the poetic/mythological tradition behind them.  More on the subject will be coming soon!

*translated, this name means “female spirit of the air.”

**link to a video from the University of Glasgow which demonstrates the labiodental approximant:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUPjlzSoDt0

© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2016.


About SamBirrer

Chemistry student and undergrad researcher at Rutgers University. Minors in math and geology. President of Rutgers Chemistry Society (student chapter of ACS).
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