Marja-Leena Rathje
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Kalevala and Vietnam


I know that the Finnish national epic the Kalevala is read around the world, translated as it is into 61 languages. So I've been quite intrigued to read a fascinating story about two Vietnamese women and their involvement with the Kalevala and how it inspired a project to compile a Vietnamese national epic with help from a Finnish foundation. Here are some excerpts:

The home of artist Dang Thu Huong in Hanoi is an austere one-room apartment with nothing unnecessary in it. The eye rapidly focuses on paintings leaning against a wall. They depict Finnish barns and national costumes. Huong has made illustrations for the Kanteletar, the companion work to the national epic poem, the Kalevala, which has been translated into Vietnamese by Bui Viet Hoa. The next effort of the women is to compile and illustrate Vietnam's first national epic by the end of next year. The two are getting support from the Juminkeko Foundation, which specialises in the Kalevala. It has received development cooperation funding for the project from the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

Lönnrot wrote the Kalevala based on folk poetry from the oral tradition that he compiled during travels in Russian Karelia in the 19th century. Hoa translated the epic into Vietnamese in 1994. [Bui Viet Hoa ] has been referred to as "Vietnam's Elias Lönnrot". Lönnrot wrote the Kalevala based on folk poetry from the oral tradition that he compiled during travels in Russian Karelia in the 19th century. Hoa translated the epic into Vietnamese in 1994.

Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups with dozens of oral miniature epics. Hoa uses them as a basis for her own work, which is to unite the nation. The most challenging job is to compile a unified story out of very many different epics. Hoa solves the problem by dividing the book into two parts - the world of myths, and the world of heroes. Like the Kalevala, the Vietnamese myths describe the origin of the world. In both epics, everything begins with a bird's egg. In Hoa's book, there is a separate story about how water-buffalo and rice came into being.

Like Lönnrot, Hoa has travelled among the people to collect her stories. Accompanying her was the third worker in the project, Hoa's husband, linguistic researcher Vo Xuan Que. The two have gone into Vietnamese villages and asked men and women of different ages to sing for them.

(Photo from Juminkeko archives)

Related links:

the Kalevala

Epics of the world

Juminkeko Foundation

about the word "Juminkeko"

UPDATE March 14th: Bill's comment below has prompted me to do another search for an online English translation of the Kalevala. The Finnish Literature Society did have a full translation on their site three years ago when I'd first mentioned the Kalevala on this blog, but now offers only the original Finnish, and a synopsis in English. Checking out Bill's leads, I see that Wikipedia has a very good page on the Kalevala, including a short synopsis as well, and links to translations. The translations are all by John Martin Crawford and I am not impressed with this version.

However, there are many translations in print. After some research last year, I found and bought this translation by Eino Friberg. It is excellent, capturing the wonderful oral quality of the Finnish original. I recommend it highly to any interested readers.

On a side note, the Wikipedia entry excites me because of the illustrations of some of the famous paintings based on the Kalevala by my favourite Finnish artist of the late 19th-early 20th century Akseli Gallen-Kallela. But there's another subject for a very long blog post one day!


Very interesting. So many languages and cultures in Vietnam! What a rich land.

Bill, yes - I was very surprised about Viet Nam's languages and cultures, too! How little we know...

Very interesting; thanks. (I'd have a lot more to say on this if it weren't way past my bedtime!)

Hey Dave, please come back tomorrow! I'd like to hear what you have to say.

Project Gutenburg has a nineteenth century English translation. Wikipedia mentions a 1993 translation that might be more readable, but it is not on-line.

Bill, thanks for your interest! You've inspired me to add more to my post. Originally I hadn't wanted to make it so long and divert interest away from the Vietnamese project. Anyway, it is disappointing that there's not a better translation available online. The language is what makes it so powerful, as one would expect of an epic poem.

I sent this article link to Taina Chahal, Marja-Leena.

Hello Marja-Leena and all the other English-spoken readers, here is the link, where you can find a full translation of the Kalevala --->

It's a great story! Enjoy!

Viides Rooli, Kiitos! I see this is the John Martin Crawford translation. What do you think of it - does it seem true to the original even though the rhythm is lost?

I have to add that the translation by John Martin Crawford is pretty old (1888) but on the other hand it gives to the text an extra flavour. And I couldn´t help myself laughing when reading the preface: what a fascinate people we Finns are! ;-)

I love the Friberg translation, too, though i don't read Finnish so i can't compare it for accuracy, etc. I also have Francis Peabody Magoon's clunky literalist translation, which, side by side with Friberg, gives me the best idea of the Kalevala on non-Finn can hope for. Friberg's edition also has tremendous, beautiful images from, if I remember rightly, Bjorn Wickstrom.

Peter, thanks for passing this on to Taina! And I'm pleased to hear we agree on the Friberg. Did you know that he's blind? The artist who did the lovely illustrations is Björn Landström.

Viides Rooli, yes the preface is funny, coming out of 1887 with, it seems to me, some quaint ideas about the Finns. I like the explanations of the gods.

I just remembered: Vietnam already has a major literary epic, the 19th-century masterpiece The Tale of Kieu, by Nguyen Du. I haven't read it since college, which is why I didn't think of it right away. For folk poetry, the only thing in English translation that I'm aware of is Ca Dao Vietnam - short lyrics collected and translated by John Balaban, a conscientious objector on medical duty during the Vietnam War (and also one of my lit profs in college). More recently, Balaban did a masterful job with Spring Essence: the Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, who was a brilliant 18th-century concubine. Between these three works, one can get a tantalizing glimpse of a very rich literary tradition.

Dave, thank you for the information! I wonder how many of Viet Nam's 54 ethnic groups were visited for the collections. I think that's a major challenge for Bui Viet Hoa, and to write it in a common language. It may be a while before we get an English translation!