Dating back to the first half of the nineteenth century, the earliest Finnish language translation of a Shakespeare play was fated to fade into obscurity. Almost 200 years later, Kayleigh Töyrä unearths the intriguing tale of how Macbeth was adapted to the forests of Finland.

“To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature.” – Much Ado About Nothing, 3:3:14

What do you do when Shakespeare isn’t written in a language you can speak or read? You translate. You adapt. You make it your own. And for a young Nordic country on the fringes of Europe, taking on Shakespeare in their burgeoning language in the 1830s was tantamount to saying “We’ve arrived”. For most of its existence, Finland was caught between its two neighbours, the regional powers of Sweden and Russia. This meant that the question of Finnish language was a question of independence – an independence Finland finally won from Russia in 1917.

[Photo: VisitFinland]

The nineteenth century saw people changing their names to make them sound more Finnish. Cities and streets were also renamed to be more Finnish-sounding. Fierce debates on the creation of a Finnish lingua franca and the merits of regional dialects divided writers and academics. In less than a hundred years, Finnish was transformed from a largely oral language spoken in a variety of dialects into a language that could be used for education, culture and government. And in the 19th century, after years of seeing Shakespeare on stage in Swedish, the Finns wanted their own Finnish Shakespeare.

Enter Jakob Fredrik Lagervall who in 1834 adapted Macbeth, transporting the ‘Scottish’ play to Kurkijoki in Karelia (then a part of Eastern Finland, now in modern-day Russia). Lagervall’s is the first Shakespearean translation into Finnish. (According to Wikipedia it’s also the first tragedy in Finnish).

He justified the change of location in his epilogue with the pithy “Walter Scott didn’t think it happened in Scotland either.”

[Detail from the play’s title page shows a man playing a kantele (traditional Finnish instrument). ‘Ruunulinna’ is ‘Macbeth’, while ‘Murhekuvaus’ is an old-fashioned word for tragedy]

Karelia is an interesting choice: it’s a part of Finland bordering Russia on the Lake Ladoga that was ceded to Russia during the Winter Wars of the 1940s. As a region, it has always been a rich source of Finnish culture and mythology. In fact, a lot of the national epic Kalevala was ‘collected’ there. (Kalevala was compiled by Elias Lönröt from oral songs and stories told to him by Finnish peasants).

Lagervall openly acknowledged the challenges of writing the play in Finnish, justifying his linguistic choices.

He wanted to use a Finnish that would be understood by as many people as possible, but still preserve the richness of the country’s regional dialects.

In fact, Lagervall actively resisted the cultural homogeneity of an official language that would erase regional differences.

Largervall leant on the poetic tradition set out by Kalevala by using the Kalevala metre and adopting the Kalevalian practice of repeating lines that function as ‘echoes’.

[The opening scene of Lagervall’s Finnish Macbeth.]

In Lagervall’s hands the witches became Finnish forest sprites and figures of Finnish folklore.

The line of “upon the heath” became “Or the dark forest wilderness/or the house of Northland”, conjuring up home-grown Finnish imagery.

The opening scene is made longer with references to specific Finnish and Estonian locations and towns over which winds and storms are raging.

In the second scene, a fictional King of Finland talks about the various Finnish tribes battling it out, telling us how the brave Savonians were held up in a strait, unable to save the bewildered Tavastians.

The play was never staged and Lagervall had it self-published after refusing to adhere to suggested edits by a publisher. He didn’t take up Shakespeare again.

Nowadays, Lagervall’s contribution is generally forgotten, overshadowed by the impressive figure of Paavo Cajander who translated pretty much all of Shakespeare’s plays into Finnish from the 1870s onwards. Many of his translations stood the test of time.

Shakespeare in Finland continued to thrive, both on stage and in print in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sibelius, Finland’s most famous composer, even wrote incidental music for The Tempest in the 1920s (one of the last things he did before his 32-year ‘silence’ when he mysteriously stopped composing).

Sibelius monument
[Sibelius Monument, Helsinki]

The very opposite to silence, adapting Shakespeare in Finland was about bringing light to the dark wilderness of the Northland.

It was about merging Finland’s homegrown cultural imagery and nascent linguistic confidence with a larger cultural conversation.

It was also about declaring that Finnish was a language worth reading and writing in – a language that, after all, had to wait until the 1840s for its first novel.

Alhough Lagervall’s 1834 Macbeth has now largely been forgotten, its confident mixture of Shakespeare and Finnish mythology marks an important precedent. Shakespeare continues to find fertile ground in the Nordics, where the challenges of translation and adaptation often lead to boldly re-imagined plays.

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