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Kalevala comes alive in New York

By Laura Palotie, updated March 2013

Photo: Laura Waris
The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, exists in more than 60 languages.

In honour of Kalevala Day (February 28), celebrating the Finnish national epic Kalevala, Columbia University traditionally holds an extravaganza known as the Multilingual Kalevala and Folk Poetry Marathon.

One weekday evening in New York, Columbia University continuing education student Satu Ferentz kneels on the wooden floor of a campus building, a blue scarf spread out in front of her to simulate a river running through the Nordic underworld.

An audience looks on as she demonstratively taps the stomach and legs of a classmate lying between her and the river, and pleads with him to come back to life. He soon sits up – a few moments ahead of his intended cue. Ferentz gently pushes him back onto the floor, and the audience responds with a burst of laughter.

Swahili and more

Photo: Laura PalotieClick to enlarge the picture
Text in hand, Columbia University students enact a Kalevala scene.

The Finns in the audience were likely to connect this goofy performance with the legend of Lemminkäinen and his mother, who reconstructs his broken body – a tale from Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala. For others attending the university’s Multilingual Kalevala and Folk Poetry Marathon, however, Ferentz and her classmates from Elementary Finnish were offering an introduction to one of the most famous Kalevala narratives.

During the five-hour event, more than 40 New Yorkers of various ages and nationalities took to a narrow podium to recite sections of the Kalevala in languages ranging from Swahili, Ukrainian and Yiddish to Estonian and the Savo dialect of eastern Finland. It may come as a surprise to many that the volume has been translated into more than 60 languages. While most participants simply read in their language of choice, others incorporated music or dance into their readings or staged miniature plays.

The Kalevala Marathon is the brainchild of Columbia’s former senior lecturer in Finnish, Aili Flint, who recently retired from her 40-year stint at the university. It grew out of informal celebrations that Flint held with students in her Finnish language and mythology classes to mark Kalevala Day (February 28). To help her students familiarise themselves with the epic, she required them to recite passages of their choice from the Kalevala and the Kanteletar, a sister volume to the Kalevala.

Learn out loud

Photo: Laura PalotieClick to enlarge the picture
Kalevala bulletin board: An excerpt from the Marathon schedule.

“Having them recite verses out loud was always part of the learning process,” Flint says. “If you think about bringing to life the oral tradition on which the Kalevala and Kanteletar are based, you almost have to turn it into something oral again, and not just stick to reading academic articles. I started thinking of ways to approach this oral tradition at a place as multilingual and multicultural as Columbia and New York City.”

The first Marathon, in 1999, comprised mostly of Columbia students and professors, but attracted enough participation to go on for eight hours. When Flint and her students decided to repeat the event in 2005, it also included members of the outside community, as well as a modern dance performance and three choirs from around the city, singing in Finnish.

“Columbia, a large research university in a metropolitan city, isn’t a place where everyone knows one another, so it feels good to create a sense of community around a folk poetry event in many tongues, even if it’s only for a few hours,” says Flint.

The identity question

Across its three levels, the Finnish Studies Program currently has eight students. Some are born-and-raised Americans studying Finnish to fill a language or elective requirement, while some, like Ferentz, wish to reconnect with their Finnish roots.

“A third of my students are of Finnish origin, and for them it’s psychologically very important to study Finnish,” says Lasse Suominen, Flint’s successor. “It’s no longer just a language for them, it’s part of their identity, and it’s something that really comes from an emotional place.”

Kalevala, like [composer Jean] Sibelius’s music, figured very largely in my parents’ life,” says Ferentz, “so I always understood the importance of it. Now it’s interesting to actually read it and think about traditions that often are lost in time, and how precious it is that the Kalevala exists.”

[Editor’s note: Since the first edition of this article was published, Tiina Haapakoski has taken over from Lasse Suominen as Finnish instructor at Columbia University.]

See also on thisisFINLAND

Alternative Kalevala in the making
Kalevala: The national epic
Finnish contemporary literature: A wealth of voices
Steel, glass, wood and Kalevala spirit


Info: The Seventh Multilingual Kalevala Marathon (March 6, 2013)
Kalevala Marathon history
Finnish studies at Columbia University


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