Culture - Tuesday 26.2.2002
IRMA STENBÄCK / Helsingin Sanomat
Poetry is the door to tolerance, say translators of Arabic and Sanskrit verse
Jaakko and Virpi Hämeen-Anttila win Eino Leino prize
By Irma Stenbäck
"The terror attacks of last autumn can also be seen as a touchstone for Western thinking. If the world is seen exclusively
as an unsafe place, the reason can be found in the person feeling the fear, not the world", says researcher and translator
So did we learn anything from the terror attacks? Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, Professor of the Arabic language and Islamic studies at the University of Helsinki answers:
"We learned something - temporarily - and perhaps knowledge of Islam has slightly increased in Finland as well. It is important
to keep in mind that politics is not culture."
On Monday February 18 Jaakko and Virpi Hämeen-Anttila were awarded the Eino Leino prize for 2002 for their efforts to promote
a multi-cultural concept of literature. The prize, worth about EUR 5,050 (FIM 30,000) was given out for the 47th time.
- According to the panel of judges, the Hämeen-Anttilas have given Finnish-speaking readers new indications that concepts of literature and culture should not
be built in a Euro-centric way - especially in an increasingly unified Europe.
The two are happy to have been awarded the prize: for the two experts of Arab and Indian culture, translation is a kind of
"passionate relaxation". Both are especially fond of translating poetry from the original language. For both Indians and Arabs,
poetry is seen as the truly genuine literature - the European concept is much different.
Literary circles have long felt appreciation for the busy translator couple, who have plunged into previously uncharted waters.
Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila has produced Finnish translations of the Koran, as well as the world's oldest epic, Gilgamesh. Virpi Hämeen-Anttila has been praised for her book Jasmiiniyöt ("Jasmine Nights"), the first Finnish-language book of Indian poetry.
One in every four books of the series of "pearls of the east" of the small literary publisher Basam Books are works that have been translated by the Hämeen-Anttilas.
Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, who has mastered Arabic, Persian, and about 20 other languages became something of a celebrity after
the autumn terror attacks when he was dragged in front of television cameras night after night as an expert on Islam.
"In a world torn by disputes, our work seems more important than ever to counter the hostile images that have been forced
upon us. Translation can be seen as a cultural act - as the building of bridges between different cultures."
For Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila translation is a pleasant way to get away from his scientific research, which sometimes can feel
very difficult. His professorship of the Arabic Language and Islamic Studies is quite an extensive one, because the field
includes the entire past and present Arabic culture.
- An expert on dead languages, and a specialist in Arabian mystics, Hämeen-Anttila often travels in the Middle East. This passionate researcher is not
afraid of terrorists or the Taleban. "Extremist movements are a small minority in all cultures. The differences between Islam
and Christianity are not as deep as some people think."
In Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila's view, the most difficult part of his work as a translator is finding the right texts for his Finnish
readers. "You have to read with the idea that you are looking for that which is beautiful, and shut off the professional translator
inside your head. For a translator it is a joy to revive an immortal poem 700 years old."
The Professor's favourite translation is Rakkaus on musta leijona ("Love is a Black Lion"), a recently published selection of poetry by one of the most famous medieval mystics, Mawlana Rum. The poems in the selection were translated directly from the original Persian.
"I worked on the preliminary translation in Italy where I was on holiday with my family. I spent my siestas with lemon liqueur
and the poetry of Rum. The translation continued at our summer cottage with the mosquitos."
- Virpi Hämeen-Anttila, who is writing a doctoral thesis on the textual strategies of Indian narrative art, is not overshadowed by her husband's linguistic skills. In addition to
French, English, and Italian, she has a knowledge of rare Indian languages.
An example of India's exceptionally rich linguistic heritage is Jasmiiniyöt, a collection of erotic poetry which she edited and translated from the original Sanskrit, Mâhârâshtrî, Apabhramsha, Tamil,
Kannada, Bengali, Maithili, and Hindi.
"When I read the poems in the original languages, they seemed amazingly familiar, even though there is a gap of 1,500 years.
The same joys and sorrows of everyday life, slogging through rain and mud, the difficulty of love."
Virpi Hämeen-Anttila teaches Sanskrit and Indian literature at the University of Helsinki, as well as philosophy, history,
and cultural history.
"I fell in love with Sanskrit at first sight. It was something of an enlightenment. Sanskrit is the world's most beautiful
language - a language of poetry, in which 1,000 years is like yesterday", says the passionate translator.
- Virpi Hämeen-Anttila feels that Europeans do not know enough about Indian literature. Western literary science does not even know that the world's oldest book on dramaturgy
was written in India in about the year 400.
"In Western literature the focus is on the writer of a work. In India the writer fades into the background, but the poems
have remained. Indian literature breaks all borders. Much Indian poetry has survived in the form of quotations in literary
The translator couple are united by poetry and love. Eastern love is very different from the profane Western concept of love,
which Virpi Hämeen-Anttila feels has slipped into the realm of saccharin-sweet entertainment. In addition, she feels that
the West has a religious tradition that is hostile to sensuous pleasure.
"For the Indians, the senses are a part of religion. Erotic love is art, which blends into religion. The cult of love expresses
its most colourful world in the form of poetry."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 19.2.2002
- More on this subject:
- Poetry is the door to tolerance, say translators of Arabic and Sanskrit verse
- FACTFILE: Who are they?
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